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Interviewing Sylvain Distin for our special podcast Back From The Brink was fascinating.
The podcast is online now and can be heard below.
Doing evertontv interviews is great; being at the pulse of breaking news, speaking to the triumphant matchwinner just minutes after the final whistle, getting to fight it out with the big hitting broadcasters in the mixed zones of places like Wembley, Old Trafford and Emirates Stadium.
But getting a player sat down at Finch Farm and picking their brains over a topic not exclusively linked to Everton’s immediate on-field future is one of the greater perks of what is undoubtedly a privileged job.
As we moved through the tale of Distin’s childhood, from his love of NBA, his homelife and his infatuation with a Spanish teacher whose curvaceous outline prompted his first preadolescent crush – he recalled her name in a fluttering, lustful heartbeat - to his discovery by Paris Saint-Germain and his own unearthing of the social joys enjoyed by teens, it was obvious this was a story worthy of more than just a few paragraphs on the official website or a page in the matchday programme.
But if the insight into the thoughts and ideals of an academy footballer-turned-respected pro was gripping, the brutal and unmitigated honesty which came next prompted the idea for a new series of audio interviews that will hopefully shed a bright light on the stories behind our Goodison heroes and those little-known anecdotes lurking within the aging timber of a treasured stadium with over 120 years of whispers to expose.
One of Distin’s more intriguing revelations was that he never really hoped to become a footballer at all. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Patrick Ewing were his heroes. And anyway, he wasn’t bothered about becoming a sports star; thinking along such lines, he considered, was a total waste of time. Time that could be better spent having laughs.
So it was then that when he finally found himself on the books of PSG, having been spotted at a trial he was pushed to attend by the coaches of his local boys’ team, aspirations of reaching the top played second fiddle to “living in the moment”.
“I never thought I'd be professional,” he told me. “They gave me a little bit of money and they gave us a big Nike bag full of trainers and tracksuits and that was it, I was happy. I never looked at anything beyond that. I never thought about tomorrow, I just enjoyed the day and that's it.
“I thought, 'well, I'm here, I'm enjoying my time, I'll have fun, I'll go back home every night and go clubbing and drink and do anything a kid of my age will do'.
“You start to drink, you start to flirt, you start to try to get girls - just like any teenager will do. And I was doing a lot of that.”
Blinded by his own joie de vivre, Distin lost sight of something vital; he was supposed to be representing not only the biggest football club in his country but a giant footballing name known throughout the wider world.
Turning up for games with a hangover to accompany his club-issue sports bag, he assumed nobody would notice - and assumed wrong. Eventually enough was enough; he was pulled aside and asked to leave.
Common logic would suggest such news would come as a sickening blow. Not so.
“I won't say I wasn't upset but it's not like they just broke my dream,” he said, that willingness to offer up the unbridled truth once again coming to the fore. “I thought, ‘well, never mind’. That was it, it was just my personality - I just lived day after day.”
It was only later Distin realised what he’d thrown away but the reality was an unemployed 18-year-old with a satisfactory - though far from sparkling - high school education, whose ill-discipline had seen him discarded by a football club whose final tether he had emphatically stretched to breaking point.
The reality was a successful and highly lucrative career extinguished before the boy minding its embers had even thought to contemplate his burning potential.
And here was the brink. With the stark challenge of ‘normal’ life looming over him, Distin was forced to accept an offer from a little-known part-time outfit based two-hours away from home and, moreover, the loved urban city life he had hitherto been so reluctant to sacrifice.
Joue-les-Tours, by his own admission, was not an attractive option. They were, however, willing to pay him a pittance to grace the potholed park pitches which are the preserve of French non-league footballers, while supplementing that wage with a paid job as a teaching assistant in a local school.
While his previous side had been spearheaded by a fleet-footed wonder called Nicolas Anelka, his new one comprised flabby 40-somethings and a manager whose prerogative was the post-match booze up.
“I used to train I think it was three times a week, something like that. But I was 18 and I trained with guys who were like 40 and it was completely different to the academy,” Sylvain recalled. “It was fun but thinking about it, it was a big mess. I had no money and the manager used to go out with us and get drunk.”
All this is a far cry from the 35-year-old Sylvain Distin who has barely missed a match since arriving in the Premier League 12 years ago, who is regarded one of the country’s most professional performers, who inspired Portsmouth to an unthinkable FA Cup success in 2008, and who last week became the first overseas outfield player to reach 400 top-flight outings in the English game. The sport’s great misused cliché of being the last man to leave the training ground also fits no-one better than he.
So how did it happen? How did the boy who threw it all away bounce back to achieve all of the above? Well, a bit of luck, a starring role in one of football’s greatest ever fairytales and a vicious falling out with a Spanish-born star of the 1984 European Championship-winning France side.
Distin’s story is as captivating as it had once threatened to be calamatious. I hope you, too, enjoyed hearing him tell it.
>> Listen to Sylvain Distin: Back From the Brink below. Look out for more special evertonfc.com podcasts in the coming months. If you would like to leave feedback or suggest other stories you would like us to investigate, please use the comment box below.