Stephen Curnow spoke to City cult hero Cedric Anselin about his career, his struggles with his mental health and his ongoing work to remove the stigma and raise awareness of mental health in Norfolk and around the UK.
When Bruce Rioch paid Bordeaux £250,000 for the services of Cedric Anselin in 1999, he did so to bring some much-needed flair to the Norwich City midfield of that time, occupied until then by the rather more prosaic figures of Shaun Carey, Mike Milligan, Peter Grant and co. Eighteen years later, Cedric Anselin and I are talking in a suburban golf club, and I can’t help feeling that if Rioch were here, he would still be pleased with his outlay, as Anselin looks decidedly debonair amidst the clatter of garish golfers and midweek breakers. His new-found profile means his phone buzzes excitedly throughout our conversation, but he doesn’t look away to attend to it once. I begin to learn this is the way Cedric operates. Everything he does gets his full treatment. For better or for worse, he doesn’t do anything by halves.
Cedric, a teetotaller, orders an Americano but barely pauses to drink it, such is his enthusiasm to get down to the subject matter in hand. He’s a genuine football man. He recounts with some animation his awe at witnessing a middle-aged Rioch’s ability on the training field and laments the modern-day footballer being attracted to the game purely for financial reasons, which he compares to his own childhood ambitions, formed in the immediate shadow of RC Lens. He listens patiently to my own recollections of his solitary goal in Norwich City colours, against Oxford United in 1999, and dutifully reciprocates by reminiscing about the changing rooms at the Manor Ground and the premonitions of his room-mate the night before (Che Wilson, seeing as you ask).
He recounts his recent games for Sheringham with the same fervour as his UEFA cup final appearances for Bordeaux:
“It’s not about money. It’s just about being with your friends and having a good time and laugh and at that level the result don’t really matter. We lose, we win, for me it doesn’t matter anymore because where I have been what matters is keeping a smile - that is the best thing in the world. Football is fantastic therapy. For mental health, for depressed people, it brings you away from all that darkness and you find happiness in playing football. You are with your friends and you just kick the ball and suddenly all your troubles go away.”
Anselin is a comprehensive historian and talks about his career with both detail and obvious pride. I’m slightly surprised to learn that he has kept only one memento from his whole career, his UEFA cup medal, but less surprised to learn this is because he prefers to give such things away to younger players. He’s every bit the gesticulatory Frenchman, tapping himself on the head as he tells me
“It is what is in here, the memories in your heart and in your head, that no-one can take away.”
In 2005 Cedric was the subject of the When Saturday Comes feature “The Strange Case Of…” Bearing in mind recent events, it must be due a review by now. Jon Welch described Cedric as a “sensitive soul” and questioned whether or not he was “really cut out for the big bad world of professional football.” In some ways it’s a difficult statement to agree with, as Anselin seems to be exactly the sort of chap who is innately deserving of reaching the very top of the game, particularly in the eyes of those who recall his performances for Norwich.
If one were to imagine his career maintaining a similar trajectory to that of his Bordeaux team-mates, Zidane, Dugarry and Lizarazu, It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to think of him converting his French U21 honours to the full McCoy, amongst Les Bleus’ class of 98 with their hands on the Coupe du Monde. It’s much more difficult to envisage him ending a World Cup final by planting his head in Marco Materazzi’s sternum.
The irony about Anselin’s obvious love for the game is that football hasn’t always been kind to him. Following a promising start to his career at Carrow Road, Bruce Rioch’s departure signalled a downward turn in his career which he never quite managed to arrest. Indeed, ill-timed managerial changes proved to be frequent waypoints along his decline, supplanted with equally unhelpful injuries, illnesses, car accidents and even postal delays. Commendably Anselin recounts all of this with little, if any, vitriol. Even Nigel Worthington, the manager who finally gave Cedric the Dear John treatment, is treated with due humanity.
“When Nigel took over, I was definitely not part of his plans, but that’s part and parcel of football. I was not feeling part of the first-team squad or the club and I thought well, it is time for me to go.”
Moreover, Anselin even sees the black comedy in his back story, questioning the possible conspiracy in inflicting a Scottish manager and then two from Northern Ireland on himself as a young man struggling enough with his own English. He was even picked up upon his arrival in Blighty by none other than Duncan Forbes, himself hardly renowned for his command of the Queen’s English:
“I didn’t have a Scooby Doo what he (Forbes) was saying to me. The translator was there on my first day of training, so obviously she was giving me the feedback of how they wanted me to play, which was just to enjoy it, to be free.”
Anselin had previously been on trial at Southampton, but when a game was arranged for him to play in, the French Football Association failed to give due authorisation in time. Anselin recalls that Marian Parhars played instead; “it was me or him.”
Parhars went on to play nearly 130 Premier League games for the Saints. Even when recalling this embryonic part of his eventual demise, Cedric is able to see the bigger picture, perhaps already having the wisdom to put his health above his football. For example, Middlesbrough offered him a trial, “but my friends said don’t go there. It is dark and grey and not nice.”
