Behind enemy lines

One Friday over ten years ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed in Sunderland receiving treatment for a badly infected wound on my foot. The doctor advised me it would keep me out of action for at least two weeks. Less than 48 hours later, I was playing in one of the biggest, best and most bitter derbies in England. The Steel City Derby. Sheffield United v Sheffield W%#+€@&Y.

British football is home to some of the most famous derbies in world football. Think Rangers v Celtic, Manchester United v Liverpool, Sunderland v Newcastle and of course Killie v Ayr (I had to put this one in as it means the world to me). These type of games highlight everything that is great about our game; the passion they generate is second to none. Fantastic stadiums packed to the rafters with two sets of fans desperate to earn bragging rights, and even more desperate not to suffer the embarrassment of defeat. The football anthems can be heard in full symphony, sung back and forth between opposing fans. Tribalism, history and dislike for each other on full show. The crackle of electricity as the teams come out. Players and fans feel that extra sense of nerves as they know what is at stake. Players realise that a winning goal makes them a life long hero. A mistake? A villain for eternity. As a fan, the desire for your team not to lose to your closest rivals is so strong it makes you anxious. The thought of losing and having to face your neighbour or workmate gloating for the foreseeable future is enough to make your skin crawl. The dislike and hatred for your rivals is indescribable; so deeply ingrained from battles experienced over a number of years, that you can’t shake it.

The Sheffield Derby returns on Sunday, after five years away, and will bring everything I have mentioned above and more. Five years is a long time to wait for a shot at your nearest and dearest. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. In this type of scenario I think it makes the hate and resentment grow stronger. The atmosphere will be electric and nerves palpable in the lead up to kick off.  The sides would have met earlier a few years ago in an FA Cup quarter-final, but the team from the dark side of Sheffield bottled it and lost in a replay to Charlton; robbing us off a chance to face off in front of a national audience, with the prize a trip to Wembley.

We were in the middle of our fifth-round tie to Nottingham Forest when the quarter-final draw was made. At half time as we trailed 1-0, our manger Nigel Clough told us we had drawn either Charlton or Wednesday at home in the next round. It was the only team talk we needed. The atmosphere in the second half was one of the best I have experienced; I could see fans with veins bulging out their necks trying to urge us on. When the ball went out for a set-piece or throw-in, you could see and hear fans trying to relay the news of the draw.  They were desperate not to miss the opportunity of a derby game. We stormed back and ran out 3-1 winners and as the final whistle blew, the noise streaming down from the stands left me in no doubt about who the fans wanted to face in the next round. The cup draw taking place when it did had such an effect on the outcome of the match that Forest manager Billy Davies made the point afterwards that it should not be made until all ties had been played. He was right, but it’s not like Billy to look for an excuse when his side lose. The Blades fans were deprived of their wish that time. Two years later, and the time is eventually here.

Unbelievable scenes after the third goal against Forest. The fans thought we had sealed a Quarter Final clash against our most bitter rivals.

The magnitude of the Steel City Derby was first brought to my attention as a young lad, watching the two sides from Sheffield face off in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Unfortunately the Blades were on the wrong side of the result but it seems I was always destined to play for the Blades. They were on my radar from a young age. I grew up having a soft spot for them thanks to Sean Bean and the film When Saturday Comes. Granted, not the greatest sports movie ever made, but Jimmy Muir’s rags to riches story definitely endeared the club to me. It is a proper football club with a passionate fans and a glorious history.

Fast forward to my early 20s and a player at Sunderland. Sunderland were struggling at the foot of the Premier League and I had spent the first half of the season out on loan at Hartlepool and was now back, battling to win a place in the first team. My efforts to earn a spot looked like being stopped in their tracks as I lay in my hospital bed on a IV drip, trying to quell a serious infection that was tracking up my leg.

Like a bolt out the blue the phone rang and on the end I could hear the dulcet tones of Neil Warnock. “How are you doing son?” he asked. “How would you like to come and play in the Sheffield Derby tomorrow?” To say I was taken aback was an understatement. One minute before, I had been thinking about heading home to Scotland for some TLC from my mum. Now, I was being asked to go in to battle in one of the fiercest derbies in England. Despite my reservations about my fitness, I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play in this game.

After getting discharged – and against the doctor’s advice – I made a mad dash down to Sheffield to sign the papers before the deadline passed on Friday evening. I made it in time and before I had the chance to think, I was sitting down to dinner with Neil in the local hotel. The phrase whirlwind was invented for days like this.

