Sonny Pike On Life As A Football Prodigy: ‘At 17 My Head Was Finished. I Was Suicidal’
Posted by Dean Holden at March 2nd, 2016
by Nick Ames, 25 February 2016
Sonny Pike shows off his skills on the Wembley pitch before the 1996 League Cup final – but a gruelling schedule of commitments took its toll. Photograph: Action Images
Sonny Pike remembers the game – and there were so, so many games – that brought him to the edge. “I was on trial at Palace, playing against Spurs, out of position on the left wing. The match was going on around me and I just thought to myself: ‘You know what? I just want the whole world to eat me up and take me away from here.’”
What happened next makes difficult listening. Pike spent the mid-1990s being touted as the next Diego Maradona, shuttled between agents, sponsorship deals, television appearances, trials at Premier League clubs and a high-profile fortnight with Ajax. The wavy hair and cherubic features made a household name of a young player who should not really have been referred to in those terms. Pike was just a child and by the age of 17 it had all become too much. “My head was finished, I was gone,” he says. “I was suicidal at times, in a bad place for a long time. I couldn’t take it and was thinking about calling it a day.”
Pike’s story has been held up as the model cautionary tale for garlanded prodigies, yet it has been shrouded in mystery and half-truths. Now 32, he was prompted to resurface after becoming a father of two and considering the damage that had been done to his own childhood. A radio interview with TalkSport this week was “like therapy, really, it’s chilled me out so much”; the effects of his teenage years had been bottled up and hearing what happened would be a jolt to the senses of anyone naive enough to believe people are automatically minded to look after young footballers’ interests.
Not least those close to them. Playing for his youth side in Essex, Pike tells the Guardian that he scored “about 150 goals a season, 300 if you count the other competitions I played in”, although he saw himself as more of a No10, a Dennis Bergkamp. Scouts began to take notice and by the age of “12 or 13” he was representing East Anglia at a “Mini World Cup” tournament in Denmark, playing alongside Ashley Young and David Bentley. “How many scouts did you have today?” he and Bentley would ask each other after games. The inquiries flooded in and fell at the feet of his father Mickey, a builder by trade. Mickey had never shown any interest in the sport itself but, according to Pike, saw an opportunity to grasp.
Pike says he thinks his father “was hungry for the public attention and got carried away by the publicity side of things, and did me a great deal of harm”. The perks, and more importantly the schedule that came with them, quickly became overwhelming. “He’d get together with journalists, do pieces and earn money on the side out of all the attention I was getting. By around 14 or 15 I was living with the benefits of a professional – sponsored by Paul Smith and Mizuno, free clothes, legs insured for £1m, McDonald’s adverts, Coca-Cola promotions.
“My dad really pushed that side of it and a lot of it was just too much. I remember doing the McDonald’s ad, having to keep the ball up and shoot it towards a camera, and my thighs felt raw. The environment was ruthless.”
Pike went through numerous agents – Eric Hall and Sky Andrew among them – and even more trials, the best-known coming after a Dutch television crew filmed a tournament he was playing in. The invitation from Ajax came from that, as did a request to move full-time to the Netherlands. That did not feel like an option to Pike but the experience was, at least, one of his more enjoyable.
“I went out for a while and played a few games, including the winner against PSV,” he says. “They wanted me to go back for good but I was 13 or 14 and wasn’t interested in doing that, I’ve always been a family person. But I met the first team, Louis van Gaal was in charge at the time and was kind to me too, and mixed with Nwankwo Kanu, Patrick Kluivert, all of the famous team they had back then. The training side was like nothing I’ve ever seen over here – just unbelievable.”
Pike ended up at Leyton Orient. It seems a curious choice and any chance of stability was destroyed permanently by his appearance in a 1996 documentary, “Coaching and Poaching”, presented by the current FA chairman, Greg Dyke.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Pike says. “I was signed at Orient but my dad was working with a certain journalist at the time and agreed to do the documentary. I knew Chelsea were interested in me, and one day my dad told me to get in the car – where another coach I knew was sitting – and say I wanted to go there.
“I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. This film crew followed me into the Chelsea training ground and filmed me playing for them. It went out on Channel 4. Then I went back to Orient and played in a game on the first-team pitch. The manager said he’d already heard a rumour something had happened.”
Pike’s days at Orient were numbered and he feels it was a set-up. “It went to an FA inquiry and I was banned for a year, couldn’t play for any of those teams, all down to that documentary. It was a kick in the shins, to say the least.”
