A footballing career that spans two decades is bound to have its fair share of ups and downs but, in the case of Jobi McAnuff, they have not only been extraordinary, but also the making of a truly inspiring man.
“In a word, no. I can’t believe it’s been that long,” the Leyton Orient captain says, when asked to recall his professional debut with Wimbledon in August 2001, the game that changed everything.
“Starting out as a boy and coming through the system, my goal was to get into the first team. I just wanted to become a footballer, and the fact I’ve been able to do that for over 20 years, to be able to call it my job for that long, it’s something I’d never even have dreamt of. The magic of it isn’t lost on me.”
That debut, against Norwich City in Division One was, indeed, just the beginning. Over 750 appearances later for club and country, he’s no longer a boy, but a man. Speaking from his home in London, the 39-year-old midfielder is assured, accomplished and, above all else, humble. He’s a man who has been moulded by life experience, taking the good with the bad.
“Growing up, football was everything to me,” he adds. “Kicking the ball on the street, going to the park every weekend, playing at school every lunch time – it was, and still is, my life. As young men, players have to sacrifice a lot; so to achieve that first goal was fantastic.
“It’s sounds cliché, but you do dream of winning a league or lifting a trophy when you’re a kid, playing in the playground. You dream of reaching the top and playing against the best players. I’ve played for Jamaica in some fantastic places and against some amazing players, like Lionel Messi. I’ve been promoted to the EFL and the Premier League… I’m lucky.”
While the man himself may attribute an element of luck to his success, it’s his unerring willingness to learn that shines through in his stories. His education has been continuous, because he has allowed it to be so.
Having broken into Wimbledon’s senior side, his career would eventually take him to the very top, with Reading, but not before a generous helping of disappointment. The Premier League had been within touching distance for McAnuff as many as four times before he skippered the Royals to the top-flight in 2011/12, enough to make anyone wonder whether the world is working against them.
“I’d been involved in four failed Play-Off bids with four different Clubs before I eventually reached the Premier League with Reading, and you get to the point where you think it’s never going to happen,” he says with a smile. “To go through all that disappointment and not only achieve the goal but do it in the way we did, by winning the league, it certainly lessened the blow.
“It’s part of football, dealing with the lows. Unless you’re a top-end Premier League player, there will be more lows than highs, and it’s how you deal with the lows that determines your success. It’s important not to get too down when things don’t go well, or too carried away when things are going well. There have been some really tough moments in my career; I remember going to the Play-Off Final with West Ham as a youngster having been regularly involved since joining the club, and getting a knock on the door on the morning of the Final [to say I wouldn’t be involved]. That was a really difficult one to deal with.
“Losing in the Final with Reading was a huge blow too. I remember all my family being there and my dad telling me that everything happens for a reason, but after losing the biggest game of my life I couldn’t quite get my head around it. The message was an important one: ‘of course it’s disappointing, but don’t let it eat you up’. I used it as motivation to kick on the following season and the rest is history.
“I got a lot of great advice at a young age and it’s stood me in good stead throughout my career. I was taught not to get carried away, in terms of classing yourself as a footballer. You quickly get told that until you’ve played 150 games you haven’t established yourself. I was also taught that a footballing career goes by so quickly. I remember looking at the likes of Neil Ardley, Gareth Ainsworth and Robbie Earle and they all said ‘before you know it, you’re going to be my age’, and it’s something I try to relay to kids now, because they weren’t wrong. It’s been one big learning experience.”
It’s at his current club, though, where he has been hit hardest, both on and off the pitch. Now in his second spell with Orient, the first – in 2014/15 - brought relegation to League Two. All of a sudden, McAnuff was at the other end of the English footballing ladder; unfamiliar territory for a player who had spent his entire career towards the point of the pyramid.
His second spell, however, has been one of redemption. Back in East London, he took on the responsibility of captaincy once more, and led the O’s to promotion back into the EFL in 2018/19. Another string to his bow, and yet another learning experience.
