The Unravelling of Marcus Bent: A Cautionary Tale for Premier League Stars

Paul Fallon@@PaulFallon15Special to Bleacher ReportFebruary 18, 2016


On Sept. 13, shortly before 10 p.m., former Premier League footballer Marcus Bent telephoned Surrey police to report a break-in. He told the emergency operator he feared for his life. He was terrified.

Three police officers arrived 10 minutes later and were buzzed in at the exterior security gate to Bent's apartment compound. They climbed one flight of stairs, but Bent refused to allow them into his apartment on the second floor.

The officers waited outside in the cramped corridor, trying to coax Bent into opening the door. He was screaming "help me," but he would not open the door.

Three armed officers were called to assist, meaning six police officers were outside in the narrow corridor. Things had reached an impasse, and the decision was made to use a battering ram to break the door down.

Suddenly, Bent appeared, and the door swung open. The ex-Everton and England under-21 striker was stripped to the waist, wearing purple tracksuit bottoms and brandishing in one hand a meat cleaver and in the other a 15-inch kitchen knife.

The officer who gave evidence at Bent's consequent trial described his eyes as "wide," his pupils dilated, nostrils flared and "fists clenched." The officer could not tell whether these were symptoms of panic or uncontrollable rage.

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The six officers backed away as best they could within the confines of the corridor, but Bent lunged with the kitchen knife at the leading police officer in the group.

The officer in question ascertained the "threat level was high." He tried to defend himself by putting his hands in front of his face. Meanwhile, another officer took his Taser and fired a "full charge" into Bent's left bicep; the charge was at maximum power for a "full one minute."

Bent banged his head heavily on the wall as he fell to the floor. He lay convulsing with a full 50,000 volts coursing through his body, but he was still hysterical. "Look over there," he shouted. "Can you see him? I can see his face; I can see his shadow—look there. I can hear him."

Police carried out a full search of the premises, but there was nobody else there. Upon searching Bent's car outside, they discovered a small quantity (0.1g) of cocaine. Bent was arrested, handcuffed and restrained, but he continued to rage hysterically. One of the officers took a note of him shouting: "Look over there; I can see his face by that tree outside."

Back at the station, Bent told police he had been alone in his apartment when he saw "the handle of the bathroom door move up and down." He heard the bathroom door being pushed from the inside as though someone were trying to get out, and he had feared for his life watching the door handle repeatedly snap up and down. That was when he had called the police to ask for help.

Bent confirmed he had taken three lines of cocaine earlier in the evening.

This was the case presented by the prosecution against Bent at his trial, with every last word accepted by him as true. Bent pleaded guilty to charges of affray and possession of a Class A controlled drug and, on Feb. 12, was served a 12-month suspended sentence and ordered to perform community service.

At Guildford Crown Court for his sentencing, Bent appeared a personable fellow; his girlfriend clung supportively to his arm throughout and doted on him.

Bent and his partner at court for the sentencing.
Bent and his partner at court for the sentencing.PA Images

I asked Bent how he felt about the prospect of being sentenced later that day—at an earlier hearing, the judge told him to expect a prison sentence. He smiled engagingly and said whatever happened, he was ready for it. He was exceptionally polite and bordered on charming.

This same Bent spends two hours coaching his local youth team, Esher FC, every Wednesday evening no matter the weather, and you'll find him back at the training ground with the team every Saturday afternoon.

It was hard to believe this was the man police officers described in their evidence, still less the gifted footballer who graced Premier League grounds up and down the country during the course of a long and distinguished playing career. Yet Bent admitted every word of evidence against him.

The question loomed large: How had Bent gone from the Premier League to the prospect of a prison cell in just five short years?

Bent was born of Jamaican stock in Hammersmith, London, in 1978. He signed with Brentford when he was 11, and football soon filled virtually every waking moment of life. His barrister told the Crown Court at Guildford that when Bent finally stopped playing two years ago, after a professional career that had lasted 18 years, his life became "a vacuum."

To make matters worse, Bent had "ongoing issues arising from his upbringing as a child," his barrister said, which have continued to "plague him" throughout his long playing career and into his retirement. He had grown accustomed to dealing with these issues by "self-medicating" with cocaine, and despite attending rehabilitation centres for a number of years, he could not escape the cycle.

The combination of those issues, together with illegal drug use and the serious jolt that is the end of a playing career, proved an explosive cocktail in Esher in September. An individual with no previous criminal associations or convictions had transformed into an apparent sociopath.

Bent celebrates scoring for Birmingham City in 2008.
Bent celebrates scoring for Birmingham City in 2008.Getty

The glaring and seemingly inescapable fact seems to be that for as long as Bent was still playing football, he was able to keep his demons under control; it was only when his playing career came to an end that things fell apart so badly, driving him to self-medicate with such disturbing consequences.

