His 30 Ireland caps already a distant memory, Simon Cox takes a break from Southend United's relegation scrap, talking toas he recalls what feels like someone else's life.
Scattered on the table are memories of what feels like someone else’s life.
They may as well be, considering Simon Cox’s current situation at Southend United, where a League One relegation scrap could finally be decided today.
The steady flow of nostalgia is only a brief respite from the personal and professional trauma he is currently enduring, as becomes clearer once it dries up.
Amid photographs and match programmes from some of the 30 caps he earned with the Republic of Ireland, Cox, who turns 32 tomorrow, is drawn to the team sheet from the game most supporters will always associate him with during his four years as an international: Spain v Ireland at Euro 2012.
The striker was informed by manager Giovanni Trapattoni that he would play as an auxiliary midfielder, a daring plot hatched by the Italian maestro which required Cox — then of West Brom and who only a couple of years previously was top scorer for Swindon Town in the English third tier — to do a job on some of the finest collection of players that game has ever known.
He reels off the names without hesitation.
“It scares the life out of me looking at this again,” Cox smiles, before sharply twisting his neck from side to side. “That’s what it was like constantly, we didn’t get near the ball. You were sort of thinking that it would be fairer if they took two players off so we could have a proper go. I came off and felt like they had 15 men. My head was spinning. It was a privilege to be there but an experience I never really had before or since. They were the elite.”
Cox then slides the team sheet across the table and points to one name. “Sergio Ramos,” he exclaims, briefly disturbing the strange serenity on the mezzanine of the Holiday Inn which overlooks Southend Airport.
Amazing. I just remember Ramos whistle constantly to direct everyone in front of him. He was the conductor of it all. You had all these great players and Ramos was the one controlling it by whistling. That screech sound where you don’t even put your fingers in your mouth. It was incredible.
Cox whistles the piercing sounds which Ramos fired out in bursts. “By far the best defender I ever played against. I’d love to hear him mic’d up now because God knows what he would be like. The Euros still gives me goosebumps just talking about it, it still doesn’t seem real that I played. It’s surreal for me. It feels like two lifetimes ago.”
That is hardly surprising given that where he is now is a world away from such a stage, not to mention the experiences in the seven years since. Regardless of whether Southend beat Rochdale today, a result which could ensure survival if AFC Wimbledon and Scunthorpe United both lose, Cox has much harsher realities to face in his personal life.
His 14-year relationship with former fiancée Samantha, the woman he had been with since his teens and envisaged spending the rest of his life with, ended over the last couple of weeks.
The hurt is raw, the pain fresh, and Cox has no qualms about laying bare his vulnerabilities. “I don’t think you can ever know what people are really going through,” he begins. “We’re in a time now when mental health is spoken about so much and family are by far the most important thing in the world.
“Sam lost her dad just over a year ago. It was the worst time for her, us, everybody. It was one of those times where you put everything into perspective. Football doesn’t matter. I continued to play for the rest of the season, she was at home. I would come home every day, she was sat alone crying most days, you see that hurt. Fast forward just over a year and she is not there now. We’re not together anymore. It’s really strange that you’ve had someone who has been through your whole career with you, your whole adult life.
“All of a sudden, that’s it. Fourteen years, that’s a long time for her, for us. It’s taking a lot of time to sort of process the whole thing. Now you’re your own. Everything we’ve built together is gone. One of the sticking points was I wanted family, she works in London, she has an unbelievable career and is driven for that. You have to respect that.
People don’t realise what goes on in people’s houses when it all looks rosy from the outside, but it really isn’t if you dive deep into what’s going on,” Cox continues.
“Life changes, and that scares the life out of me now. I used to love sharing things with her, doing things together, experiences together. Whatever I do now, I’m not sharing it with anybody for the next however long, until I find somebody else maybe.
“I’m now, basically, a single person on this planet who is doing something just for me, rather than us or for a family of my own. That’s very hard, for 14 years I’ve done things for us now I’ve got to do it for me and that scares the life out of me because I don’t know what to do.
“I was sat talking to one of the lads and his missus the other day and saying: ‘how do I go out and meet someone? I haven’t done it for 14 years’. Tinder? It’s rare you go on Tinder and find your future wife. The house we lived in, we had our roles in the house, now I’ve got to take over her role. I don’t want to take over her role. It’s all of the bits you never thought of.
“Now I’m in that situation, it’s scary.
“If Southend go down, my salary is cut, can I afford to stay? Then you think, ‘do you want to live in a nice house with your two dogs but be there without Sam?’ All these things start to go through your head when before they were not even a thought.
“Football has always been 24/7, 365 days of the year for me but after this, I just wanted it to do one. I didn’t care but then you realise that to stay in the house, to pay for it, to stay playing football and do what you love, you have to get back into the mentality you’ve always had. But you can’t escape that life has changed. This is my life now without Sam. Of course I’m not getting over it but you have to keep going. This has to happen, no matter how strange.”
It was Sam who helped Cox process his thoughts on paper when his mentor growing up at Reading, academy boss Eamonn Dolan, passed away aged just 48 following a battle with cancer almost three years ago.
I was numb. I could barely move when I heard the news about Eamonn.
"Brendan Rodgers was my first youth manager there when I was 17 and I still speak to him now, but Eamonn was something special. He was weird and wonderful. He installed a mental toughness in every player but he loved football and wanted to make you better. He cared about you.
“You don’t think it’s real when you eventually hear the news that he passed. You knew he wasn’t very well but in back of your mind, because of the person he was, so positive and infections, you thought he’d be ok. You feel for someone like him only good things should happen and when he died you just think there is no justice in the world. Eamonn made you believe you were good enough, and that made the manager in the first team believe in you. He had that belief in me.”
Cox had plenty already ingrained as a youth product. “I would goad the senior players in training because I would want them to try and kick me. Then you do get kicked and it was ‘see you, you cocky s**tbag’.
“But that’s what I felt I needed to do to prove I belonged almost.”
Stephen Hunt has spoken publicly about his dislike for Cox from those days at club level, and when he joined the Ireland set up in 2011 it didn’t get any better.
“Yeah, we don’t get on. I get on really well with his brother Noel, funnily enough. For me it is just personalities. For him it might be something different. There are some things I don’t like that he does but I don’t want to be saying he’s this and that. That’s just life. You don’t get on with everyone.
“And do you know what, life really is too short. I have bigger things to worry about. I know what’s important for me.”