Oldham's Jose Baxter on drugs ban, depression and hitting 'rock bottom'
Too much, too soon.
Jose Baxter seemed set for a glorious career at the age of 16, but poor choices meant his life take a turn for the worse, with his problems deepening after he received a drugs ban while at Sheffield United in 2015.
He acknowledged hitting "rock bottom" - but has turned his life around and now, aged 27, is playing in League Two for Oldham Athletic, under the management of former England and Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes.
In a revealing interview with Football Focus's Juliette Ferrington, Baxter explains how he has rediscovered his love for the game.
You can watch the full interview on Football Focus on Saturday at 12:00 GMT.
'I was in a bubble at Everton'
Baxter became the youngest first-team player in Everton history when he made his debut in 2008, aged 16 years and 191 days. The Merseyside-born attacking midfielder, who had been with the club since the age of six, looked set for a great future. But he made only 15 appearances in four years, acknowledging poor off-field decisions as a factor.
I was young, stupid. I had quite a lot of success in my early years and I think that brought the wrong crowd in terms of people, the yes men. I didn't have the type of people telling me, 'No, that's the wrong thing to do.'
It's something that I have learned from. It's made me a lot wiser, a lot more grown up. It's something that I can use as a positive when I'm speaking to younger footballers on what not to do.
I didn't really know the real world. It was like [a] silver spoon [upbringing at Everton]. I was in a bubble, being on quite a lot of money at a young age. I didn't really know any boundaries in terms of money, going out and spending stupid stuff, and doing silly stuff.
Once you're in that silver spoon bubble, you think, 'That's going to be all right; nothing is going to happen.' And it takes something like that little kick up the backside to make you realise.
The first time [doing drugs], when I got the warning, it made me think that I could go and do it again. I didn't really accept the fact that I had done something wrong.
Being at rock bottom
In 2012, Baxter joined Oldham - then in League One - where he stayed for two seasons, before signing for Sheffield United. It was while at Bramall Lane that things started to spiral out of control. He received two suspensions in nine months for drug use, after taking ecstasy and cocaine.
It came out in the press, and then family members knew and they all started to ask if I was OK.
I remember once going to the local supermarket in Sheffield, and a lady saying to me she had to tell her son that her favourite player had been a naughty boy. It felt like the whole world was caving in on me. It was just a really lonely place to be in.
For me, the thing to do was to shy away from it, to go out and try to get that feeling of being drunk or something - to taking my mind off everything closing in again. That's when the second one [drugs ban] came about.
I was trying to stay in my own bubble and not have to explain myself to people. I thought that was the easy way. Obviously it wasn't. Knowing that now and being able to speak to people, getting things off my chest is much easier to do.
I was 100% at rock bottom. Back then, I was planning to kill myself.
My partner was going to work and I would put on a bit of a front by saying that I was OK. As soon as she left for work, I would switch the light off in the room and just be lying there for hours on end, thinking of silly stuff.
Then I realised one day that I could feel sorry for myself or I could get up and do something about it.
'Bill Kenwright saved my life'
Baxter was released by Sheffield United in May 2016, but an unexpected call from Everton chairman Bill Kenwright offered him a chance to turn his life around - and resulted in the club giving him a short-term contract.
I did fall out of love with football a little bit. I was sitting round watching people on the telly when I was banned and watching scores, watching games and not really wanting to see it because I had anger towards myself.
I would think, 'That should be me out there playing, that should be me scoring and celebrating.'
I didn't love me. You always get people who said to me over the years, 'You're with the wrong crowd', but that was only my choice, nobody else's.
I was dealing with depression. I went to speak with people to get things off my chest - things I have never spoken about.
I cried a lot, which was great to get my emotions out. One day, I woke up, went to my local gym and never looked back.
I just woke up and I thought, 'I need to get out.' It was coming towards the end of my ban. I needed to get fit.
It was like an epiphany. I was exercising every day, getting back into a routine that I had in football. I've never had a negative thought since.
I was training the hardest I have ever trained in my life in the gym in Liverpool. I was working [out] two three times a day, really hard.
Then I got that call [from Bill Kenwright]. It was surreal for me; it was like a dream come true.
I was in the chip shop, my phone goes, and it was an unknown number. I don't really answer those numbers normally but something was telling me to pick it up.
He said to me: 'It seems like only yesterday that we spoke.' Just with those words, I knew it was his voice, so I said: 'How are we, chairman?'
He said: 'If anybody could turn your career around, I would love to be the man to do it for you.' Straight away, I was welling up a little bit.
I thought it was just going in [for] pre-season training with them and to try to find a club, which was good enough for me… that was still a dream come true.
I started doing bits of community work helping people with dementia and Alzheimer's when I got the call to come into a meeting with David Unsworth (Everton Under-23 coach) and Denise Barrett-Baxendale (now the club's chief executive, then the deputy) and got told I was getting a 12-month contract. Then I did cry.
Bill Kenwright is like a grandad figure to everyone who comes across him. Even now, when I scored the other day, the first text on my phone was off him.
He saved my life in a way, in terms of getting back into football and making me love it again. I can't thank him enough.
Working under Scholes and what the future holds
Baxter is now back at Oldham, under the tutelage of Manchester United legend Paul Scholes, who was appointed manager on 11 February. Oldham are 13th in League Two, eight points off the play-off places, and Baxter has scored two goals in 20 games.
I am still quite young - I'm 27. I still believe I've got a lot to give to the game. I'm keeping fit. People think 'you were lucky' but if I had been out of shape when I got that phone call, then this day would never have happened.
I dragged myself up from rock bottom. I had good people around me - my family, my partner, my partner's family - and I met a new bunch of lads in the gym and my little daughter came along as well. Everything is sort of on the way back up.
My daughter has given me a new lease of life. Sometimes I had a bad day in football and take it home with me and now I don't.
I leave the Jose Baxter in football. My partner calls me Joe so I bring the Joe home to the house. I tend to now have a nice life balance.
He [Scholes] just wants me to score goals, get on the ball and enjoy my football. That's the same with everyone in the team.
I signed here thinking we can get promoted and nothing has changed. We have a great squad.
Our target is still to get promoted, whether that's this season or next season, and I would just love to be part of that.