Danny Hall Column: Jose Baxter can put drug hell behind him on the field

Jose Baxter
Jose Baxter
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Jose Baxter remembers little of the night which almost cost him his career and his livelihood.

It was like any other normal evening out, the Sheffield United man says.

His beloved Liverpool - Baxter had grown up a red, despite playing in the blue of Everton - had just lost in the semi-final of the FA Cup, to Aston Villa, at Wembley.

The timing could hardly have been more poignant. At the same stage, on the same pitch, the season previous, Baxter had starred - and scored - for United in their epic 5-3 semi-final defeat to Hull City.

The high point of a fledgling career? Most likely. A year later came the low point, almost certainly.

Baxter and three friends joined a wider group on a night out in London.

Owls owner Dejphon Chansiri

Owls owner Dejphon Chansiri

He doesn’t remember being particularly drunk. Wasn’t acting particularly differently, apart from feeling dehydrated when he woke up the morning after.

On the following Wednesday, FA drug testers visited United’s Shirecliffe training complex.

“Obviously there was a lot of banter between the lads,” Baxter remembers.

“’Ooh, who’s scared?’ and all that. Everyone just joking about.”

Baxter’s sample came back positive. Traces of drugs, later revealed as ecstasy, showed up in his system and he missed both legs of United’s play-off semi-final defeat to Swindon Town as a result.

Baxter, speaking in an interview with the Daily Mail, remembers sitting in his flat before the first leg when he received a call from Gary Crosby, then Nigel Clough’s assistant at Bramall Lane.

Crosby asked him to come in early and Baxter obliged, thinking he was being summoned for a tactical briefing. Instead, he was told he’d failed the test.

“It was shocking,” he said.

Baxter - banned for five months by the FA, meaning he is free to train with United and start the season on August 8 - maintains his innocence and believes his drink was spiked in London.

“Let’s face it, if you had a pound every time someone said after failing a drug test that their drink had been spiked, you’d be a millionaire,” he admits, candidly.

‘I probably wouldn’t believe it myself if I heard someone else say it but there are actually some innocent people out there.

“A lot of people have told me about their daughters, their friends, family members who have been spiked and it’s not nice.

“It is not just footballers it happens to, it is young kids, young girls. Some people might think it’s a joke but it’s not. My job was on the line, my career.

“It is sad to think there are people out there who do it but it is the world we live in nowadays.”

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Baxter burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old, when he became the youngest player to ever play for Everton - the club he’d joined at the age of six.

They offered him a new deal but he turned it down, preferring to seek first-team opportunities elsewhere.

Now 23, older and infinitely wiser, he is hoping to inspire Nigel Adkins’ side to the Championship.

In his first full season at Bramall Lane, deployed as either a deep-lying midfielder or, on occasion, a lone frontman, Baxter returned 13 goals. He remains something of an enigma player; in the second leg of United’s Capital One Cup semi-final defeat to Tottenham, Baxter chased back 50 yards to prevent Harry Kane scoring for Spurs. He stayed down injured, and one fan in front of the Press box angrily chastised him as ‘a lazy bleeder’. They’re difficult to please, South Yorkshire folk.

Baxter, slimmed-down since his early days in this region, has the ability to unlock any defence in League One yet his versatility could be his downfall. Who truly knows his best position?

Not that he will care, as long as he’s on that pitch come August 8.

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Last week’s online column - on Sheffield Wednesday’s decision to hike up ticket prices to as much as £52 for big games at Hillsborough - predictably caused a bit of a stir.

In it, I questioned the lack of justification from chairman Dejphon Chansiri and his army of advisors. Replies ranged from agreement to derision, and one included an odd, repeated point about former loanee Hallam Hope.

Common sense told in the end, and Chansiri eventually explained his decision to supporters. ‘Premier League promotion pushes cost money’ was the jist. Credit where it’s due... at least we now know the reasons behind the great Hillsborough hike.