Ben Coker is not 100% certain but the Lincoln left-back, who is on loan at Cambridge, thinks he is the only diabetic player in the English professional game.
“There might be a couple in the non-league that have played in the league but I’m not sure whether there are any others in the Football League at the moment,” Coker says. “That’s the picture in England. I know that there’s Nacho at Real Madrid. He’s type 1 diabetic. I found out about him a few years ago.”
Coker was told at the age of 15 he had type 1 diabetes, the condition where the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin, although it has not stopped him from enjoying a long career in the sport he loves. Now 30, he is best known for his six seasons at Southend during which he made 208 appearances in all competitions.
Coker’s underlying health condition and the daily need to manage it has come into even sharper focus during the Covid‑19 pandemic, with government advice recognising that people with diabetes can be more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill with the virus. With football’s restart – or, more likely, non-start in Leagues One and Two – a rolling news story, Coker has followed it with a particular perspective. “With my condition, I have to think about it [the restart] probably more than other people would,” he says.
Coker believes football should not be coming back any time soon and does not pull his punches on the subject. But he does not say so because of his diabetes, rather the fact he is about to become a father for the first time, and how he is – more than anything – worried about his family. For him, it comes down to basic humanity.
“From a fan’s point of view, everyone wants to watch football because there’s nothing else going on, but you have to look at us as human beings and say it’s not fair or right for us to be put in that situation where we’re going to be vulnerable to catching the virus,” Coker says.
“All it’s going to take is for someone to go down with it really badly and then, by the way, the legal side of it would be chaos. People do look at us sometimes as not being human beings but everyone has to be in the same boat.
“With my diabetes, I know how to deal with it day to day – if I do get ill, what I have to do with drink, food and monitoring it even that bit closer. In that sense, I would be OK with it [a return to playing]. But this is bigger than just me. My wife, Sarah, is nine months’ pregnant and me being in and around other people … well, that would be my main concern. I have to look at my family, so I think it’s too soon to come back.”
Coker knows the reality of the situation in Leagues One and Two. For largely financial reasons it is expected the competitions will be cancelled. Most clubs at this level cannot bear the cost of games without fans – action behind closed doors is a government stipulation – and nor will they be able to afford to test their players and staff with the requisite regularity.
But, Coker says, even the Premier League ought to rethink its mid-June comeback target. “I think it’s too soon,” Coker says. “There is so much money coming into the game now and money rules the world in a certain way. It shouldn’t be like that but it is. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prem starts up again but for players at my level I can’t see it. To play behind closed doors is not beneficial to any League One and Two clubs.
“Also, if someone comes down with the virus, they’re going to have to isolate. There are so many things to think about and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not going to happen. If they cancel now, it will give us all a better chance of starting the next season at a normal time.”
A consensus among players over a restart is difficult to find but does Coker feel his view is shared by his peers? “I speak to my teammates and to be fair everyone is gagging to go back to football,” he says. “I miss the routine of day-to-day life, everyone does, but everyone also wants to be safe and well with their families. That comes into it massively.
“If I was a single lad living on my own I’d probably have a different opinion but you have to look at the bigger picture. We want it to be as short a period as possible before we get back to it but we have to do it in as safe a way as possible.”
Coker speaks with a heavy heart. In October 2018, playing for Southend at Sunderland, he sustained a season-ending knee injury. “I did a bit of everything – my cruciate, my LCL and the meniscus,” he says. And, soon after his move to Lincoln last summer, he tore his groin and needed a further operation. He has managed only one appearance this season – for Lincoln in November.
In short, he is desperate to play again. But other things are more important.