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This Is What Happens When British Soccer Players Start Selling Drugs

For a number of young players released from their contracts, selling large quantities of cocaine seems like the easiest way to maintain the lifestyle they once enjoyed.
Max Daly
London, GB

Bricks of cocaine (belonging to a Colombian drug dealer, not a former soccer player). Photo courtesy of the DEA via.

There are a few notable similarities between drug dealing and playing professional soccer. There are the back-room deals, the lucrative international transfers, the reliance on foreign imports. Big players must understand the art of pressing, stamping, and the need to avoid potentially damaging interceptions.

But where soccer and the drug trade really meet eye-to-eye is in Britain's jails. Of the 147 ex-professional soccer players currently in adult prisons, 128 of them—87 percent—are inside for drug offenses.


These are not stars at the end of their careers. Most professionals hanging up their boots these days have enough stashed away to buy themselves most of Cheshire, so there's obviously no reason to start messing about with any repressed Escobar aspirations. These are players—the vast majority of whom are under 25—who've been released from their contracts and aren't inside for petty drug offenses. Virtually all of them are serving stretches after being caught supplying class A drugs.

Not long ago, the classic maneuver for the ex-soccer player who saw crime as a handy way of avoiding a normal job—you know, like setting up a sports clinic or running a pub into the ground in Kent—was to get involved in some kind of money scam, a dodgy investment scheme, usually alongside an old school pal or a shady brother. This still goes on and can be extremely lucrative, especially if you target other players.

Most soccer players dropped at a young age will take the hit and go onto other careers. Some will end up unemployed. But for some players let go by clubs—those who were expecting to earn hundreds of millions by retirement age—a shortcut to cash can be dangerously tempting.

So it was for Michael Kinsella, a former Liverpool FC under-15s keeper with the world at his feet. But his promising career never took off. Within months of being released by manager John Aldridge at Tranmere Rovers at the age of 20, he had started selling cocaine on the streets of Liverpool. In 2007, police raided his home and found £300,000 [$470,000] worth of cocaine, £2,000 [$3,000] worth of heroin, and a list of dealers. He was sentenced to seven years.


His involvement in the drug trade unravelled when he was sentenced to another nine years for being part of a Liverpool-based international cocaine smuggling ring that imported hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin onto the streets of Merseyside from Amsterdam and Spain. Detectives identified Kinsella as being a key player for a gang and said he had made £1.6 million [$2.5 million].

Now out of jail, Kinsella has set up Onside, a sports and education academy that helps young soccer players who have been released from their contracts. I called him up and asked him why he and others decide to start dealing drugs after their soccer careers take a nosedive.

"There are some footballers who go on to have good careers outside of the game. But selling drugs is easy, quick money," he said. "It's hard to get a job at the best of times, and education-wise footballers are not the best. Some of them are very bright, but some of them aren't. People end up wandering into it."

But this isn't something that happens to rugby union rejects, is it? "They just know [the people who get them into the drugs trade], don't they?" said Kinsella. "They're mates who grew up playing football together—they're the same sort of people. It's an underground business, but it's a social thing. If someone says they need to earn some dough, there are people who can help them do that. That's how it happens, even if you haven't been a footballer.


"For me, I needed money, and I started on the street like everyone else. I was selling cocaine when I was 20, and after going to prison a couple of times you meet people in prison and you work your way up."

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Behind every successful Premier League player stands the shadows of thousands of kids who didn't quite make the cut. The real pain of professional soccer is not with the fans who see their team disappoint, but with the young players rejected just when they thought they had won the soccer lottery.

Britain's soccer factory is, in reality, an intense whittling-down process, the bi-product, unfortunately, being the broken dreams of countless young players. Of the 10,000 or so kids who make it into the top soccer academies, just 1 percent will play for a living.

Even those who make it to scholarship at 16—unlike Brooklyn Beckham, who was rejected by Arsenal in February—or those who are given a money-spinning professional contract at 18 are unlikely to make it much further. Most are discarded before they reach the age of 21.

Signs would suggest that soccer rejects getting into drug dealing is on the rise. Xpro—an organization supporting the health and welfare of former professional players, which has gathered the statistics on ex-players in jail—estimates that there are a further 150 ex-professional soccer players aged 18 and 21 inside the young offenders prison system, most of whom are thought to be inside for drug-related crimes.


Xpro's chief executive, Geoff Scott, is a former Stoke City defender. He has visited more than 100 ex-players in jails across the UK. He feels that with all the money sloshing around the game, clubs, and soccer authorities—especially the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), which has an £8 million [$12.4 million] education budget to train former players in new careers—should be doing more to help the hundreds of players teams shed each year.

