Do or Die

It is that time of year when the play-offs come around. While I am loving life in America and have taken a keen interest in American sport, I am not talking about the NBA or NHL playoffs, which have just started, but of course the English Football League Play-Offs, which kick off next week. Four teams from each division all vying for that one last promotion spot. It doesn’t matter if you finished sixth, twenty points behind the team in third place or squeaked in on the finald day. The teams involved will all have a one in four chance of achieving the objective they set for themselves all the way back in August. Over many years of watching and being involved as a player, the play-offs offer the ultimate in twists and turns and ups and downs. It really is the metaphorical roller coaster ride. In terms of unadulterated sporting excitement, it doesn’t get much better than the football league play-offs. If you are a fan or player of a team involved, I advise you buckle up as you could be in for one hell of a ride.

Quite often in football you hear the saying “the form book goes out the window” and that is certainly the case in the play-offs. Some sides will be disappointed they didn’t achieve automatic promotion, whilst some teams will be over the moon that they secured a spot in the play-offs, perhaps surpassing expectations. Once the semifinals kick off, it’s fair game and anything can happen. Every game is shown live on TV and anyone watching should always expect the unexpected. The tension of the winner-take-all scenario brings the best and worst out in the players and coaching staff involved. The atmosphere in the stands is also second to none. The fans come out in force, and, while some players freeze under the intensity of the play-off spotlight, the fans always provide an electric atmosphere. At Wolves, we went 2-1 ahead of deadly rivals West Brom during the first leg of the semifinal back in 2007 and Molineux was absolutely rocking. The atmosphere was phenomenal and the noise was deafening. Just thinking about it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. In my opinion, the play-offs highlight all the best aspects of the English Football League. Great goals, ferocious tackles, controversial decisions, emotional celebrations and last minute heartbreak. You name it, the play-offs have it.

Over the years, I have seen some unbelievable games and played in some pretty entertaining ones too. There have been amazing comebacks and disastrous collapses. A game that sums up the unpredictability of the play-offs perfectly involved my friend Mark Lynch who was at Yeovil at the time. Nottingham Forest won 2-0 at Huish Park and looked odds-on to reach the League One final with only a home game at the City Ground to negotiate. I sat down to watch the game, and as Forest took a 1-0 lead, 3-0 on aggregate, I decided it was tie over and headed out. Imagine my disbelief when I received a text from Lynchy later saying, “Get in.” At first I wondered what he was on about, but after checking the final score I was gobsmacked. Yeovil had pulled it back and won the game 5-2 sending them to Wembley and Forest into deep despair. I have watched it since on Sky Sports Classics and it quite simply encapsulates everything that is great about the play-offs. Goals do more than change the game — they can shatter a whole teams’ mindset and ruin their whole season. A play-off tie is never over until the final whistle blows. I have seen teams cruising to victory only to lose a goal and quickly descend into panic. I learned a valuable lesson myself after this game. Don’t switch off till the very end as a fan or as a player.

Yeovil celebrate pulling off one of the greatest ever Play-Off comebacks.

I guarantee for anyone watching the upcoming play-offs that you will hear a commentator or pundit during one of the play-off finals explain that “winning in a play-off final is the best way to get promoted.” It is one sentiment I simply can’t agree with. Having failed on three separate occasions at the play-off stage, you might not find that surprising, but for me, winning the league title is the ultimate. Teams that win the title have proven themselves to be the best in the league over a 46-game marathon and they get to lift the league title with a gold title winners’ medal around their neck. I have had the great fortune of winning the Championship on two occasions and look back on both experiences with great pride. It is widely considered one of the toughest leagues in Europe to get out of, so to come out on top on two separate occasions with Sunderland and Wolves gives me a great sense of achievement. Don’t forget as well that the players have went through a very long season with the play-offs adding a further three weeks. Ask any player and they would all rather be summing themselves on a beach with a league winners’ medal tucked away than putting themselves through the uncertainty of the play-offs.

Lifting the League title is a hard feeling to beat.

