Troy Deeney shocked face playing darts with FS magazine ()Troy Deeney shocked face playing darts with FS magazine () © Copyright

The siege of Troy

We’re in the basement of Flight Club, a darts bar made of equal parts grit and glam. It has full-sized oches, fully-electronic scoring systems and a noisy hubbub.

A smiling Troy Deeney, 28, arrives fresh from training wearing a T-shirt and thick cotton shorts. He starts stripping off.

“I’m a footballer,” he says. “I’ll get changed anywhere,” before pretending to strip off in the middle of a very public bar.

It’s the first gag in a two-hour barrage of relentless Brummie banter. At one point, with the darts score about level, I attempt a bit of gamesmanship. “Big shot this,” I say while he’s about to throw. “Mate,” he replies in a flash. “I’m the only one here who’s scored at Wembley.” His dart hits the treble 20 before the -ey of Wembley. 

Troy Deeney throwing darts at Flightclub with FS magazine ()

 

When it’s his turn to trash-talk me, I instantly crumble. Never try to beat a professional sportsman at anything.

When I mention that my mate had played in the same Saturday league as Deeney when they were 16, only to get kicked everywhere, his face cracks into a big smile. “It was me doing the kicking.”

Deeney tells funny stories, like the one about rubbing Deep Heat into the underpants of his Watford team-mates while they’re in the shower. He jokes about needing to take his new team-mate Jerome Sinclair back up to Birmingham to toughen him up. “He’s been in Liverpool for a little while so he’s gone a bit soft.”

I fully expected this to be a blast. I didn’t expect to spend the weeks that followed thinking about Deeney’s experiences of identity, class and the complicated perceptions around redemption. But that’s what happened.

Define yourself

The 2013 Championship play-off semi-final between Watford and Leicester is cinematic perfection for the Sky Sports generation, up there with “AGUERRROOOOO!” and “Collymore closing INNNN…!”. The thrilling 98th minute finale sees “DEEEEENEY!” slam home a half volley from 12 yards out, sprint away, tear off his shirt and jump over the hoardings. He lands deep into the crowd, shrouded in a baying mob and scenes of unbridled joy.

Troy Deeney celebrates while playing darts at Flightclub ()

 

“Everyone tells me the Leicester moment was my career-defining moment,” says Deeney. “I can understand why, but I’m a Blues fan. I love Birmingham. And I’ve scored the winner against Villa in two different games. One was at the Holte End [the Villa home end] as the away captain scoring the winner to beat them 3-2. It’s perfect. I wasn’t over the top [with his celebration], but they were giving me a bit of grief. Then it was my turn to give them some back.

“After the game, I went straight to Chelmsley Wood [where he grew up] and to Chelmsley Town Football Club: they’d had the game on in there. All the lads were in there, and they’d just finished their game. Loads of Villa fans were in there, too, and they said, ‘the reason we all love you is because you come back here.’ It would be easy to be out on the town gloating and all that. But literally all I did was got my missus, and my kids, couple of my mates, and we just went to Chelmsley Town. I didn’t have to pay for a drink all night! I was mingling with Villa and Blues fans. That’s just me.

“That goal is special to me because of the aftermath. It kind of sums up what I want to be. Yeah, I’m a footballer, but I’m just a normal dude. I just want to go and have fun.”

What else, then, gives normal dude Deeney pleasure on a football pitch, apart from scoring against the Villa?

“This is gonna be really cheesy. Obviously scoring is the main one, but you know what gives me most satisfaction? It’s like, after you’ve scored a goal – not many people know this – there’s like a little moment where everyone’s finished clapping. The guy’s gone: ‘goal for Watford, Troy Deeney!’

“And everything goes really quiet and you’re just walking back. There’s a little moment where I just think, ‘my dad and my granddad are watching’. It’s like a little three or four second moment. I just have this vision that they’re both up there tipping their hat to me and… That’s my single best moment.”

 

Troy Deeney laughing ()

 

Defend the wood

Deeney grew up in Chelmsley Wood. It was for Chelmsley Town FC that he played until he was 18. He played mostly as a central midfielder, banging in goals in the Midland Football Combination.

The Daily Telegraph describes his home as ‘The Wood – a monster 1960s estate housing 60,000 people on Birmingham’s less than leafy fringes’. The estate is at the heart of two books written about class and society by author Lynsey Hanley, who grew up there before leaving for London aged 18, never to return.

