Anton Ferdinand has faced an unenviable amount of obstacles on the way to achieving his dreams. He grew up on a council estate in Peckham where the shadow of his famous brother, Rio, loomed large over his own aspirations. From as young as nine, his resolve was hardened by the people who told him he would never follow in his brother’s footsteps and make it as a professional. But when asked about the most challenging aspect of everything he has done, he delivers his answer with clarity.
“The hardest part of my career has been the year that I lost my mum,” he says.
Ferdinand was in the midst of a stint at Southend in 2017 when his mother, Janice, died of breast cancer. After struggling through seasons in Turkey and Thailand, he had rediscovered his passion for the game and as he thrived, so did his team as they rose up the table. Everything was going well until he learned how quickly life can change.
“Football has always helped me deal with whatever I’m dealing with off the pitch,” he says. “For that 90 minutes, for that couple of hours of training, my mind was clear and I was not thinking about what was going on; I was focused on football. But it was the first time in my life that football wasn’t a get-out for me. I couldn’t shake the loss of my mum. I was going on the pitch not caring how I played, not caring about the result because all I wanted was my mum.”
His experience is another testimony to how little is known about the true driving factors behind an athlete’s form as fans celebrate and castigate with little empathy. “Hearing fans going from cheering you to booing you? Inside, I’m thinking: ‘They don’t even know what I’m going through.’
“They don’t know what happened but they don’t even know what I’m going through emotionally. They don’t know that [for] the first time in my life I’m struggling to deal with stuff that’s happening in my life.”
The reason Ferdinand agreed to speak is unrelated to his own loss. In June a boy called Henry – a classmate of his young son Flynn – was diagnosed with aplastic anaemia, a rare blood cancer in which the bone marrow does not produce enough blood stem cells.
Despite a drive to sign potential donors to the DKMS stem cell register, Henry failed to find a suitable stem cell match and he died in June. The difficulty of explaining to his son how a boy of the same age was no longer with them left an indelible mark on Ferdinand. Since then, Ferdinand has become an ambassador of DKMS, a blood cancer charity, and he has become close to Henry’s father, Gareth, who joins him throughout the interview.
“For you to be so close to the answer but not enough know about it for there to be someone there to be able to donate, it’s entirely heartbreaking,” says Gareth. “So, it’s just about not letting other people have to go through it.”
Gareth is admirable and strong, and he talks explicitly about the helplessness of losing his son; the lack of sleep, the fact that he and his wife, Kate, still have to be present and parents to their younger daughter, even though there are times when they want to hide from the world and getting out of bed seems impossible. Through their grief, he and his wife have found meaning in trying to raise awareness about the necessity to join the stem cell register in the hope that one day no one will be unable to find a match.
Blood cancer is a silent killer: each year more than 30,000 people are diagnosed in the UK and 12,000 die. In recent years, organ and blood donation have spiked into public consciousness but the concept of potentially giving blood stem cells is unknown and feared.
After Henry failed to find a match, Gareth had no choice but to donate his own blood stem cells to his son. He is determined to ensure that people understand how easy the procedure was, which he likens to a simple blood transfusion.
“When Anton said he was willing to help and became ambassador of the charity and everything, to me I can’t tell you how grateful I am because fundamentally I don’t have the platform,” says Gareth.
“I have the story, I have all the emotional heartstrings and stuff. Happy is the wrong word, but I’ll sit here in this interview, I’ll stand in front of audiences. I’ll tell anyone who’s willing to bloody listen about it and if the tragedy of the story helps get people motivated, it’s great.”
Ferdinand listens with head bowed, nodding to practically each syllable. He seems to have found peace in his life beyond the familiar confines of a football pitch and it looks as if he is exactly where he wants to be. “To be able to give back to other people, I just feel that’s where I’m best,” he says. “When my son gets a bit older, for my son to be able to look at me and know: ‘Dad you played a part in continuing Henry’s legacy,’ that means a lot to me … I think that’s where the second phase of my life is going to be.”
Ferdinand is speaking from the offices of New Era Sports Management, the agency that has been helping him towards the end of his career for five years. He is 34 and remains active with an eye on playing again, but at one point he unintentionally refers to his career in the past tense.
No matter how and when it finishes, it has been a fulfilling journey. After high-profile stints at West Ham and Queens Park Rangers, he settled in Turkey for 18 months at Bursaspor and then Antalyaspor. He was unveiled as a player by Police United in Thailand but never played, returning to England at Reading for two years, and it was in 2016 that he finally found his feet in League One at Southend. Last season, he played 18 games for St Mirren.
It is clear his bitter departure from Southend is still on his mind. “That hurt me … I wanted to stay there because a year on from losing my mum I felt a bit better in myself. My hunger started to come back for football and I wanted to stay there and show the fans the club meant something to me and that it was just a blip in that year because of what happened to me personally. But I was never given that opportunity and I wasn’t given that opportunity by a family friend of mine [their manager, Chris Powell], which hurt me even more.”
Ferdinand frequently refers to retirement as the “second phase” of his life. Many footballers and athletes finish their short careers unable to come to terms with life without the weekly nerves and furious adrenaline, and quietly fall into crisis. He initially experienced similar sensations at the thought of retirement, but he has found clarity in his next journey.
“I never understood mental health while I was playing … I was always like: ‘How can you be depressed? How can you have mental health issues?’ I never understood it until it was my time to stop playing football.
“When it actually came, it wasn’t easy. It was hard. I had moments where I didn’t want to get out of bed. So, now, I understand … So I’m over that next phase and I now have a drive, got a goal of what I want to do. Part of that is giving back to the next generation within New Era and giving back to people I can help.”