Former West Ham defender Gary Charles had a career many footballers can only dream of.
Representing his country, appearing in five Cup finals and playing for the team he grew up supporting are things many youngsters would love to achieve, but if he had his time again, the 50-year-old would do everything backwards.
Charles’s long roundabout route from being born in Newham to playing for his local side took him via Wembley, Nottingham, Lisbon and many treatment rooms, but the former England defender’s time in claret and blue left him with decidedly mixed feelings, as it comprised just six games over two-and-a-half seasons.
‘I loved the club and I’ve still got my shirt at home but in terms of performances, it was so disappointing,’ he told Blowing Bubbles. ‘My biggest disappointment is not playing 100 plus games for West Ham – I wish I could have been there at the start of my career.
‘When you look at the players who were there in my time – Paolo di Canio, Trevor Sinclair, Joe Cole, Rio Ferdinand and that lot – I wish I could have shown West Ham fans so much more what I was capable of.’
A career that began in heartbreaking rejection was turned around to reach the heights, before a combination of serious injuries and alcoholism took Charles to some very dark places, but now he is 13 years sober and working in coaching and sports management, as well as being an ambassador for the Delamere rehab centre in Cheshire.
His story is a remarkable one, that began and ended at his local club – West Ham.
‘I was born locally and went to the Cumberland School, and as a kid I was an avid fan,’ he said. ‘Those were the days when you could climb over the turnstiles to get in, and my brother and I did that.
‘As a youngster I trained with both Arsenal and West Ham, but at about 13, they both let me go because they thought I was too small.
‘It was absolutely gutting, and it could have gone one of two ways – giving up or working harder. I decided to work harder, and be the best I could possibly be at one thing, which was running, so I got the point where I was running about 15 miles a day.
‘Leyton Orient were about to offer me terms when I was spotted by a Nottingham Forest scout, and asked to go there for a trial. I was so small they had to check I was in playing with the right age group, but after one day, they offered me a contract.’
At first, there was a deal that he should continue to attend school two days a week and spend the rest of the week in Nottingham, but that was soon ditched and he moved to the East Midlands on a full-time basis, to learn his trade alongside the likes of Des Walker, Stuart Pearce, a young Roy Keane, and Brian Clough, who took Charles under his wing and gave his debut aged just 17.
In 1991, having become a regular in Clough’s team, Charles was part of the Forest side that reached the 1991 FA Cup final against Tottenham, where he was on the receiving end of the challenge that changed the course of Paul Gascoigne’s career, not that he likes to dwell on it.
‘We’ve all mistimed challenges, so it could have happened to any of us,’ he said. ‘Anyway, I was with some of the Forest boys recently and we were still moaning about how we didn’t win the game.’
Forest lost 2-1, with the winner being an own goal by the usually ultra-reliable Walker. ‘Des saved us enough goals over the years, so he can be forgiven for that!’
When Clough’s time was up at Forest, so was Charles’s, and he turned down the chance to stay and play for Frank Clark – the same manager who had wanted to sign him for Orient – before doing the undoable in the East Midlands, and leaving Forest for Derby.
‘I think I underestimated the feeling between the teams a bit,’ he said. ‘If you’d asked me to go from West Ham to Spurs I wouldn’t, and it was a bit like doing that.’
But it was at his next club, Aston Villa, where Charles enjoyed some of the best days of his career, and the worst.
The 1995-96 season was a good one for Villa, who finished fourth in the league, reached the FA Cup semi-final and won the League Cup.
But Charles’s career and life changed in an instant during a game against West Ham on April 17, where in a freak incident with no opposing player involved, he suffered a horrific ankle injury that left his foot pointing the wrong way.
‘It had been a great season, and I shouldn’t really have been playing in that game anyway, but in an instant things changed,’ he said. And how.
‘I’d always been the fittest player at any club I’d been at, but after that, I had to learn to walk again. I was on crutches for 10 or 11 months, and had five operations, then they found another fracture, and I seemed to get injured a lot after that. Maybe I should have retired then, because I was never the same player again.’
It was at this point that drinking, initially done out of social awkwardness, became a major issue.
‘The injury was going on for a long, long time and that was where some of the problems started with frustration,’ he said.