Hanley writes about pale terraces, dead ends, empty streets, the haggard shopping centre, burned-out garages; where M6 traffic thundered past on one side, planes roared into land at Birmingham Airport on the other. ‘The empty town of strangers didn’t give me a chance to see what life could be like outside it,’ she wrote. ‘You cannot know what that was like unless you grew up inside it.’

“I don’t know this woman,” says Deeney, after reading some quotes from Hanley’s latest work in the London Review of Books. “So with the greatest respect, this sounds like it’s from the perspective of somebody who has grown up there and as soon as she got the first chance, she got out. What would be classed as normal to me, to an extent would be normal to her but she jumped out straight away.”

Deeney’s mum only moved out a year ago. “I went to see my mates in Chelmsley Wood yesterday,” he says. “I still go to the local places I always do. For me, it’s normal. All of the stuff she said is true but it’s the perspective from which you’re looking at it. Yeah, I grew up in flats or whatever. But flats didn’t make me. We made the flats. Everyone had kids, so all the kids on Sunday would be out playing football, from eight in the morning until seven at night, then someone’s mum came and shouted out dinnertime.

Troy Deeney with a dartboard FS mag photoshoot ()

 

“So it’s not a case of: ‘it’s dead end, it’s this and that.’ Yeah, it can be. But not everyone in there is gonna be at the job centre and have 25 kids and looking to be on Jeremy Kyle.”

The Flight Club playlist throws up Whatta Man by Salt-N-Pepa; Deeney impresses his point.

“That’s kind of the Margaret Thatcher view on life: there’s us and then there’s them. But there’s not, there’s a whole… I just can’t comprehend it.

“My upbringing is down to my mum and my nan. I’ve never met you before until today and it was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Nice to meet you’ and we had a conversation.

“It’s never, ‘Ooh, he’s a journalist, I’m better than him because I earn x, y and z’. No, we’re just people. Take your money, put it there. Take your house, where you live, put it there. Take your car, put it there. What are you all about? That’s all that anyone cares about. If I was to come in and go, ‘Hi, I’m Troy Deeney professional footballer’, the first thing they’re gonna say is, ‘What a prick he is.’ Do you know what I mean?

“I get what she [Hanley] is trying to say, but people with that mentality are just so far beyond realisation from normal life. Without knowing this woman, again, she probably goes to a ball in an £8,000 dress but then struggles to pay the rent at the end of the month.”

Troy Deeney throwing darts with FS magazine ()

 

Old school values

It’s not difficult to get Troy Deeney on to a topic that he is enthusiastic about. British boxing provides another spark. He is good friends with Watford’s own Anthony Joshua (they share the same publicist), and travelled all over the country proudly watching AJ grow from an amateur fighter to world champion. He’s also a big fan of Liverpool’s Tony Bellew and Sheffield’s Kell Brook, who he names as his favourite boxer.

“I love watching him box, I love what he’s about. I think it’s an ‘up north’ thing as well with him and Tony Bellew. I’ve never actually sat down and had a conversation with them, but I already feel like I know them. The connection of how they carry themselves, they could just be normal guys that you meet in the pub.”

The thing Deeney loves about Brook and Bellew is the thing football fans love about him. All three come across as the kind of lads you could watch footy with in the boozer, despite the reality that none of these guys can spend much time in the boozer watching sport. Especially as nearly all of Deeney’s off-pitch energies go into being a dad to his one-year-old daughter and his seven-year-old son.

“I’ll try and not let them watch too much TV,” he says. “I’m a bit old school like that. The way I was raised was to be outside and play football up against the garages instead of sitting and watching TV. I went on holiday in the summer to Florida and my son’s trying to play the PlayStation. I’m like [pointing], ‘Outside!’ I literally had to grab him and fling him in the water. No PlayStation, no Xbox, no iPads. We’re on holiday!”

He is unfailingly polite, a quality he instills in his kids. He is also modest, uncomfortable with the idea that publicising the good things he does could be portrayed as try-hard. So when I ask if it’s true that he does voluntary work, and collects old football boots to give to people in need, Deeney is coy.

