Rooney could have ended my career

Wayne Rooney: All-time England record goal scorer and leading goal scorer for Manchester United. His name now sits above legends like Law, Charlton and Best. There is no question he will go down as one of England and Manchester United’s greats. That is not even up for debate. Though Wayne is a couple of years younger than me, our careers began around the same time due to his freakish physique for a young teenage boy. He was built like a boxer and had the speed of a greyhound and was physically miles ahead of other teenage boys. If he hadn’t been born in England, we would have been asking to check his passport. Whenever I watch him play, it reminds me of a decision I made at 18 that changed the course of my career.

I was 18 years old and starting to make my way in a man’s game. The previous season, I had played over 30 first team games for Queens Park in Scotland and was now looking to improve and try to make a step up the footballing ladder into full-time football. I had a very inconsistent first season, not unusual for a young center back still developing physically but had come back preseason bigger, stronger and ready to prove myself.

Despite being an amateur club and competing in the lower divisions, we played our home matches at Hampden, Scotland’s national stadium. This was the best of many little perks we enjoyed compared to other players at our level. We didn’t get paid but it was a fantastic club to play for and a great place for a young player to learn the game.

One of the advantages we enjoyed was a glamorous preseason fixture list. The bigger teams were more than happy to come and play us at Hampden instead of going to some ramshackle stadium to play on a pitch that resembled a car park. Our first game back was against Hibs at home and a great chance for me to test myself against a 
full-time outfit. My confidence was up after a good preseason and I played well, catching the eye of the Hibs coaching staff and others watching. The following week, we played Dumbarton at a neutral venue before the one I was really looking forward to — Everton at Hampden Park, a chance to not only play against a full-time team, but top internationals from the Premiership. It was every young footballers’ dream.

After playing a stormer against Dumbarton, the coaches were so impressed they moved quickly to secure my signature and within a few days I had left the Spiders for pastures new. It was an opportunity to play alongside better players and enhance my career. The move was only tinged with a hint of disappointment that I would miss playing against the famous Toffees.

After my first training session at the Sons, I was heading home when I received a call from a local reporter to discuss my new club. After a short conversation he mentioned that I would be glad I hadn’t been playing for Queens Park that night as they had been royally humped by Everton and to make matters worse, a 16-year old had scored a hat-trick. I remember thinking, “wow I am delighted I wasn’t involved in that debacle.”

Imagine getting destroyed by someone not even old enough to drive. I could just picture getting in the car with my Dad after a schoolboy had just ran rings round me. “You let him bully you. You need to be stronger than that, son, if you want to make a living out this game.”

I had a cold sweat thinking about it. A night like that is enough to destroy your self-confidence and self-belief in one go. It was fragile enough after my first season where I had been “old manned” by some lower league journeyman striker. The last thing I needed was someone old enough to still be reading the Beano giving me the run around.

Roll on four months and I am sitting at home watching Match of the Day and a just-turned-16 Wayne Rooney hit a last minute winner past David Seaman. Oh, so that was the “kid” that hit three past Queens Park in preseason. Now it didn’t look quite the embarrassment I thought at the time. His phenomenal winner against Arsenal was just the start. Over the coming months I watched this young boy run rampant over some of the best center backs in the world. He was awesome. Look back at any old clips on Youtube. He was a dynamo, tearing about the pitch, barging past defenders with his power and speed. I often try to imagine how I might have fared against him had I played that night all the way back in 2002. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have fared very well. While two years older than Rooney, I was still a boy. There was more meat on a butchers pencil, whereas Rooney was a mix of Mike Tyson and Linford Christie along with his supreme footballing ability. No doubt he would have thrown me around like a wet tracksuit. If he was doing it to experienced Premiership players, what chance would I have had? I am just glad that my confidence and ego didn’t have to take the bashing or the roasting from my Dad.

Rooney took English football by storm for the next decade and more, winning trophies and breaking records along the way. I managed to stay out of his way through my time in England, our paths never crossing until last year when Sheffield United were drawn to play at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup.

