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Danny Drinkwater exclusive: 'I just want to play football again... I've still got so much to give'

Jack Kenmare

| Last updated 

Danny Drinkwater exclusive: 'I just want to play football again... I've still got so much to give'

"I actually remember thinking, 'What’s happened to me? Have I fizzled out that much; to the point where a bigger team isn't going to take me on a free?’ I always wanted to be a free agent at this age but now it's come around... things are different."

Like he has on several occasions during our hour-long chat, Danny Drinkwater is being open and honest about the past 12 months of his life.

At 33, the former England international has been without a club since he was released by Chelsea in late June last year. His last competitive game? A 1-0 defeat to West Brom on April 30, 2022, while playing on loan for then-Championship side Reading.

"Towards the end of my time there, when I started picking up fitness, I thought, 'I actually feel alright here. I'm starting to really help the team,'" he tells SPORTbible. "I thought I'd done enough for a bigger club to come along and take a sniff. I thought someone might give me a shot to prove myself but it didn't happen."


It has been 427 days since that afternoon at The Madejski Stadium.

For many footballers, the mere thought of being clubless for so long would give them sleepless nights. Drinkwater has, however, largely enjoyed the lengthy break. As well as renovating a number of properties locally, he owns the Manchester-based restaurant Firefly – a project that keeps him busy.

“I've also spent more time with my family than ever before,” he grins. “I've absolutely loved being with my kids."

But there has been a certain something missing; an old friend. From his home in Manchester, the experienced midfielder wants to make some noise as the transfer window flings open its doors again. After being met with several offers at the end of last season and in January, the once-£35 million-rated midfielder remains unattached to a club.


“I want to be excited about a project," he says. "I'm just waiting for something to excite me. I need that burning feeling again.”

The past three years have been the most difficult of Drinkwater's career. From a desperate six-month loan spell at Turkish side Kasimpasa, a year before he was released, to being told he wasn't part of Maurizio Sarri's plans with an hour left of a transfer window.

He doesn’t shirk away from admitting his time at Stamford Bridge was a disaster but now, the two-time Premier League winner is eager to prove his worth in pre-season — whether that be at recently relegated Leicester City, a club he speaks so fondly about, or with former teammate N'Golo Kante in Saudi Arabia. The time has come to get back out there.

"I'm sat here, twiddling my thumbs. I'm just buzzing to get involved again."

Image credit: Instagram/dannydrinkwater
Image credit: Instagram/dannydrinkwater

Two moments in particular have caught Danny Drinkwater’s attention of late. The first being Leicester’s relegation; just seven years after they pulled off arguably the biggest shock in English football history by winning their first-ever Premier League title.

He was “gutted” to see his old side suffer in those final weeks.

"I don't think they should have gone down with the quality of players they've still got there but I think we need to look at this as another reset,” he says. “We've done it before, where we've been promoted before enjoying a great period. It's hard to look at the positives but the club are in a much better position compared to six or seven years ago.”


Drinkwater, who offered to play for Leicester after being released by Chelsea last summer, was not only a key member of that title-winning squad but a pivotal character in their return to England's top flight.

He was named in the 2014 Championship Team of the Year soon after Nigel Pearson's side earned promotion. A steady season in the Premier League followed before an achievement beyond their wildest dreams played out. Drinkwater featured in 35 of those 38 games, contributing 11 goals. "The actual journey with Leicester was my favourite moment," he says.

"Winning the Premier League was the icing and all the lads did unbelievable to achieve what we did but being part of the Championship team, avoiding relegation and then winning the league... that block of things meant more than just the trophy."

Almost a decade after being promoted to the Premier League and Leicester must reinvent themselves if they stand any chance of replicating that feat. James Maddison has already left for pastures new, while Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans look set to leave alongside Wilfred Ndidi, who is being tracked by a number of clubs.


Those departures will inevitably leave big gaps in an already depleted squad. So would Drinkwater return if they asked?

"When I left Leicester, some people called me a snake," he remembers. "To this day, people still say I shouldn't have left. They point out that I'm not playing now but then some others say, 'Come back and get us back into the Premier League'.

