In August of 2021, it emerged that French international footballer, Benjamin Mendy, had been held in prison after appearing in court on charges of rape and sexual assault. The defender, who had already played for Manchester City that season despite the club knowing all about the charges he was facing, was accused of sexually assaulting three different women, all of whom were over the age of 16. The footballer was refused bail and was eventually suspended by his club, who had signed him from Monaco in 2017 for £53 million.
The story obviously made newspaper headlines, but it also spurred a discourse on social media about other footballers who had spent time in prison. It is a surprisingly regular occurrence, with more than 30 players in English leagues having spent time in prison at the time of writing. That number goes up even further if you broaden it out to leagues in other countries. The reasons for their imprisonment as well as the length of time that they served behind bars differs from case to case, so we’ll have a look at some of the more interesting ones here.
Eric Cantona: Two Week Sentence
Where else to start but with one of football’s most famous figures, guilty of one of its most infamous moments? Eric Cantona was a mercurial talent during his time at Manchester United, knowing for his arrogance on the football pitch. There is a reason why the photograph that many consider to best represent the Frenchman is that of him stood, looking to the crowd with his chest puffed out and his collar turned up. Yet for those that don’t support the Red Devils, Cantona will always be best known for his kung-fu kick of a Crystal Palace supporter in January 2011.
The match referee, Alan Wilkie, sent Cantona off for a kick on Richard Shaw. As he was walking to leave the pitch, the French striker heard Matthew Simmons shout, “Fuck off back to France you French motherfucker.” Rather than ‘fucking off back to France’, Cantona jumped at Simmons with a kung-fu kick before attempting a right-handed roundhouse on him. When he went to court on assault charges, he was sentenced to two weeks imprisonment, of which he only actually served three hours. As for the man himself, he has never felt like he did the wrong thing in attacking a ‘hooligan’.
George Best: Three Month Sentence
It would obviously be untrue to suggest that Manchester United has a culture of players misbehaving, not least of all on account of the fact that George Best, one of the club’s most famous ever players, no longer played for the Red Devils at the time he was sent to prison. Even so, that two footballers who wore number seven for United spent time in prison is certainly a curious quirk of fate. In the case of Best, his reason for being sent to prison was mostly down to his battle with alcoholism, the condition that eventually killed him.
In 1984, having retired from playing football, Best had been drink driving and ended up assaulting a police officer. When he was given a court appearance, he failed to show up for his bail hearing. The result was that he was issued with a three month prison sentence, spending Christmas in Ford Open Prison. Despite the urban legend that says otherwise, he didn’t play on the prison football team. Though he’ll always be remembered as one of Britain’s greatest ever footballers, his battles with the demon drink were a sad post-script.
Duncan Ferguson: Three Month Sentence
’Big Dunc’, as the Scottish forward was affectionately known, made a career out of acting the hard man. Standing at six foot and four inches, Duncan Ferguson could be an imposing figure on the football pitch. He was sold to Rangers from Dundee United for a British record fee at the time, but things didn’t really work out there and so he spent most of his career at Everton. He was shown nine red cards during his career, but the reason he makes this list is that he assaulted John McStay of Raith Rovers in 1994 that saw him head to prison.
Duncan Disorderly, as some people called him, has four convictions for assault to his name. Two of them came for altercations at taxi ranks, whilst the other was a brawl with a fisherman in a pub. The incident that led to the prison sentence occurred in 1994 when he head-butted McStay during a Scottish Premiership match between Rangers and Rovers. He became the first professional footballer in the United Kingdom to be sent to prison for an on-field offence, with no other player having done so since. He served 44 days of a three-month sentence, having lost his appeal.
Troy Deeney: Ten Month Sentence
Whilst some of the people on this list have shown no remorse for the actions that landed them in jail, the same cannot be said of Troy Deeney. The journeyman footballer started his professional career at Walsall in 2006, earning a move to Watford four years later. Two years into his spell with the London club, however, he attacked a group of students outside a nightclub. He pled guilty to the charge of affray, being sentenced to ten months in prison as a result. Video was shown to the court of Deeney repeatedly kicking a defenceless person in the head.
