Drugs, booze, kidnapping and a Zimbabwe charity: the remarkable fall and rise of former Forest player Cecil Nyoni
Cecil Nyoni was on a treadmill in a Hillsborough gym when they came for him.
The former Sheffield Wednesday starlet, who a decade ago was being widely spoken about in the corridors of Middlewood Road as a future star of Gary Megson’s first team, was kidnapped, taken to a desolate graveyard and told he would take a beating every 20 minutes the £600 he owed didn’t arrive.
The debt he had accrued was for cocaine. Nyoni, who went on to sign for Nottingham Forest before dropping into the non-league scene, had spiralled into a lifestyle of gambling addiction, alcohol and substance abuse. He was at rock-bottom.
“I knew every drug dealer in Sheffield,” he said. “They all knew I’d been at Wednesday and thought I had loads of money. They’d let me take drugs off them and thought I could pay them with my football money, but the fact was I’d gambled all my money away.
“I couldn’t afford it. I had been scared to answer the phone and it came to the point he thought I was taking the piss out of him.
“All the people I thought were my mates that I had been partying with, doing cocaine with, they didn’t come to help me. They were talking about stabbing me, where they were going to bury my body at Snake Pass. I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Only Nyoni’s mother picked up the phone. He is under no illusions that she saved his life.
Speaking just weeks after his release from a South Yorkshire mental health facility, the Zimbabwe-born 27-year-old opens up on the mistakes he has made in life while looking forward to what he hopes will be a brighter future.
He’s not out of the woods, he admits, but feels he has the support around him to battle demons that have swamped him since his latter days as a teenager at Wednesday.
A strong, imposing figure capable of playing in defence or midfield, he made two cup appearances for Megson’s side but under Dave Jones failed to see any pathway to the first team. He became impatient and after a conversation with Nottingham Forest went about trying to force a move.
On the day his severance package with Wednesday was signed, he lost £3,000 on a roulette table.
“I’d started playing up,” he said. “I would miss training, I’d turn up drunk. Eventually Lee Bullen stepped in and said we needed to find a solution. I left Wednesday and Forest said they’d cover me for that pay.
“The problem was that there was an issue with my registration because it was outside of the transfer window. Bully put me onto Limerick in Ireland so I could play first team football, but I got there and the same rules applied.
“That rejection affected me and that’s when my depression really started. I was gambling more and the only time I ever felt OK was when I was drinking. I felt suicidal.
“I’d drink every day,” he said. “I’d get a taxi to Eccy Road and end up buying drinks for people I didn’t know just so I had some company.”
Within months Nyoni was playing non-league football for the likes of Matlock, Stocksbridge Park Steels and Goole. He was back on a football field, but it was ultimately a transition that only sent him spiralling further.
Having moved to Leeds in attempt to get away from his lifestyle, his kidnapping left him terrified to return to Sheffield. When his mother was hospitalised with heart issues a couple of years ago Nyoni found himself too scared to visit, even when she fell into a coma, for fear of being jumped by someone in the city’s drug network.
Such was his turmoil, he organised for a Jehovah's Witness to visit in his place and to report back how she was.
Having played for 14 non-league clubs in a turbulent few years, Nyoni no longer wants to play football having embarked on a period of self-reflection over the past year.
Furloughed from his job as a utility bills salesman and staring at endless football matches on the television throughout lockdown, his mental health took a rapid downturn. He describes it as one of the best things that happened to him.
“I was admitted to a mental health ward in Sheffield, which gave me a chance to be around my family,” he said. “I had completely neglected them for so many years. I’ve got a young daughter and I was so caught up in that negative lifestyle I lost all perspective.
“I have two nephews and a niece. They held me in the highest regard when I was at Wednesday and for them to see me in the state I was in in hospital was such a shock to the system. I was their hero when I was playing and I could have ruined that.
“It made me realise I don’t want to be another deadbeat dad. It made me realise I need to do better.”
He’s made huge progress. December 2021 will see the inaugural ‘Cecil Nyoni Primary School Soccer Tournament’ take place in Zimbabwe, where the 27-year-old wants to use football as a positive distraction from drugs and alcohol.
His dream is to one day open an institute to offer young Zimbabweans the opportunity to make a career in the sport.
More locally, he is speaking to a number of academies to offer advice to young players based on his experiences and wants to act as a mentor going forward. One day, he says, he’d like to study for a PhD in mental health care.
“Young footballers can fall into the wrong things, they just have leeches around them,” Nyoni said. “I want to be able to provide that guidance and help people. I want to help.”