Steven Caulker opens up on the end of his Scotland hopes, not signing for Celtic, saying sorry to Neil McCann and feeling humbled in a church in Kinross

A WhatsApp message pings. It is Steven Caulker apologising for being waylaid ahead of our chat, originally arranged for 9pm. His schedule has been pushed back.

Steven Caulker (right) is all set to start a new international career with Sierra Leone, the country of his grandfather William's birth

It might now be nearer 10pm his time, which is fine. Because not only is Morocco, where he is currently based, in an equivalent time zone to Britain, what’s another hour after almost two years of tracking the former Spurs, Liverpool and Dundee centre-half?

His Scottish ancestry – Caulker’s grandmother, Jessie, hailed from Dollar – is one reason why he is such a subject of fascination. His troubled, depression-interrupted career, journey(s) back from despair and admirable determination to help others broken by addiction – in his case, alcohol and gambling - are further areas of undeniable interest.

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There have been rumblings for several years about a potential switch of nationality from England to Scotland, permitted because his sole cap for the country of his birth came in a friendly against Sweden nine years ago.

Steven Caulker celebrates scoring on his debut for England in a 4-2 friendly defeat against Sweden in November 2012. It remained his sole cap. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Caulker scored in a 4-2 defeat with Zlatan Ibrahimovic rather stealing the show by hitting all four of his side’s goals, including a 30-yard bicycle kick. Fifa rules allow players to play for another country providing any previous appearances were non-competitive and they fulfil the eligibility criteria, which Caulker plainly does because of a Scottish granny.

He also seemed to fit Scottish requirements. A commanding right-footed centre-half, as comfortable in a back three as a back four. Although it worked out well on Saturday night, Scotland are still being forced to play a midfielder in defence.

Caulker, meanwhile, is in Morocco, about to begin the second chapter of his international career. His late Scottish grandmother remains a very relevant figure, since she’s the one who decided to flit from central Scotland to London, where she met and married William, from the west coast of Africa. The grandfather has moved to centre-stage in the saga of his international ambitions.

At 29, Caulker is preparing to make his debut for Sierra Leone, who are lodged at 108, between India and Kosovo, in the Fifa rankings. He was lured by the Leone Stars while Scotland dithered and could pull on the shirt of his new country for the first time as soon as Tuesday night, in the last game of a four-team tournament also involving Gambia, South Sudan and hosts Morocco.

Steven Caulker is introduced to the fans before a Scottish Cup clash against Motherwell after his surprise arrival at Dundee in February 2018

He has already completed his initiation, hence the reason my long-awaited opportunity to speak to Caulker has been pushed back a little further. "Sorry I'm still held up (doing initiation songs)," he texts together with a face palm emoji. It was to prove more challenging than a quick burst of "I Can Boogie", that's for sure.

“I had to sing an African song,” he reveals. “I don’t know many to tell you the truth, and it had to be acapella! And then after 30 seconds the music comes on and you have to dance!

"Aw man, I am a stiff Englishman!” he adds. “But the boys are good to me. They are pressing me to speak Creole. They speak English but they also speak Creole, which is like broken English.”

While he has been quickly accepted into the fold by his teammates, Fifa require more than a song to activate a nationality switch. Paperwork is still being completed although Caulker is hopeful of featuring against a Morocco B side in Casablanca as it has the status of an unofficial friendly. He does now have a Sierra Leone passport.

Steven Caulker walks off the pitch at Ibrox with manager Neil McCann after skippering Dundee in a 4-0 defeat against Rangers

Even if he takes part, he still won’t be tied down to Sierra Leone. Fitness and form permitting that will happen in January. There will be no going back once he makes his competitive debut in the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, which is one reason for the Sierra Leone Football Association’s determination to recruit him. It’s the first time they have qualified in 26 years, and they intend to make an impression.

So Caulker will very likely feature in a major finals before long. It just won’t be with Scotland. “It is over, yes,” he says. “I had conversations with (former Scotland coach) Steven Reid going back two-and-a-half-years. I declared my interest to play for Scotland. I wanted to play international football, again. I had spent time in Scotland, I was familiar with the culture, familiar with the people. I have family there. And I just said, I am back playing now regularly.

“Obviously I have had a turbulent time in my career, but I felt like I had something to offer. I just asked if they would watch me, basically.

“And from what I understand, they followed me, they watched me. We had the odd conversation. But, unfortunately, nothing materialised.”

Steven Caulker gets to know his new Sierra Leone teammates at the squad's camp in Morocco this week.

He was approached by Sierra Leone this summer. “They were far more passionate about bringing me here to the set-up,” he says. “It was actually explained to me well by the president of the football association who said to me, if you wait for Scotland, or England, you are just one player for them. You can be replaced - like I have been with England. Whereas coming to Sierra Leone I have a chance of leaving a legacy.”

He has already contributed significant funds to build a school in Kambia and now has plans to fund a second one. "I have had a very different career path as you know and the chance to leave a legacy in a country that’s not very well known and help put Sierra Leone on the map excites me," he says. "So that’s how it came about.”

Scotland’s evident failure to pursue Caulker felt particularly wasteful when news broke of his transfer to Fenerbahce this summer.

The club are one of those teams it’s impossible to refer to without also including the phrase "Turkish giants" – see also Galatasaray and Besiktas. But Caulker’s hopes of playing in Europe for the Yellow Canaries were dashed when manager Erol Bulut was sacked and replaced by Vitor Pereira. Caulker’s transfer from Alanyaspor, where Bulut was previously, had been speculated about since last summer but only went through in July, so he was clearly not the new manager's man.

