Sonny Pike speaks to Alasdair Hooper about being football’s ‘wonderkid’ and his subsequent slide into depression, as told in his new book.
Sonny Pike was the gifted young wonderkid who had it all – that is, until everything came crashing down to earth.
Dutch giants Ajax had swooped in to claim him; he was touted as English football’s Diego Maradona; his legs were insured for £1 million at the age of 11. Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and Paul Smith all queued to sponsor him, and he was constantly on TV throughout the 90s.
Then everything changed. It all unravelled to such a point where the footballing wonderkid was contemplating ending his life at the age of 15.
These days Sonny Pike is a London taxi driver who runs his own football academy just off the M25. He is the ultimate cautionary tale for child footballing prodigies, and is now telling his own side of the story in a new book.
It charts the reckless ambition, the lost innocence, the spiral into depression, and how he has now built his life back up.
This is the story of the greatest footballer that never was.
‘I just want it to stop’
The Ajax experience was just the beginning of Sonny Pike’s fame as he was followed around by camera crews constantly charting his success.
Once he came back to England, brands queued up for sponsorship and the TV work continued to flood in.
But, as Sonny writes in his book, everything changed when Chelsea came calling.
“A documentary came about when I was 14 with Greg Dyke, who ended up running the FA,” Sonny said. “It was just going to be another documentary and I’m tired. I’m tired of all the media by then.
“For me it was just another documentary that I don’t want to do, but we were told that it’s going to be a nice documentary about how I’m progressing and what’s going to happen.
“It was called Fair Game, and it was on Channel 4, and Greg Dyke and a cameraman came to my house. I was at Leyton Orient at that time, but I wasn’t officially signed there, and I’d been asked to go to Chelsea at the same time.
“We turn up at Chelsea’s training ground – Bernie Dixon was running it – and I’ll never forget, as we walked in, my dad is there and Terry is there – my old football coach – and the cameraman is there.
“Bernie said ‘woah, what’s this? You can’t have a camera, we are here to train’. The response was ‘no, it’s just for home use’. While my head’s down I’m just thinking ‘I want to go in here and play football.’”
As it turned out, Sonny couldn’t concentrate on his football during that session. There was a very notable distraction. “All I could see was this guy popping up with a camera filming me,” he said.
“I’m playing and I could see it in the corner of my eye. I can tell everyone else is looking, the coaches are looking, and I was shrinking inside myself. I just want it to stop.
“We come out of the training session and the cameraman comes out with my dad – they’re all happy. Terry comes down and he’s mad – ‘what’s going on here? This has got to stop.’
“He’s always been that one that’s tried to fight my corner.”
‘Fair Game: Coaching and Poaching’
On May 12, 1996, a deeply damaging News of the World article was published that left the boy wonder stunned. “Chelsea tried to nick my 12-year-old son: Blues face rap over wonderkid” was the headline.
Sonny’s perception of his dad – and his intentions – started to shift at that point. But then came the documentary. It wasn’t the “nice documentary” about Sonny that was promised.
More scouts were introduced in the show, along with more promising young footballers Sonny had never heard of.
The full title of the programme was Fair Game: Coaching and Poaching. The documentary wasn’t about Sonny at all; it was about youth players being coached and those who were being poached – Sonny fell into the latter category.
There was also a notable absentee at the viewing party that had been organised: Sonny’s dad.
As a result of the poaching fiasco, Sonny was banned for a year from playing in any football club’s school of excellence.
‘I ain’t got a son no more’
Things did not get easier after the documentary was aired – you can still hear the emotion as Sonny retells it over a Zoom call. “The toughest bit, about a month after, I’m training with Terry because he was my one-to-one coach,” Sonny explained.
Sonny’s dad came over. “I hadn’t seen him for about a month. He comes over to the fence, the same way he always used to come through, and he was saying ‘Sonny, Sonny’.
“It was one of those moments where you’re thinking ‘what’s going to happen here?’” It transpired that Sonny’s dad had organised “some more work” for him.
“It was newspapers, this, that, and the other. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘dad, are you joking? I can’t do that anymore, it’s done, it’s over’. I’d said to him a lot of times before that I don’t want to do it but, this time, I was telling him no.”
As Sonny writes in his book, his dad responded, “well I ain’t got a son no more”.
“I just didn’t know what to do and I think I turned around and muttered the same words back to him – ‘I haven’t got a dad’,” Sonny added.
“That was it. I walked away from him, and I walked back to Terry.”
‘Mentally I was shot to bits’
Two years later, Sonny had managed to get a trial with Crystal Palace. Things were going well in training and were looking up.
Then came another News of the World article, titled ‘The ruthless fight to sign our son broke my heart and smashed this family apart’.
It was Sonny’s dad, two years since they had last spoken. But what hit hardest was the prefix used next to Sonny’s name – the “ex”-wonderkid.
It boiled over three days later when he played a game for Crystal Palace against Tottenham.
“I couldn’t believe it, that he’d said ‘ex-wonderkid’,” said Sonny. “What do you mean? I’m 15. I’m thinking, I’ve got to produce miracles in this next game I play because it’s all in the paper. I put so much pressure on myself in that one game.
“It didn’t work out too well.”
He continued: “I think I played just over half the game, and I just walked off the pitch saying… ‘I’m injured, I can’t play anymore.’ Obviously it wasn’t a physical injury; it was just mentally I was shot to bits.”
‘It’ll be the easy way to just stop the headaches and everything else’
After the Crystal Palace episode came the moment where Sonny contemplated ending it all – thankfully he didn’t.
“Maybe I didn’t have enough balls for it, I don’t know,” Sonny said.
“I can’t exactly tell you what stopped me. I think I was probably just too scared to do it… I went there first just thinking about it, and then I got there, and it settled into my brain actually what was going on.
“I walked away, calmly got back on my bike, and started cycling on my way home. That was the first time in my mind I knew I was up against this battle. I knew I was at war and for the first time at that point I put football second.
“I’ve really got to get hold of myself here – this has got to come first before anything.”
Sonny Pike – The Greatest Footballer That Never Was, published by Reach Sport, is on sale now. Save 25% off on reachsportshop.com
You can follow Alasdair on Twitter at @adjhooper1992