Leigh Nicol's life was turned upside down when a phone hack saw her private content appear on adult websites. In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, the Crystal Palace player opens up on the distress caused and the recovery she hopes will inspire others
Thursday 4 February 2021 06:34, UK
Every locker has a picture above it in the women's dressing room at Crystal Palace. The players usually opt for a photograph of a loved one but midfielder Leigh Nicol has an image of the tree in her garden. It is the tree where she had once planned to take her own life.
It has a very different meaning now.
"I smile when I look at it," Nicol tells Sky Sports. "It does not make me sad. It holds no negative memories for me. I am just so grateful that I could overcome that period in my life. It gives me a gentle reminder that anything is possible. It puts things in perspective for me.
"Even on a game-day when there are a lot of nerves, I just look at the tree and it reminds me that I have overcome much worse so I am sure I can deal with this match. If I come in after a game and have not played well, the tree is there to remind me that I will be able to cope with it. That tree is still standing. It is still growing and I am still growing."
Warning: this piece contains sensitive issues that some readers may find triggering.
Speaking to this vibrant young 25-year-old woman, someone who had no history of mental health issues, it is shocking to think that one incident plunged her into such despair.
In the spring of 2019, an iCloud hack resulted in long-forgotten private content dating back to 2014, when Nicol was just 18 years old, appearing on adult websites.
She soon became the subject of whispers in the football world and beyond.
The distress caused has been unimaginable.
"What did it is the fact that I play football. That is the reason it got so big. No matter where I go I cannot escape it. It is there in the industry. Every corner I turn. Everyone knows.
"I have nieces and nephews who are getting to that age where they are very proud of me and want to google me. But you cannot google my name without it being attached to dirt."
She remembers well the moment her life changed. A message out of the blue from a man on Instagram claiming to have seen a compromising video of her was unsettling but she did not think it could possibly be her. Only when he forwarded the footage did she freeze.
Almost two years on and Nicol is still living with the consequences.
"I was seen as the one person people knew who had no problems. I was just Leigh, the happiest person they knew. Even if you met me now you would say I was a happy soul.
"You would not know that I was broken."
It has taken a lot just to get back to this point. The trauma of the experience sparked bouts of sickness, depression and dramatic weight loss. Nicol turned her back on the game she loves for a year, effectively putting her life on hold. Suicide stalked her thoughts.
The abusive messages online are a daily challenge. Nights out with friends are often ruined. This is an ongoing nightmare from which she cannot wake, but she is finding ways to cope.
Nicol is speaking out now in the hope of helping others.
"It is just about educating people," she says. "I did not even know this was a thing. I had always assumed that the people in these videos put it out there themselves and I was OK with that. It did not really cross my mind that this could be anyone.
"There is ignorance. I was ignorant. People watch these videos and do not realise the damage to people's lives. They are giving these websites a lot of money with their views, their sharing and their downloading but there are victims here.
"The damage is done for me so this is about the next generation. I feel like prevention is better than someone having to react to this. I cannot change it alone but if I can raise awareness to stop it happening to others then that is what I want to do.
"There are situations where these websites have underage kids on them, for example. The more that you dig into this, the more traumatising it is because there are 14-year-old kids on these websites and they don't even know about it. The fact that you can publish videos that have neither party's consent is something that has to be changed by law, for sure.
"Am I going to be the person to do that? No. My role is just educating people. That is someone's sister, someone's daughter. The people in those videos are seen as just objects.
"I can understand why people kill themselves over it because I do not know how I managed to get through it. It took a change of perspective and a group of people around me but it took time. There was a rota of people to make sure I was never alone. Without those people around me, would it have been different? One hundred per cent."
Nicol tackled the mental trauma, having therapy through the PFA, but her anxiety issues manifested themselves physically too. At one point, after stopping eating and drinking, she was told by doctors that she was just one kilogram away from risking organ failure.
"The sickness was extreme. It was a mixture between having a panic attack and being sick. It got to the point where there was nothing to sick up and that went on for weeks.
"When I take myself back to that place, I can still feel the sickness in my tummy.
"It was a vicious cycle. There was never a point where I was sitting there and feeling calm. There was always some form of emotion, whether it was sickness, anxiety, sadness or tears.
"It was absolutely atrocious.
"I still suffer with anxiety. I still have moments where I cannot get out of bed. It could be something so stupid that triggers me and puts me in a bad place again."
That is what happened on a visit to the supermarket when she became convinced that the person at the till had recognised her. "For months afterwards, that is how it was," Nicol explains. "Part of it was paranoia but part of it was real. That was my life."
Shutting her social media accounts for a while helped. She has blocked more than 350 people on Instagram. But sometimes there is no escape. On holiday with friends, some of them particularly conspicuous as famous footballers, it is rarely too long before she is approached. She has learned to expect a filthy remark being fired in her direction.