It turns out that Pike may not technically have been signed to Orient at all. He believes Mickey signed his contract forms and that, he says, was legally the responsibility of his mother, Stephanie. But the damage had been done and it was during this break from the game – in which he continued to play away from the spotlight, helped by his old coach and lifelong friend Terry Welch, for a youth team in Loughton – that Mickey left the scene. Pike’s parents had been separated for years and had long held opposing views on the merits of pushing for a career in football. Pike has not seen Mickey in more than 15 years, and the immediate psychological toll was huge. He returned to football – that trial at Palace, and others around the south of England – but felt broken.
“There were multiple reasons for why I felt as I did,” he says, recalling the time it felt easier to let everything go. “As much as I now know my dad did me bundles of harm, when I was a young kid I’d have done anything for him. But I’d lost him. I’d lost the chance to play for Chelsea, which I’d really wanted, and then there was all the abuse I used to get on the sideline from people who knew my story. ‘Break his legs,’ and much worse. I had a lot of bad things coming my way and for somebody of my age it was just too much.” Pike’s comments about his father have not been substantiated.
Pike struggled along. Conversations with a close family friend helped his mental state but efforts to eke out a football career became increasingly withdrawn.
“I decided to change my image, look different,” he says. “I did it all purposely, I didn’t want to be seen as I was. I remember going to Grimsby for a trial, driving up, and didn’t want anyone to recognise me. Before I got in the car I got out the clippers and gave myself a skinhead – never had one before or since. I didn’t want anyone saying: ‘Wasn’t it you who played for Ajax?’ I just wanted to be another geezer, treated the same as anyone.”
The trial lasted two days before Pike, who had been scheduled to play in a match, had enough and drove home. “I was all over the place, I just packed up and went,” he says. “Subconsciously, I think I must have known it was all over. But when I didn’t get a deal at Stevenage after that, I knew I couldn’t pursue it any longer. I’d wanted to be at the top.”
Pike disappeared from the radar after that and it is easy enough for urban myths to develop. He had supposedly been spotted under assumed identities at a number of non-league clubs; he had, according to one story, uprooted to Dundee to study psychology. None of it is true. With few financial benefits from all those deals and broadcasts having come his way, he trained to be a carpenter and then after the birth of Freya, now seven, spent three years studying the Knowledge. He now drives a black cab six days a week, dotes on Freya and her 18-month-old brother, Beau, and has little interest in the game that eventually wronged him.
“I don’t know much about football these days,” he says. “When I was younger I was obsessed, could imitate all the players, but now I rarely watch a game unless perhaps England are playing. These days I’m fanatical about boxing – I really study it, the movements, everything, and follow all the fighters. What I love is that it’s one on one. In a team game you can hide, but not there; I look up to boxers.”
He does, though, feel he has something to contribute and that is another reason for his keenness to speak to media now. With hindsight it is clear enough that he was a guinea pig in football’s ham-fisted early attempts to monetise young talent; some academy scholars these days are on the verge of becoming brands of their own and, while things may have moved on beyond return in the last two decades, Pike would be delighted to pass on his experience to interested players and clubs.
“When I was younger I was the only one getting attention like that,” he says. “But now it’s non-stop for hundreds of them. These players need to take a step back and concentrate on their craft, because the amount of money they are walking around with is crazy. Agents aren’t necessarily a bad thing but there is no reason they should be working with kids as young as I was.
“I’d be more than happy to get out there, talk to academies, kids and parents, make sure they hear and learn about it, help them understand you mustn’t get too carried away. I want people to hear about it, and make sure they don’t suffer in the way I did.”
The biggest sadness is that Pike’s tale is far more that of a lost youth than of a wasted talent. The latter is of relatively little consequence in the bigger picture and that is why, all these years later, Pike has been able to rebuild himself without need for the game.
“I’m not saying this story hasn’t had a beautiful ending,” he says. “I’m so happy now with my kids. Because of my experience they’ve got a good dad, someone who will do his best for them, and that’s how I look at it. Things have ended up well, but there’s a lesson to be learned.”
Sonny can be contacted via his Twitter account, @Sonnypike01Pike
The Samaritans in the UK can be contacted in the UK on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here.
<A cautionary tale… Parents, please keep things in perspective. Too much of any one thing, is too much. Give your children chances to play and do other things… don’t focus on one sport – particularly a late specialization sport – before 14 or 15 at the earliest! Even if your kid says they want to play spring hockey, indoor futsol, whatever it is… hockey and soccer and the like aren’t supposed to be 8-12 month a year sports! If your kid wanted pop and chips everyday, would you say yes? Think about it. Sonny’s statement, “As much as I now know my dad did me bundles of harm, when I was a young kid I’d have done anything for him,” shows that young kids don’t have the mental capacity to make informed choices. Sometimes, your job as a parent is to say, ”No” and explain why (the big picture..) The key is to become educated. – DH>