London News & Search
Orange County captain Richard Chaplow looks across at the swimming pool and listens to the familiar sound of children splashing in the water.
The Californian sun is shining, the sky is blue and the shades are on.
“It is almost the case that no-one has any worries out here,” Chaplow says. “It feels easier to plaster over the cracks in the sunshine.”
And the cracks are wide for Chaplow, his wife and two children, who are forging a fresh start in Orange County after their lives were shattered four years ago.
The 32-year-old former Southampton, Burnley and West Brom midfielder tells his family’s story.
‘I wasn’t even checking in’
It is May 2013. Chaplow is back at Southampton after a loan spell at Millwall is cut short by an ankle injury. He and his wife are preparing for the birth of their third child. The nursery at their home in Winchester is decorated, all the plans are in place. Then, their lives are turned upside down. They lose baby Teddy.
It was a one-in-a-million shot. Emily had a piece of her inside that broke away. Teddy swallowed it and basically choked. You know things like that happen to people – we are not the only people to have lost a child – but it is very, very difficult.
When you are playing out of your skin, you are living and breathing football. You step off the pitch and it is always in your mind.
You go on the pitch and you are in the zone. But I wasn’t even checking in. I was trying hard but I would leave the pitch and I had other things to sort out.
I had a family to worry about. I had to call Em to make sure she was fine. I had to get back home as fast as I could because she was going through this thing as well and she didn’t have the relief that I had of a football club.
Everything was set up for Teddy to arrive. But we had to get away from everything. The preparations of the previous nine months were no longer going to be relevant. I told Southampton I wanted to move on. I signed for Millwall but my football suffered for 12 months and it never really recovered.
‘It is ridiculously blurry’
Looking back, Chaplow believes he and Emily were both depressed, even if they were not clinically diagnosed. If he had not found help, he wonders what the consequences would have been. Fortunately, assistance came from inside the Millwall dressing room.
You have just lost the most valuable thing you have. You find yourself slipping and losing… It is hard. You don’t know it is happening until you come out of it. You look back and think “Wow, I was in deep there”.
It is ridiculously blurry. It is hard to put into words the emotions you go through. It wasn’t until 10 or 11 months down the line I started looking for certain things to try and get myself out of it.
I was good friends with [goalkeeper] David Forde at Millwall. One day he suggested specific books that might help to make a little bit more sense.
He introduced me to a mentor who was into spirituality and reading and meditating. It was really good for me. It gave me another outlook and perspective on things.
‘I was accused of being something I’m not’
Chaplow’s career began to improve under manager Mick McCarthy at Ipswich and a move to Doncaster followed in 2015. But instead of earning promotion back to the Championship, Darren Ferguson’s side ended up in League Two. In the summer of 2016, Chaplow was released from the final year of his contract so he could join Orange County.
Within a month, after a game against LA Galaxy’s second team, the openly gay former Leeds midfielder Robbie Rogers said he had been the subject of homophobic abuse from an un-named opponent. Alopecia sufferer Chaplow – who himself has been subject of verbal abuse – was subsequently banned for two games, but he stated he had been “wrongfully linked to homophobic slurs”.
I can’t remember exactly what I said but we were both going at each other. Because it is a sensitive subject, things don’t always come to light as they should do. Ultimately I got banned for swearing at somebody. But once the train starts, it is tough to stop.
He obviously felt he heard something but I didn’t know of his sexual orientation.
If I had known how it was going to be handled and that it would become such an issue, I would have spoken to him after the game.
If I had just gone over to him and said “listen, I don’t know what you think you heard but it wasn’t the case”, it might not have gone the way it did.
If I had a pound for every time someone had targeted me for my bald head, I would be a very rich man. Things are said on a football pitch that are not meant as malicious and horrible, but are done to get an edge.
But if someone feels they have been targeted as a minority they need to be brave enough to speak out. I respect the fact he had that about him, even though I am disappointed I ended up being accused of something I am not.
‘Hopefully we can put the roof down’
After a run of eight games without a win, including this weekend’s 3-1 defeat by Reno, it is unlikely Orange County will make the USL play-offs unless they can reverse their form. Still, on a warm summer’s day 15 miles from Laguna Beach, there are compensations.
It is a little bit surreal. I grew up in Accrington, which is a working class town where it rains 364 days a year!
Our story has brought us here. Everyone has a target in mind. Part of that for myself, Emily and the kids was to, at some point, experience living on the west coast of America, whether that was playing soccer or working out here doing something else. We are very lucky to be given that opportunity.
From a great moment of sadness, Emily and I changed how we lead our lives. What we now count as valuable items are not the things we would have before.
I fully believe if we had not lost Teddy then, an opportunity we have taken right now probably would not have happened.
Hopefully we can put the roof down and start to progress after my career has finished.
If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, help and support is available at the BBC Action Line
London News & Search