“Orient has been a bit of a mixed bag, going from some of my best times at Reading to some of my lowest points, with the relegation from League One,” he continues. “I’d never played outside the Championship before and everything at Orient was geared towards going up off the back of their own failed Play-Off attempt the year before, so I never imagined that season would go the way it did. To suffer relegation was really tough; when you go through that disappointment, you take it personally. It really hurt; it was tough on the fans and everyone at the club.
“When something like that happens, you get things thrown at you which you think are unfair. Of course, you have to take responsibility as a part of the team, and I know I was nowhere near my best on the pitch that season. To not be able to put it right the following season made it a difficult time, and there were questions about my character and motives, which is something I’d never accept. To have the chance to help the club get back into the League was a real factor in the decision to return; I didn’t feel that the fans had seen the best of me, and it’s another case where we all had a real objective. We all came together to get the club back into the EFL and, to say we did that in two years, it’s a real achievement and one I’m proud to have been a part of.”
Then, out of joy, devastation.
If indeed there had been any questions over McAnuff’s character, the next unexpected occurrence in his life was a tragedy that saw him emerge as a leader, more so than during any of his on-pitch successes.
In June 2019, the footballing world was left shocked by the sudden passing of Orient’s promotion-winning manager, Justin Edinburgh, at the age of 49. A friend and colleague to McAnuff, Edinburgh’s death came just weeks after he had guided the club back into the League.
“On a personal level, it’s really affected me, it’s been tough,” McAnuff says. “I’d been fortunate, in that I hadn’t really had to deal with loss before, not one as sudden as this. I’d lost grandparents, but that was expected because of old age or illness, but this came right out of the blue.
“I’ve mentioned the highs and lows of football, and the weeks prior to Justin’s passing were as high as I’ve been as a footballer, winning the league and achieving that objective. The whole summer, you’re buzzing, you know? You’re in a real state of euphoria for weeks, and you’re looking forward. To get the news that Justin had suffered cardiac arrest and then not receiving positive news after that, and ultimately getting the news that he had passed away, it’s still hard to get my head around. We’re still at the same training ground, we’re still at the same stadium and we still have a lot of the same group of players.
“With social media being the way it is, photos and videos crop up all the time, and so I think about Justin on a day-to-day basis. I think about him, I think about us.”
Following his manager’s tragic passing, McAnuff offered support to Edinburgh’s family, and was named a Trustee of the charity set up in his honour - The Justin Edinburgh 3 Foundation. The O’s skipper has acted as a role model, an example to others, and speaks openly and honestly about dealing with loss.
“The one thing with Justin that I’ll always take with me, and the one thing that has helped me, is his attitude – not just to football, but to life.
“It’s easy to say ‘be positive and puff out your chest’ but he epitomised that on a daily basis, and wouldn’t accept anyone doing the opposite. If you weren’t willing to go with him and be positive, he just wouldn’t accept it, and that’s what’s helped me and helped us as a group. It’s that mantra that, no matter how bad things get – and this was as bad as I’ve felt in my life – you have to crack on and keep moving forward. He wouldn’t want anything less. His family have done an amazing job with the Foundation that I’m proud to be a trustee of, and that follows in those same footsteps. There are dark days that we have to deal with, but we use his mentality and outlook to get through it, and it’s something that will stick with me forever.”
McAnuff’s career is one that has been littered with undeniable achievements and defined by unimaginable setbacks.
Since the life-changing day at Selhurst Park at the turn of the century that kick-started his career, he’s constantly sought inspiration from others. Now, there can be no doubt that he’s become a source of inspiration himself.
If his time as a player has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. You can bet that, regardless of what the next chapter holds, he will continue to take learnings from his experiences and use them for good.
“Would I like to be a part of something that can effect change when I hang up my boots? Of course I would,” he concludes.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been playing as though it’s my last season for the last four or five years. I don’t tend to look beyond the end of the season, and certainly won’t start now. First and foremost, I’m just enjoying myself as much as I can. What comes next is a tough one to answer.”
This feature first appeared in the Winter 2020 edition of the EFL Magazine.