Troy Deeney will tell you he’s not a role model.
It’s easy to see where that narrative has come from, though, when there are so few Premier League players who have been on his journey.
It was a well-documented one before he played for Watford against Manchester City in the 2019 FA Cup final.
Deeney is now 31, but admits he has experienced things well beyond his years ever since childhood.
In an exclusive interview with GIVEMESPORT, the striker spoke with refreshing honesty about growing up with a single mum, becoming a footballer – via prison – and everything in between.
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School “didn’t interest” him, but he is wary of being seen as a “role model” to other youngsters in a similar position.
“It makes me uncomfortable sometimes, because there’s a word that goes attached with that and everyone goes ‘you’re a role model’,” he says.
“And I hate that word because your role models and the people you should look up to are within the house or within the family.
“I don’t mind speaking to people but I don’t like wasting my time so I don’t like going and speaking to kids and they don’t know who you are or they might not actually understand your story.
“So I prefer to speak in smaller groups or there’s people that I speak to online and just go back and forth on a more personal basis, so you know you’re impacting that person’s life.”
The subject of growing up is one Deeney is happy to reflect on. And on the subject, he has more to say than most.
“It’s only when I got older that I realised how much of an angel my Mum was,” he said.
“I was exposed to a lot of things, my Dad was a ‘somebody’, shall we say, back home. And little things I genuinely classed as normal, when I speak to other people they’re like ‘that’s not normal’.
“We had police breaking in and scuffling with my Dad and we’d be in bed. Me and my brothers in bunk beds, and I remember looking down, and he was like ‘Dad’s just playing with his mate’.
“And we just went ‘OK’ and went straight back to sleep. And then I didn’t see my Dad for eight months. He got locked up again.
“You see how I said ‘again’ because he was always in and out of jail so to me that was never anything unusual for him to be gone for large periods of time.
“So my Mum would always shelter us from that, so even when he was away it was like ‘oh, he’s away at work’. There was an always an excuse or something as to why we didn’t know where he was.”
In a world of six-figure weekly wages and Lamborghinis – more on those later – some of what he witnessed was indeed not ‘normal’.
However, Deeney was keen to stress that he wasn’t alone and for many youngsters, not an awful lot has changed.
“There’s a lot of similarities you can take from certain environments, low income housing there’s a lot of the same thing happening up and down the country,” he added.
“But it depends how much of it makes it into the news for people to actually be interested in it.”
In some ways, Deeney is the typical English centre-forward. That was Watford’s secret for a long time, a tactical rawness that allowed them to upset some of the Premier League’s elite.
On the other hand, his journey is far from the average footballer’s. His childhood wasn’t one of playing at academies and taking photos with David Beckham on summer camp, but that has given him a relatively unique perspective on the world of professional footballer – which he didn’t realise he was going to enter until he was 24.
“Honestly, it was never my dream,” Deeney said.
“You know when people go ‘it was my dream as a kid to do this’. My dream as a kid was just happy-go-lucky. I just wanted to enjoy myself, I wanted everyone to like me.
“I had trials with Villa and I didn’t go because I wanted to be at the park with my mates, trying to get girls. I was that teenager that just wanted to be fitting in.
“When my Dad was away and then my Mum and Dad split up, my Mum was a single Mum working two or three jobs. So from year 7, I kind of helped out at home. I’d miss my tutor and go and get my brother and sister from school, walk them home, feed them, get them ready for when Mum came back and then we’d go to my brother’s football.
“So I kind of lost that bit of childhood. I was always the man of the house from a young age.
“Naturally, you get older, I was a builder and I wasn’t really good at that. It didn’t interest me but it was a job. I wanted to be a fireman to be totally honest. We had a family friend that was a fireman and he was the only person I could see that was legally doing well, so I thought OK, that could be an end goal.
“The football thing kind of just happened, all accidentally fell into place. I’m the kind of person you just have to show me a little bit and I’ll teach myself the rest. You just and I’ll kick it open…that’s what happened with the football career, I didn’t really take it seriously until I came back from jail.”
Since coming out of prison, football has proved a salvation, though one that has not prevented him from staying humble. Deeney explained:
“Life circumstances have made me have to grow up and I’m not going to sit around and moan, ‘the world owes me’. I’m like, ‘right this happened, OK’.
“I can’t touch my shoulder. When I was a kid I got kicked off a roof and nearly died. Cool, next. I could literally go through 20 scenarios where if I said it to you, you’d be like ‘how are you still here?’ But I believe I am meant to be here for a reason.
“But I also believe I make my own destiny. Everyone’s story is told to an extent. I knew before that my ceiling was ‘this’. But I changed my mind, changed how I work, everything. There ain’t no ceiling now.
“Because I’m doing stuff that people could never, for where I’m from and my limited space, people can’t understand why I’m getting invited here, never mind when I go to Parliament and chat with them about certain things to do with youth and crime. They’re going ‘how have you ended up there?’
