Sonny Pike trained at Ajax, was called the ‘next George Best’ but suffered a mental breakdown after pressures of fame – The Sun

HE was touted as the biggest prospect of his generation, with sponsors throwing cash at him, various TV appearances under his belt and a trial at Ajax in the 1990s.

But for football prodigy Sonny Pike trouble was brewing as his star began to overshadow his dream of becoming the next Paul Gascoigne.

Suffocated by the pressures of making it professionally, his parents' divorce, a financial disagreement with his dad and a brush with fame, he broke down.

In his book, My Story: The Greatest Footballer That Never Was (released last week) he reveals all the struggles that led to his sad demise.

Now 37-years-old, Sonny spoke with SunSport about his mental anguish – revealing he didn't know who to turn to when he was at his lowest ebb.

The North Londoner, who had his legs insured for £1m, spoke about parents hurling abuse on the touchlines, telling opposition players to injure him during youth games.

He recalled the moment he suffered a mental breakdown during a trial game at Crystal Palace, walking off the pitch in front of bemused coaches.

Sonny, who now drives a black cab, also issued a warning for young kids hoping to make it at the top level.

He believes his story should be used as an example of the pitfalls of what can go wrong and is urging professional clubs to do more to protect their talent.

In fact, when Sonny isn't taking fares he's visiting schools to give talks to wannabe professional footballers.

Looking back at his life, the prodigious starlet remembered the moment he first became interested in the beautiful game.

"I began playing football when I was 5-years-old. What made me fall in love with the game was watching Paul Gascoigne in the 1990 World Cup," Sonny told SunSport.

"I wanted to be Gazza, I even wanted to outdo him and win the World Cup for England.

"At that point in time it was all I wanted to do. I loved playing and dreamt of being a professional.

"I played for various youth teams, including Enfield F.C., and I played for the Red Team, which was the best players from the Echo Junior Football League.

"I went on to East Anglia when I was about 12, and that's when teams started to become interested in me.

"Norwich, Ipswich, Manchester United, Tottenham, Blackburn… it was a only handful of clubs that didn't ask about me."

The long-haired number 10 was aware he had a special talent at a young age, but was trying to stay grounded.

"I knew I had a knack for scoring goals. I was scoring more goals than anyone else," he said.

"I thought I must be quite good when I use to play in the park, the lads who were 18-years-old would pick me in their team first, and I was only small.

"When I was 10-years-old, I appeared on London Tonight," he continued.

"I filmed a segment for them, and I thought I must be quite good because I'm on the news."

Sonny's footballing talent began to take centre stage and he was soon being interviewed on 90s shows like Fantasy Football League and The Big Breakfast.

He had the world clamouring at his gifted feet and he was labelled the next George Best and Diego Maradona by the media.

He also inked huge sponsorship deals with McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Mizuno and was a child model for Paul Smith.

"I was happy to be compared to George Best and Diego Maradona, but with fame comes pressure," Sonny divulged.

"I was the Coca-Cola kid, I did McDonald's adverts… At the 1996 Coca-Cola Cup Final between Leeds and Villa I was introduced to the crowd before the teams came out.

"I ran out to the centre spot and did some kick-ups to entertain all the fans.

"I was sponsored by Mizuno, who made me a pair of boots that had a gold tongue.

"Only me and Dwight Yorke had the boots in the country at that time.

"I became a model for Paul Smith, and before that I had a lot of local companies who wanted me to promote their products.

"There was even a four-page spread in Hello magazine… I remember flicking through that, then seeing a spread about the royal family on the next page."

At the age of 12, Sonny was invited to Amsterdam for trials at the prestigious Ajax academy.

The Dutch club were producing the best players in the world, so it seemed like a natural fit for the wonderkid.

"I remember walking towards the main ground and the training pitch was right and behind that was the academy," he recalled.

"I was welcomed by Ajax legend Ton Pronk, it was surreal, and as we walked towards the academy the first team was training.

"I saw Jari Litmanen, the De Boers, Kanu, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard… it was like all my Christmases had come at once."

A media furore followed Sonny to De Meer Stadion as he set about dazzling the Dutch coaches with his technique and skill.

"I played two games with them, including one that was televised. There were two Dutch camera teams, Blue Peter and Football Mundial were there too.

"The last game I played in was a 1-1 draw, and I scored from outside the box. But it was a really strange experience.

"In the changing room only one boy could talk English, so it was really difficult to mingle.

"I wasn't too worried about the cameras being there at that age, because from the ages of 10-12-years-old I had got used to that then.

"It was only towards from about 14-years-old onwards that it got too much for me and I struggled to concentrate on my football."

Sonny confirmed that despite flirting with the idea of playing for Ajax, it was in the Premier League where he really saw his future blossoming.

He said: "I came home, I never got offered a contract, but they did say I could come back quarterly and they'd keep their eye on me.

"It might have progressed from there, but I wanted to play football at home, even though my style was more suited to a more technical game playing abroad.

"I really wanted to turn out for Liverpool, that was my plan so I stayed in England to try and make it here."

Although playing in England was tough for a kid who had a life well-documented off the pitch.