I have never been so happy with the FA Cup draw. My first love is Kilmarnock FC and I have a great affinity with Sheffield United after playing with them for many years but I am also an avid follower of Manchester United. Denis Law was my dad’s hero growing up, along with Bobby Charlton. As is usually the case, my dad regaled great stories about their past which made me a supporter as well. We have both made many trips to the Theatre of Dreams as fans, but this was going to be my first as a player.

I was desperate to face Rooney and the rest of the United first team. I wanted to test myself against the best they had to offer, not some second string. I might not have been ready for Rooney all those years ago, but now I felt I had the experience and nous to test myself, along with the fact that I had put on a few pounds and wouldn’t get blown away in the wind.

I was not kidding myself that this was Rooney in his pomp. As a United fan, I was well aware that he had dropped off from his previous standards, but he was still the countries’ leading goal scorer and an icon of the last decade. When the team sheets arrived on the day of the game, I was not disappointed. “Rooney 10” was on the team sheet and he was playing up front.

As always when up against players of such a high caliber, I decided to get right in their face from minute one. Bumping into them when the ball is nowhere to be seen just to let them know I’m there. I did this to Rooney and he turned round and asked me quite abruptly what I thought I was doing. Not to be put off, the next opportunity I did it again. Now it’s a common perception that Rooney plays his best when he’s angry. Well, if that really is true, I should have been worried as he started charging round like raging bull. As fate would have it, a ball got played in the channel and we both chased after it. I knew he was coming for me, but I not only managed to win the tackle, but come away with the ball and play a neat one-two round one of my heroes to cheers from the huge Blades traveling support. If Rooney wasn’t already seeing the red mist, he was now, but my confidence was sky high and I proceeded along with the rest of my teammates to blunt any attacking threat from Rooney for the next 89 minutes or so. While it might not have been the biggest game on Rooney’s fixture calendar, he still possessed an incredible will to win, but just couldn’t muster the same magic or threat that had been his trademark throughout his career. It confirmed my own suspicions that as an out -and-out striker for the biggest club in England, he was nearing the end. Nearing it, but not there just yet.

With the score tied in the 92nd minute and heading for a well-deserved replay, Dean Hammond upended Memphis Depay to concede a penalty. Rooney coolly stepped up and slotted it away in front of the Stretford End to ensure his name would be on the back pages the following day despite his insipid performance. The following week, he proceeded to score a double at St James’ Park on the Wednesday night and scored the winner at Anfield that Sunday after another below par performance. I suppose that’s what the greats do — they produce the goods when they are not at their best. They step up for the big moments when their team needs them. His all-around performances were far removed from the swashbuckling days we love to remember, but he could still find the back of the net.

Fast forward to the present, when on Saturday morning I settled down to watch Stoke v Manchester United. One of the perks of living in the States is getting access to watch all the Premiership matches, even those that kick off at 3pm back home. After losing an unfortunate opening goal to a deflection, United proceeded to pummel Stoke, creating chance after chance. With 25 minutes to go, their talisman for so many years was brought off the bench when Rooney replaced Mata in an attempt to rescue the match.

United continued to probe, but to no avail. For years, Rooney was the first name on the team sheet. The only time he may have been required from the bench would be if the understudies didn’t manage to get the job done during a game he was allowed to rest. Under Mourinho, he’s had to accept this role, though I struggle to think of a game he’s came off the bench and made a significant impact the way Rashford does with his exhilarating pace.

Saturday was no different and with only three minutes left to play and United heading to defeat, I Facetimed my Dad to dissect the game and primarily discuss another ineffective substitute appearance performance by Rooney. I was greeted by a huge grin, which threw me, as my Dad is more of a glass half empty person in the immediate aftermath of a Manchester United defeat.

“What about Rooney’s goal?,” my dad asked. Now I was really thrown out my stride, as I sat and watched the clock tick down with the score at 1-0. “He’s broken the record.” With games being beamed from the U.K., there is normally a slight delay, but in this case, there was around a two-minute lag. Just as I began to believe my Dad was telling the truth, I notice Rooney standing over a free kick on the corner of the box. The rest, they say, is history.

Over the past couple of years as a United fan, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Rooney has frustrated me. He’s been a shadow of his former self and playing against him confirmed my suspicions, but as I watched him whip in that world class free kick to break one of the most sought-after records in world football and then sprint to get the ball to try and get the winner, I realised why he truly is a United great.