I met up with the team the next morning for the very first time. I had only ever played against these guys and now I was going to be playing beside them in one of the most important games of the season, as we tried to consolidate second place in the race for promotion to the Premier League. I was feeling as you would expect after three days in the hospital, but was quickly jolted out of any lethargy as I boarded the bus. My new mates were all arriving and I was greeted by the formidable figure of Ade Akinbiyi, who shook my hand and asked if I was ready. I nonchalantly replied ‘yes’ before he gripped my hand tighter, gave me the death stare and repeated “ARE YOU READY?” It was his way of making sure I knew this was for real. Do or die. They didn’t want a young lad coming in on loan and screwing it up for them. If I wasn’t quite ready before, I certainly was now. I didn’t want to let this guy down.

Would you want to disappoint this man? I certainly didn’t.

The team had been building up to this game for weeks. No matter where they went, they wouldn’t have been able to escape the talk about this game. In the lead up to a derby, the surrounding fixtures can quickly get forgotten as fans and media all focus their attention solely on this game. I have experienced the big build up since and there is no escaping the tension or pressure. The game is never far from your mind. You would need to be blind, dead and dumb not to notice the emphasis being put on the game. In this case I was in the unique position of coming in from the outside uninhibited by any of the pressure in the build up. I didn’t even have time to think of the pressure.

To make the assignment even tougher, we were going into enemy territory. The match was away from home at Hillsborough. I will never forget arriving at the old dilapidated but historic ground and stepping off the coach. The Wednesday fans were lined up and frothing at the mouth ready to hurl abuse and vitriol at us as we made our way to the dressing room. Always the pantomime villain, Warnock lapped it up. By the time I reached the away dressing room, the hairs on my neck were standing on end. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I hadn’t even got my kit on yet. It is moments like this that made me want to be a footballer. The opportunity to go into the lions’ den, with everyone against you, and see what you are made of.

Going in to a cauldron of hate is made much easier when you have a good team, and this particular Sheffield United team was certainly that. They sat second top of the league in March for a reason. We had some very good individual players including Phil Jagielka, a future England international, and Paddy Kenny, one of the best keepers in the division at the time. The team was full of experience and I was going to play beside team captain and no-nonsense centre-back Chris Morgan.  My only previous dealings with him had been the previous season, when I faced him with Sunderland and he punched me square in the gut at a corner. That afternoon, I was delighted to have him alongside instead of opposite me.

As the teams lined up for kick off, ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ belted round the stadium and I couldn’t hear myself think. I wondered for a split second if I had bitten off more than I could chew. Should I have stayed in the hospital and let the doctors nurse me back to full health, instead of jumping two feet first into a dog fight? Thankfully I settled in to the game quickly and the team got off to a storming start. We went 2-0 up before half time with two quality goals from Michael Tonge and Akinbiyi. In the second half we missed three absolute sitters that could have turned the game in to a complete rout and a really historic victory.  Winning handsomely away to your closest rivals is always extra special for the fans as they get to really rub their rivals’ faces in it, right in their own backyard. In the end, we hung on for a 2-1 win and a day I will never forget.

Sean Bean playing Jimmy Muir in “When Saturday Comes”.

As we came back out for a warm down, the Blades fans were still in the ground and the delirium was evident as they went through the full repertoire of songs. The magnitude of the victory was confirmed when a half cut Bean came on the team bus to congratulate us at the end. Perhaps if we had played his character, Jimmy Muir, up front he would have stuck one of our chances away.

As I look forward to watching this weekend’s game as a fan instead of player, I can’t help but think the Owls will be a far different proposition than they were all those years ago. In my time in English Football I faced them a total of eight times and lost only once, in the last derby the clubs played. A bitter 1-0 defeat that still rankles. For years Wednesday were the also-rans of the Championship. Home or away, it was usually a guaranteed three points. I hate to say it but they are a different challenge these days. Their wage bill dwarfs United’s and they have been challenging at the top end of the Championship for the past two years. Building a squad to try and reach the Premier League has seen them spend millions of pounds on wages and transfer fees.

Going to Hillsborough will be no mean feat for the Blades this weekend as they sit proudly in the play-off spots after a fantastic start. When I look at both squads there won’t be many players or staff in either squad that will have experienced this game before and while some will have played in other derby games, they will be blown away once they line up for kick off on Sunday. What United do have in their favour are two men that know exactly what this game entails.

The Blades manager and captain both have red and white blood coursing through their veins and  will be under no illusions of the task at hand. Under Chris Wilder I would never count United out; his record has been nothing short of phenomenal and teams are struggling to handle their formation and style of play. With Billy Sharp leading them out, there will be no one on that field wanting to win more than him. Together Sharpy and Wilder have taken on all comers and won far more than their fair share. I hope this continues on Sunday.

