Joe Sealey: ‘When I was younger, I didn’t realise how connected with West Ham history the name Sealey was’

Former West Ham trainee Joe Sealey’s story of his own life and that of his father is remarkable and fascinating

The Sealey family play a prominent role in West Ham history. Alan Sealey wrote his name in club folklore when he scored both goals in 1965’s Cup Winners’ Cup final triumph, and is immortalised in one of the buildings built on the site of Upton Park.

His nephew, goalkeeper Les, had two brief stints for the Irons in the 1990s, having been signed by manager Harry Redknapp on Alan’s recommendation, and was once memorably sent on as an outfield substitute, before ending up as the club’s goalkeeping coach. But it is Les’s son Joe, a former West Ham trainee who never made it to first team level, who has the most remarkable and fascinating story of the lot, the story of his own life and that of his father.

In the summer of 2001, aged 18, in the space of two weeks Joe lost first his career to injury, and then his father, at the age of just 43, to a freak cardiac condition. With his career and whole identity in ruins, he went into a downward spiral of ill-health and drug addiction, before, with the help of wife Nicole, turning his life around and discovering a new life as a hugely successful serial entrepreneur.

That tale, and Joe, now aged 40, becoming a regular cast member on reality show The Real Housewives of Cheshire, which is now in its 16th series and shown in 25 countries, is a book in itself. But his latest project has been working with writer Tim Rich on the publication of On Days like These, a book based on his father’s unpublished autobiography, and tapes of his career memoirs.

Frustratingly for West Ham fans, the tapes were recorded before Sealey had pitched up at Upton Park. But the story they tell is a remarkable insight into the colourful life and career of one of the most larger than life characters of 80s and 90s English football, instantly recognisable to all fans, but someone who never gave interviews. 

That story is intertwined with Joe’s own, of his thwarted career, his eventful life, loss and recovery; the saving of a keeper. The most successful part of Les’s career was his two stints at Manchester United, where, like cousin Alan had been at West Ham, he was a winner of the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup, so for Joe and younger brother George to both follow in his footsteps by wanting to be goalkeepers at West Ham was a daunting step to take.

‘I played centre back until I was about 10 but I was never a great runner and once I played in goal, I loved the physicality of it, and I still do – getting smashed, dominating the box, diving in at people’s feet and having the ball hit me in the face – it’s either in you or it’s not,’ Joe told Blowing Bubbles. ‘If you’re a born keeper, you’ll do it and if not, then you’re not a keeper. When I got to the age of 11 or 12 people started to pay a bit of attention to me, and I know they had expectations of me because of who my dad was.

‘He asked if it was something I really wanted to do, and when I said yes, he said as long as you do your best and it makes you happy, then go for it. If I’d wanted to be a binman, he would have said the same. But he told me there will be no shortcuts and if you want to do it, you have to do it the hard way, so from the age of 12 I was training as hard as I could, as often as I could.’

Rules at the time allowed the young Sealey to play for as many teams as he wanted before signing for one, and he was turning out for Sheffield Wednesday, Southampton, Charlton and Southend, before telling his father he wanted to play for West Ham.

‘Charlton wanted to offer me a professional contract, but then I picked up a knee injury playing at West Ham, and he thought I should join Southend and was negotiating a deal there for me, because he said I’d get a chance to play there, and then someone else would spot me and sign me, but I told him I wanted to go West Ham,’ he said. ‘I remember one time at Chadwell Heath he was standing in the shower stark naked after training, having a row with head of recruitment Jimmy Hampson about whether I was worth signing or not, and he said “if you think he’s good enough, then get on and do your job and sign him”. And the club did.

‘I said yes to West Ham for two reasons – because I wanted to live at home, and because I knew my experience training with dad had already been better than what I would get at other clubs. He didn’t cut me any slack at all, though – quite the opposite. Having moved around a bit and had spells when he was away from home earlier in his career, we were now all living at home in Loughton, but there was no way he would help me. He used to drive to training, which was about seven miles, but let me go by train, which took about 90 minutes.

