Out in the cold

 

A Saturday afternoon spent shopping in the city centre with the wife, down the park with the kids or just sitting in front of the TV watching super Jeff Stelling could be some person’s idea of bliss. For a professional football player it can be a living hell. While your teammates are out doing what they get paid to do you are left at home feeling like a spare part. There are no nerves, no adrenalin, no acclaim. Nothing. People who haven’t played the game just can’t understand how empty this feeling can be. All week long you train to get ready for a Saturday so that you can run out onto the pitch and just hopefully have that moment of ecstasy at the end of 90 minutes when you’ve won. At 4.50pm on a Saturday evening playing your part in a winning team is what it is all about. The buzz is fantastic.

A Saturday afternoon on the pitch is your release, a chance to go and do what you love doing in front of paying customers. I often hear fans complain that players are just happy to pick up their wage packets but apart from a few mercenaries this is simply not true. Anyone who has made it as a professional football player has an innate desire to compete. They might be driven by a will to win, to show people how good they are or even to prove their critics wrong. If there is no game at the end of a week’s training the void is huge.

Only a player’s spouse or family can get a close up view of how this situation can affect someone. Those Saturday afternoons are a write off. You may be there in person but your mind is somewhere else. There is one thing for certain – it tests the strength of the relationship with those nearest and dearest. One wrong word and snap – the frustration comes pouring out. So how do you end up in Asda on a Saturday afternoon?

Let’s get straight to the point – there’s a difference between not getting picked in the first eleven and being totally “bombed”. When you are not picked in the team it can be very frustrating but after the initial disappointment you have to realise you could be called off the bench at any time. It’s part and parcel of football – the manager can only pick eleven players. You may express your displeasure to the manager in private and I certainly did on more than one occasion. But once it was dealt with I always made sure to get my head down, train hard and get on with it. You may be out of favour on the Saturday but the next game is always right around the corner.

If you are out of favour for a particular reason, you still have to keep in mind you are part of the squad with a vital role to play. Some weeks you may even find yourself left out the squad of 18 and watching from the stand. This is not enjoyable as you feel so removed from the lads out there on the pitch but at a time when clubs are carrying huge squads to cope with the phenomenal number of games it need not be the end of the world. A suspension or injury and you can be back in the fold the following week. So the message here is keep the head when others around you may be losing theirs! Your chance will come.

Ok, so we can deal with scenario one but what about scenario two – where being “bombed” is a completely different kettle of fish. You feel like the whole team could go down with food poisoning and the manager would still pick the canteen lady in front of you. When the team travels away you are left at the training ground with the fitness coach and, if you are fortunate, maybe a couple of other “lepers” – sorry, players – for company. Indeed, if you are very “lucky” you may have a manager who will explain the situation to you face to face and treat you with the respect you deserve while you are still at the club. He might not pick you to play but otherwise will still treat you the same as everyone else. These managers tell you straight down the middle where things are at, why you are out of his plans and what the future looks like. You may not like it but like everything in life if there is bad news it is best to hear it straight. Unfortunately these types of gaffers are few and far between.

It is far too common for clubs to decide to force players out through a series of underhand tactics which in any other workplace would be described as bullying and harassment and of course in breach of probably every clause in any contract that was ever written. So what does this involve? It can include any number of things, such as sending senior professionals to train with 16 and 17-year-olds on a regular basis then shipping them out of the first team dressing room away from friends and teammates. Players are starved of reserve games as every attempt is made to smoke you out. The ranks close in and the previously happy and friendly number two all of a sudden doesn’t wish to be seen conversing with you for fear of being seen as sympathetic to your case. In essence everything that can be done will be done to make your life miserable in the hope that you tear up your contract and leave.