"I still get comments. There is at least one comment a night. It is normality for me now and that hurts. It is just heart-breaking. I am recognised for that one thing."
What was particularly difficult to accept is that some football chairmen seemed to take the same view. Nicol has nothing but praise for Charlton, her club when the ordeal began, but when seeking to return to the sport, two managers of other prominent sides contacted her about a deal only for the offer to disappear once those higher up got wind of her past.
"They raised concerns about having my name attached to their brand and their club. I can understand that from a business perspective but I am not dirt. I am a nice human being."
Fortunately, Crystal Palace saw it differently. The association with football may have played its part in Nicol's ordeal but her love of the game has also proved to be her salvation.
"Football has been the key to my recovery," she says.
"I am so grateful that I have found a club like Palace that allow me to be myself. They have supported me as a human being. They didn't really care about the past, they just offered me an opportunity to get fit and train by following their off-season programme.
"I loved it from the moment I came back in pre-season because I was so proud of the place I had gotten myself to physically. From the moment I walked through the doors, I have not looked back. When we got the first win and first clean sheet, that is when I remembered there was no better feeling in the world. I had missed that emotion."
There were reservations about how she would be received on the pitch - particularly because Nicol is not afraid to engage in a bit of gentle sledging during the game. "I am not gobby but I am a winner," she says with a smile. But opponents have been understanding.
"I have been fortunate because we are halfway through the season and I have not had a comment. I am thankful because even now I do not know how I would cope with it.
"I would like to say I would be fine but when someone takes you back to that place and thinks it is funny, I do not know how I would react. Maybe I would play worse, maybe I would play better, maybe I would have a breakdown. I don't want to experience it."
Even the thought of it is a reminder that this is a battle she is still fighting.
"When we missed a couple of weeks of football recently, because my housemate had Covid-19 so we had to isolate, that put me back in a very bad place. Football was going on. The girls were training. I was sitting alone in lockdown getting abused online.
"That put me in a dark hole and I am still overcoming that. Taking football away from me was when I realised that I wasn't fully recovered. I was a mess. I was getting random online trolling and I could not deal with it, whereas normally I could. I still have nightmares.
"I had a panic attack in training too. Trying to train when you know there is an attack coming is difficult. I went to collect the football that was furthest away just to get it out of my system. I covered my snood over my mouth to hide it but I could not breathe.
"Look, it is a work in progress. Is this what I am going to have to live with or will I get over it in time? I don't know but I feel like I will have to live with this until the end of my days.
"Even when it comes to me dating, I have massive difficulty with it because I feel like I never know someone's purpose. That is something that I need to get over but one step at a time."
There are those who question why she is prepared to speak out now. Would it not be better to leave all this in the past? But the decision to talk to Rob Blackburne on The Footballer's Mindset podcast proved cathartic. His individual and group sessions have been a vital source of support for Nicol and many other footballers. Sharing was the next step in the recovery.
Rob Blackburne on the big problem in football that nobody is talking about
The feedback so far has been positive. And besides, to not discuss this would be to misunderstand Nicol's experience. She is still living with this every day.
"When I made the decision, there were people who could not understand why I wanted to bring it all up again. But this does not go away for me, day or night, minute by minute. Had I not spoken out people would have assumed it is done and dusted and that I have moved on.
"It was a big decision for me but I had never had a chance to speak out about it, which I have really struggled with. It has done me the world of good. I have had one or two negative comments but I was expecting more. I did not know how men would take this. I did not want it to be seen as an attack on men who watch these videos because it is not that at all.
"It is purely for educational purposes and showing people the other side of it because I do not think that people know. I feel like if nobody speaks out then there will be more suicides. But the response from men, which I was most nervous about, has been incredible."
Life will still present new challenges, of course. Nicol finds herself out with a fractured ankle just when she was enjoying her football again but hopes to be back very soon.
"I would literally run through brick walls for Crystal Palace - as you can see from the broken ankle. That just tells you where I am at. I want to stay here for the rest of my career."
Off the field, she is trying to live in the moment, a lesson learned from the Michael Jordan documentary on Netflix, and reinforced in her conversations with Blackburne. "That was a game-changer for me." But she is also looking to the future with more optimism.
"I feel like the luckiest human being on the planet because my friends came out like an army to help get me through it. Every single one of them is like my knight in shining armour. I will never be able to repay them. I am just trying to build something positive from it now."
But even when others are not around to provide support, Nicol can always think of that picture above her locker. The image of the tree that now reminds her not of her lowest point but of what she has been able to weather and still keep on growing.
"It gives me a lot of inspiration because there is a lot going on with that tree in my head. From not forgetting your roots to the importance of having a strong core.
"It makes me smile just talking about it."
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