Two doctors stood above Matt Piper arguing about him being sectioned. Next to them was his mum, in floods of tears, as she stared sorrowfully at her son while the tug of war about the next steps to save his life went on.
The former Leicester City and Sunderland winger was coming around in a hospital bed. Just hours earlier, Piper’s mum had found him slumped across his grandad’s grave after he’d taken a near-deadly cocktail of drugs and alcohol during yet another daytime binge.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. At 27, Piper planned to be reaching his peak, terrorising Premier League defences on a weekly basis and living the dream he’d had since he was a six-year-old. Now, it seemed his immediate future wasn’t in his hands.
“Waking up in hospital, they’d pumped my stomach and I had to drink watered down charcoal to draw the drugs out of my blood and back into my stomach,” recalls Piper.
“There were two doctors standing over me, arguing. One was saying I should be sectioned because I’d clearly tried to take my life and the other guy was a football fan and knew my story because my mum had talked to him about me having a bad time. He thought I shouldn’t [be sectioned].
“You feel a bit ashamed when you wake up, a bit embarrassed. You’re lying there and there are two guys arguing, your mum’s crying and you’re a 27-year-old man. I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.”
Piper did walk out of the hospital under his own accord, but it wasn’t the end of his struggles. His road to ruin started shortly after leaving hometown club Leicester in 2002. After scoring the Foxes’ last Premier League goal at their former home, Filbert Street, and becoming a first-team regular, Piper was making a name for himself – despite the club suffering relegation to the second tier.
But a summer move to Sunderland, which was partly made due to necessity as Leicester’s financial plight worsened, soon turned sour when a slew of knee injuries meant he spent more time on the sidelines than on the pitch.
A series of operations and failed comebacks across a gruelling four-year spell sounded the death knell on Piper’s career as he slipped into depression.
“The first incident was at Sunderland when I had a panic attack in the pool,” says Piper, who looked back on his struggles in his book Out of the Darkness. “I’d never had a panic attack in my life or anything like that. I look back on that now and it was the start of depression.
“A lot of people who are depressed don’t know they’re depressed at the time. They think ‘I’m a bit under the weather’ or have things on their mind. If you went to see someone, you’d be classed as clinically depressed. And I was at Sunderland. It was injury after injury, missing games after signing for the club and it went downhill from there.
“It was injury after injury for another three or four years in a row and having that exhilarating moment when the surgeon said, ‘I think you need to call it a day’. People think that was one of the saddest days of my life, but it was one of the best. I was thinking ‘thank god that’s all over and now I can go out and do something with my life where I’m not so down all the time, I’m not always thinking about injuries, or feeling the pressure of being a professional footballer’.”
That relief was short lived. Piper’s retirement in 2006 left him without a purpose and while first-class flights and lavish nights out kept him entertained for the first 18 months, he struggled to settle on a new career and the money soon dried up.
Attempts to find a new vocation saw Piper try “30 or 40 jobs” ranging from sales, building, plumbing and even a two-week stint as a professional gambler. Nothing stuck and he threw in the towel within a day of sampling many professions.
“One afternoon, I decided I’d have a couple of drinks,” Piper explains. “At that time, whenever I was drunk or tipsy, all those problems I felt went to the back of my mind. I drank and thought ‘this is good not constantly thinking what’s next, what I’ve got to do or feeling sorry for myself’.
“Within two or three weeks, that drinking turned into every single day and it’s then a gateway to marijuana, Valium, anything I could get my hands on to keep me in that state of not carrying on with the responsibilities of life.”
It was during one of these sessions that Piper tried to take his own life. After downing a couple of bottles of whiskey, he turned to the medication cupboard and took a selection of 50 to 60 pills, including paracetamol, co-codomol, sleeping tablets and Valium.
“I can’t truthfully say when I look back that I woke up that day and said ‘I’m going to end my own life’,” says Piper.
“It was like a fuck-it switch and that’s what it felt like that day. It felt like you’re tipping all these things out and – I’m an intelligent person – I know taking this many pills in a cocktail, I could die. But I maintain there wasn’t that conscious thought of ‘I’m going to kill myself’.
“People ask if it was a cry for help and maybe it was, but it’s so hard to articulate now because I was two litres of whiskey deep. It’s still a bit of a blur.”
That’s where Piper’s mum stepped in. After discovering him lying unconscious on his grandad’s grave and playing her part in stopping him from being sectioned, she registered her son at Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic, which helps athletes who are struggling with addiction.
It was there that Piper regained some control over his life. Despite being refused entry the first time due to being drunk, the former Leicester man stayed sober for the next 24 hours and spent six weeks in the facility, where he received counselling and rediscovered his passion for football. He was inspired to get into coaching and mentoring, which has developed into the birth of the FSD Academy to provide sport, education and life skills for youngsters in the East Midlands.
Nowadays, Piper admits that episode of his life doesn’t feel real, but hopes the memories he has can help others to find a way out of the darkness if they fall on hard times.
“I think so many people struggle who attach their identity to one thing as they’re growing up,” he adds. “When from the age of six, all you’re dreaming about is seeing yourself on Match of the Day and playing in the Premier League, then you get there and your identity is a footballer.
“So what do you do? You stay behind to do extra training because you want to be a footballer. You don’t go out with your mates because you don’t want to drink because you’re so committed to being a footballer. People are telling you to stay away from girls and nightclubs, and don’t ride motorbikes – it’s all geared towards being the best footballer you can be.
“It’s not just in football when people become so closely attached to something that it becomes their main purpose in life and they don’t find or look for hobbies. It can be quite damaging, especially at a young age.”
Thankfully, Piper is still here to tell his story.
Matt Piper’s book, Out of the Darkness, is out now and available to buy on Amazon.