"I would like to go back. I'd like to be a part of the story again, helping them get back to where they belong. When I'm fit, the quality is still there. If a team can get me to match fitness and flying again then I'll be nothing but a benefit to that club. I'd also like to think I'm a big asset off the pitch.

"If it's something the Leicester fans want then they need to make more noise about it. Let's see what happens.”

Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

The other moment that recently made an impression on Drinkwater involves former teammate N’Golo Kante; someone he has a great deal of respect for. At Leicester, they played 34 times together, forming a dominant midfield partnership that helped bring unprecedented success to the King Power.

Seven years on and Kante recently joined Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad after his contract at Chelsea expired. A three-year deal with the Saudi Pro League champions, who also have fellow World Cup winner Karim Benzema in their ranks, is said to be worth around €100 million [£86m] per season.

Drinkwater feels one last reunion with Kante would make perfect sense.

“If I was to team up again with Kante, the team knows they’ve got a Premier League-winning formula there," he says. "If that’s something they are interested in then I’m game.

"I think bringing players like Benzema, Ronaldo and Kante to the country is massively attractive for other professionals as well. You want to test yourself. I’d be more than willing to listen to offers and have a look. I’m sure it would be a great experience. They are building towards something special."

As you can probably tell by now, Drinkwater is itching to get going again; especially after such a damaging period at former club Chelsea.

Image credit: PA
Image credit: PA


"It's difficult to pinpoint where it went wrong," says Drinkwater, stumped by a question he must have been asked a thousand times before.

Ever since Manchester United sold him to Leicester at the age of 21, Danny Drinkwater had one big ambition; to play for a top-four club again. It was a constant source of motivation so when Chelsea swooped, he thought it was the ideal chance to prove his worth at the very highest level.

Sadly, it never quite materialised. From his full debut against Everton in October 2017 to his release date last year, the midfielder made a total of 23 appearances for the Blues, scoring one goal. It was a spell that tainted his reputation; a move that many still talk about to this day.

After a long pause, Drinkwater attempts to sum up why his career at Stamford Bridge stagnated.

"There are probably a few different things that come into that," he admits. "Chances being one. Injuries being another. I'd also say my lack of patience with it, to be honest. I wasn't used to sitting around waiting for playing time. It wasn't what I was about as a player. I did find myself in a place of frustration.

"After that first year, I kind of had a gut feeling about where it was going."

In the past, some have pointed towards the weight of expectation around his £35 million price tag. "Honestly, It never really popped into my head," he says about that transfer fee. "You buzz off it to your mates for a laugh and a week later, it's kind of forgotten really.

"You just hope you become worth it to the club but obviously, some players don't..."

Drinkwater laughs after making the previous statement but you can sense it was married with a twinge of sadness. It was never meant to pan out this way. He was desperate to make it work after moving down to London.

"Honestly, I joined that club wanting to fall in love with the place. I wanted to love it so badly," he says.

"Cheshire and Surrey are quite similar places, just one is up North and the other down South. I wanted to fully embrace the area. I wanted to get fully involved with the club – just like I did with Leicester when I loved the fans, the stadium and the training ground.

"When I first signed the contract, I bought a house down there within a month. That's how much I wanted it to work. I was going to move the family down, the dogs and everything. I wanted to give it 100% but within the first season I was like, ‘Ah, something isn't right here. This is messed up.’”.

Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

Eight months into his time at Chelsea and Drinkwater was starting to get impatient. He picked up a number of injuries in that debut season, which naturally restricted game time but regular first-team minutes were becoming hard to come by, even at full fitness.

"It just wasn't clicking," he says. "I remember saying to my agent that summer, ‘Listen, this isn't working. I need to go. I need to get another move.' I’d only played 12 games in that first season when I was used to playing 35."

His fall from grace under Antonio Conte is well-documented. Conte says he bought Drinkwater to help him alternate between two systems; the 3-4-3 and 3-5-2. "When we play against a big team, it's very important to have more solidity with three midfielders and two strikers," the Italian said at the time. "I want to give more freedom to Eden [Hazard]."

On the subject of Hazard, his former teammate says he was often left open-mouthed by the Belgian’s talent.