No one could have begrudged him an exuberant celebration after scoring a last minute equaliser to break a 40-year old record, but that’s not Rooney. He’s a winner. Darren Fletcher said it best when he said, “most strikers are selfish but Rooney is selfless.” Never has a truer word been spoken. He’s broken these goal scoring records and still been a team man. If he was my teammate, I would run through a brick wall for him and I suspect that’s why so many of his ex-teammates have protected him in the media while he’s not been at his best. It’s exactly what I would do for someone that had put his body on the line for the team while still grabbing vital goals.

Left midfield, right midfield, center midfield he’s played everywhere. Even at his best, he did the graveyard shift to accommodate other luxury players. Did he like it? Probably not, but he did it for the good of the team. Not many superstars do that. I’ve played out of position and never batted an eye lid because I knew if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the team. Guys like Wayne Rooney didn’t need to worry about that, but still did it with no complaints.

So whether it’s as a United fan, England fan, opposition fan or as a fellow professional footballer, we should all recognise his fantastic achievements and how he embodies all the values that fans and players in our country love. I will be forever grateful I made my move to Dumbarton and missed out on the opportunity of playing against Everton. While I know for sure I wouldn’t have made a dent on a young Wayne Rooney’s confidence if I had matched up against him, I also know he could have severely damaged mine and who knows where my career would have gone.

Only as good as your strikers

Strikers. They grab the headlines, grab the glory and get paid the most money. They have broken my heart and my nose on more than one occasion. I have kicked, elbowed, nipped and scrapped with them, but when I look back over my career, I realise my CV would look rather different if it wasn’t for the top strikers I played with. There would be no league titles or promotions. For a center back, strikers are like women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

There is a cliché in football that any team is only as good as their strikers and I firmly believe that. A look back at my own career confirms this theory. Iain Russell, Paddy Flannery, Marcus Stewart, Steven Elliot, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Andy Keogh, Sam Vokes, Chris Iwelumo and Jermaine Beckford. You may not recognise some of these names but I am indebted to them all. Without their goals, the teams I played alongside them for would have been also rans, nearly there but not quite, a footnote in the history books instead of history makers.

Now before anyone thinks I am suggesting a striker alone can carry you to glory, I am not. Even the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo needs help sometimes. Pepe was awesome at the back in helping Portugal to the European Championships and his teammates played their part but Ronaldo was the difference. At important moments when games could have gone either way, Ronaldo stepped up. He broke Welsh hearts in the semis when he rose like a salmon to break the deadlock. That’s what the good strikers do — score when it matters.

Anyone that has been a defender will understand how much the perception of your performance changes when you are playing in a team that can’t score goals. Imagine playing at center back and dominating your opponent for 85 minutes of the match. You don’t put a foot wrong. The score is tied at 0-0, your front men having missed various opportunities and you lose a late deflected effort. All of a sudden you are part of a losing team despite a strong personal performance. Compare this to a team that is clinical in front of goal. You go two-nil up and although you lose a late goal, your star striker scores another to give the team a comfortable 3-1 victory. I have experienced so many games like this where my performance level is the same but the outcome is dictated by your strikers’ ability to find the net. When your team scores goals, it hides a multitude of sins. When a team struggles to score everyone come under pressure. Goals don’t just change games they change people’s perception of an entire performance.

The importance of good strikers really hits home to me when I look back at my own career. I think it would be fair to say I played some of the best football of my career during seasons that ended in disappointment for the team. Yet, I’ve finished some seasons without the same level of personal consistency and won promotion. The difference in promotion-winning seasons hasn’t been down to my performances or that of the defence, but more often than not the teams’ ability to put the ball in the net. There are two seasons that come to mind that I think highlight the difference strikers really make.

In my first two years at Wolves, we kept the most clean sheets in the league with 18, yet only managed 5th and 7th place due to our profligacy in front of goal. During pre-season in my third year at the club, we were looking strong. Previously we had added the best striker in the league, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Sylvan was accompanied by Andy Keogh and Sam Vokes. A fantastic trio of strikers at that level but still missing something to help us cross the threshold and into the Premier League. Chris Iwelumo was signed late in July and it was like the final piece in the jigsaw. All of a sudden we went from being a team that struggled in front of goal to having a plethora of strikers with a range of qualities and, most importantly, they could all find the net.