After Wolves suffered consecutive relegations to League One they were stuck with players on Premiership wages who the fans were completely disillusioned with. The manager Kenny Jackett formed a group known as “Group 3”. It might as well have been called the “Outcasts”. This group of players trained in the afternoon on their own. On a good day there might have been eight training but as some found pastures new the numbers for a training session could be as low as three. They did not want these players around the first team, development team or under 18s, scared they would have a negative impact. Despite some of the “Group 3” players’ previous misdemeanours there were some fantastic professionals amongst the group who had given sweat, blood and tears for the club. Their time might have been up in terms of pulling on the black and gold but at the very least they should have been shown a modicum of respect and human decency by giving them the appropriate training conditions.

Is this type of behaviour from clubs any different to a player trying to engineer his way out of a club by foul means when he wants a move? Players are vilified for it and rightly so. They should act professionally and give 100% until their club agrees a transfer fee. I hear quite often the phrase “player power” but it really only exists among the elite. Not enough mention is made in the media of the power the clubs wield over players and how they abuse that power when they decide they don’t want them anymore. It really goes under the radar. The PFA in England is the best union in the world. They have achieved so much for footballers but I feel this is an issue they must improve on. Meeting the financial terms of a contract is one thing but there are other areas that clubs fail to meet once they lose faith in a player. There must be stricter criteria for clubs to follow when dealing with unwanted players. Football is a unique job with a very short career span. If a club lets you rot it can ruin the rest of your career.

There have been two high profile cases recently where World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and Yaya Toure – who has won the Champions League – were frozen out at their respective clubs. Both situations had the common ingredients that seem to be in the mix when players are sent to the footballing equivalent of Siberia. In Schweinsteiger’s case he is an ageing player on big money who doesn’t fit into the new manager’s plan. Toure’s is a case of an ex-manager who had previously sold him coupled with an agent stirring up trouble. Pep Guardiola was pretty upfront about the situation unlike most managers in similar situations. Instead of hiding behind smoke and mirrors he quite simply explained an apology from his agent and Toure would see himself brought back in. I am sure City’s form had nothing to do with it but once an apology was forthcoming he was back and back with a bang as he scored a double against Crystal Palace in a 2-1 victory.

However the problem most players face is clubs and managers are not usually as transparent to the media over their intentions as Guardiola was. That can be due to a fear of showing their hand and strengthening the player’s case when it comes to negotiating a settlement or move away from the club. I have witnessed many clubs make it their aim to force a player to beg to leave in this way, giving them a stronger hand in negotiations. The clubs want to have their cake and eat it. So often managers will give out mixed messages regarding the reason behind a player’s absence. It can leave fans to assume – and we all know what happens when you assume.

I very recently found myself in a situation where I was frozen out at Sheffield United having been a mainstay for the previous three seasons. I could see the writing on the wall long before Nigel Clough finally made his move and banished me from the first team squad. I could read him like a book and, if the truth be told, Clough knew that. There was no bust up, no argument, no fall out. I wasn’t just dropped to the bench or the stand I was made persona non grata. My ticket to Siberia was well and truly ordered.

There was no explanation from the manager and as he had the local media in his pocket they never pushed for answers. Social media went into overdrive – “what has Collins done?”. “He punched the manager?”, “He persuaded Maguire to leave?” and some other ridiculous suggestions that do not bear thinking about. It really did get that out of hand. All the fans wanted was a logical explanation and there certainly wasn’t one forthcoming. If the truth be told there wasn’t one that could be given. The question wasn’t why was I not in the first eleven as ultimately that is the manager’s prerogative but more importantly why was I bombed completely having played almost 200 games consecutively with a flawless disciplinary record on and off the field?

All this time I had to keep my head down and keep my mouth shut. People were questioning my attitude, my integrity, my professionalism. My reputation was being tarnished as people started conjuring up ideas that I must have done something to warrant this type of treatment. I got the opportunity to speak to the press on one occasion and had to explain nothing had happened. You could forgive people, however, for thinking it was bullshit. No way were they buying that. A player just doesn’t disappear from the first team quicker than Lord Lucan for no good reason.