I really think what the commentators and pundits mean when they say winning the play-off is the best way to get promoted is that winning in that format gives you the most unbelievable adrenaline rush and feeling of pure and utter ecstasy. It is a different feeling to winning the league, but not necessarily a better one. The play-offs dredge up so many different emotions that when you finally win, the emotional release will be second to none. All season long you are aware there are 46 games, win, lose or draw and then on to the next one. There’s no time to think with the games coming thick and fast one after another. In the play-offs, every second counts. It puts you through the emotional wringer. As a player traveling to the ground for the play-offs, there is a distinct feeling of tension. The butterflies start long before the referee’s whistle is blown. I was always acutely aware that this was it. It’s “win or go home” as they like to say in the USA. There’s absolutely no room for an off night or your season is over. Winning or losing can be the difference between playing against Manchester United next season or Burton Albion. The stakes are so high. The Championship play-off final is described as the most lucrative in sport due to the riches on offer from the Premiership for the victor. Imagine the pressure that can create. Winning that game can change a player’s life. As I mentioned earlier, I have fallen short during the play-offs on three separate occasions. Twice I’ve come unstuck at the semifinal stage, but the one final I played in, we got so close I could literally sense the impending outburst of jubilation only to have it ruthlessly snatched away.

In the 2011/2012 season at Sheffield United, we finished third in League One with 90 points and became only the second team in Football League history not to be promoted with that points tally. Take a look at League One this year and we would have been promoted with three games to spare. Our points tally would have been more had it not been for the well-documented loss of our star striker Ched Evans with only three games to go. Without our talisman, we only achieved two points in our last three games and headed in to the play-offs not only without someone who had netted 35 times, but his strike partner Richard Cresswell, who had a serious eye infection and James Beattie, who got sent off during the last league game and had to serve a three-game ban. Our strike force was decimated. When it rains it pours.

I give a lot of credit to our manager Danny Wilson, who, prior to the play-off semifinal games made some tactical changes to adjust for the loss in personnel. We had been the highest scorers in the Football League but now had to change our game plan. We went to Stevenage on a Friday night for the first leg and were set up to make sure we did not concede. Anything else was a bonus. The task was completed with minimal fuss as we drew 0-0 and produced a very comfortable away performance. We were confident we could beat anyone at Bramall Lane and fancied ourselves to reach the final.

It is in the second leg where you really start to experience the heightened nerves and anxiousness. There are no second chances if you get it wrong at this stage. Everything is on the line and the sense of anticipation around the ground is always palpable. We completely dominated the game from minute one but on eighty minutes the score was still tied. I distinctly remember feeling so focused and aware that one wrong move at this stage in the game and our season would be down the drain. Thankfully, a fantastic cross from Matt Lowton was nodded in by Chris Porter during the closing moments to send us to Wembley. The final whistle was met with a mixture of joy and relief as we knew were only halfway to completing our mission.

Anyone that supports Sheffield United will have you convinced that the Blades are cursed in the play-offs, and, after six seasons there, I won’t disagree. While Cressy was back fit for the final, our influential and most creative midfielder, Kevin McDonald, was now out. With the players we had at our disposal, Wilson set the team up expertly and we kept our third-consecutive clean sheet but could not find a breakthrough at the other end against a very strong Huddersfield team that included predator Jordan Rhodes. After 120 minutes couldn’t separate the teams, it came down to penalties. I offered to take the first one but settled for the second. Huddersfield missed their first two and we missed our first. It looked like no one was destined to score. I remember the walk up to the 18-yard box like it was yesterday. The emotions running through my body were indescribable, coupled with the hundreds of different thoughts running through my head. It is almost like an out-of-body experience. Should I go left or right? Power or placement? I went through my usual routine and stroked my penalty in, sending Smithies the wrong way to get us off the mark. Years of practice standing me in good stead.

Watching as our dreams quickly become a nightmare.