“I still go back to the same place, still have a beer with the lads, still go see my brother who lives in the house that we grew up in.
“I’m still about, even when I had my Lamborghinis, I let all the kids around the area drive it because it’s not for me, it’s for everyone to see what we can do.”
It’s easy to talk of staying down-to-earth, but perhaps even easier when life experience has taught the value of “the things money can’t buy”.
“Five people that raised me, three of them died in the space of two years,” Deeney said.
“I’ve lost all of that, I’ve been to jail, I’ve been at the top, lost it in one stupid action. I’ve lost it all.”
One similar story that springs to mind is that of Anthony Joshua, who turned his life around to become a world champion.
Deeney recalls only too well, for after meeting AJ and the boxer telling him he would make the Olympics, he then witnessed his rise to fame from a cell.
“That was a telling moment,” he said.
“He had that focus and that’s what I’ve learned to have over the years. I’m a day by day, week by week kind of person. Get up, smash out what I need to do that day.
“Whereas he had that focus and drive – ‘in a year’s time, this is what I’m going to do, all this training is for that’. So when I’m in jail watching it and banging on my door, people are like ‘you’re mad, you don’t know him’.
“But I genuinely feel like I’ve been on that journey. Naturally, he’s gone from strength to strength and you wish him nothing but success. I still chat to him.
“He’s still one of my idols because again, you see a normal person that’s gone ‘right, I’m going to elevate myself’ and within that, everything else around him has changed.
“I think that’s what a lot of people don’t do, they try and go for the success and the money and then think that everything else will fix itself, whereas if your foundations aren’t right, everything else actually fails around that.”
Wise words indeed – and ones that are unlikely to be used against him in the manner of his famous comments about Arsenal’s lack of “cojones”.
“But it’s fact though, isn’t it? That was three years ago, and what are they still saying now?
“They don’t win the big games, they lose the big games. And now they’re turning on [Granit] Xhaka, their captain, who’s probably one of the few that has balls.
“It’s just football. It could be used against Watford at times, used against Watford in the FA Cup final, they didn’t have balls. Cool. I don’t take it personally. You win some, you lose some.
“But at the same time, people turn it into ‘you’re not allowed to speak about that. I’ll speak about who, what and however I want.
“People are soft. The whole world is. That’s why you have to be careful what you say, careful what you post, careful what you wear. It’s long. Too many rules.
“We’re trying to be real in a fake world. How does that work? You’re always going to lose. I just be me.”
That has held him in good stead so far and helped him reach Wembley in May.
That final, which ended in a resounding 6-0 victory for Pep Guardiola’s side, has turned out to be a foretaste of more frustration and disappointment for the Hornets. Deeney himself has missed out through injury.
“It’s not been great, obviously. We had the hangover from last year, to be fair. But from a personal perspective, it’s been massively frustrating,” he said.
“I kept myself in good condition over the summer. Even when I’m on holiday I still go for runs, where years gone by I would not have done it. And obviously playing basketball as well.
“Being active, to make sure I was in good condition, obviously this is my 10th year at Watford. So I didn’t want it to be like I was turning out the minutes.
“Then I got injured two games in and literally just came back last week, I’ve been out for three months. I’ve got things to make up on.
“We don’t even talk about [avoiding relegation]. Talking about it would mean you’re preparing for it.”
Watford have already been through two managers this season. It’s telling of the football business, Deeney says – after all, just look at Tottenham.
“I think in the industry that we’re in, it’s always going to happen. When you look at Spurs, and they’ve just got rid of Pochettino, who’s probably been, without actually winning anything, their most successful and then he’s been sacked and replaced in a day. It’s just the industry that we’re in.
“There’s no loyalty in football and you take it with a pinch of salt. It is what it is.”
Managerial sackings is one of football’s plights. VAR is another, as anyone who lives and breathes football will tell you.
“I’m not a big lover of it, I’ve never been a big lover of it,” he said.
“I don’t understand why we’ve done it when we’re not ahead of the curve. They did it in other leagues last year and we saw how long it took, three, four minutes to get some decisions.
“I grew up in pubs so my whole thing is ‘the game happened’, people would go into the pub afterwards and discuss ‘it should have been a penalty, he should have scored that’. And all the talk shows are based off that.
“There’s no going back. People are talking about ‘we’re going to stop it and go back to it in a few years. They won’t do that, it’s just got to get better.”
To make matters worse, VAR is going to ruin his celebrations.
“That’s what’s going to happen now, it’s going to turn into T20 cricket. You’re going to score and then go ‘can I? Yay!’ The celebration’s going to be out the window. It’s dead. It’s taking away from the entertainment value of what is football.
“I know we all want to get it always right, but the reason football is so loved is because it’s not always right. Every second isn’t accounted for. While they’ve tried to move it forward, for offside and stuff it’s good, but there’s a huge part of it that’s like ‘let human error be in there’. That’s what it’s about.”
Passion is indeed what football is all about and Deeney oozes it even amidst a difficult campaign for his club so far.