Troy Deeney plays darts with FS magazine ()

 

“I do stuff. But you know what it is for me? Because, obviously, I’ve had the negative of going to jail and doing that kind of thing, I don’t ever want to be seen as if I’m trying to say, ‘Look! I used to do that, but look how great I am now’. Bear in mind that I used to do that when I did the other stuff. I just don’t tweet about it; I keep it low key.

“I’d prefer that the person who I gave the boots to, or whatever, feels more of an intimate thing. When I played my first couple of Wallsall games, I had a pair of one of my old team-mate’s boots that I used to play on a Saturday with. I couldn’t afford boots. They’ve got his name on: Shaz. They’re his Nike boots and I’m wearing them for Walsall at 19.

“When you’ve been in that position, you don’t get to this level where I’m at now, where financially I’m OK and go, ‘Argh, I’m not gonna give anything to anybody, that’s all old news.’ You’ve got to keep true to who and what you are: that’s what I try and do.”

Deeney scored on his fifth appearance in a Walsall shirt, when he came off the bench with six minutes remaining to bag a late winner at Millwall.

He talks with relish about the spirit of that Walsall team. He played alongside and remains close to a mix of former top-level players like Michael Ricketts and Tommy Mooney, and young players who would go on to play at a higher level, like Anthony Gerrard and Scott Dann.

Troy Deeney plays darts with FS magazine ()

 

Revelations

His three seasons at Walsall yielded 27 goals, earning him a £500,000 move down south to Championship Watford. His first 60 games for the Hornets brought just five goals. As he later admitted to the Watford Observer, the step-up to £6,000-a-week kettled his head.

“My salary went up considerably at the age of 22, so I was Jack the Lad. I used to call the lads out every weekend and thought: ‘let’s enjoy it because they [Watford] are going to realise I’m crap at football soon and get rid of me.’”

Curiously, the minute Deeney started to adapt to life in the Championship, he ended up going to prison. He scored ten goals in the second half of his second season but around the beginning of that purple patch, in-between scoring away at Nottingham Forest and at home to Burnley, a midweek drinking session with his mates ended with a 2am brawl.

He signed off the 2011/12 season with goals in four consecutive games. The last was an 88th-minute winner at home against Middlesbrough, and two weeks later, he pleaded guilty to affray. His three months inside, and the ultimatum given to him by his wife, proved revelatory.

“She was gonna leave me. I was doing what young boys do. I was earning a good wage, going out with all the lads, messing about with girls and thinking I was a man. And she said to me: ‘If you get sent down, I’ll stick with you, and if you don’t, I’m leaving you.’

“My son had just turned one, so she was like, ‘Look, this is it. This or this: you choose.’ Thankfully – I say thankfully – I got sent down. She stuck with me. She took care of everything back home, ’cause I weren’t getting paid at this point when I was in jail. She took care of everything.

“Then I started realising who my true mates were. I was taking care of a lot of people but for the wrong reasons. I paid for stuff that they could afford to pay for themselves, but I was just like, ‘I’ll take care of it.’ And then when I was away, people couldn’t even send £20 for me to make a phone call home.

“But then as soon as I was coming home, that’s when the letters started again. But at this point, I’d already sorted myself out and was like, ‘Right, you’re gone, you’re gone, you’re gone’ – and the circle is really small now. That’s why on my Instagram posts and stuff, you’ll always see the same people with me all of the time”

 

Troy Deeney plays darts with FS magazine ()

 

Redemption is more complicated than the Hollywood pictures. It’s easy to delude yourself with a narrative that there are only bad people, good people, the reformed people and no-hopers. Deeney’s experiences elucidate the blurred space between right and wrong; between then and now.

“I talk about this just to put a positive light on it. There are loads of people who have done it [been to prison], and I still keep in contact with some of them.”

The last time Deeney told that to a journalist, his reaction was one of shock. Why would he risk keeping in contact with cons?

“Because I’m trying to make sure they don’t go back. I don’t throw money at them or anything but if I can do a little bit to help them, I will do.

“Inside, these people sat me down and said, ‘Look, you’re an idiot. We’re in here because we chose to do this, this and this. Our dads have done this. It’s a generation thing: they’ve stolen, they’ve robbed. But you’re in a position where you can help yourself’.”

They even intervened and helped him stay fit when his motivation was stalling.