‘I had to walk to Loughton station, which was about a mile, to go to Stratford, from there to Chadwell Heath, then another mile walk to the training ground. Sometimes at the end of the day, mum would pick me up, and he’d drive past us on his way home and give us a wave. What he was showing me, which I really appreciate now, is life is tough and you need to be robust, and it gets tougher as you get older. It was very important to him that other people didn’t see me getting any different treatment, if anything, I probably got treated harder.’

Although he kept a famously low profile off the pitch, on it Sealey Sr was known as Mr Angry, famously almost coming to blows with Manchester United’s physio when he sustained what later emerged to be a serious knee injury in the 1991 League Cup final, and Joe says he inherited his dad’s character, and but for injury, could have followed him to play at a decent standard.

‘Like him, I had lots of inner fire that drove me to play at a high level,’ he said. ‘My brother was a better technical keeper, more agile, but my will to win would have got me to a pro level. Certainly when I played for England schoolboys at 16, I thought I was the best in the country at my age.’

For a young keeper at the turn of the millennium, there were few better places to be playing and learning than West Ham. ‘I was the year below that amazing 1999 FA Youth Cup winning team – my team-mates were people like Jermain Defoe, Leon Britton, Adam Newton, Izzy Iriekpen, and Glen Johnson, who was the year below, lived in our family home for a year – dad was a huge influence on him,’ Sealey explained.

‘It was a phenomenal time to be at the club, we had so much talent coming through, and for keepers, it was particularly special. The group was amazing – Shaka Hislop, Craig Forrest, Stephen Bywater, who was the best young keeper I’d ever seen at his age, and who my dad got signed, Alex O’Reilly, who was an Ireland U21 player, Neil Finn, and Bernard Lama who was a French international.

‘Not only were they great keepers, but also great people. We all got on well, there was a real community of people who had fun together. That changed the next year, though, when David James came. He didn’t like youngsters training with him, which changed the whole dynamic. He was great to watch, but I found him hard to work with.’

But just when things looked to be really good, fate intervened, changing the course of Joe’s career, and his life.

‘My rival keeper was Billy McMahon, who had a bad knee injury, and I was in the first year of my scholarship so I thought I had to make the most of my opportunities,’ he explained. ‘One morning I woke up with a bit of a stiff neck and I probably shouldn’t have trained, but it was a chance to gain ground on him, so I did. It turned out it was the day that I dislocated my shoulder.

‘I was training with Craig Forrest and my dad, and I thought “this is the best I’ve ever felt”. I dived to my right, felt my left shoulder pop and ignored it, then later I dived to my left and it popped out but didn’t go back in. I had it put back in at hospital and knew I would have to have surgery. The op I had was one that rugby players have, making a huge cut around my shoulder and twisting my tendons together, which costs you mobility. 

‘I was put in a bodysuit like the one from Mrs Doubtfire, which pinned my arm to my body for six months, with no movement at all. When they finally took it off, I hadn’t moved my arm for ages, so the next six months were absolute torture. Every day I was having either the hardest possible massage or agonising physio, to build the arm back up and get fit.

‘It was an absolute trauma, and I knew that operation was the last chance saloon and if it happened again, my career was over. I was fine for the next 17 months, then one day I dived at Jermain Defoe’s feet, put my arm out, and as soon as I heard it go pop, I knew I was done.’

Back home, Sealey saw his parents and instantly burst into tears. ‘As a child, in that situation, you feel terrible because you think of everything your parents have done for you, and you feel you’ve let them down, but of course as a parent, your worries are completely different.’

And if the young Sealey thought life had dealt him a devastating blow with that, it was as nothing compared to just two weeks later when on August 19 2001, his father was taken ill while house hunting. He drove himself to Southend Hospital, collapsed on the doorstep, was taken in, and died.

‘There was no heart disease or anything, it was a total fluke,’ said Joe. ‘Because of his years of training, his heart was about twice the size of a normal person, and so when he had an artery flutter, which can happen at any time to anyone in normal life and not be noticed, it caused more pressure and his heart burst. There was no warning or sign that was coming. It was like what happened to Marc Vivien Foe.’

At the age of 18, in the course of a fortnight, Sealey saw his world turned on its head, twice. ‘When I was injured, I remember thinking my life was over – I had no education, no idea how to do anything else,’ he explained. ‘When you’re in football everything is done for you, I didn’t understand that’s not available in the real world. 

