Football star and Villa hero, Lee Hendrie, talks to David Johns about the highs and lows of life on the pitch, the dark days after he left the game – and his new career as Sky TV commentator and pundit
As a top flight professional footballer Lee Hendrie was used to the up and downs on the pitch. The midfielder who played more than 250 times over 14 years for his home club Aston Villa experienced the highs of being capped at youth and senior level for England and the lows of losing the last FA Cup Final to be played at the old Wembley Stadium.
The midfielder known for both his tenacity and his creativity became a cult hero at Villa Park – but he wasn’t as well-equipped to deal with the void left in his life once his playing days drew to a close. A succession of injuries, contract disputes, transfers and a divorce left his professional and private life in what he openly admits was a dark place. So dark in fact that lost millions in property deals, was declared a bankrupt and suffered mental health issues which led to two suicide attempts.
But as all football fans who tune in to Sky will know, Lee has put his struggles well and truly behind him and is building an exciting media career which he says has made him feel valued again. “I’m still a part of the game I love and that is so important to me,” says Lee who tried his hand at coaching before being asked by Sky to join their Football League team.
“Coaching professionally just wasn’t for me,” he adds. “But I love the TV work. It’s exciting and challenging and hard work. It’s a bit like playing, you can’t just turn up and let it happen. You have to spend your time preparing hard and knowing what you are going to do. You have a huge amount of detail and information being fired into your ear by your producer – so you do, literally, have to be on your game. It’s such a buzz and it also means I get to see a lot of Villa which is great as well as the other Midlands teams.”
Lee’s own challenges have given him a perspective on life as a 41-year-old which he would never have imagined as the teenager who made his professional debut for the club he supported as boy back in 1995. The issues which he encountered after his playing career was over have made him an avid supporter of mental health awareness.
He has been part of a coaching initiative to get football clubs at all levels to make mental and emotional well-being part of their everyday culture. And four years ago he set up the Lee Hendrie Academy, with links to Villa’s academy, to help young footballers who have been rejected by clubs find a way back into the game.
His close ties with Villa have also made him a big supporter of Birmingham-based charity, Cure Leukaemia. He has taken part in a number of fund-raisers for the charity including running marathons and being a key member leading and playing in the annual Copa Del Cure Leukaemia six-a-side tournament which is being held in October at St George’s Park, Tatenhill and will once again feature a host of famous Midlands football names.
“I got involved with Cure Leukaemia after I bumped into a few Villa guys at a dinner, and it’s just gone from there,” said Lee. Additional motivation to support the blood cancer charity and world-class treatment centre run by Professor Charlie Craddock at Queen Elizabeth Hospital came when Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2012.
“Supporting Cure Leukaemia is very important to me,” said Lee. “The charity does wonderful work in delivering life-saving treatment to thousands of people and giving them hope.”
“I know how having hope and giving help to people, no matter what their illness, is so important. I don’t want to ever see anyone being in the situation I found myself in my dark period. Being a proud man and not actually wanting to tell anyone about my problems was horrendous.”
We spoke to Lee as he prepared to give his expert views as part of Sky’s coverage later that evening on Villa’s crucial Championship game at Nottingham Forest – which the claret and blues won 3-1. “Villa are doing ok right now,” he said. “After a lean period they have really picked up. But the Championship is a tough division with some really big clubs fighting it out to get back into the Premier League next season. Big clubs should do well and the bigger club you are, the higher the expectation. It’s not easy.”
While a Villa boy from the days when he was a kid in Birmingham, Lee is a big supporter of Midlands football in general. “I want to see all the clubs do well,” he said. “Regardless of who you support, top quality and successful teams here give the whole place a big lift and help showcase our success as a city and region.”
And he adds: “I am just delighted to be involved in the game. Sky have been magnificent for me. When you come out of football it’s difficult. You work hard to get to where you want to. And it’s the same with Sky. They have challenged me and tested me. It’s a big profile thing and being on TV means always having to work hard. It’s not a given, there are a lot of people who want to get into it, so it’s very competitive.
“I’ve always been a great competitor which is why I love what I am doing and why I want to carry on with the media stuff in future. It’s a thrill to be part of it and its great to be involved in the game that I love.”