"They are brainwashed into thinking they are all going to make it. They are in and around the trappings of success—they can see the Range Rovers and Maseratis; they are exposed to this culture," he said. "But then, from age 15 onwards, they are rejected, with little support, with little or no life experiences. There are some 18-year-olds on £1 million a year. When they are discarded they think, 'How can I earn the same kind of money for the least work possible?' Most players under 25 who are in prison are there because they have been trying to make up for the amounts of money they feel they would have been earning if they had stayed in soccer. They get given a package of cocaine to take from, say, Liverpool to Birmingham, for £1,500. So they've earned that in about two hours. Most of them aren't thinking about being drug dealers; the mentality is all about the money. Then they get greedy."

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One of the people visited by Geoff is the former Everton player Michael Branch, once tipped as one of the next big things in British soccer. He made his debut at 17 in the 1996-7 season, playing alongside Neville Southall and Andrei Kanchelskis, and got rave reviews from the Times. Ten years later his career had nosedived, via stints at Wolves, Bradford and Chester, before he finally retired at 27. In 2012 he was jailed for seven years when police went to his home and found a kilo of 82 percent pure cocaine.


According to Geoff Scott, Branch was short on cash and, out of desperation, started selling drugs. At first, he intended to do just the one lucrative deal to get him out of trouble, but carried on because it was so easy.

"When I went to visit Michael, at first he thought I was police, because no one from football had gone to see him," said Geoff. "He had just been forgotten. He told me he was doing his coaching badge, but I told him no one would employ him to teach kids with a drug conviction. So he's taken advantage of the education in prison, and he's now qualified in his chosen profession."

The drug business is never too far from the world of professional soccer. Steven Gerrard's "uncle Bobby," Robert Gerrard, reportedly his second cousin, is one of Britain's most wanted fugitives, sought by police over an alleged £60 million [$93 million] cocaine trafficking plot. The brother of former Premier League defender Zat Knight was jailed for dealing in heroin and cocaine in 2008, while John Terry's dad got a suspended sentence after being caught selling cocaine to an undercover reporter in 2010.

Regardless of family and old school friends, the large amounts of money made by drug entrepreneurs and some teenage players means they often end up as neighbors after moving away from where they grew up to leafy suburban areas such as Cheshire and Essex. Not only will they be buying the latest Range Rover from the same car dealer, but they'll probably be hanging out in the same swanky clubs and bars.


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A former Premier League player, who writes anonymously about the inside world of the game under the pseudonym The Secret Footballer, tells me that young soccer players—some of whom are on £5,000 [$7,800] a week—can quickly become accustomed to a way of living, before being dropped from a great height.

"A lot of the players that wind up dealing drugs see it as the quickest and easiest way to earn the levels of money that maintained a lifestyle that they briefly enjoyed as a footballer and are desperate to maintain," he said. "It's possible to make the case that these players, who have generally lost the money earned from playing football, are easy targets for those higher up the drug dealing chain when looking for distributors that have influence over the younger people in large communities."

The route from being a one-off, to a cast off, to jail for drug dealing is now well trodden. Joel Kitamirike made an appearance for Chelsea at 17 in a European match alongside Frank Lampard and John Terry, before being released. He ended up playing at Chelmsford City and, in 2008, was sentenced to 20 months for selling cocaine and heroin on the streets of Ipswich.

In 2013, former Newcastle academy player Andrew Ferrell was one of a gang of drug dealers jailed for a total of 44 years after police seized £1.5 million [$2.3 million] worth of cocaine and amphetamine. Ferrell had joined Newcastle in 2002, was released two years later and tumbled down the leagues before ending up being paid £250 [$380] a week at Bedlington Terriers.

Former Leicester City under-18s player Ellis Myles-Tebbutt, 21, was jailed last year after being caught with 30 wraps of crack and heroin. His defense barrister said he has lost direction after his "full professional hopes" with LCFC were dashed and he was released from the academy without a contract.

For people across the board locked out of the mainstream economy, due to a poor education and a lack of opportunities, the drug trade offers an attractive way out. It takes no leap of the imagination to realize that a young player who has been handed the golden ticket of a top club scholarship or a professional contract, a taste of the big time for doing something they love—only for it to be swiped away at the last minute—might be tempted by the offer of a lucrative but illegal new job.

With so many young ex-players in jail for drugs, it seems that if someone doesn't start looking out for these kids properly, many more of them will end up locked up and forgotten, the modern day cannon fodder of today's soccer franchises.

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