So what options does a player have when this happens? Not many now due to the changes in the transfer window regulations. You can’t leave on a permanent transfer and you can’t leave on a loan so unless it’s during a transfer window you are stuck. But there is a way back. It takes incredible mental strength and a lot of willpower but things can change. Schweinsteiger trotting onto the pitch at Old Trafford recently proved that. He looked dead and buried but through hard work, a positive attitude and true professionalism he fought his way back. I managed to do the same at Sheffield United. I was determined to pull on the red and white stripes again, even if it was just once. I knew I still had something to offer. Being a model professional in these situations is almost not enough. You have to turn into James Milner, the ultimate professional. I have never been so focused as to not let them grind me down.

During the summer after my season in the wilderness Clough was sacked and replaced by Nigel Adkins. I was still under contract at Sheffield United and all of a sudden I had a chance to play at Bramall Lane when it looked like all hope had previously been lost. In my second game back for the club I came off the bench at Morecambe to score a last minute winner. It wasn’t the most glamorous game I’ve ever played in but it meant so much to me and my family after coming through such a torrid period in my career. Afterwards I gave an interview to the local media which is available below. May I finish by asking anyone who doubts how much a footballer cares to listen to that. I care and my fellow professionals care much more than you will ever know.

The Art of Heading

Close your eyes and just picture the scene. You are in the away end sitting behind the goal cheering on your team with the scores tied at 1-1. There is a minute left on the clock and your team get a corner. They are attacking the goal right in front of you and it’s their last chance to snatch the three points. Along with the rest of the die-hard away fans around you, you give it one last roar as the linesman points his flag to signal for a corner, hoping to galvanize your team for one last push. The ball is delivered and it’s like slow motion as you watch it hang in mid-air waiting to be attacked and then above everyone your centre back rises and meets the ball perfectly with his forehead sending it like a bullet in to the net. 1-2. He wheels away, arms aloft, towards you and your fellow fans. Queue delirium.

Some types of goals just seem that bit more special. A mazy run beating four men before slotting past the keeper. A long range thunderbolt from 30 yards. A cheeky chip over a stranded keeper. We all have our own favourites and for me a thumping header can be a thing of beauty but sadly it is something we rarely see these days and I think it is because heading the ball is becoming a lost art. Recently in the United States they have placed a ban on children under the age of 10 heading the ball and certain restrictions on 11-13 years due to health concerns in later life. Oh dear where does this leave me as from the age of nine I used to practise heading every day with a mitre mouldmaster ball? For those of you that are too young to know what that particular ball was like just think netball/cannonball or as my Dad would say “A clubby”.

Regardless of these rule changes in the US designed to protect younger players from head injuries, heading the ball amongst young players has been non-existent for a while. Heading does not seem to be a skill that is practised or coached in youth academies up and down the UK any more. Many youth team games I have watched at differing age groups all seem to follow the same structure of slow build up play from the back with plenty of emphasis on passing. In some respects it is great that as a nation we are constantly trying to improve and get away from the kick and rush type game we may have seen 10 years ago with the goalkeeper trying to kick it as high and as far as he can every time he got it. Unfortunately I fear we may have moved too far the other away as the youth team games I watch are so far removed from what actual professional football is really like. Go to any football league game and count how many times the centre backs on each team head the ball. I know from experience it will be a lot and if it’s not the chances are their team will be shipping goals because if they are not heading it the opposing centre forward certainly will be.

Even the best teams in the world need people that can attack the ball in the air. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the finest players to ever play the game and yet one of his biggest assets is being able to head the ball. Speak to anyone that had the pleasure to watch Pele and they will tell you his timing, spring and bravery made him a fantastic header of the ball some of his finest goals were headers. I am not sure if this aspect of the game is neglected because many coaches feel coaching heading makes them look old fashioned or because players don’t find it as exciting or as fashionable as dribbling or shooting but one thing I am sure of is that there are a dearth of young players coming through that can head the ball the way some previous generations could. I grew up watching players like Steve Bruce, Tony Adams, Richard Gough, Duncan Ferguson, Alan Shearer to name a few who were awesome in the air. In today’s game they would create havoc with their aerial ability.

