Former Everton forward Jose Baxter has praised chairman for helping to turn his life around, saying he ‘saved his life’.
Baxter became the Toffees’ youngest-ever player when he made his debut against Blackburn on the opening day of the 2007-08 season aged 16 years and 191 days.
However, the Bootle-born forward failed to kick on and would make only 14 more appearances over four years before being released in 2012, joining League One Oldham on a free transfer.
Off-field distractions certainly played a part in Baxter’s struggles, with the player admitting he got in with the ’wrong crowd’.
A move to Sheffield Utd in 2013 turned sour when he received two separate bans after testing positive for recreation drugs.
He was eventually released by the Blades in 2016, with Baxter confessing he soon hit ‘rock-bottom’.
Speaking to BBC Sport, the 27-year-old said:
“I did fall out of love with football a little bit. I was sitting round watching people on the telly when I was banned and watching scores, watching games and not really wanting to see it because I had anger towards myself.
“I would think, ‘That should be me out there playing, that should be me scoring and celebrating.’
“I didn’t love me. You always get people who said to me over the years, ‘You’re with the wrong crowd’, but that was only my choice, nobody else’s.
I was dealing with depression. I went to speak with people to get things off my chest - things I have never spoken about.
I cried a lot, which was great to get my emotions out. One day, I woke up, went to my local gym and never looked back.
I just woke up and I thought, ‘I need to get out.’ It was coming towards the end of my ban. I needed to get fit.
It was like an epiphany. I was exercising every day, getting back into a routine that I had in football. I’ve never had a negative thought since.
I was training the hardest I have ever trained in my life in the gym in Liverpool. I was working [out] two three times a day, really hard.”
With Baxter working hard to try and get his career back on track a phone call out of the blue from a familiar face offered him a lifeline.
“Then I got that call [from Bill Kenwright]. It was surreal for me; it was like a dream come true.
“I was in the chip shop, my phone goes, and it was an unknown number. I don’t really answer those numbers normally but something was telling me to pick it up.
“He said to me: ‘It seems like only yesterday that we spoke.’ Just with those words, I knew it was his voice, so I said: ‘How are we, chairman?’
“He said: ‘If anybody could turn your career around, I would love to be the man to do it for you.’ Straight away, I was welling up a little bit.
“I thought it was just going in [for] pre-season training with them and to try to find a club, which was good enough for me… that was still a dream come true.
“I started doing bits of community work helping people with dementia and Alzheimer’s when I got the call to come into a meeting with David Unsworth and Denise Barrett-Baxendale and got told I was getting a 12-month contract. Then I did cry.
“Bill Kenwright is like a grandad figure to everyone who comes across him. Even now, when I scored the other day, the first text on my phone was off him.
“He saved my life in a way, in terms of getting back into football and making me love it again. I can’t thank him enough.”
After a year back at Finch Farm Baxter was released but quickly found himself a new club in the form of former side Oldham, where he now finds himself playing under Manchester United legend Paul Scholes.
“I am still quite young - I’m 27. I still believe I’ve got a lot to give to the game. I’m keeping fit. People think ‘you were lucky’ but if I had been out of shape when I got that phone call, then this day would never have happened.
“I dragged myself up from rock bottom. I had good people around me - my family, my partner, my partner’s family - and I met a new bunch of lads in the gym and my little daughter came along as well. Everything is sort of on the way back up.
“He [Scholes] just wants me to score goals, get on the ball and enjoy my football. That’s the same with everyone in the team.
“I signed here thinking we can get promoted and nothing has changed. We have a great squad.
Our target is still to get promoted, whether that’s this season or next season, and I would just love to be part of that.”