Huddersfield contrived to miss their next penalty. That’s three. Yes, three missed penalties in a row. As I stood at the halfway line, arms linked with the rest of my teammates, I really started to let myself believe for the first time it was going to be our day. We had two of best penalty takers up next in Matt Lowton and Andy Taylor, who had been brought on in the last minute specifically to take a penalty. I was starting to picture what the scenes would be like at the opposite end of the ground amongst the swaths of red and white Blades diehards. I couldn’t wait to celebrate with my teammates and fans. I was quickly brought crashing back to reality as we missed our next two penalties. Huddersfield never missed again as it went all the way down to the goalkeepers. After Alex Smithies scored for Huddersfield, Steve Simonsen blazed over and instead of the adrenaline rush I was expecting, I was hit with pure and utter deflation. It was the equivalent of being hit by an articulated lorry. We had it in the palm of our hand and had it snatched away. It was the story of our season.

It is the one game that regularly pops in to my mind and makes me think, “what if?” It wasn’t made any easier when, the following season, I was part of the Sky Sports advert promoting the play-offs where it showed me punching the ground in anger after the defeat. Just watching that brought back the gut-wrenching feelings I had experienced at that moment. All those games, I had played 54 that season overall, only to end in bitter disappointment. Nothing to show for our effort and another year in League One, traveling to likes of Crawley Town instead of Derby County or a Steel City derby. In some respects, it is what makes the play-offs great, as on the other side, there is a victor and in this case, it was Huddersfield Town having the time of their lives. When I watch these finals, I always spare a thought for my fellow professionals that lose this game, as I can relate not only with them but how their family will be feeling. It affects everyone associated with you. I remember going up to the players’ lounge afterward and my whole family was devastated. It was quite simply the biggest disappointment of my career.

The disapointment of falling at the final hurdle is hard to hide.

Watch the play-offs and you will see some fantastic goals and mesmerizing play, along with some equally cagey affairs filled with players desperate not to make a mistake. While tactics and team selections are vital in the play-offs, you need to carry a huge slice of luck. Sheffield United certainly didn’t carry much and neither did Wolves in our foray into the play-offs. Our young and hungry team had, in some respects, overachieved making the play-offs back in 2007, but now when we got there we fancied ourselves against anyone. We were matched against West Brom, who, only two months before, we had beaten 1-0 at home thanks to an heroic performance from our goalkeeper Matt Murray. Only the day before the first leg, Matty dislocated his shoulder in an innocuous training ground incident. While a young Wayne Hennessey came in and acquitted himself very well, I can’t help but think of the psychological advantage it gave West Brom before we had even kicked a ball. Matty was a man mountain and in our previous game they just could not find a way past him. He stopped shot after shot and had been voted Championship player of the season. Once you get to such a delicate stage of the season, you need every break you can get. On two occasions, my team has been deprived of the best player in the league. For anyone out there on a team that is about to embark on the play-offs, keep your fingers crossed everyone stays fit.

I will be following the Football League play-offs very closely from across the pond. For the first time in a long time, I can watch as a neutral. Well as close to a neutral as possible as I will be vociferously supporting who ever Sheffield Wednesday come up against as I look forward to watching a Sheffield derby next season in the Championship. A guaranteed six points for the Blades. Although I no longer play in England, I am still not finished with the play-offs format. In the USL, our league winner is decided by the play-offs. Even if we finish top of the tree, it won’t be time to head to the beach as we will have the play-offs to negotiate before we land some silverware. Hopefully I can put my experiences in England to good use and the USL play-offs will be much kinder to me and the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

The Law of the Jungle

“What do you miss most now that you have retired?” A simple question asked of ex-professional footballers and normally met with the same response. “The banter in the dressing room.” It’s not the feeling of scoring a goal or the surge of adrenaline when their team secures three points. It is not the adulation of the fans singing their name or asking for their autograph. It is not the tidy sum of money they got paid every month for doing something they love. While I have no doubt players still miss these aspects of the job, the part they miss more than any other is sharing a smelly dressing room with twenty-five other like-minded hairy-arsed men. Go figure.