We won 15 out of the first 19 games. I wish I could say it was down to our fantastic defence or tiki-taka style of football, but truth be told, the difference from previous seasons was we could punish teams and capitalise on our chances. Anyone that watched or played against us that season will tell you how ruthless we were in front of goal. If we were playing well and creating chances, it could be a rout. If we weren’t at our best, our strikers would score out of nothing. It was the recipe for success. If the opposing team somehow did manage to stop Ebanks-Blake or Iwelumo, which was rare, then on would come Keogh or Vokes. When you play in a team with options like that, you feel like you can beat anyone. That confidence makes you such a dangerous proposition, while if you don’t have confidence in your team scoring, you feel very fragile.

The antithesis for this was my third season at Sheffield United, which was our second year in League One. We were top on Boxing Day and riding the crest of a wave. Sean Miller and Dave Kitson had formed a great partnership up top and were supported by Nick Blackman out wide, who was a regular source of goals and assists. As if struck by the same curse that had seen us lose Ched Evans the year before, Sean Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury on Boxing Day and Nick Blackman was sold in January. We lost our two best goal threats in one month. We went on to record a club record 21 clean sheets that season but could only finish fifth. We had four consecutive 0-0 draws at Bramall Lane. That is unheard of and certainly not the sign of Champions. There is not a doubt in my mind that had we not lost Miller to injury and kept Blackman, or at least adequately replaced them, Sheffield United would have returned to the Championship. Instead, we meekly surrendered in the playoff semifinals to Yeovil. We managed one goal over the two legs. The previous season, we had managed one goal in three playoff games and ultimately lost in the final on penalties.

At the end of the season we had a clean sheet record and, on a personal note, I had scooped more than a few Player of the Year awards, yet the season finished as one of the most disappointing of my career. I would have swapped all the personal accolades for promotion and enthusiastically applauded our striker as he walked on stage to pick up all the awards and receive all the adulation if I was sitting with a league winners medal around my neck thanks to his goals. A look through the history books and you will struggle to find a team that won trophies without a twenty goal a season man.

One of my favorite teams of all time was the Manchester United treble winning team that had a quartet of strikers that was second to none. Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solsjkaer. I think it is fair to say history would be different if it hadn’t been for these guys. That United team was never beaten as it could always rely on a goal from one of these players. During that 98/99 season who can forget the late goals against Liverpool in the FA Cup or the European final against Bayern Munich? Coming off the bench Sheringham and Solsjkaer both notched a goal to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. These goals changed the whole context of their season. The difference between David May holding a Champions League medal or not came down to the quality of the teams’ strikers. At any level it I think it is vital to have options up top. It not only can change the whole dynamic of a game but can change a clubs’ history.

I have been very fortunate to play with some fantastic strikers through my career. Out of all them, Ebanks-Blake eptomised everything you would want in a striker. He would die to score a goal the way a top defender would die to keep one out. If the team won and he didn’t score he was disappointed. Not in a way that was detrimental to the team spirit, but he thrived on scoring goals. At the back I could often hear him moaning about one thing or another but it’s another “strength” that all strikers seem to have. If they don’t get the ball they will tell you about it so the next time you won’t think twice before giving it to them. Many people think defenders need to be aggressive and uncompromising, but so do strikers, just in a different way. Strikers can’t be the nice guy. They have to want to get that ball in the net. It has to really mean something to them.

I can’t talk about strikers and not mention Kris Boyd. I had the challenge (I was going to say pleasure but it was anything but) of playing against Kris during my teenage years. Boydy is the all-time top scorer in the SPL and I can’t say I am surprised.

It was as if he was born to score goals. Like Sylvan, he had all the typical striker traits. A nose for goal, composure under pressure, clean finishing and he was a moany b&@£%#d.

My school, Marr College, and Boydy’s school, Mainholm, were the best in the area so we often met in cup finals. I should point out at this stage in our lives, while we were the same age, we were at completely different stages in our development. Boydy was a hairy arsed man while I was a spotty, scrawny little boy. It was a complete mismatch physically. One cup final we got humped 5-2 and, you guessed it, the big man got all five.

