It’s not been an easy road back for Mike ‘Boats’ Boateng, the twice-jailed former Bristol Rovers defender who now helps keep England’s future talent on track.
Mike served 16 months in prison for an attempted match-fixing fraud in 2013 before receiving a lifetime ban from football.
Now a qualified personal trainer, his list of clients include Jadon Sancho who stars for Borussia Dortmund in Germany. He also works with twins Ryan and Steven Sessegnon who play for Tottenham and Fulham respectively.
“I was the scapegoat for match-fixing. It was in the public interest for me to be punished,” the 28 year-old admits.
“I went to an introductory meeting in a café and I didn’t agree to anything. But things happen for a reason and a positive is now helping others not make the same mistake as me.”
Match-fixing is where individuals ensure a certain outcome in a game and money can then be made from betting on that outcome beforehand. Fixing is prohibited by the Football Association and treated very seriously.
Mike remembers getting a call from a friend when he got out of prison, telling him to put on the news.
“It said, ‘Michael Boateng has been given a lifetime ban from football’. I was just like, ‘Wow. What can I do?’
It led the former Crystal Palace Academy player to shut football out of his life, and a second spell behind bars followed for a drug-dealing charge in 2015.
Now Peckham-born Mike has joined up with ex-jail mate Rob on a podcast, Banged Up, where they chat to prison lawyer Claire about what life is really like being locked away.
“It’s very revealing. People are usually scared to ask me about prison. I was quite tentative to put myself out there like that, but in the end it was refreshing,” says Mike. The podcast series delves into the world of sharing cells with violent criminals, how to keep relationships going, what to wear and the many methods of smuggling in illegal items.
It was in prison that Mike earned his PT qualification and he’s now able to help out the likes of Sancho, who is Dortmund’s top scorer this season in the German Bundesliga.
“The sky’s the limit with Jadon,” says Mike. “He’s amazing and he’s such a good guy. It’s still mad that the boys don’t judge me [for being in prison] and that motivates me to set the right example to them.”
And his help isn’t limited to just training them.
“I also do close protection. If the young boys are going on a night out or a holiday they’ll ask me to come,” he chuckles. “I’m just rolling with them like a big brother, they feel comfortable around me. It’s good fun and I get some free holidays!”
Mike says the biggest thing he’s learnt from his time in prison is keeping his positivity intact – something that has also helped him cope with the coronavirus lockdown.
“I was young and naïve. Would I have done it [gone to the meeting] if I knew the consequences? Of course not, but it’s happened. I just have to grow from it and help others not to go in the same direction as I did.”
What other support is there for young players?
“Almost every Premier League club has a dedicated Player Liaison Officer (PLO) now,” explains Lorna McClelland, the pioneer behind the role which she held at Aston Villa for 14 years.
A PLO provides players with support at the club, from language tuition and help buying a house, to mentoring and talking through problems.
“I think there are more support systems now and education is better in clubs too,” says Lorna who now works as a consultant on player welfare and a counsellor for sports people.
“Coercion [to be involved in illegal activities] is quite common in football unfortunately and players don’t always understand the repercussions if they get caught, which they almost always do.
“I would encourage any player to speak to their PLO straight away and we can help. We’ve got to be somebody the player trusts, and know we won’t go to the manager, or the press or their parents.”