It’s been a little over two years since Craig King typed out a heartfelt note on his phone and posted it on twitter.
After nine seasons, he’d decided to leave boyhood club Luton Town and walk away from the professional game.
Suffering with severe depression, the time had come to concentrate on being happy again.
So he posted the message. Then deleted, unfollowed and unfriended anything to do with football.
“I was in quite a dark place and I really needed just to escape everything – literally be left alone with no commitments and not have to put a brave face on anywhere,” he says, two years on, enjoying life again, playing well for Oxford City and determined to return to the EFL. “I could just concentrate on myself and be myself and act how I was feeling at that moment in time.”
It had been an exhausting period of pretending everything was fine and bottling up what was bubbling underneath.
Some days he’d turn up to training in his pyjamas and joke along with his team-mates about it.
“Really it was because I’d just woken up, couldn’t be arsed to do anything, grabbed my bag hoping my stuff was in it and, ‘I’m here’,” he says. “I’d do the job and go home around 12ish. Literally I’d get home and go straight to bed. Turn the lights off, close the curtains, try to sleep. Because I knew that when I slept, all the anxiety, all the depression would go away. That was my way of escaping, that was my coping mechanism.
“That’s how deep and dark my life got. Now it is so much better. It’s almost like being a kid again. When you’re a kid, you’re so care free and you go out to express yourself.”
It’s been a gradual process to get to the point he is today. Working with Alex Simmonds at Neurosports, he has a new way of looking at the world. Whereas before, everything was wrong, mistakes were there to be dwelled on, now he sees it for what it is.
After every training session or match he speaks to Simmonds, talks through how it went and moves on.
“I suppose my personality is I’m very honest and that’s not always the best thing to be as a footballer,” he says. “You’re your biggest critic. Sometimes it gets you down.
“I was always getting on top of myself for the way I performed whether I’d played good, bad or mediocre – I could always see bad in my performance. I was striving for perfection but obviously I was never going to reach it so I was never satisfied. It was a tough place to be in my head at that time.
“It would never stop. When I got into the training it would be fine and then as soon as I started training it would start from there.
“Honestly, it’s hard to describe how minute the things were. If I’d catch a ball, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t catch it the correct way’. Now I look at things in a much more positive way. It’s not how I catch it, it’s the fact I actually did.
“But I would dissect every single part of my game. That’s how I was. Now I’ve look at the bigger picture with a much more positive mindset. Did I save it? Yes. That’s what Alex from Neurosport has done for me. He’s taken me away from that negative mindset and focused on the actual important part of it. That’s mainly enjoying it as well – I’ve got the fun back.”
Getting the fun back has been by purely focusing on enjoying his football, rather than worrying about the outside noise with by Simmonds, who has become his agent. He’s got a part-time job in a gym so that when he finishes work he can do some of his own training and this season he will go into a League One club twice a week to work with their keepers. Physically and mentally he has never been better.
King says the biggest relief is not regretting the decision he made in June 2017. Luton will always hold a place in his heart and he’s happy to see their promotion to the Championship. But he hopes his story also shows other footballers who are struggling with similar issues, that taking a break from the professional game doesn’t mean they can’t make an impact and get back to where they were.
King is just 22, but he now has plenty of experience and is looking forward to another positive season with Oxford City.
Six months after he walked away from Luton, he made a return with the Step 2 outfit following a call from former Luton coach Joe Deeney.
“Me fully cutting off all the strings was one of the best things,” he says. “Then I got a call from Joe Deeney, my old coach at Luton, to say they were having a goalkeeping dilemma at Oxford, would I be up for it?
“A couple of weeks before that I’d felt ready to play. There was always that bit of doubt in my head whether it was too soon. I went into training on the Thursday and was honest. I said, ‘This is my first training session. This is how I feel. I just want to enjoy it because I don’t know what level I’m going to be at’. I was just honest.
“I thank Oxford so much because they’ve been nothing but nice, honest and professional with me. A big part of it is honesty.
“I’ve grown with Oxford, playing well and getting better and better – there hasn’t been a game I haven’t enjoyed. Obviously you get upset when you lose but that’s a different feeling to not wanting to be out there.”
It’s shown in his performances under boss Mark Jones, who he also praises along with everyone at the club for welcoming him in and giving him the platform to display his talent.
For King, the sky is now the limit. He believes he never truly fulfilled himself at Luton but can now. He won’t rush it, but he wants to return to the professional game and believes he has what it takes.
The plan is to build on last season and finish in the top five of clean sheets in the division. He’s targeting a good FA Cup run with City while continuing to demonstrate he has the talent to play in the Football League again.
He briefly tasted first-team action at Luton – including a penalty save against West Brom in the Checkatrade Trophy – and he believes he can thrive in that environment again. Crucially, he know understands himself and his own game.
“I’m feeling sharp,” he says. “I don’t think I ever reached my full potential at Luton. When I had loan spells in the Conference I was doing well and when I played for Luton in the Checkatrade Trophy I did well, but I still think I can do better.
“That’s’ promising for me looking forward. I know I’m more than capable and I’ve got the confidence to play in the Football League. I’ve got a lot of experience, especially for a goalkeeper, I’m only 22. So I’m looking forward to what the future holds and hopefully I continue playing well and enjoying life.”
By Matt Badcock