When it was reported that his legs were insured for £1m, he copped wicked abuse from jealous parents.

"I would get loads of that from the dads on the touchline," Sonny claimed. "Because I had long hair they use to say, 'he's only a girl, break his legs.'

"Not just that, off the pitch and at school I got different treatment that didn't help me either.

"Once I remember a guy came up to me on the street to tell me he put a bet on me to play for England. It was scary."

Although he's reluctant to blame his father for his downfall, one telling moment did have a hand in stalling Sonny's promising career.

While he was signed to Leyton Orient, dad Mickey pushed his boy to appear in a documentary called 'Coaching and Poaching' presented by Greg Dyke.

He didn't know he was doing anything wrong, but the Enfield-born lad was stung turning out for Chelsea and was banned from football for a year by the FA who declared he had broken the rules.

His relationship with his father became further strained when he began to believe Mickey was making money off his name. His parents also divorced and he was left without a club.

"When it got to the end of it, it started to become clear what was going on. And it started to cause a divide in my family," he told SunSport.

"Parents can get carried away with the money side of things in football.

"Bright lights can attract an adult, let alone what it can do to a kid. It is an easy trap to fall in to.

"I haven't spoken to my father for 20 years coming up this year. I don't know an exact figure, but I missed out on hundreds of thousands. Today, it would've been millions."

With no one to turn to, Sonny began to feel the strain. Mentally he was shot to pieces and he struggled to voice his problems.

"I did start to feel pressure. My dad was the one who use to help me, but when I stopped talking to him it became really hard," he said.

"The mental health effect was the biggest issue. I struggled with that and I didn't even know what was wrong with me.

"We're starting to have those conversations now, but back then you couldn't talk about it.

"I remember looking up at the coaches, and not physically saying it, but pleading with them to help me out.

"I was in a bad way, I didn't know what to do and everything around me was happening so quickly.

"A lot had gone on. I was in a state of confusion and I was just suffering because I had no one to talk to.

"I didn't know how to get round it, especially being famous, because no one could understand what I was going through."

Sonny was in danger of falling onto the football scrapheap, but after his ban was up he was given a chance at Crystal Palace aged 15.

But he admitted, by then his love for football had waned and his mind wasn't right.

"I played for Crystal Palace in a game against Tottenham," he said. "I thought it could've been my last chance.

"I pretty-much had a mental breakdown on the pitch. I came on for 15 minutes, I was given the opportunity and I just walked off.

"The ball would come to me, and I always prided myself on my first touch, but it was bouncing off my foot, I couldn't control it.

"The pressure of me going on, it was just too much. I looked at the coach and just walked off.

"I broke down and I knew it was all over from then."

Sonny spent two years at non-league Stevenage till he was 18-years-old on a YTS scheme.

But for him, he was just going through the motions and his heart wasn't in it anymore.

Sonny wants his cautionary tale to be a lesson for aspiring footballers the world over.

However, he feels professional clubs need to do a lot more to protect the mental health of players that suffer hiccups along the way in striving for their dream.

"The chance of becoming a professional is around 0.12 percent, so all these kids might have the great support, but some won't," he said.

"And in the clubs they have to have someone who deals with that aspect of things.

"I know a lot of dads who have their kids at a lot of professional clubs and they come to me and ask for advice.

"I think I'm the first person of my age that's able to come out and tell a story like this, because of the Premier League and how now fame and money are all part of it.

"If anything, my story is going to be more common. So I feel the clubs need to put more money into that side of things.

"For example, I read that Manchester City spent £2m on finding players in London.

"So they're spending millions and millions on bringing players in and selling the dream.

"But when it comes to helping them on their way out, I'm not too sure if they're spending too much money. I think that needs to be highlighted.

"My advice, and this is to any kid, is to take his dream and do the best he can. But you've got to understand the position you're in at the time.

"I think that's a big thing with the parents, making sure they have a stable environment.

"They've got to sort of understand that it can go wrong."

Sonny admitted that his crisis of confidence did make him feel suicidal and he points out, "The most common way for a male 35 or under to die is through taking their own life.

"It's more prevalent than cancer."

After he hung up his boots, Sonny was approached by Sky One to appear in their football TV hit, 'Dream Team'.

"When I stopped playing, I ended up going to drama school. They asked me to go on Dream Team on Sky," he laughed.

"They wanted to bring me in as 'Sonny Pike', they asked me to go to drama school and I went for a couple of weeks.

"By that age my mates were going to the pub, so I kind of knocked the acting thing on the head."

Today, Sonny drives a London taxi around central London and admits he enjoys being able to work to the sound of his own drum.


It also allows him to shares his traumatic life story at schools, warning youngsters of the dangers pressure can cause.

"It took me three years to do the knowledge, and the best thing about it is I can do my own thing," he said.

"I love London, I enjoy cabbing and it gives me a lot of freedom. I can still work on going into schools and football clubs to give talks about my experience.

"I'm definitely not as mad about football as I use to be.But the more I've started to talk about my life, it's like I've got what I've needed to get off my chest.

"I'm starting to watch games now, but compared to what I was like when I was a kid it's black and white."

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