The following year, my school got to the final again only to be met by Boyd and Mainholm. With half the school coming to watch, I couldn’t have a repeat of last year, a Kris Boyd exhibition of finishing. I took it upon myself to man mark him. When I say man mark, I mean you couldn’t have slipped a fag paper between us. It certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played, as I sacrificed joining in the play to stand next to Boydy and upset him. Pep Guardiola would have been disgusted with my lack of attempt to get on the ball, but I had one thing on my mind and that was to stop this boy in a man’s’ body from scoring and it worked. We won 1-0 and I could go to school the next day with my head held high, comfortable in the knowledge I had kept a professional footballer in waiting from scoring. There are no sure things in football but Boydy making a living of out the game was as close as it came. Many people in Scotland underestimate him and focus on what he didn’t have in his repertoire, but in terms of desire to score goals that fire has burned brightly since his schoolboy years.

One of the best theories I ever heard regarding strikers came from an old assistant manager, Frank Barlow, who knows the game inside out. His philosophy is that if you look at any good strikers’ record, they will have been scoring goals all through their career from youth level through reserves and into first team football. While you can improve your finishing and practice on making it better, the best front men have a nose for goal that can’t be taught, though it can be honed.

Alan Russell, an ex-player who I did battle with in my early years in Scotland, is now a striker coach. You may know him better as the man behind Superior Striker and his regular appearances on Soccer AM. It is a sign of the game evolving all the time that position specific coaches are starting to appear. Watching some clips of the sessions he puts his clients through should be enough to strike the fear of death into any defender. Gone are the days where the assistant stands at the edge of the 18-yard box and players line up to receive a one-two and lash the ball past the goalkeeper. It may be fun, but it’s not very realistic. Russell has strikers replicating game-like situations and movements that help improve timing and finishing. A quick glance at the players he works with and their record on the pitch is proof that he’s making a positive impact. Andre Gray is a fantastic example of how the extra work can pay off. He is managing to combine his power and pace with cool finishing. It’s something clubs should look at closely.

I think I have already covered how important it is to have your strikers firing on all cylinders. There is no shame in bringing in the “experts” to work 1-on-1 or in small groups with different parts of the team.

The English season is now moving into what Sir Alex Ferguson describes as “Squeaky bum time.” I would say your arse should be twitching if you don’t have confidence in your team finding the onion bag. Whether it is Costa, Kane or Sanchez in the Premiership or Billy Sharp, Ross McCormack and Glen Murray in the Football League, all these guys are going to need to produce the goods if their team is to be lifting silverware come May.

The phone is not ringing


January is upon us. The month of new beginnings, new year resolutions and the most overhyped day of television of the year. No, I don’t mean the housemates entering the Celebrity Big Brother house. I am referring to transfer deadline day on Sky Sports News. We are promised thrills, spills and plenty of big transfers but are constantly left watching reporters outside training grounds around the country surrounded by local delinquents causing mischief. Don’t get me wrong, deadline day has had its moments over the years. No one will forget Torres moving to Chelsea and Carroll heading to Liverpool. Those transfers are remembered now as cautionary tales for anyone considering a big splash in the January market. Harry Redknapp giving the obligatory interview out his car window and Peter Odemwingie arriving at QPR’s training ground before a fee had been agreed have given us some more lighthearted moments. Most recently we have been left with Harry Bassett and Jamie Redknapp sitting in the studio discussing the transfers that didn’t happen and never were going to happen. All in all, I think it’s a big fat let down.

For any manager, shopping in the January transfer window somewhat resembles the January sales on the high street. Everyone is looking for a bargain but all the items they really want are stored in the back, out of arms reach, and instead, all the unwanted stock that has been gathering dust in the back is pushed out front. Football clubs are no different. They don’t want to sell their most prized assets halfway through the season. It just doesn’t make sense. Unless you have piles of money and are willing to pay over the odds, especially if buying from another British club, there doesn’t seem to be good value for money in January.

