Scottish Daily Mail
I built these kids a school… now I have to win Cup for them
Former Dundee defender Caulker on a mission to seal glory with Sierra Leone
ThE night before leaving for the Africa Cup of Nations and Steven Caulker was scrolling through old photos when he found the clip of the young girl from the school he built in Sierra Leone.
‘i’m not someone who cries but that always gets to me,’ said Caulker. ‘She sang a song for me and whenever i watch that video it gives me the same feeling, it’s overwhelming.
‘Just as it was when i was there, taking selfies with children who’d never seen their own reflections because there’s no mirrors or cameras, it’s such a remote village. You could see pure joy and excitement in their faces.
‘they always greet me with such love, it’s always so emotional. these are the people i’ll be thinking of and the people i’m playing for when i line up.’
Sierra Leone is not a footballing flag of convenience for Caulker, despite being capped once for England. he has strong bonds to the African nation where his grandfather William was born.
As a Cardiff player, Caulker raised £25,000 selling signed shirts from stars including Gareth Bale, topped it up with his own money and, with the help of the charity Action Aid, built a six-classroom school complete with its own well for 400 children in the district of Kambia.
the Ebola outbreak made it difficult over the years but he has visited several times, taken his son Louis, 10, and paid a visit to his grandfather’s old village Manor-by-the-Sea.
‘Sierra Leone is a third-world country,’ said Caulker. ‘there’s a lot of struggle there and i’ve tried to do my bit and be hands-on because of my grandfather, William, who moved to London in the 1950s and married my Scottish gran, Jessie.
‘After Ebola, i met with families who had lost their parents and was involved in projects after the landslides in 2017. Football is one of the things that brings them joy.
‘it’s exciting for me. Yes, i want to experience international football, to play at the highest level. But when i walk out to represent Sierra Leone i will be thinking of all the people waiting outside the hotel before we left for Cameroon, running after our bus as we went off to play in the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 25 years. it’s so much greater than football.’
At 30, Caulker (right) has been on quite an adventure. From his emergence at tottenham and his England debut to falling into trouble with alcohol, gambling and depression, he had a successful but short-lived spell with Dundee where he harboured hopes of representing Scotland courtesy of his gran from Dollar in Clackmannanshire. Since then he has reinvented himself in turkish football. ‘A long road,’ he said. ‘i made my England debut at 20, scored a goal, Danny Welbeck put us 2-1 up and then i came off to witness Zlatan’s brilliance. Obviously, that overshadowed me but when i mention it to anyone they go, “Oh that game”. Everyone remembers the game. it was the Zlatan show.’ Sweden were opening the national stadium in Stockholm and their talisman Zlatan ibrahimovic scored all four in a 4-2 friendly win, including a 40-yard overhead kick. ‘it was a special moment for me to wear the England shirt and make my debut at the same time as raheem Sterling, to play with Steven Gerrard, but it’s a long time ago and i’ve drifted away from England. ‘i was upset to miss out on World Cup selection in 2014. i was in the squad for the game before, and they sent a text to say roy hodgson would call everyone, whether we were in or not. ‘he never called. i sat by the phone all evening. that was quite disheartening and to be honest quite rude. it left a bit of a sour taste.’ Caulker moved to turkey in 2019, joining Alanyaspor on the Mediterranean coast, as he sought to piece his life back together.
‘i went there a broken man. i had been sober for a month or so but a month is nothing. When the opportunity came to go there, i grabbed it with both hands.
‘Alanya was an amazing place to live. i was on the beachfront with a sea view and the sun all year round. it was therapeutic, a wonderful place to get away from all the madness i’d gone through.’
Caulker produced the best, most consistent football of his career and turkey’s biggest clubs, Fenerbahce, Besiktas, Galatasaray and trabzonspor, were jostling to sign him last summer.
he opted for Fenerbahce but a managerial change on the eve of this season left him unwanted. he has since moved on loan at Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border.
With little future at Fenerbache, a big decision looms at the end of the season and he would love to return to the UK.
‘Coming away served a purpose. Gave me a footing on the road to sobriety but i’m over three years sober now and to be back home close to my son, my family and friends, my support network would be brilliant.
‘it’s definitely an ambition but there needs to be an opportunity and i don’t know if that will come.’
First, the AFCON, with Sierra Leone, who start their campaign against defending champions Algeria tomorrow.
‘We want to make a statement,’ said Caulker. ‘i called my dad and said imagine that after all these years. When i arrived here last week i knew immediately i’d made the right decision.’