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.