By Suresh Nair
IF Watford skipper Troy Deeney was in Singapore, he’d probably be a landmark role-model for the “Yellow Ribbon” campaign.
The Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP) seeks to engage the community in giving ex-offenders a second chance at life and to inspire a ripple effect of concerted community action to support ex-offenders and their families.
Today at 29, Deeney’s at the highest point of his professional football career. But he has not forgotten family and friends who helped him through the dark days he spent in a prison cell.
He walked out of jail five years ago and since then has earned the freedom of Vicarage Road (Watford’s home ground). He has scored 20 goals a season three years in a row and helped Watford to automatic English Premier League (EPL) promotion two seasons ago. Watford currently stands in No 8 position after 13 matches with 21 points.
Deeney is not ashamed of his prison past. He’s a frank and open character who does not avoid talking about his time in jail, or the men he met there.
“If somebody told me when I was sitting in a prison cell that I’d be driving a
red Bentley, wearing an expensive Rolex watch and captaining my team in probably the toughest football league in the world, I wouldn’t shake my head,” he says. “I knew one day I’d make heads turn, be a changed man and prove by being a professional player that I can be a role-model to the community.”
The script to reality began at the moment the door to his cell in Warrington’s Thorn Cross Prison slammed shut at the beginning of a 10-month sentence for affray. At that moment in 2012, few would have predicted that less than five years later he would have scored over 100 goals for Watford, racked up 62 Premier League appearances and even be giving talks on leadership to gatherings of sport industry leaders.
“The door closed and the real world had stopped,” he says. “That might sound really drastic but that’s what it was. All my feelings and all my emotions were just caught up from that point. It was just a case of: ‘You’ve got to get through this’.
“I’d buried my cancer-stricken dad not long before that. I didn’t have the time to sulk, cry or do all the things that I’d do if my mum died now; I’d be a mess, crying all over the place, drinking loads of beer like everyone does. I didn’t have that luxury. So as soon as that door shut it was survival mode.”
Gone now are his angry streaks and he knows how to cage his beast off the field. He has paid the price after kicking a man in the head during a Birmingham street brawl. After serving three months for good conduct and visiting a few psychologists, Deeney has found a way to manage his “animal” side off the pitch while still allowing the aggressive side into his game.
From schoolboy days, he struggled as his family could barely make ends meet. He vividly describes the debt collectors at the door, his foster father was in and out of prison, how his mother took on three jobs to make ends meet. And she burst into tears last year when her son took her on holiday to Florida – more tears after the pledge he made to her that she would never want for anything again.
Football-wise, Watford, too, welcomed him with open arms and has since relied on that awesome survival instinct from their now-captain to guide them through the disappointment of a play-off final defeat, the joy of promotion to the Premier League and in their current battle to cement their position in the top tier.
Sometimes, on hindsight, Deeney says he’s still sore that when he was released from prison after three months in August 2012, fitted with an ankle tag, his club barely remembered he existed amid the whirlwind of a new Italian magnate takeover, the firing and hiring of managers, and a massive influx of new players that took place that summer.
“As that was going on they didn’t even know who the No 9 was, they didn’t care,” he recalls. “They’d bought four strikers and there were already three there. So when I came back I was the eighth-choice striker.
“I got released on the Monday, went in on the Tuesday. I was on tag and I just went to see if I was even allowed back, I didn’t know anything. I went and had a chat with (manager Gianfranco) Zola and he said: ‘Yeah, I know who you are. I’m just going to let you know, you’re eighth in the list’, and I laughed. He said: ‘Is something funny?’. And I just said: ‘No, no. I won’t be eighth for long.’
And he proved everyone wrong, simply by allowing his boots to do the real talking. Since his release, Deeney’s career has gone from strength to strength. In the three seasons, his total goal tallies read: 20 (2012-13), 25 (2013-14), 21 (2014-15).
He says: “I came on in the game that weekend as a sub and the week after I came on and scored. The rest is history, as they say.”
Starting and scoring. It’s been a familiar feeling for the Birmingham-born striker over the last few years and not one he enjoyed to the same extent before being behind bars.
He was hell-bent never to go behind bars and pushed himself to the limits, on and off the field. He confronted himself in counselling sessions with other inmates that bred the determination and maturity he took into Zola’s office and hasn’t let go of since.
Deeney, a father of two, recently revealed his biggest lie. That he had to give false information to his son about his whereabouts during those long three months away from home when he was in a cage.
“I’ve got two kids now but I (only) had my son at that point. I never lie to my kids, that’s one thing I never do,” he says. “That’s the only lie I have ever had to tell him, that I was at a football camp, because he wasn’t old enough to realise.”
Now determined to turn over a new leaf and to be a genuine role-model for family and the community, Deeney believes he can better leverage his current position to help the younger generation.
He started the road to a new life by establishing his own foundation for terminally ill children, in his old estate of Chelmsley Wood.
He even treated himself to a £150,000 Lamborghini when he signed a £4million-a-year contract with the Hornets and takes pride that the kids in Chelmsley Wood, the tough Birmingham neighbourhood where he grew up, can sit in his supercar – to prove there is a route from urban rage to riches.
He says: “It’s not because I want people to say, ‘Look at Troy, he’s got a Lamborghini’ but you can see it and you can touch it. People round here don’t see one of those very often and I say to them, ‘Do you want one of these yourself? Then you are going to have to work for it.’
“That message is then reinforced not just with words but actions. I’m not the most talented player in the world, but I can work harder than everyone.”
Deeney confesses he has big dreams and by helping the less privileged and handicapped, he wants to turn his name into a brand like David Beckham. But he quickly acknowledges he doesn’t have the appearance to succeed as an icon model like the former England captain.
“I am incredibly motivated. I want to take my brand, which is my family, the Deeney name, and make it the biggest it can be. I’m not scared to say that,” he says with a new-found pride and honour.
“I want the Deeney brand to be like the David Beckham brand. I don’t want to be a model or anything. I just want my whole family to have a better outlook on life.”
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who admires Troy Deeney. He believes in the government’s Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP), to improve the effectiveness of rehabilitation of ex-offenders with value-added initiatives to help them reintegrate into Singapore society.