As Bent's case demonstrates, something profound occurs when a professional footballer leaves the game he has been married to.

Daniel Dymond, a senior sports psychologist with the Performance and Sports Psychology Clinic in Melbourne, Australia, said young men like Bent, who are set on the road to becoming professional footballers at such a young and impressionable age, are surrounded by people who consistently reinforce the signal that their self-worth is inextricably tied to their performance as a footballer.

Dymond told Bleacher Report this often leads to an almost complete entwining between the footballing self and the individual self: "They identify with themselves as a footballer and not as a human being; it is adaptive behaviour, and success in this environment pushes them to deliver success on a footballing level to the exclusion of almost everything else. You lose sight of the need to invest in yourself and establish your own values."

Looking back, you can see those features at play in Bent's career.

Bent rose through the youth ranks at Brentford before being spotted and signed by Crystal Palace in 1998, at the age of 19. By the time he was 23, Bent had already represented six professional clubs, and stability was not forthcoming anytime soon.


When Palace went into administration in 1999, Bent was sold to Port Vale—a move he later described as a "dream blown up in my face" in a 2002 interview with Amy Lawrence of the Guardian.

From there, he moved to Sheffield United and then to successive clubs that were struggling for financial stability—first to Blackburn Rovers and then Ipswich Town.

"I've been through so many good and bad things in my career, but I wouldn't change it for the world because it has made me an experienced player already," Bent told Lawrence in the midst of his two-plus seasons at Ipswich.

Despite the positive spin he put on it in public, however, Bent's constant state of flux likely bred insecurity and perpetuated a sense he never truly belonged anywhere.

After a one-year stint at Sheffield United, Bent's frustration grew at Blackburn as he fought to hold down a first-team place. Things were going well at Ipswich until they, like Palace, fell on financial problems and ultimately into temporary administration in 2003. That prompted Bent's sale to Everton in 2004, and he wore the shirts of seven more English clubs before departing to Indonesia for his swansong.

"I was presented with the chance to come here and experience a different way of life and a different style of football," he said of the move to Indonesian team Mitra Kukar in November 2011, as per Adrian Back of Sportsvibe. "I wouldn't say it is a dream come true, but it is something that I have always wanted to experience."

Bent's contract was for a year, reported (h/t the Jakarta Post), but he didn't see it out. He left in April 2012, and his professional playing career was over.

Whatever happened in the intervening period, between hanging up his boots and the night he confronted police, it's clear the adjustment to his new life had gone badly wrong.

Former Wimbledon player Lawrie Sanchez believes the cocktail of problems that faces professional footballers when they come to the end of their playing careers is "a massive issue" that needs addressing. Sanchez told Bleacher Report players "get all the money and adulation up front only to realise that they then have the rest of their lives ahead of them."

Depression in particular is a constant theme. Sanchez cited the strained relationship between Stan Collymore and manager John Gregory at Aston Villa in the late 1990s as the perfect example.

"Everyone thought, look, here's this kid [Collymore]; he's out of control, and there's nothing you can do," Sanchez said. "But in fact, looking back on it, it was obvious Collymore was suffering from some kind of depression; it's just that nobody knew what to look for, and like most players then, Collymore was the last person to admit that he had a mental health issue.

Bent celebrates a Premier League goal for Wigan Athletic in 2007.
Bent celebrates a Premier League goal for Wigan Athletic in 2007.Getty

"The problem just got worse and worse without anyone really doing anything. It has something to do with the macho climate of professional football where admitting to any weakness can itself be seen as a weakness. It's a vicious cycle."

Sanchez wonders whether a career such as Bent's is particularly difficult to handle emotionally—the suggestion being that moving from club to club so often takes away the feeling of being settled and having a balanced mind. When Sanchez left Wimbledon in 1994, where he was "one of their own," he arrived at Swindon Town without that same feeling of community and structure to fall back on. Fortunately for Sanchez, he was able to cope with the drop-off.

Bent played for 14 different English clubs in his career. He never truly belonged at any of them, and none of those clubs would have viewed him as their problem the moment he moved on. Whatever demons he faced, Bent faced them largely alone.

Pat Nevin, the former Chelsea and Everton forward who served a five-year term as chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, reinforced this point.

Nevin said clubs are getting better at recognising and dealing with player depression, but there are limits to how far they'll go. With so many players going through a club at any one time, Nevin said it's unrealistic to ask they assume responsibility for individuals after they leave, stating it's hard enough to provide support for those who are still on the books.

Pastoral care of this kind is invariably delivered these days through a club doctor. For most clubs, that's the sole resource available, though some supplement the doctor's function with more specialised mental health support. Dagenham & Redbridge, for example, arrange for a psychologist to visit once a fortnight and be available to the players as needed.