There may be the view that the game has changed and that the ball isn’t played in the air as much . That may be the case but what does a team do with ten minutes to go and they need a goal? They start throwing it in the “mixer”. This is when you either need a striker that can head one in the net for you or fashion a knock down or a centre back to come and head everything out the danger zone if you are protecting a lead. Let’s not forget the number of set pieces that you have in a game where aerial ability is vital. France won a world cup final with one of the best players of his generation Zinedine Zidane scoring two headers from corner kicks. Heading is an important part of the game which cannot be ignored. I have been fortunate to carve out a 16 year professional career mainly based on my ability to head the ball. Don’t get me wrong being good in the air isn’t enough to sustain a professional career even in the lower reaches of the football league but it does provide a skill that makes you a very valuable asset to your team .

When growing up my Dad always told me that if I wanted to become a professional football player I would need to be exceptional in one specific area of my game. I always played centre back and used to attack the ball aggressively when it was in the air. Whilst I also worked on many other aspects of my game and in particular those areas where I was weaker I recognised I had a great strength in the art of heading the ball and needed to develop that art also. I would spend hours heading balls, working on my timing so that I was meeting the ball at the highest point and if possible well above everyone else.

Considering that I am 6ft 3in with a very good vertical jump I had all the ingredients to be excellent in the air. I believe I was completely dominant in the air at under 16 and under 18 level but I quickly realised I still had a lot to learn as I moved up to reserve team level at Queens Park in Scotland. In my first few reserve games I struggled aerially as far more experienced strikers would body check me or nudge me enough for them to win the header. It was a steep learning curve and one that was valuable at that stage in my career. I wonder where young players nowadays learn these lessons. Some of the lucky ones get to go out on loan where they are guaranteed to learn how different the man’s game is but too many are left playing meaningless under 18 and under 21 games against the same players they have played against their whole youth careers. A young Chelsea 17 year old centre back would learn more in one match against Newport County’s beast of a striker John Parkin than he will playing 6 months of U21 fixtures.

One thing that has improved and will continue to benefit professional footballers is the attention now being given to the treatment of head injuries. Far more stringent rules are being put in place to protect players that have suffered serious head injuries. Gone are the days when someone can get knocked out sit up count the number of fingers the Physio is holding up and carry on. When I look back at my career I wince at some of the head and facial injuries I’ve experienced and the way they have been dealt with. Playing centre back in the English football league has done nothing for my good looks. I’ve suffered multiple broken noses, a broken cheekbone, stitches to my eye, lip and face. I distinctly remember one game, away to Colchester United in the FA Cup, where I played with a lump the size of a golf ball on my forehead. I couldn’t head the ball for the pain. I struggled through the 90 minutes and my face was yellow by the end of the match as the internal bleeding began to spread. I have always been able to play through the pain barrier and duly carried on playing . In hindsight however should a medical expert not have made the decision for me and insisted I was removed from the field of play? Is that not where the ultimate duty of care really lies?

Going back to the rule changes in the US I can understand the thought process of stopping children from heading the ball at an early age it will protect their brain while it is still developing. Surely at a young age children could still learn to head the ball with a sponge ball or even a balloon. They can learn the technique without constantly heading a size 5 leather ball. It should also be remembered a modern football is nothing like what they were thirty years ago. They are lighter and don’t take on water so again advances are always being made to the benefit of the player. I actually think that the rule change will have an adverse impact and cause more injuries. How do you play a game of football when you can’t head it? What do you do when someone crosses the ball in the box? Players will more than likely start trying to control the ball or kick it in a very dangerous fashion, increasing the number of fouls given for high feet and reckless challenges. When the players are old enough to head the ball I predict that their technique and timing will be so poor it will cause even more injury problems for them and their opponent.

A large number of head injuries are caused by players who don’t know how to head the ball in the first instance or indeed are just reckless when they attempt to go for the ball. Players that are strong in the air invariably don’t inflict injury to opposing players as their timing and spring is so good they leap above everyone and head nothing but the ball. I fear in a time that whilst many things are changing for the good some aspects of the game will be lost forever as the word of political correctness takes over. I sincerely hope heading the ball is not one of them.