Jeff Whitley | Interview

Jeff whitley

By Tony Dewhurst 

Former Manchester City and Northern Ireland midfielder Jeff Whitley is the PFA’S player welfare executive, and a driving force in the union’s wellbeing team which provides support to 50,000 members.

He bravely tells Tony Dewhurst about his own personal battle with addiction and how the PFA and Sporting Chance saved his life.

“The PFA changed my life and going into the Sporting Chance clinic saved my life.”

JEFF Whitley popped out to the corner shop for a pint of milk and never came back for a fortnight.

“I had it in my head that I was going on a mission, a humongous two-week bender,” he said.

He added: “It was my escape to go wild.

“When you are in the madness of addiction, it is a dark place.

“Some of the insane things that go through your mind, it is terrible.

“I’d changed cities, changed jobs, changed friends, changed my drinks, from lagers to shots, but it didn’t matter.

“You blame anything and everybody else, but in the end, I didn’t need an excuse to go out and drink.

“I’d turn my ‘phone off and drop off the radar.

“It got to the point where I said I’m done.

“If I carry on, I told myself, then I’m going to die.

“I was in total and utter denial – but that wasn’t even rock bottom.”

His baby daughter was three days old when he checked himself into the Sporting Chance rehab clinic, part-funded by the Professional Footballers’ Association since 2000.

“I looked at myself in the mirror and I broke down,” he said.

“I didn’t even know the guy I saw in that reflection.”

Jeff has been clean and sober for 13 years, but he has already had as much pain as any man should be asked to handle.

Now he is a qualified counsellor and three years ago he was hired by the PFA’s well-being team.

They offer support to footballer’s past and present struggling with addiction, and mental health issues.

And when he found himself in the eye of the storm, then his union came to the rescue.

“When I made that call to the PFA, that was the hardest part, because as a professional sportsman you don’t want to admit defeat.

“It is not about losing the battle with alcohol, gambling or drugs, it is about surrendering to it.

“I’ve seen the biggest, hardest people who have fought alcohol addiction for years.

“Some try to get clean, but when they step back into the ring again then they get knocked out again.

“If you keep fighting it then you get battered.”

He admits his drinking and drug use left a lot of wreckage and personal sadness.

“There was a different culture in football then, a fierce drinking culture, lots of players in football doing what I was doing. 

“It felt normal.

“A senior player said: ‘If you don’t drink Jeff, you’re not going to be a player.

“I was rubbish at drinking at 17, so I practised.”

Once out of rehab, he wrote an emotional letter to the Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive Gordon Taylor.

“I wanted to thank Gordon and my union for their incredible support,” he said.

“They changed my life and going into the Sporting Chance clinic saved my life, no question.

“There, I sat down with fellow addicts, who thought, drank and behaved like me.

“They spoke my language, and it was like wow you know where I’m coming from.

“That was the beginning of the long road back and now I’ve got the tools to stay clean and sober.”

Of course, there is no such thing as a cured alcoholic.

Alcoholism is a complicated, brutal illness and Jeff’s voice crackles with emotion when he rolls back the clock to the throes of his addiction.

Make no mistake, Jeff has needed the heart of a hungry lion and the spirit of a warrior to get better.

“I never shut the door on my story because you are never cured,” he admits.

“When I wake up then I’ve another 24 hours to stay sober.

“Lots of things have happened in my sobriety.

“My younger brother committed suicide and for many that would have been the excuse to go out and get slaughtered.

“You make so many poor decisions in the whirlwind of addiction and alcoholism.

“You get the urge to use, drink and gamble, and you think about the consequences later.

“I isolated myself from the people who I didn’t want to be around, including my family, who challenged me and told me I had a problem.

“Occasionally people ask, ‘Jeff, you’re sober, what harm would a couple of drinks do?

“‘No. I will always be a recovering alcoholic.”

When we talk, he shows a warm-hearted, unforced courtesy, a world away from the selfishness and destruction of addiction.

He is a humble man too, but even now there’s a keen sense of what might have been for a talented footballer capped by Northern Ireland at 18.

“All the good clubs I played for got rid of me because of my off the pitch antics,” he says.

“I thought I had everything under control, but life was unmanageable.

“I’d get bills and I didn’t know what to do with them, so I got a couple of my mates to sort it.

“I didn’t have any life skills whatsoever.

“It was play, booze, party.

“I paid a terrible price and so did my family.

“It is 13 years without a drink – and how I live my life is completely different, thanks to Sporting Chance and the PFA.”