‘I wasn’t really a big pints drinker, I just used to stay out too long. I wasn’t comfortable with the adulation and fame that came with being a player – there’s only 11 months between me and my brother, so we used to go out together and pretend to be one another.
‘He was a lot more comfortable with it and loved that, and I could go unnoticed. I was shy and preferred a quiet time. Alcohol took away the nervousness.’
Once Charles was eventually back to something approaching fitness, long-time admirer Graeme Souness took him to Benfica, where he arrived at the same time as future West Ham team-mate Scott Minto was leaving, but again, fitness issues dogged his time at the club until finally, at the age of 29, in October 1999 he joined West Ham.
The team had just won the Intertoto Cup to qualify for the old UEFA Cup, and two days before Charles signed, had enjoyed a memorable 2-1 win over Arsenal, featuring a Paolo di Canio wondergoal.
It should have been the start of great things for Charles, but yet again, life had other plans for him.
‘When I signed I was still way off being fit because I’d just had stomach surgery in Portugal, and it took me a while to get up to speed,’ he said.
‘As a player, that’s so frustrating, you really want to be part of what’s going on, but your body won’t let you.
‘I looked at the team sheet from that era recently, and the squad was amazing. When I was playing, drinking wasn’t an issue, but when I was injured, it started to be.’
Having had his Villa career ended playing against West Ham, his first game for West Ham was at back in the city, at Birmingham, in the League Cup in late November.
A Steve Lomas long-range effort, poacher’s finish by Paul Kitson and a first senior goal for Cole secured a thrilling 3-2 win, but it was another miserable night for Charles, as a first-half challenge left him needing 30 stitches in a shin injury, putting him out for another six weeks. Matchwinner Cole was the substitute who replaced him.
Charles’s next appearance did not come until late February, when he scored an own goal in a defeat at Southampton, a week before the legendary 5-4 win over Bradford that has gone down in club folklore, and he had to wait until April for his next runout, as a substitute against Newcastle.
West Ham was a fresh start for Charles, but when it came to fitness, little had changed, with appearances few and far between.
The new season brought little more luck. What turned out to be Charles’s last appearance for the West Ham first team was as a replacement for Davor Suker in a 1-0 home loss to Leicester, in the first home game of the season.
After a brief spell on loan at Birmingham, in July 2002, his career was finally finished off at the age of 32 by a right knee injury, with his last-ever game being a reserve fixture between West Ham and Arsenal, the two clubs he had started out with.
Post-football, drinking became even more of an issue, leading to a very public fall from grace and imprisonment, but now Charles is a man transformed, and on a mission to help others who are going through what he did, and emerged from.
‘For me, it was hard to accept that I could leave drink for a long time and then go on a bender,’ he said.
‘I’m 13 years without a drink now, and before that there was a time when I was dry for three years. One day I just decided I’d had enough of getting in bits of bother, it couldn’t always be someone else’s fault.
‘I only had two goes at rehab. The second time was my choice, I understood it and I worked at it and it worked.
‘It’s not just about going to rehab, though, it’s about applying those lessons to life as well. That’s why I’m so keen to help others, and to talk about it.’
Charles now works with the Delamere Clinic, taking the word and his story out to people in all walks of life.
‘My story has been publicised, so I can talk about it honestly,’ he said. ‘Talking is so important, it makes a huge difference, there’s a lot of stigma still there and I want to help get rid of it.
‘It’s a problem in so many walks of life, and although there’s a lot more help available to young players at clubs now, I think they don’t like to go in-house about it because they think it’ll harm their prospects. That’s the case in lots of companies too.’
Football has given Charles a lot, some of it wanted, some of it less so, but he has no regrets. ‘I loved being a footballer and I loved training, I wouldn’t change anything about that, I just didn’t like the adulation, that was the worst part for me,’ he said.
‘If I could play the games and not have to put up with the rest and people looking at you, that would be so much better.
‘All I wanted out of life was a nice happy fulfilled life, and I have that now. I’ve got a lovely life, lovely children, I work with schools, I run an agency called Tornado and I work with Delamere, which I think will change a lot of people’s lives.
‘If I’d had that facility available to me, it would have been very different. I’ve experienced the highs and the lows, and worked with some of the greatest managers. I’m in a good position to give players guidance.’