Jay Hart: The footballer rebuilding his life 5,000 miles from home
It is April 2015 and a long and unspectacular season in the eighth tier of English football is drawing to a close for Clitheroe and their 24-year-old striker Jay Hart.
The Lancashire part-timers sit in mid-table in the Northern Premier League Division One North with two games left, well adrift of leaders Salford City – and their Class of ’92 part-owners – but comfortably clear of relegation.
Their penultimate match is a 40-mile trip to Mossley, east of Manchester. It is a seemingly run-of-the-mill fixture, but it changes Hart’s life and brings unwanted global attention on Clitheroe FC – average league gate 290.
The afternoon starts badly as the team are beaten 4-1 by a Mossley team hosting a ladies’ day – aimed at attracting more female fans.
But that is just the start for Hart. After the match, he is filmed on a phone having sex with a woman in the manager’s dugout while wearing club clothing.
The clip is posted on social media, Hart is sacked by Clitheroe, his girlfriend – the mother of his two children – leaves him, and he is ridiculed in the street.
“At my lowest point I thought about ending my life a few times,” the former Blackburn Rovers academy player tells BBC Sport.
Hart is now playing professionally for Thimphu City in Bhutan – a remote kingdom nestling in the Himalayas between India and China.
In a frank interview in which he stresses he is not looking for sympathy and takes full responsibility for his actions, Hart opens up on the shame he brought upon himself and those close to him.
Saying “if others can learn from my story, I’d rather help,” he reflects on the depression and anxiety which followed, and how he is rebuilding his life 5,000 miles away from his hometown of Accrington.
‘I’d spend most of my wage on beer and cocaine’
Hart, who was working as an upholsterer at the time, was six months into his spell at Clitheroe when his world came crashing down.
He admits he had issues with drink at the time and, after a brief appearance as a substitute against Mossley, headed to the bar at the ground. He blames what followed on him being drunk – and thought he and the woman were out of sight.
“I’d had more than a few drinks, and I want to say I’m sorry to my family and everyone involved at Clitheroe,” he told the Daily Mail after being sacked. “I just want to get my apology out there.”
But as news of what had happened spread far and wide, Hart began to have bouts of depression and anxiety. Full of regret, he tried to blot it out by drinking more, and taking cocaine.
“I was in a bad place,” he tells BBC Sport. “Drink and drugs took a grip of me and it was very hard to stop.
“I used to go to the pub on my own and I couldn’t tell you how many beers I’d drink on a weekend. You feel like it helps your situation at the time but it never does.
“It came to a point that every weekend I’d spend most of my working wage on beer and cocaine.”
Kicked out of home by his partner, Hart went to live with his mum Dawn, but quickly became reclusive.
“I was getting comments whenever I walked down the street so I’d stay inside my mum’s home for weeks,” he says.
“It’s such a horrible feeling. I used to put on a brave face in front of people and then when I was alone these dark thoughts and feelings would haunt me.
“There were times I’d cry myself to sleep and wished I never woke up. If it wasn’t for the people around me I might have ended up taking my own life.”
Kee to a better life
One of the first people to contact Hart when he was at his lowest was Billy Kee, the Accrington Stanley forward who has opened up in the past about his own struggle with anxiety and depression.
The pair knew each another through football, and Hart, who has also been supported by close family members, says: “All of Billy’s advice was amazing. He is so easy to talk to and makes complete sense of everything.
“Once I realised I actually had all these people that loved and cared for me, these feelings of suicide slowly started fading.
“I am a totally different person now. I appreciate life so much more and I feel much better in myself as a person.”
Three months after being sacked by Clitheroe, Hart re-signed for nearby Colne and was leading scorer in the North West Counties League Premier Division in 2015-16.
He then turned out for several non-league clubs in the north west – including Ramsbottom United, Nelson, Northwich Victoria and Longridge Town – before receiving an offer to play in the the last great Himalayan kingdom.
From Longridge to mountains, monasteries and magic
With its scenic mountains and stunning Buddhist monasteries on hilltops, Bhutan is a traveller’s dream.
Travel guides describe it as a country shrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments.
“The views are mesmerising and they certainly lift your mood,” says Hart.
Sandwiched between two Asian giants – China in the north and India in the south – it has a population of about 800,000 and lists archery as its national sport.
However, football is on the rise and Thimphu City, founded in 2012, are one of the leading clubs.
Several of their players play for Bhutan’s national team, who were once bottom of Fifa’s world rankings but are now 186th, above the likes of Bangladesh and Gibraltar.
They play their home games at the 15,000-capacity Changlimithang Stadium, located more than 2,300m above sea level, and recently appointed Walsall-born Josh Shepherd as manager for the 2019 Bhutan Premier League season, which starts later this month.
Shepherd has set about strengthening the team and contacted Hart, who he has known since the pair played for their respective schools in Accrington, after the player helped Longridge win promotion to the North West Counties League Premier Division.
‘You are not alone and never will be’
Having arrived in Thimphu two weeks ago, Hart is still getting used to his new surroundings in a city where there are no traffic lights and only three cinemas – none showing foreign films.
His first hair cut in Bhutan cost 90p and he is already learning the local language.
“It’s a beautiful country, the people don’t have much but they are so appreciative,” says Hart. “You never see them sad, they are always smiling.”
Hart trains six days a week, the club providing his accommodation and food as part of the short-term contract he signed.
“Ever since I was a young lad it’s always been a dream of mine to play full-time,” he adds.
“I’d like to say, for anyone out there suffering, please speak out.
“Once you talk to someone about your troubles it lifts a massive weight off your shoulders. Get the help that’s out there, family, friends or even your doctor.
“Everyone will help you and nobody will look at you any differently. You are not alone and never will be.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, advice and support can be accessed here.