Post-Norwich, Anselin declined a loan at Walsall, a car accident put paid to a trial at Cambridge United, and malaria struck when he had intrepidly ventured as far as Bolivia in a valiant bid to resurrect his game. It’s a sorry tale, but his main gripe appears to be on behalf of others. His main lament about leaving Norwich City was not that it happened, but that he didn’t get to say his goodbyes.
“I think I left the club by the little door. I remember one day I was in the bank, and the fans were passing and said to me “oh are you injured?” and that was a year after I left the football club. I left by the little door and that was difficult to digest.”
You get the feeling he was hurt the most not by the manager thinking he wasn’t good enough, but by the fan who thought he didn’t care.
The moment when he finally gave up on the game is also lodged firmly in his recollections, on an arduous commute to Southend United, the final stop in his odyssey of discouraging and fruitless trials.
“I was living in Norwich and travelling to Southend every Sunday night. I was jumping on a train, Norwich to Chelmsford, changing to a bus to another train station and from that station to Southend Victoria, then a cab to my digs. I was doing it every Sunday, all to my own expense, coming back to Norwich on the Tuesday. I was getting close to 30 years old, you start to think about the future, but the club at Southend wasn’t making the decisions, it wasn’t pretty football. I was travelling everywhere, I was everywhere and I remember sitting down with my wife at the time and I said ‘I have just had enough.’ I just want to settle in Norwich, play probably as high as I can be and try and start a family. Which is what I did.”
Anselin recognises now that the end of his football career precipitated a fourteen year-long decline in his mental health, which ultimately plumbed some gloomy depths. He recounts some of his experiences candidly and without the slightest hint of melodrama.
“I had never addressed my problem because I didn’t know I had a mental health problem. I always thought I would be alright, but every year it was creeping up on me. I was getting more in a dark place. I kept that to myself for fourteen years because I was ashamed to talk about it. I kept everything in to me because I like to be the man of the family, to be strong. When my wife went away to University in September 2015 we grew apart. I felt like I was suffocated, I felt like I didn’t have life. I tried, but I couldn’t get out of that negativity. I couldn’t face anything. Even to go to the supermarket, I was staring at the wall for almost an hour before I could go out. I had to prepare myself but I couldn’t face it.
When Cedric was at his lowest ebb, he left work early on a drizzly Monday evening.
“All of a sudden I didn’t have a family alongside me anymore. I couldn’t really see what I was doing. I came to the end of the world and I couldn’t do any more.”
Anselin turned to those he knew from football, namely Darren Eadie and Clarke Carlisle. He pulls few punches in agreeing that Carlisle might just have saved his life.
As a result, Cedric is one of a number of footballers to have drawn attention to the prevalence of mental ill-health within the game.
“You are like an orange. When you want to make fresh juice you squeeze and squeeze and when you don’t have that juice any more you get put in the bin. Unfortunately, the industry of football is a bit that way. There is far too much pressure on players from fans, media, managers and clubs. You earn a lot of money and then you don’t have that money anymore and you start to worry about what is your future. It’s gripping you massively.”
However, unlike most of his fellow professionals, Anselin is doing something about this malaise. Whereas others are appealing for solutions, he’s creating them. His current work of raising awareness of mental health issues amongst young footballers has taken him from his day job at the Open Academy to the House of Commons, the Maudsley Hospital and even back to Carrow Road as a matchday community hero. He has also taken on an ambassadorial role with Norfolk County Council.
“I am going through a lot of local clubs and schools around here to talk about mental health and stigma, because it can happen to anyone anytime. I try to make sure which path they can go down, and obviously if you are an ex-professional footballer, their reaction is straight on. They want to listen.”
Anselin’s subsequent years outside the game have perhaps also afforded him a more rounded view of mental ill-health as a whole. Being well-outside the game by the time he sought help meant that wasn’t cosseted by the layers of club doctors and private clinics. The riches of football clubs cannot buy mental well-being, but mental ill-health and social disadvantage are particularly unpleasant bedfellows. Nevertheless, Anselin is unequivocally complimentary about the help he received from mental health services in Norfolk.
“In my case it has been very good, fantastic. They have always been here at the right time, good services. They are helping me in terms of talking and taking out everything that has been coming in for fourteen years. It’s like having a bag of sand on your shoulder and suddenly it just dropped.”
Indeed, he is generally sanguine about the benefits of his years outside football as a whole.
“I am a lot better person, massively. I have been poorly and I would say that I am now what I would call a normal working person, so I can see into both worlds now.”
He has an equally clear vision of his own domain within those worlds:
“People have come to me to say that I am courageous, that I am brave, but I am just determined to be positive. I now have to keep my life to help other people. It is a massive part of my life now, close to my heart.”
A combination of bad luck, bad decisions and bad timing meant that football never really saw the best of him on the field. A lesser man than Cedric Anselin might have been downtrodden by his experiences, but he appears to have been fortified by them and determined to do some good for a game that hasn’t always been kind to him. He might have lost a few rounds along the way, but Cedric Anselin has shown that he has the stomach for a tough battle and the game of football should consider itself to be fortunate that he is back fighting their corner.