‘I didn’t even know how to do simple things like go to the dentist, and then two weeks later, my dad died. Just like that, all my discipline and the routine that kept me getting up in the morning and moving forward was gone. My dad had been my disciplinarian, and now I had no reason to look after myself. I’d always been known to everyone as either Joe Sealey, West Ham footballer, or Joe Sealey, Les Sealey’s son – and suddenly, I was neither.’

Sealey’s way of dealing with his pain was to try and hide it and act like the man of the house for his mother and 16-year-old brother. Unsurprisingly, it did not work. ‘I thought I had to protect mum, so I would put on a brave face, then literally curl up in a ball and lie on the floor of the shower sobbing,’ he said.

‘I was trying to be a man, but I wasn’t one. I was in so much pain. I was probably suicidal without realising. It nearly killed me, and what I always say to anyone in this situation is whatever else is happening, talk, to anyone, just talk – or it will kill you.’

Sealey soon began to bury his grief in piles of cocaine, but surprisingly says that in the short term at least, the drug was his salvation. ‘I was never that into alcohol, but at that point, cocaine saved my life,’ he said. ‘It took away all the pain and made me smile, but eventually it took everything from me, my personality, my life.

‘I wasn’t doing it in clubs, I was in a room on my own. I was telling myself it was making me feel better but it was pushing things deeper and deeper down, making me do more regretful stuff and slowly killing me. I didn’t have one clear bottoming out moment, but eventually I thought I was sick and tired of being sick and tired of life, and I never wanted to have to say sorry to my family ever again.’

Sealey says meeting wife Nicole undoubtedly saved his life. ‘Look at my upbringing compared to hers, and you would think she’d be the one to have the problems, but no,’ he explained. ‘She had a shocking childhood, was homeless at 15, living by herself and survived by working on the railway digging holes, and now she owns one of the biggest railway industry companies in the UK. I never had any problems growing up, I had a great family and support, and I ended up being the addict.’ 

Having turned his life around and become a successful agent, representing players including Dylan Tombides and Roy Carroll, a chance encounter with his former Sunday league manager Les Clitheroe for the first time in 10 years changed Joe’s life. 

‘I introduced myself and he said “I’ve got your dad’s book”. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it turned out he had a plastic sandwich box of cassettes, which Dad had recorded during his brief unhappy spell at Blackpool, playing for Sam Allardyce, and one typed copy of the text of a book.

‘I kept them for years before I met Tim, handed them over to him, and he turned them into this book. I imagine I will do at some stage, but I’ve still not listened to the tapes yet – I’m not quite ready. I see dad all the time on MUTV and old clips, but he never gave interviews, so to hear his voice would be extremely emotional. I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet.’

Working on the book had been an eye-opening experience, teaching Sealey new things about his father, his enduring influence on others, and his relationship with West Ham. ‘Glen Johnson was like a brother to me, and dad meant so much to him – it was only when the book was being written that for the first time that Glen said that he used to say a prayer to my dad before each game,’ he explained. ‘He was a huge influence on Stephen Bywater, too. Stephen used to wear the number 43 shirt because that was the age dad was when he died.

‘Maybe I never asked enough, but he was a quiet bloke at home and didn’t say too much about his connection to West Ham, and it was only towards the end that I found out that everyone in that family going back generations supported West Ham, and how he used to be a regular in the Chicken Run. Looking at his story, after Coventry, Luton, Manchester United, Aston Villa and the rest, to finish it at West Ham, after all he’d done and all the places he’d been, was the perfect ending.’ 

Now based in Cheshire, Joe, like Les, has seen his life reinvigorated by a move to the northwest, and it has brought him closer to his father, and his family roots in east London.  

‘Dad left Coventry when I was two months old, and Luton when I was seven, so my childhood memories of him are mainly his time at Manchester United, Aston Villa, and back at United,’ he said. ‘He didn’t make it to West Ham until I was 11, so when I was younger, I didn’t realise how connected with West Ham history the name Sealey was. I certainly do know now.’

On Days Like These: The Lost Memoir of a Goalkeeper, by Tim Rich, is out now published by Quercus Books

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