So what is it that makes the banter in a football dressing room so special? To be honest it is not one thing — it is a million and one things. It could be a witty comment, a dry remark, a planned prank or a hilarious mishap, but there is one guarantee. Every day you come to work, you will laugh. Sometimes so hard your stomach hurts. This blog gives a small insight to some of the shenanigans that go on behind those closed doors.

I suggest you stop reading now if you are easily offended. A football dressing room is an HR disaster and no place for the faint of heart. I am not for a second trying to say you need to be a macho man to survive, but having skin as thick as a rhino certainly helps. In offices and workshops all over the world, there will be a certain level of workplace banter that is considered acceptable. All these rules go out the window the second you enter a football dressing room. Imagine sitting at your desk working on a laptop when a colleague arrives and they are greeted with, “Did you get dressed in the f%#@&?g dark this morning?” Quickly followed by another verbal volley of light-hearted abuse from nearby work mates. Most likely along the lines of, “I wouldn’t wear that to paint my house,” and other similarly witty quips. In any normal workplace you would be marched straight to the boss and given a verbal or written warning for harassment or bullying. In a football dressing room, this type of behavior would be met with universal laughter and back slapping.

There have been many mornings I have prepared to dress for work and had to spare a thought about what the the boys may say about my selected attire. There have been certain pieces of clothing that just were not worth risking in front of the football crowd. Who would have thought getting dressed for work could be such a minefield?

Charles Nzogbia obviously didn’t worry about what his team mates thought. I would have hung this shirt from a flag pole.

For those unfortunate souls who wear something that doesn’t meet the lads’ high standards, you can guarantee that after training the offending piece will be hanging from the dressing room ceiling for everyone to see. It’s a clear sign from the boys that this item is considered unacceptable. At Sunderland, I came back in from training one day to see a huddle of lads laughing at an item that had been hung up. I walked down chuckling and keen to get involved in the high jinks only to find it was my t-shirt that was displayed on the hanger and in need of a good wash. It was a plain white t-shirt covered in stains. My laugh was quickly replaced by embarrassment as I grabbed the t-shirt down and realized the joke was on me. Mental note, time to learn how to use my washing machine.

I have seen a multitude of pranks with players’ clothes, from holes cut in socks to shoes nailed to the floor, but, unfortunately, it isn’t just your everyday clothes that are at threat. Your training kit can also come under attack.

It isn’t unusual for the press to make you sweat with some probing questions but during one particularly relaxed interview before training at Wolves, I was so uncomfortably hot and sweating profusely and I could not wait for the interview to be over. My answers were getting shorter and shorter as I squirmed in my seat. Only afterwards did I realise the source of my discomfort was emanating from the deep heat Andy Keogh has rubbed in my slips that very morning. It was payback for the itching powder I had put in his a week earlier. In a football dressing room, what goes around usually comes around. Players have memories like elephants.

Even well-dressed players are not immune and a cutting edge piece of clothing can bring great hilarity, as my ex-Sunderland teammate Chris Brown found out. He came in one morning sporting a very nice black leather jacket. Myself and a couple of boys decided to make some improvements by adding “T Birds” to the back with some white physio tape. Big Browny put the jacket on none the wiser and headed in to Sunderland town center for a bit of shopping completely unawares he looked like an extra from Grease. He only found out when he bumped into our masseur at the petrol station and clocked him taking a double take of his jacket. Just imagining the big man swanning about the town like John Travolta was enough to have us all in stitches.