“Honestly, he was unbelievable," Drinkwater says. "Some of the stuff he used to do in training. I'd just stand there scratching my head thinking, 'How did he just do that?'. He didn't even have to tie his laces, that's how good he was. He'd get the ball, take two or three players on with ease and just bang it in. And then he'd do the same in games."

But unlike Hazard, the increasingly-irritated Drinkwater was very much on the fringes of first-team action. To this day he strongly believes he deserved more playing time, even in that second season, when new manager Maurizio Sarri made his intentions clear by signing midfielder Jorginho from Napoli.

"I don't want to start comparing players too much because everyone's different but if you look at Jorginho, for example, his first season was really tricky and Sarri stuck with him," Drinkwater says. "He played pretty much every game and he's gone on to achieve some great things.

"That first season would have helped him so much, just for his confidence and getting used to the speed of the Premier League. He had the momentum and rhythm of the team. I didn’t even get three consecutive games in a row under Conte. It was impossible to impress. I wanted to show the manager, as well as the fans, that I was here to play and make a difference.”

Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

Drinkwater’s future at Chelsea was soon thrown into further doubt when he was called into the office of Maurizio Sarri with an hour remaining of the transfer window.

“I did pre-season that summer and he brought Jorginho in during that window. It got to the last hour of the window shutting. And four or five weeks before, I told Chelsea I wanted to leave and they said, 'No we're going to bring in a new manager, just give it another shot.' I was like fine, at least they are trying to keep hold of me for some reason.

“I got fit and Sarri's staff seemed to love me. Sarri did as well. We were bouncing off each other. He'd take the piss out of me and I'd do the same, so I thought it actually might work out here. But literally in the last hour the window, and this was with Gianfranco Zola, who was in the office translating for Sarri because his English wasn’t great. He said, 'I think you might get frustrated this season with playing time.'

“I was like, 'What? You do realise I've got an hour. You've given me an hour with no indication at all of what's going to happen. And now you drop this.’

“Sarri started speaking about interest abroad but that wasn't an option. I needed to stay at home in England with my family. My son was only one at the time. The relationship between me and him [Sarri] was hostile after that, and it took two or three weeks to calm everything down.”

Drinkwater would only make one appearance during the 2018/19 campaign; a 2-0 defeat to Manchester City in the Community Shield. It was an incredibly difficult time, both on and off the pitch.

Towards the end of that season, a series of events occurred that saw his mental health deteriorate.

"I had a few close deaths in my family," he says. "My nan and grandad passed away. My dad was diagnosed with Leukaemia, my brother was going through his own thing after the army, and we lost our dog. They were all things I didn’t really want to speak about.

"On the pitch, football was also brutal at the time. It wasn't going in the direction I wanted it to. And on top of that, I had the situation with my son. It was a snowball effect. I remember chatting to someone about it and they spoke about spinning too many plates. I found that relatable. I couldn’t cope. I didn't know how to express it."

Image credit: PA
Image credit: PA

At the time, Drinkwater says he can remember thinking, 'I've had enough. Football can piss off.'

Instead of concentrating on getting back into the first-team fold at Chelsea, he would distract himself with matters outside of the game.

"I was living in central London. I was single. I had all these things going on. It happens to a lot of lads," he says. "The easy way out is to just go out and enjoy yourself. Go to a bar and have a few drinks. But at the end of the day, it's not solving anything. You're just covering it up. I remember thinking, 'I'm not being my normal self here.'"

When asked about the moment he knew things had to change, Drinkwater recalls an incident in Cheshire, when he crashed his Range Rover through a wall at 12:30am. Two female passengers were in the £125,000 car, which sustained £50,000-worth of damage.

Drinkwater was arrested, banned from driving for 20 months and ordered to do 70 hours of community service after admitting to drink-driving.

He will never forget that morning of April 8, when he reflected on his regrettable actions from a cold, dark prison cell.

"When you've got a young kid at the time as well, your perspective changes," he says. "I remember being sat in the prison cell afterwards. It was the morning I was supposed to pick my son up. I rarely got a morning, as well. In my head, I was thinking, 'You're an idiot. You've had a car crash after a night out and for what?’

"It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, 'Fucking hell, you need to fix up really fast’. That was the biggest wake-up call ever."

