Buea (Cameroon) (AFP) – Steven Caulker sits outside a hotel on the slopes of Mount Cameroon reflecting on his journey from the Premier League and the England team to representing Sierra Leone at the Africa Cup of Nations.

“It is quite a colourful story over the last 10 years,” he admits.

In 2012 he made his England debut aged 20, scoring in a 4-2 defeat against Sweden.

Among England’s other debutants that night was Wilfried Zaha, but last weekend he and Caulker were on opposing sides as Sierra Leone held the Ivory Coast 2-2 in Douala.

“I had a brief chat with him and he congratulated me on my return to top-flight football,” central defender Caulker says of Zaha.

“My story is one of many ups and downs. It’s been a journey. We have both sort of gone different ways.”

Caulker played 123 times in the Premier League, notably for Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, but lost his way because of well-documented mental health problems and battles with addiction.

He has since relaunched his career, briefly in Scotland and now in Turkey, where he is playing for Gaziantep.

Having just turned 30, he also answered the call to represent a Sierra Leone side ranked 108th in the world and for whom he qualifies through his grandfather.

Caulker had visited on several occasions to undertake charity work and fell in love with the west African country, but it was another ex-England international with links to Sierra Leone who helped clear a path to the Cup of Nations.

“When I first visited I just felt such a love and warmth from the country that I wanted to do more and that has grown over time,” Caulker says.

“In the summer I received an Instagram message from Carlton Cole asking if I’d be interested and that he could put me in touch, so I then spoke with the coach and the president and they sold me the dream.”

Able to change allegiance having only played for England in a friendly, he is currently with his Sierra Leone team-mates in Buea in Cameroon’s troubled anglophone southwest.

It is where Sierra Leone are preparing for Thursday’s game against Equatorial Guinea, where a win will take them through to the last 16 after they held both reigning champions Algeria and the Ivorians.

– New beginning –

He is the big star for Sierra Leone, and his coach John Keister believes Caulker’s impact has been transformative.

“We’re very pleased to have him. It just gives us another 30, 40, 50 percent,” says Keister.

“To have somebody at that level making a very big decision to come and represent Sierra Leone, a very small country, speaks volumes for the guy.”

Caulker is clearly more comfortable in his current surroundings than in the unforgiving environment of a Premier League dressing room.

“We love and respect each other. During my time in the Premier League I had that at clubs, and I also had a different experience where there was a few egos bouncing around. That can be quite challenging.

“Fitting in can sometimes be difficult, but here I genuinely feel like I’m at home.”

Caulker has been open about how he lost vast amounts of money gambling and struggled with alcohol, but he believes football still needs to do much more to help others with similar woes.

“It has improved in terms of talking about it, but in terms of action, I don’t see any. There are still many, many players who reach out to me in confidence who are struggling.

“I think it’s a sad situation.”

Caulker spent several months training on his own in 2018 feeling clubs were put off signing him because of his chequered past.

Then came the opportunity to move to Turkey for a fresh start at Alanyaspor.

“It fitted well. Being away, in warm weather, living on the beachfront, it suited the new me, the beginning of the new me I guess.”

He will return to Turkey after Sierra Leone’s campaign ends, but he has not given up on a return to where it all began.

“I am just living in the moment. If you had asked me six or seven months ago, I wouldn’t have predicted I would be here today.

“Life has a funny way of making things happen. I’m working hard. I’m clean and sober and I’m hoping one day I will return to the Premier League to complete the full circle.”