“There were days when I couldn’t be bothered to go gym, so they’d say, ‘Come on, we’ll go gym’ and they’d get on the treadmill with me. Little things like that. First week and a half, I didn’t really have much money in the account to buy anything, so people gave me food and said, ‘Nah don’t worry about giving it me back. Get your head sorted get yourself back into it.’

“And I was like: ‘if they can see the potential in me, why can’t I see the potential in myself?’”

There are good and bad people on estates; there are good and bad people in prison; there is good and bad in the same person. By recognising mistakes and staying upbeat, Deeney believes we can help keep on the right route.

“Even in negative situations, it’s important to project a positive message,” says Deeney. He explains how he had tried to deal with losing his father, granddad and nan by turning to drink. And it didn’t work.

“I’m not making any excuses for that. I did what I did. But on the flipside, I could have felt sorry for myself and gone, ‘Right, that’s it.’ I didn’t. I got help. I spoke to people I needed to speak to.

“Now that’s parked up, that’s away. But I can still keep it close to me because I know it only takes one wild night out to go back to that. And people are waiting for me to go back to that. It’s a lot harder to keep on this road than it is to go back to that one.”

Troy Deeney shocked face playing darts with FS magazine ()

 

Sweet like Vicarage Road

The road Deeney happens to be on right now is paved with yellow and gold. The English Premier League is the richest division in the world’s most lucrative sport. On his first attempt, Deeney captained Watford to a 13th-place finish. He and Odion Ighalo forged an impressive strike partnership, scoring 32 between them in all comps. How does he think Watford fared? And which top-level team impressed him most?

“We played really well,” says Deeney. “Last year was a very freak year as well. With Leicester winning it; Villa and Newcastle going down – massive clubs. The only team, when you played against them, was Tottenham Hotspur. In both games, they were the only team that had done a job on us [they lost 2-1 and 1-0] and we were like, ‘Oh shit yeah, we’re against the big boys now’.”

“We’ve been fortunate I suppose, especially myself, in the FA Cup games in the Championship, we played Chelsea twice and Man City twice. We’ve always played these teams, but then we were playing Yeovil. So you’d go from playing in front of 15,000 to 50,000 and you’re like, ‘Shit!’. But because we’d had good performances against these teams, it was a confidence booster for when we got up.”

Just how hard is Premier League football on the body?

“Physically, the Championship is stronger, but mentally the Premier League is ridiculous. You have to be physically fit and mentally switched on at all times. Literally, one mistake and the other team scores.”

Does that develop naturally, or can you learn how to adjust?

“You’ve got to learn it. I’ve always had a decent footballing brain because I’m not rapid, but I can run away from people because I know where the move’s gonna go and what’s gonna happen. I kind of click on a little bit quicker, but generally, it’s just about how you learn things.

“If you saw me at 19 playing, you’d never have thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now. But I always learn off older people. What does he do that I don’t do? OK, I’ll go and practise that. Once I’ve mastered that: what does he do that I don’t do? I wouldn’t say I’m great at anything but I’m good at a lot of things.”

Deeney also takes heart from the rise of players who, like him, arrived in the top-flight after playing in the lower leagues.

“These guys are going out, doing their loans, scoring goals and then they get that opportunity, like Harry Kane. He did well [on loan] but he didn’t set the world alight. For people like myself, that’s just another excuse for me to go: if they can do it, I can do it. You’ve just got to get that opportunity and have that mentality that it’s you against the world.”

The summer Watford came up from the Championship, Deeney signed a new deal and promised he would keep Watford up.

“I didn’t score for the first ten games. But I was captain, playing really well, doing loads for the team.”

Now he wants to see improvement. “As soon as we got safe, I think I scored five in the last six. So now the mentality’s changed. I’m gonna put pressure on myself, but I need to score more, because it’s more about Troy Deeney this year.”

Watford are banking on him to deliver, too. This summer, they rejected offers from Leicester City reported to be between £25-30m, and signed Deeney up to a new five-year contract.

Should he carry on improving at this rate, surely an England call will arrive?

“I’m a firm believer, based on my life and what we spoke about, that things happen for a reason. If I got the chance to go to the national team, I’d walk there. I’d be the proudest man in the world.

“I don’t like to go, ‘I should be in the England team because I did this and that’. If it happens, fantastic. But generally, my story is good enough as it is.”

Thanks to Flight Club Darts for hosting us. It’s great in there. visit flightclubdarts.com

Photographer: Tom Miles

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