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‘I just want to play’ – Danny Drinkwater opens up after troubled past and mental health struggle

Danny Drinkwater opens up after a troubled past and mental health struggle which has impacted on his time playing football in recent years.

The one-time Premier League winner is currently a free agent, looking for a new club to join and is eager to find one for the 2023/24 season.

He spoke with SPORTbible in an interview reflecting on his past, experiences, troubles and how he is today. It’s no doubt one of the most honest of chats he’s had about his life.

The 33 year old hasn’t played for anyone since Chelsea announced that Drinkwater would leave the club when his contract expired at the end of June 2022.

He said: “I actually remember thinking, ‘What’s happened to me? Have I fizzled out that much; to the point where a bigger team isn’t going to take me on a free?’ I always wanted to be a free agent at this age but now it’s come around… things are different.”

“Towards the end of my time there [on loan at Reading], when I started picking up fitness, I thought, ‘I actually feel alright here. I’m starting to really help the team. I thought I’d done enough for a bigger club to come along and take a sniff. I thought someone might give me a shot to prove myself but it didn’t happen.

“I’ve also spent more time with my family than ever before. I’ve absolutely loved being with my kids.

“I want to be excited about a project. I’m just waiting for something to excite me. I need that burning feeling again.

“I’m sat here, twiddling my thumbs. I’m just buzzing to get involved again.”

He spoke on Leicester’s relegation from the top flight, having won it with them in 2016, he said: “I don’t think they should have gone down with the quality of players they’ve still got there but I think we need to look at this as another reset.

“We’ve done it before, where we’ve been promoted before enjoying a great period. It’s hard to look at the positives but the club are in a much better position compared to six or seven years ago.”

He offered to play for the Foxes after he was let go by Chelsea last summer.

“The actual journey with Leicester was my favourite moment,” he goes on.

“Winning the Premier League was the icing and all the lads did unbelievable to achieve what we did but being part of the Championship team, avoiding relegation and then winning the league… that block of things meant more than just the trophy.

“When I left Leicester, some people called me a snake,” he remembers. “To this day, people still say I shouldn’t have left. They point out that I’m not playing now but then some others say, ‘Come back and get us back into the Premier League’.

“I would like to go back. I’d like to be a part of the story again, helping them get back to where they belong. When I’m fit, the quality is still there. If a team can get me to match fitness and flying again then I’ll be nothing but a benefit to that club. I’d also like to think I’m a big asset off the pitch.

“If it’s something the Leicester fans want then they need to make more noise about it. Let’s see what happens.”

“It’s difficult to pinpoint where it went wrong,” says Drinkwater on is playing career coming to a halt.

“There are probably a few different things that come into that,” he said on time at Chelsea ending. “Chances being one. Injuries being another. I’d also say my lack of patience with it, to be honest. I wasn’t used to sitting around waiting for playing time. It wasn’t what I was about as a player. I did find myself in a place of frustration.

“After that first year, I kind of had a gut feeling about where it was going.”

On being rated £35m at one time: “Honestly, It never really popped into my head,” he says about that transfer fee. “You buzz off it to your mates for a laugh and a week later, it’s kind of forgotten really.

“You just hope you become worth it to the club but obviously, some players don’t…

“Honestly, I joined that club wanting to fall in love with the place. I wanted to love it so badly.

“Cheshire and Surrey are quite similar places, just one is up North and the other down South. I wanted to fully embrace the area. I wanted to get fully involved with the club – just like I did with Leicester when I loved the fans, the stadium and the training ground.

“When I first signed the contract, I bought a house down there within a month. That’s how much I wanted it to work. I was going to move the family down, the dogs and everything. I wanted to give it 100% but within the first season I was like, ‘Ah, something isn’t right here. This is messed up.’”.

“It just wasn’t clicking,” he says on eight month into his spell with Chelsea. “I remember saying to my agent that summer, ‘Listen, this isn’t working. I need to go. I need to get another move.’ I’d only played 12 games in that first season when I was used to playing 35.

Drinkwater knew his time at Chelsea was coming into question after Maurizio Sarri called him into the office in the final hour of the transfer window.

He said: “I did pre-season that summer and he brought Jorginho in during that window. It got to the last hour of the window shutting. And four or five weeks before, I told Chelsea I wanted to leave and they said, ‘No we’re going to bring in a new manager, just give it another shot.’ I was like fine, at least they are trying to keep hold of me for some reason.

“I got fit and Sarri’s staff seemed to love me. Sarri did as well. We were bouncing off each other. He’d take the piss out of me and I’d do the same, so I thought it actually might work out here. But literally in the last hour the window, and this was with Gianfranco Zola, who was in the office translating for Sarri because his English wasn’t great. He said, ‘I think you might get frustrated this season with playing time.’

“I was like, ‘What? You do realise I’ve got an hour. You’ve given me an hour with no indication at all of what’s going to happen. And now you drop this.’

“Sarri started speaking about interest abroad but that wasn’t an option. I needed to stay at home in England with my family. My son was only one at the time. The relationship between me and him [Sarri] was hostile after that, and it took two or three weeks to calm everything down.”

Drinkwater played just once in 2018/19, losing to Man City in the Community Shield. His mental health took a toll on him.

“I had a few close deaths in my family,” he said. “My nan and grandad passed away. My dad was diagnosed with Leukaemia, my brother was going through his own thing after the army, and we lost our dog. They were all things I didn’t really want to speak about.