Over the past few years I get the impression most clubs have realized there is no value in big transfers during the January window and leave it well alone. A handful of clubs may manage to make some astute signings to improve the squad but there is nowhere near the extravaganza of excitement that the media claims is on offer on that final day of transfer “mayhem”. The most talked about piece of news is normally Arsenal’s failure to make a significant signing and Chelsea letting another player leave on loan.

A quick look back at the best loan signings include Suarez to Liverpool and Vidic and Evra to Manchester United. It is worth remembering that the United duo didn’t take to life in the Premiership quickly and only really looked like true United players the following year. Everyone associates the January transfer window with a quick fix, someone to come and have an instant impact, yet when you look through history books these players are so hard to find. Dugarry comes to mind as one of the highest profile success when he played a vital role in keeping Birmingham in the Premiership. Youri Djorkaeff had a similar impact at Bolton many years ago. Unfortunately, there are far more failures than successes. Who remembers Alfonso Alves’ £13 million move to Middlesbrough or Christophe Samba’s £13.5 million move to QPR? These signings were unmitigated disasters for the clubs, fans and players.

I would always advise a player to try and move in the summer instead of the January transfer window. There are so many variables that many people don’t consider. The pressure is ramped up several notches in comparison to signing in preseason. You are heading straight into a relegation battle or title fight and you are expected to contribute immediately. There is no settling-in period. No time to suss out the area, find a house to live in and find schools for the kids. The chances are you are stuck in a hotel if you can’t commute. Stuck in a hotel. Boohoo. It might not seem the end of the world, but I can tell you it is not conducive for a footballer producing their best performances on the pitch. There is no time to bond with your teammates and form relationships on and off the pitch. You are expected to hit the ground running the second the contract is signed. At the end of the day, you are a professional and that’s what they are paying you for isn’t it? If only it was that easy.

I joined in on the transfer day deadline madness back in 2011 when I made the move across Yorkshire from Leeds United to Sheffield United. With two days to go before the deadline I expected nothing more than to be a Leeds player. I was currently out of the side and on the bench. I had featured in 23 games up until that point as we sat in the playoff positions and I was battling to find my way back in to the team. Our squad was full of talent with players like Snodgrass, Johnson, Howson, Schmeichel along with a fantastic team spirit. I felt we were really on the cusp of something special.

Generally, when a bid goes in for a player the bidding club has sounded out, through the players’ agent, his intentions before they make their move. It isn’t officially allowed but it is exactly what happens. No club wants to spend time bidding for a player that has no intention of leaving. That was not evident in my case. I arrived home from training one Sunday and Bam! Ring, ring, ring. The phone is going and it is Leeds Assistant Dusty Miller. “Neill, we have accepted a bid from Sheffield United.” I am gobsmacked and in a haze but manage to ask, “Do you want me to stay?” Dusty’s response tells me all I need to know. “Well it’s up to you.” Conversation over, yet a million questions go through my mind.

Now choosing between playing for Sheffield United or Leeds United isn’t the worst position to be in, trust me. You only have to ask the thousands of players out of contract, but that doesn’t make the decision any easier. Since I had left Wolves 18 months prior, I had been at Preston and now Leeds — did I want to move again? There are so many variables for a footballer to consider when deciding on a transfer, it can tie you in knots.

What is the gaffer like? What type of club is it? Will I play every week? Who will I play alongside? What are the lads like? What is the training ground like? If only Marty McFly and Doc Brown could give me a shot in the DeLorean it would be much easier.

I have always tried to base my decisions on a couple of important factors, the manager and the club. The manager is vitally important and is going to have the biggest impact on your life, apart from maybe your wife, depending on who you marry. The club is of equal importance if not more so. The manager might change but the club will stay the same. Some managers might seem like a dream to play for but what if they leave for pastures new and you are left at a club that quickly goes downhill without their expert guidance? Some people might notice I haven’t mentioned money and that’s because I feel it only plays a small part if you are really interested in the progress of your career. My agent and my dad have given some of the best advice: “Always make the best football decision.” If the football is right, the money tends to follow. Regardless, I would always rather the experience of playing for a huge club over a few more pound notes in the bank. Oscar, the Brazilian, is obviously not of the same opinion.