Chris Brown was the butt of that joke, but on most occasions, he was the instigator. Every dressing room is made up of different characters all bringing a variety of things to the party and big Browny, in my time with him at Sunderland and Preston, was king of pranks. I quickly learned to always to be wary when I sensed he was up to something. He would go to any length to get a laugh from the boys. He once drafted a letter to Gary Breen claiming to be Umbro wanting to design and release a special range of Umbro Breen clothing. Breeny was a wily old fox though and saw right through it, unlike Kevin Ball, who Browny caught hook, line and sinker while he was caretaker manager. Our friend and teammate, Dean Whitehead, had bought a new dog and Browny decided to have some fun at his expense. A letter was duly written to the club pretending to be a fan complaining that they had recently bumped into Dean while walking his dog and, though pleased to meet the captain of the club, they were disgusted as Dean’s dog “curled out a log right in front of them and then Dean refused to pick it up.” Kevin Ball called a team meeting to remind everyone of our responsibilities while we represented Sunderland Football Club. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Dressing room banter is certainly not limited to verbally slaughtering or vandalizing people’s clothes. It can, at times, be very subtle and pretty dry. As a 17-year old in Queens Park’s first team, I learned the hard way as I was often the butt of the experienced pros’ well-rehearsed lines. On one trip home from a match, as I sat down the front, my name was shouted from the back by player coach Paul Martin. I was asked to let him know when we were passing Strathclyde Park as that was his drop-off point. Eager to please, I immediately focused my gaze out the window and noticed at that precise moment we were passing his drop-off point. Quick as a shot I jumped up to let the big man know we were already there only to be met with hysterical laughter from all the experienced players at the back of the bus. I wasn’t just learning on the pitch I was learning vital lessons off it too.

In a football dressing room, you can’t hide anything, and if there is anything you feel slightly self-conscious about, you can guarantee one of the boys will bring it up and make a joke at your expense. There are literally no boundaries. Forget the PC world we now live in because it doesn’t seem to apply in a football dressing room. I have been taken to task over my milk bottle complexion, my ginger hair and of course for being a Jock. There is obviously a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but it’s much further away than in most workplaces. There is absolutely no sympathy or time to feel sorry for yourself. It’s best to just laugh and think of a quip to throw back or, perhaps better still, put some deep heat in their underwear.

At Sheffield United, Danny Wilson brought in a new fitness coach, Dave Morrison, who had previously been a professional footballer. Dave was unique as he only had one hand. Having been a player himself, Dave knew the environment he was entering and endeared himself to the lads in his first session by making a joke at his own expense. Straightaway, he was one of us and the banter flew back and forward all season between him and the players, never once getting out of hand. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.)

While it might be described as dressing room banter, it certainly isn’t confined to the training ground alone. Some of the best laughs can be found while traveling away on the bus or whiling away the hours in a hotel. Quite often, the fun and games begin while trying to curb the boredom that sets in spending hour upon hour resting in a hotel room. A bucket of water balanced in front of someone’s door is always a banker for a good laugh, and getting hold of someone’s room key while they are busy with the physio always results in tears — tears of laughter for the perpetrators and tears of anguish for the victim.

With all this spare time on our hands, the lads are never far from their mobile phone but if they take their eye off it for a second, it can prove costly. Big Matt Murray, ex-Wolves goalkeeper and now Sky Sports pundit, made such a mistake just as we boarded the bus for an away trip and it gave me enough time to change my number for manager Mick McCarthy’s before returning his phone. Matt was none the wiser to what had just happened. Sitting up the back of the bus, me and a few other lads decided to pull the pin out of the grenade. A text was sent to Matt asking him to come for a chat. We muffled our giggles as Matty rose from his seat and made his way down the front of the bus to see what the Gaffer wanted. As Matt approached, he hesitated as he could see Mick was busy on a phone call. At the back of the bus, we were on tenterhooks as we watched Matt nervously shuffle around Mick without actually disturbing him. Eventually Mick turned to the big man and asked what he was hovering around for. Matt mumbled, “Did you not want to see me?” Mick, in his upfront Yorkshire way, told him rather bluntly he did not as the back of the bus broke out in hysterical laughter. Mission accomplished.

Snodgrass is a fantastic player but also king prankster.

