Once viewed as Juventus’ most exciting young talent, mixing it with the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero, a now 34 year-old Vincent Pericard strolls into LCC as a modest Business Management student at Portsmouth University. He’s in his final year, and so instead of winning the titles and accolades that seemed his destiny as a young striker, he is working hard on his dissertation.
Pericard’s story is one of unfullfiment, of disappointment and, at times, mere bad luck. However, it’s a testament to his character that he comes across as cheery and jovial as a footballer whose career wasn’t ravaged by injury and underpinned by struggles with depression. Softly spoken, the Frenchman seemingly harbours little resentment for his disappointing career which saw him retire at the age of 29. Indeed, Pericard still has a smile and a twinkle in his eye as he recalls the early days of his career at Juventus.
“I went there with a lot of confidence,” Pericard remembers. “Knowing I was young, I felt that freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than going there feeling like I had to deliver. That would have been very different. But without any doubt, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Only now, with perspective, I realise what a huge opportunity that was, to play with some of the best players in the world. It would be the dream of any young player right now.”
And he did play with the best in the world. Pericard takes great joy in recounting his first training sessions, coming face to face with some of the great talents of world football at the time. “The first training session I had, Zinedine Zidane was there, and that was one of the craziest experiences of my life, because we played 5-a-side football and he dribbled straight past me, and I thought he could fly. That stuck in my brain, that feeling and image of him going past me like I was a shadow. It amazed me.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and although as an innocent teenager Pericard did not fully appreciate the nature of his surroundings, years later he is able to marvel at how privileged he was at that time. “Thinking back now, I did those amazing things, and trained with those amazing players. Zidane gave me his number and said call me anytime, Edgar Davids and I would watch TV and chill together, I would have a laugh with Del Piero in pre season, so thinking back it was a bit crazy.”
It looked as though everything was in place for Pericard to live up to the expectation placed upon his shoulders as a young player rising through the ranks at French side St. Etienne. However, a bizarre turn of events would ultimately bring Pericard’s Juventus career to an untimely end. Years on, he still recounts the story with a degree of incredulity.
“It was one of the craziest, unluckiest moments of my life. Everything was going great in Italy. I was the future talent for Juventus. When I arrived in Italy I couldn’t speak Italian so I had Italian lessons [with two others]. One night, I was with my friends and we were a bit bored so one of my friends suggested we invite our female Italian tutor for a drink. I was like ‘yeah, why not?’. So I got my phone out, sent her a friendly text saying ‘Hey, fancy getting a drink with us?’. Thirty seconds later, I get a phone call, and it was one of the Juventus directors saying ‘how dare you text my girlfriend’. The worst part was that she wasn’t even his girlfriend, she was his mistress”
Summoned to the director’s office the next morning, Pericard was shipped off to Portsmouth for his sins, where after an initial culture shock, the Frenchman managed to get back to his best and help Portsmouth win promotion to the Premier League in 2003.
“After that transition period of around two months where everything was hard and I was still adapting and getting to know my teammates, when we played my first Championship game I scored my first goal and as a striker when you score your first goal it kind of liberates you and gives you that confidence back so from there I stared improving and started enjoying my football again.”
It was against Crystal Palace in the final game of that season that Lady Luck turned against Pericard once again, as he suffered the first of the many injuries that would ultimately ravage his career. “I pulled my thigh,” Pericard recalls, “and that was the first real injury I had in my whole career so I didn’t really know what to do or how to deal with it, if I should just train and hope I recover. Unfortunately it was much worse than that and I didn’t do my rehabilitation properly, which meant that I tore my quadriceps four times in a row and I would say that was the beginning of the end for me because everything went downhill after that single injury.”
Pericard then embarked on a career which involved many clubs and many changes, which he describes as “a journey into the abyss”. Having tried his luck at Plymouth, Stoke City, Millwall, Southampton, and Carlisle Utd, Pericard eventually found himself at non-league side Havant and Waterlooville. “It was the worst thing I ever did. Non-League football, when you have trained as a professional, there is no word to describe it. It’s incompatible.”
The transient nature of his career, combined with his struggles with injuries, led Pericard down a dark path to depression, where he has previously said he would “lock the door, close the windows and in the dark room think I was worthless and not going to make it.” Pericard even admits that he contemplated suicide but fortunately never acted upon it. This was compounded by a short spell in prison, from which Pericard was left disappointed at the lack of support he received from then manager Tony Pulis: “This was when I realised that the only thing managers care about is the players they can put on the pitch.”
Pericard states that he did not grow up with an intrinsic love of football, that he “fell into it” as a result of his father working near St. Etienne’s stadium. He cites this lack of an inherent love of the game as a reason for his career slide. “I didn’t have that love and passion. Yes I did have a talent but to be the best you need to have both – the talent, the right attitude, and a love for the game as well. I think you leave yourself prone to making bad decisions. To give an example, maybe if I did love football more, I’d be more dedicated to stretching, to going to the gym, to eating properly. So those little things could have made a big big difference.”
The Frenchman is now happy to say that those struggles with depression are behind him, but he knows that such thoughts are common in football, and that there is a certain stigma attached to depression amongst professional sportspeople. “I realised that my friends, and other football players were going through the same situations. But for us, it’s impossible to show any kind of weakness, it’s impossible to say I’m not happy today, I’m missing my family, I’m struggling.”
It is this realisation that has led Pericard to pursue a career in business, as he helped establish Elite Welfare Management, a company aimed at helping foreign players settle in to new surroundings. “[Football clubs] need to realise that players are not just assets, they are human beings as well, and to get the best of people, you need to make them happy, you need to provide them with the means to fulfil their potential.”
Vincent Pericard does not hold any regrets about his career. His attitude portrays a man content in his current situation, happy to dwell upon the golden memories of his fledgling career. “I’m only 34, so I’ve still got a lot of time left in my life and now this is a great opportunity to actually do something else. I’ve been very fortunate to have had one very privileged life, and still have the opportunity to have another privileged life.”
Pericard is intent on breaking down the barriers between footballers and their reluctance to open up about their feelings. He is a man on a mission, to shed light on the fact that footballing success doesn’t have to be the only hope for struggling professionals, that there are things in life which are more important than trophies and accolades.
Indeed, Pericard’s story is one of countless examples of players who find themselves cast upon football’s scrap heap. It’s the kind of story we so often sweep under the carpet in favour of the more successful, those who fulfil the kind of potential Pericard himself had as a youngster, those who haven’t experienced the ugly side if the beautiful game.