Before I know it, I am making my way to Sheffield on deadline day to meet the manager and complete a medical. Meanwhile, my agent was agreeing terms. There was no time to waste, yet I still wasn’t sure about the move. My agent had since told me Leeds were willing to sell me in order to finance loan moves for other players. I had no reservations about Sheffield United as a club. I had been there before on loan and played in the Steel City derby. Seeing the atmosphere United fans created after a famous victory at Hillsborough is enough to stick in anyone’s mind. I had been back at Brammall Lane plenty of times since as a player and loved the ground. It is a traditional football stadium with a fantastic atmosphere. Defending the goal in front of the Kop is one of the hardest jobs in football. You feel like the fans are sucking the ball in to the goal. Despite all this, the team was sitting in the bottom three and looking like strong relegation candidates. They were already on to their third manager of the season and confidence was low.

I arrived at the training ground and spoke to players I knew there, including Nick Montgomery, Chris Morgan and Michael Doyle. They were players I respected and they convinced me we would be able to climb up the table and that the squad was too strong to go down. It was all the convincing I needed. I was desperate to play and this great football club wanted me. I completed the move with time to spare and couldn’t wait to run out at Bramall Lane and shoot down towards the Kop playing for the home team.

That Saturday, I made my debut at Portman Road against Ipswich. We lost 3-0 and ended up with nine men. I had been in the game long enough to realise that we were deep enough in the brown stuff. Confidence was shot. We couldn’t score goals and we were leaking them like a sieve. I was desperate to make an impression and impact the team, but my energy was misguided. Instead of settling in to a new club and concentrating on my own performance, I tried to be like Roy of the Rovers and Terry Butcher rolled into one and it didn’t go well. Our performances were generally ok, but we couldn’t win matches and we would always throw in the odd aberration. The more I tried, the worse it seemed to get.

Whenever it looked like me might build momentum, it would be killed stone dead. After a good home win against Notts Forest, we travelled to Watford and were reduced to nine men after only thirty minutes culminating in a 3-0 defeat. Ill discipline was rife at the club on and off the pitch. There were good professionals at the club like Steven Quinn and Richard Cresswell, but they were supplemented by too many loan players who knew, come what may, they wouldn’t be there. It’s not that they didn’t try, they just didn’t care enough and the squad was all over the place with three managers’ worth of signings mashed together.

We eventually got relegated and I played in fourteen matches after signing in January. Along with fellow January signing Michael Doyle, we bore the brunt of the fans’ frustration and I can understand why. We were the main January signings and were meant to help arrest the slide and start leading the team up the table. Instead, things went from bad to worse. It was one of the most frustrating times of my career. I had swapped a promotion push to the Premiership for a relegation battle and team heading for League One but couldn’t make an impact. There were so many problems I doubt Rio Ferdinand could have kept the Blades up that year.

Did I ever regret making the move? Not for a second. I made the move for the right reasons but could never have realized how deep-rooted the problems at the club were until I experienced them first hand. I learnt a lot about myself and became a better player for the experience. If I could do it all again I would still make the move. In hindsight I tried to do too much too soon before I had established myself in the team. January signings have to be viewed as long term acquisitions otherwise you are setting yourself up for a fall.

Despite all these pitfalls, I can guarantee many players will still be secretly hoping their phone might ring with their agent on the other end having lined up their dream move. Just ask my ex-Preston teammate Chris Sedgewick. One January morning with nothing better to do with our time we managed to get hold of Sedgeys phone and change his agents number for one of the lads. While he was training his phone was called several times and showed up with his agents’ name. All the boys were in on it and returned quickly to the dressing room afterwards to watch the prank unfold. Like clockwork, Chris came in and checked his phone. “Lads, I could be on the move. Got seven missed calls from my agent,” Chris exclaimed before racing out the changing room to call him back. Unbeknown to Chris the call came straight to the phone in the changing room. On loudspeaker for everyone’s amusement, “Brian, Chris here. What’s happening?” Poor Sedgey’s briefest moment of hope was killed stone dead by a whole group of us laughing down the phone.

They say it’s hope that kills you. That’s what the January transfer window does to everyone, players, fans and managers. It gives false hope yet we will all still be tuned in to Sky Sports on deadline day just wishing our team to make that one big signing that is going to change everything.