“It is ironic because the coach last year really wanted me and the club could not make it happen and this time the coach did not want me when the club actually did make it happen," he says.

The transfer to Fenerbahce prompted Caulker to take matters into his own hands with regards to Scotland. Sensitive about accusations he was jumping on the Euro 2020 bandwagon he waited until the tournament was over before putting in a call to Steve Clarke.

He was within his rights to feel emboldened after joining one of Europe’s biggest clubs. “I felt it was the right time to get some clarity,” he explains. “Sierra Leone had just made contact. I just wanted some clarity so I could make the decision with a clear mind.

“I did call him (Clarke) because I wanted to know first-hand what his views were. Many people jumped on this bandwagon or this idea that I wanted to play for Scotland because they were in the Euros whereas my interest was from way before.”

“I just wanted to have a conversation,” he adds. “He told me quite frankly that firstly, he was pleased with what his defenders had done, which I respected, and secondly, because of coronavirus he was not able to get to Turkey to watch me. While he said that might be something he would potentially do at a later date, he was sticking with what he had for the moment.

“There are no hard feelings or anything like that,” adds Caulker. “He was straight up with me, which is all I asked for. He was honest and direct. Football is a game of opinions and many coaches have not liked me and many liked me. It is part of the game.”

Caulker is in the habit of phoning up managers though they rarely tend to be easy conversations. He drew up a “making amends” list of contacts as part of his 12-step recovery programme. Managers at clubs where he knows he burned bridges featured prominently, among them Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs and Neil McCann, who brought him to Dundee following a period when the defender was out of football altogether.

The six-month spell at Dens Park, while lodging with cousins in Drum, near Kinross, was meant to be a new start. One high point was skippering Dundee against Rangers at Ibrox in April 2018.

“My family were up at that game, they were visiting that week and so were able to come to the game. It was beautiful to do that with my son (Louis, now 10) in the crowd,” he says.

“I had quite a difficult time at QPR, so to come out of the other side of that and be given the armband, Neil McCann showed a lot of faith and trust in me, that was a special moment.”

And then some familiar demons started circling and he began drinking again, with Dundee having already turned down a remarkable £2m bid from Rosenborg for a player they had recruited for no expense except wages. He is eternally grateful to Dundee for honouring an agreement to let him leave for free on the last day of the summer transfer window in 2018.

“I suffered a couple of relapses during my time there,” he admits. “It was a difficult period while trying to get sober, as anyone out there who has experienced it will know first-hand.

“In the early stages it is difficult to get clean and stay clean. I was struggling to get any real length of time of sobriety together.

“Walking away from Dundee, while painful for both parties especially when reflecting on what could have been, was important on a personal note because those subsequent six months out of football helped me get sober. I’ve been sober ever since.”

Caulker was re-born in the unlikely surroundings of a parish church in Kinross, where he began his latest, and so far successful recovery programme. A more humbling set of circumstances would be hard to find.

“After being in London for so many years, there I was in a church in Kinross, doing AA again,” he says. “I picked up my recovery programme there. I had people there who helped me and supported me.”

From sitting head bowed amid pews in Kinross to now, playing on loan at Gaziantep, a mid-table Super Lig club managed by mentor Bulut and based 90 miles north of Aleppo on the Turkish border with Syria. It’s an incredible tale. He even survived a people carrier crash that killed his teammate and friend, the Czech Republic international Josef Sural, on the way back from an away game while with Alanyaspor. The Turkish club played a significant part in his renaissance.

He gives credit to Dundee as well. The move to Scotland underlined how he could not expect to play professional football and live the way he was living. “Certainly, from my side, I don’t regret it,” he says. “It was part of the journey.

“Neil reached out to me and offered me the opportunity to come and play for Dundee. People question why Dundee is on my CV. If you know me, you understand it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The people were great. I was away from the pressures of London and being at QPR, which was obviously difficult after being a big signing and then getting released early.

“We always had a plan that I would come there and rebuild and move back to the Championship or wherever it might be. So yes, we turned that Norway deal down after what, five games?

“It was crazy,” he admits. "But hindsight is a wonderful thing. A few months later there was nothing on the table. My difficulties off the pitch were not worthy of people trusting me and investing in me.”

Dundee allowed him to return to England to concentrate on his personal life. He later made a point of phoning McCann.

“I felt that I owed Neil and Dundee an apology,” he explains. “As far as I am concerned, I am a professional, I am paid to be a professional and I don’t feel like I was a professional (at Dundee) and that is something that I often look back on. There were so many opportunities that I was given around the UK at various clubs that I wasted. I called various other managers.”

McCann had felt let down. “I still very much support the club and I support Neil McCann, we’ve had conversations since,” he says. “And I was buzzing when they went up.” He hopes they stay up though he is worried to see both Dundee and Ross County at the bottom of the table, since he is close to Malky Mackay from Cardiff City days. “He is one of the best managers I had,” he says.

There was a suggestion Caulker had only agreed to come to Dundee because of an unwritten agreement with Brendan Rodgers, then Celtic manager, that a move to Parkhead would follow providing he proved his fitness.

“Never, no,” he says, firmly putting the record straight on that one. “The summer before it, 2017, I had an opportunity to go to Celtic which I turned down because I felt London and QPR were better for my recovery.

“A few months after that I was then out of the squad at QPR and we mutually terminated my contract. At that point, of course I thought I should have gone to Celtic.”

It’s another what if moment that he has learned how to process the hard way. Scotland’s apparent loss seems very much Sierra Leone’s gain.

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