Matt is one of many players that have fallen on the sword of modern technology. With players always looking for their next big move or 15 minutes in the limelight, it is easier than ever to catch someone out with a prank call. I like a good laugh but nothing makes my stomach ache more than someone getting caught out by a bogus caller. I played with two of the best prank callers of all time and I’ve seen some hilarious calls. The list of names to fall foul of Chris Brown and Robert Snodgrass’s prank calls is endless. It reads like a who’s who of football. The pair of them effortlessly dupe people into thinking they are someone else, normally a reporter or agent, but sometimes even a manager or chairman. If I ever receive a call from a number I don’t know from someone claiming to be an agent or a journalist, my guard goes up immediately. I have witnessed too many innocent players caught out in similar circumstances.
I once managed to persuade teammate Jackie McNamara to phone ex-flat mate Iain Russell for an interview on being nominated for Scottish Second Division player of the year. Beany, as he’s most commonly known, used to vow I would never catch him out, but Jackie played the roving reporter fantastically well and went through a series of awkward questions that Beany duly answered as professionally as possible. To finish, Jackie told Beany he had actually won the award but not to tell anyone. Beany said he was not surprised and felt he really deserved it. I had to stuff my fist in my mouth to stop myself from laughing and, thankfully, I was still smiling the following week when Beany really did win the award. It certainly softened the blow for him knowing I had got one over on him.

You may read this and think all this micky-taking, bantering, scheming and conniving sounds awful. Your clothes, accent, physical appearance are all open to scrutiny and ridicule. How can this possibly be the best part of being a footballer?

Let’s get it right. You can’t arrive in a dressing room and, from the first second, start poking fun at people like you have known them all your life. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t go down too well. The great laughs and banter arise from the relationships and bonds that are forged over time that bring you closer together as a group and as you develop a great respect for each other.

When I look back and think of some of the great laughs I enjoyed with my teammates, they came in teams where we enjoyed a relative amount of success on the pitch. The majority of funny stories that come to the forefront of my mind were during Championship-winning seasons at Sunderland and Wolves. We had a togetherness and camaraderie that grew the more we won together and laughed together. I always found that the players that were closest could be the most brutal with each other. You knew your pal could handle it and, deep down, while you were slaughtering their gear or their new barnet, it was considered a sign of affection and acceptance. It’s not always easy and you have to stand up for yourself at times. It’s not an initiation as such, but some of the stick is a way of testing you and seeing how you handle it. Once you proved to the group that you can laugh at yourself, it goes a long way to being accepted. The saying ”if you give it out, you have to take it,” applies here.

I often hear my Dad complaining that people in a normal business environment don’t enjoy the same camaraderie with colleagues as those in a sporting environment, and, whilst it may be understandable that the pranks and banter which footballers create would not exactly be those accepted in a professional accounting firm, there is no doubt in my mind that the business world could improve a lot if people were less sensitive and precious about themselves. If something needs to be said, then let’s say it and move on. There have been many sportsmen over the years who have developed very good business models through the implementation of their experiences in the sporting environment and the creation of an ethos of togetherness, honesty and openness. In other words, “guys let’s call a spade a spade” or if in Scotland a f@$&%!?g shovel. Handle the dressing room and you can handle the boardroom like a stroll in the park.

So when players say they miss the banter of the dressing room, it is not because they miss someone abusing their new shirt or latest haircut, but because they miss that bond of friendship and camaraderie that develops over all the hours spent winning, losing, training and traveling together. You really are a band of brothers. Football is full of so many highs and lows that these childish pranks and laughs give players a break from the pressure. It is a release from thinking about the next game, the next training session or their next move. Playing football isn’t like many other jobs. You not only get paid to play the sport you love, but you get to do it with a group of lads that become your best mates.

Wolves Championship Winners 2009. At Jody Craddocks testimonial dinner 2015 it was as if we had never been away from each other.

You may not keep in touch with every player you ever played with, and I certainly haven’t been best buddies with every single one of them, but the second you meet up with ex-teammates, the banter carries on from where it left off. It is like you have never been away. Of course you reminisce about great victories, bad defeats and dressing room bust ups, but the main conversation is about great times, great laughs, great nights out and of course some banter about what your ex-teammate has decided to wear for the evening.