“On the pitch, football was also brutal at the time. It wasn’t going in the direction I wanted it to. And on top of that, I had the situation with my son. It was a snowball effect. I remember chatting to someone about it and they spoke about spinning too many plates. I found that relatable. I couldn’t cope. I didn’t know how to express it.”

At the time, he thought ‘I’ve had enough. Football can piss off.’

“I was living in central London. I was single. I had all these things going on. It happens to a lot of lads. The easy way out is to just go out and enjoy yourself. Go to a bar and have a few drinks. But at the end of the day, it’s not solving anything. You’re just covering it up. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not being my normal self here.'”

It was when he crashed his Range Rover through a wall at 12:30am in Cheshire that he knew he had to turn his life around. Two female passengers were in the vehicle worth around £125,000, with damaged estimated at around £50,000.

He talks about the time he was arrested, banned from driving for 20 months and made to do 70 hours of community service after admitting to drink-driving.

“When you’ve got a young kid at the time as well, your perspective changes. I remember being sat in the prison cell afterwards. It was the morning I was supposed to pick my son up. I rarely got a morning, as well. In my head, I was thinking, ‘You’re an idiot. You’ve had a car crash after a night out and for what?’

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, ‘Fucking hell, you need to fix up really fast’. That was the biggest wake-up call ever.”

“It was like a battle,” he says on his mental health.

“I wasn’t in a place where I was clinically depressed but it wasn’t a nice place to be. Luckily, I spoke to the right people and everything calmed down. It was a lot of mental noise. I was beating myself up about things but when you speak to people, it definitely helps. You get things off your chest.”

“Never for one second did I think I’d be pushed in that direction,” he said on going out on loan multiple times. “And then I ended up getting sucked into it.”

He went out to the likes of Burnley, Aston Villa, Kasımpaşa and Reading between 2019 and 2022.

“As a footballer, say if you’ve been flying and everything was going right, and then suddenly your form drops, you almost try too hard to get back. It almost trips you up. I’ve been there,” he says.

“I went on loan to Burnley and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I’m not even playing. This is ridiculous. What’s going on?’ And then I went to Villa, played the first four or five games. And to be honest, I was stinking. I wasn’t myself at all in terms of quality and fitness.

“So I remember on the training pitch, I’d be running way more than what I usually would. I was doing more gym work. I’d be doing lots of stuff at home to improve. After I left Villa I remember thinking, ‘What was I doing? How is doing all that extra stuff going to help? It’s not what you do. You’ve never done that in your career. So why would you do it?’

“You almost fight it. It can do the total opposite.”

He even made an appearance for Chelsea’s under 21s, being on the end of a 4-3 defeat to Bristol Rovers.

“I think my last day at Cobham [Chelsea’s training ground] was before I went out on loan to Reading. After that Reading spell, I never got an invite back. I thought someone at the club would say, ‘I know it’s not worked out Danny but you were really appreciated around the club, the lads loved you. The staff loved you.’ I got none of that.”

He was age 32 when Chelsea offered him a role on the coaching team, and knowing just years earlier his had that £35m price-tag on him, he still felt he had more to give on the pitch, especially with a year left on his contract.

“Bearing in mind I was 32 at the time, I remember them saying I was unbelievable with the younger players so we’d love to offer you a coaching job of some degree after you’ve finished football. I was thinking, ‘They’ve treated me like this for the past few years and then go and offer me a job afterwards? Was it some sort of compensation or what?’”

It was his time at Reading that he thought he done enough to win back some interest from bigger clubs.

“I do miss playing but if something wasn’t to come in again this window that didn’t excite me, and I decided to knock it on the head properly… what can I say? Football has given me some absolutely great years. It’s also given me some shitty times but the good years definitely outweigh the bad.

“I was able to buy my mum and dad the dream bungalow. I’ve been able to take care of my family so am I going to sit here and say football is shit? No chance. Has it been ideal for me and my position now? 100% Was it a dream as a kid? 100%.

“The last three years have been the toughest in regards to football but I’m not going to sit here and complain.”

Fans reacted as Danny Drinkwater opens up after a troubled past and his mental health struggle…

@RedDogGary: There’s a reason for that…

@Peopleschamp78: Non league for you lad!

@Wayne306563731: This has wrexham written all over it!

@alansymcox: If he really wants to play he has to drop the ego take a pay cut and earn his stripes again. Hasn’t played in over a year and hardly played for that. Might be worth a trip in the championship get some games under his belt….

@MrMiyag06108451: Go play in the championship then. Clearly got to high of an opinion on his ability

@JakeMoorePR: If he fancies a massive wage drop and League One football, I’d welcome him back in a heartbeat. Would run that division without hitting second gear. #readingfc

@LCFCshitposting: Got Wrexham written all over him.

@SamualT3wl3y: Shouldn’t have burned his bridges here 6 years

@harrmorg: I’d have him back at city

@mjtoal: If the money is sensible, sure, why not. But I seem to recall his loan salary was way out of our Champs budget and would be way way out of our L1 budget. #readingfc

@JNOZ1998: Tbf he was a lot better towards the end of the season #readingfc

@JimNo1871: Come back then ❤️ #readingfc

@deanocx: He was actually okay towards the end of that campaign but can’t get over his genuine 0/10 performance against Kidderminster

@ronniemac93: Shocked we never offered him anything at the end of the loan.

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