Like so many others suffering from mental health issues, Drinkwater would often try and brush any problems under the carpet. That incident, however, changed everything. His mental health was at an all-time low but being able to speak to someone, in this case a sports psychologist, would make a real difference.

"It was like a battle," he remembers. "I wasn’t in a place where I was clinically depressed but it wasn't a nice place to be. Luckily, I spoke to the right people and everything calmed down. It was a lot of mental noise. I was beating myself up about things but when you speak to people, it definitely helps. You get things off your chest."

Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

As the 2018/19 season came to a close, Drinkwater was “absolutely adamant” that he wasn't going to dip his toes into the now-infamous Chelsea loan system. When he joined two years previously for £35 million, the last thing he expected was to be sent out on loan.

“Never for one second did I think I’d be pushed in that direction," he says, before letting out a sarcastic laugh. "And then I ended up getting sucked into it."

A five-month spell at Burnley didn’t go to plan but a week later, then-Aston Villa manager Dean Smith decided to snap him up in January on another loan deal. He was desperate to try and rediscover some form that season. In fact, Drinkwater says he almost tried too hard to impress.

"As a footballer, say if you've been flying and everything was going right, and then suddenly your form drops, you almost try too hard to get back. It almost trips you up. I've been there," he says.

"I went on loan to Burnley and I was thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I'm not even playing. This is ridiculous. What's going on?' And then I went to Villa, played the first four or five games. And to be honest, I was stinking. I wasn't myself at all in terms of quality and fitness.

"So I remember on the training pitch, I'd be running way more than what I usually would. I was doing more gym work. I'd be doing lots of stuff at home to improve. After I left Villa I remember thinking, 'What was I doing? How is doing all that extra stuff going to help? It's not what you do. You've never done that in your career. So why would you do it?'

"You almost fight it. It can do the total opposite."

Image credit: Alamy
Image credit: Alamy

After making a solitary appearance for Chelsea U21's in a 4-3 defeat to Bristol Rovers, Drinkwater managed to pick up some much-needed minutes with Turkish side Kasimpala from January 2021 onwards, although it was a far cry from Premier League football.

Those standards improved the following campaign at Reading, when he enjoyed arguably the best season since his time at Leicester, but he knew his time at Chelsea was all but over ahead of his contract expiring. It was, in his own words, a strange ending to a five-year spell.

"I think my last day at Cobham [Chelsea's training ground] was before I went out on loan to Reading," he says. "After that Reading spell, I never got an invite back. I thought someone at the club would say, 'I know it's not worked out Danny but you were really appreciated around the club, the lads loved you. The staff loved you.’ I got none of that."

Drinkwater was, however, offered a coaching role at Stamford Bridge, a year before his contract expired – a gesture that brought more questions than answers.

"Bearing in mind I was 32 at the time, I remember them saying I was unbelievable with the younger players so we’d love to offer you a coaching job of some degree after you've finished football. I was thinking, ‘They’ve treated me like this for the past few years and then go and offer me a job afterwards? Was it some sort of compensation or what?’"

A few weeks before officially becoming a free agent, the 33-year-old penned a statement apologising to Chelsea fans for how his transfer played out. He described it as a "business move gone wrong" and a "hugely disappointing" spell that was hampered by a number of different factors, including injuries and a lack of game time.

Today, a year after those comments were made, Drinkwater is still without a club.

"I do miss playing but if something wasn't to come in again this window that didn't excite me, and I decided to knock it on the head properly... what can I say? Football has given me some absolutely great years. It's also given me some shitty times but the good years definitely outweigh the bad.

"I was able to buy my mum and dad the dream bungalow. I've been able to take care of my family so am I going to sit here and say football is shit? No chance. Has it been ideal for me and my position now? 100% Was it a dream as a kid? 100%.

"The last three years have been the toughest in regards to football but I'm not going to sit here and complain.”

Featured Image Credit: Alamy - Instagram/dannydrinkwater

Topics: Danny Drinkwater, Chelsea, Chelsea Transfer News & Rumours, Leicester City, Aston Villa, Burnley, Premier League, EFL Championship, Reading, Turkey, Spotlight

Jack Kenmare
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