Clubs are aware of the issues. The problem is much of the care provided is passive in nature; it requires the players themselves to take the initiative to engage when it is far from a foregone conclusion they will.

Bent in Everton colours back in 2005.
Bent in Everton colours back in 2005.Getty

According to Nevin, the "ultra-competitive" climate of professional football makes it unlikely players will come forward and admit they have a problem with depression. If a player tells his manager before a game he is "not quite right," the overwhelming likelihood, according to Nevin, is he will be dropped from the team.

It is for this reason the seriousness of the issue stays hidden.

The breakdowns of romantic relationships is another big factor to consider when footballers transition to retirement. As for divorce rates cited at double the national average, Nevin said he's surprised those statistics are not more exaggerated.

"A lot of these players get married very young, and their wives are very often marrying the lifestyle and glamour of a professional footballer, and suddenly it's gone and all too often their wife is gone too," he said.

The simple but profound loss of the adrenalin rush associated with being a professional player is also a consideration. It's not just the games players miss but also the buzz of training sessions and the camaraderie of being around team-mates.

"Like any other drug, if you just take it away one day to the next, then it will leave you craving for more—just like a drug addict," Nevin said.

The PFA devotes several pages of its website to general advice for players who are preparing for life after football but only one practical offer of help, which is to pay 50 per cent of the cost of books and lectures for accredited courses, including "construction, IT, sports science, physiotherapy, TV and media/journalism or gym instruction."

Bent was named Premier League Player of the Month for January 2002.
Bent was named Premier League Player of the Month for January 2002.Getty

While a lower-league player might very well consider a career in construction a viable next step, are we really to believe there are Premier League millionaires ready to swap the stadium for the building site? Might the PFA be accused of better serving the needs of players lower down the divisions?

Perhaps being a lower-league player is better for your health generally. Mark Arber started his professional career aged 17 with Tottenham Hotspur before moving on through Barnet to have two spells each with Dagenham & Redbridge and then Peterborough United (where he now coaches full time).

Arber said playing in the lower leagues was a good thing for him; it gave him the perspective he needed to plan for life after football from an early stage rather than "falling off the precipice of the Premier League all in one go," as he might have done if his career had gone in another direction.

By the time he was 24, Arber had already started on the first of his coaching courses, which eventually led to securing his FIFA "A" coaching licence. By 28, he had been offered a coaching post with Arsenal prior to resuming his playing career at Peterborough.

He was smart to plan ahead for his coaching aspirations. For those who wait until their playing career comes to an end, the proposition of waiting five years to qualify can be hard to bear. Even if they do see it out, players are then faced with the challenge of re-entering the football world five years removed from the trends and relationships they had. Many who set out on that path do not end up as coaches.

Arber said more could be done by the PFA to help players make the transition into retirement. He reeled off the whereabouts of some of his fellow ex-pros: "Security, taxi drivers and a plasterer." Only one he could think of has stayed in football and is working as an agent.

Echoing the thoughts of Sanchez and Nevin, Arber stressed a holistic approach is essential to ensure players plan for a happy retirement and are ready for the next challenge. He said the PFA, clubs and players need to work more closely on readiness and laying out a framework. While the PFA is aware of the issue, they "could always do more," he said.

And so we return to the plight of Bent.

Moving from club to club did not provide for his effective pastoral care, even if the clubs in question had been minded to supply it, which is never a guarantee.

Had Bent returned to seek support from one of his 14 clubs, it is highly unlikely any of them would have been equipped to provide it, let alone felt obliged to do so. So he ventured into the world detached from the thing that had always defined him.

Bent takes on Manchester United's Paul Scholes in 2005.
Bent takes on Manchester United's Paul Scholes in 2005.Getty

Looking for answers and a reliable income stream, Bent took up a post with an oil company as a non-executive director. It wasn't a football job, and it wasn't the job of his dreams, but it was at least a way to fill the void left when his body could no longer market itself for football.

On Feb. 12, Bent was sentenced to a term of 12 months imprisonment, suspended for two years, together with 200 hours unpaid community service for offences in stark juxtaposition with his status as a hero of the terraces.

This is a man who enjoyed mass adulation and whose pampered lifestyle was once the envy of young men who idolized him.

We could write off Bent's actions that night in Esher as delinquency or statistical coincidence, but the weight of evidence suggests his fall was enabled by the success he enjoyed in his pomp.

XPRO, a charity set up to support footballers in their transition after playing, reported in 2014 that 33 per cent of former professionals get divorced and that 40 per cent are declared bankrupt.

In the future, clubs that benefit from the efforts of players should be more willing to provide a support structure for them when their glory days are over.


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