He served almost three months of his sentence, citing his grief for his father who had died a month earlier as the reason for his behaviour. In the years after his prison sentence, Deeney conceded that being sent to jail was the best thing for his career. When he returned to play for Watford, his performances reflected his desire to atone for his actions, helping them gain promotion to the Premier League for the 2015-2016 season and working hard to keep them there in the campaigns that followed, moving to Birmingham City in 2021.
Joey Barton: Six Month Sentence
If football were to boast an ‘enfant terrible’, Joey Barton would stand a good chance of claiming the title. In the modern era, he’s probably best known for being the equivalent of a mopey teenager on Twitter and trying his hand at management, but during his playing career he was, for want of a better phrase, an awful person. In 2007, Barton was involved in a bust-up with Manchester City teammate Ousmane Dabo that saw the latter get a detached retina. He initially pled not guilty to assault but later changed his plea to guilty.
For the assault, Barton received a four-month suspended sentence and community service. His time at City was over, moving to Newcastle. Not long after the move, CCTV footage showed the footballer punch a man 20 times, causing him to lose consciousness. He was also found to have attacked a teenager, breaking his teeth. A Liverpool Crown Court heard that he was remorseful about the incident but was sentenced to six months in prison. He served 74 days of that term, having been labelled as ‘cowardly’ by the judge.
Jermaine Pennant: Three Month Sentence
Duncan Ferguson might well be the only footballer to have been found guilty of an offence committed on the pitch, but few can match Jermaine Pennant’s claim of playing matches whilst wearing an electronic tag. That’s what happened in the wake of his crashing a Mercedes-Benz into a lamppost whilst drunk back in 2005. He was a Birmingham City loan player at the time, as well as being an England Under-21 International. He pled guilty to three charges of drink-driving, using a vehicle without insurance and driving whilst disqualified.
Pennant was sentenced to three months in prison, serving 30 days. When he was released, it was on condition that he continued to wear an electronic tag for the remainder of his sentence. As proof that football will forgive all ills as long as they’re committed by someone with talent, Birmingham City signed him on a permanent deal from Arsenal when he was back at the club. Not only that, but he went on to play for Liverpool, Stoke City and Spanish side Real Zaragoza, showing that not even prison will end some footballer’s careers.
Marlon King: Three Times in Prison
As with people that don’t enjoy the trappings of fame and fortune, footballer’s are just as liable to end up being repeat offenders as anyone else. So it is that Marlon King has been to prison not once, not twice but three times during his lifetime. The South Londoner began his football career at Barnet, playing for the likes of Nottingham Forest, Watford and Birmingham City at one point or another. He has committed numerous offences that did not result in serving time in jail, including theft, criminal damage and driving without insurance.
He first went to prison in May 2002, having received stolen goods. His club at the time, Gillingham, continued to pay his salary whilst he was imprisoned. In 2008, King was arrested on suspicion of breaking the nose of a 20-year-old student. He was convicted of sexual assault and ABH, given 18 months and put on the Sex Offenders Registry. In March of 2014, King was arrested for a hit-and-run incident, once again being given an 18-month sentence as well as being banned from driving for three years. When he was released, he moved to Zambia.
Adam Johnson: Six Year Sentence
Adam Johnson was a product of Middlesbrough’s youth academy, coming to prominence after impressing during his debut in the UEFA Cup when he was just 17-years-old. Doing things when someone involved is young isn’t always a good thing, however. In December of 2014, Johnson used social media to communicate with a 15-year-old girl. His partner was pregnant at the time, but that didn’t stop Johnson from meeting up with the girl in his Range Rover and signing two shirts for her. Nearly two weeks later, they met again and Johnson kissed her.
In March of 2015, Durham Police arrested Johnson on suspicion of having sexual activity with a 15-year-old. He was charged with three offences of sexual activity with a child under the age of 16 and one of grooming a child. Though he pled not guilty initially, he changed his plea to guilty of one charge of sexual activity with a child and one of grooming. A year after being arrested, Johnson was sentenced to six years in prison. He served around half of his sentence, being released in March of 2019.