One thing I know for definite; any player wearing red and white who’s not sure what to expect will know exactly what is coming their way the second they step off the team coach on Sunday. I just hope that, come the final whistle, they are the ones smiling while the Greasy Chip Butty song echoes loud and proud across the city.

Pre-Season Purgatory

So what is purgatory? It’s a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. It’s exactly what pre-season training feels like for a professional footballer.

It’s standing on the starting line, body tense, stomach performing cartwheels, eyes focused ahead, nervously anticipating the blast of a whistle that is the signal to go. It’s the voice in your head wondering if you are ready, wondering if you’ve trained hard enough. Should I, or could I, have done more? Then you hear that shrill blast and you are off. This is not the start of the 100m Olympic final I am describing, but the beginning of a pre-season training run. Every footballer that has participated in a preseason will have experienced those feelings of anticipation and anxiousness. Just the thought of pre-season can make professional footballers feel very uncomfortable.

I am in the middle of my season in the USA, as it runs from March to November. I hate to admit it, but I had been experiencing mild jealousy as I watch through the world of Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter as my ex-teammates and friends jet set around the world on their well-earned holidays to places like Las Vegas, Dubai and Marbella while I make less glamorous trips to play games in Rochester and Pittsburgh. I was not too concerned though as I knew my jealousy would subside and be replaced with a grin around the start of July. The pool parties will be replaced with ice baths and Corona’s will be replaced with protein shakes as pre-season begins and grueling three-a-day sessions become the norm. So why exactly does the mere thought of pre-season training make footballers feel nauseous?

I have been fortunate — or unfortunate, depending on the way you want to look at it — to have taken part in seventeen pre-seasons during my time as a senior professional footballer. Over those seventeen pre-seasons, I have worked under different managers, played for different clubs and travelled all over the world to different countries, but one thing that has stayed constant during all that time is the fact that pre-season is ridiculously hard work. Actually, it is painstaking and not for the faint of heart.

The first day of pre-season is akin to the first day back at school. Everyone is delighted to see their mates, share tales of their holidays and quickly start engaging in the banter they have missed so much over the past six weeks. Every pre-season, I heard the same jokes about my lack of tan despite weeks spent in Florida. Clubs and players change but the jokes stay the same. Despite the jovial atmosphere there is always a real sense of trepidation lurking beneath the surface. As a player you are always fearful of what might lie ahead. You may be returning to play for a gaffer you know well and therefore have a fair idea of what lies in store. For some reason, knowing what is coming makes things easier psychologically. If you are joining a new club, the chances are you are completely unaware of what awaits. In pre-season, no one likes the unknown.

There aren’t many happy faces once preseason gets under way.

One player will eventually broach the subject nonchalantly with the often used line “done much over the summer?” Now he’s not meaning did you get to Alton Towers, he’s trying to suss out how much training you might have got up to on your own. Every players’ worst fear is that they are going to be left lagging behind the group. The majority of players play it cool and respond by saying, “just a few runs.” That is deemed acceptable without coming across as too busy, though their integrity might be questioned further down the line if they end up miles ahead of everybody during the running looking like they have turned into Mo Farah. Then you have the jack, the lad that quite confidently says they haven’t done anything. It raises a few laughs, though the experienced lads that have seen it all before know this bravado will be short-lived and that the jack won’t be laughing come that last 800m run.

Once the pleasantries are dispensed with, it is time to get started and once you do, there is no hiding place. After a brief welcome back from the gaffer, it is time to get your trainers on and get out on the field. Although football is a team game, at this point it is every man for himself. As I mentioned before, every pre-season is different as every manager has different methods and ideas on how best to get a team ready for the season ahead. I have experienced many different methods including long distance running, track running, beach running and even swimming. Nigel Clough’s favorite was to have you push a weight along the floor of the pool. You were allowed up for air but had to leave the weight at the bottom before going back down to continue the process. Our keeper George Long could barely swim and was taking more water on than the Titanic. I am not sure how much this improved his fitness but he certainly ended up hydrated.
 
Due to the developments in sports science and the diligence taken by professionals during the offseason, the first few days now are normally used to break you back in gently and to keep injuries to a minimum, but this was not always the case.
 
My first pre-season with a full-time club was on trial with Kilmarnock back in 2005. I was fresh out of university and looking for an opportunity to sign my first full-time contract. My agent had arranged for me to join my boyhood heroes and hometown team Killie, managed my Jim Jeffries, for preseason. Despite having been part-time, I was as fit as a fiddle and could run all day. I had pushed myself all summer so I was as prepared as possible to mix it with the big boys. On the first day, we took part in the beep test, a standard physical endurance test, that pushes you to your maximum but doesn’t break you. I came a creditable third and was feeling pretty good about myself, though I didn’t know what was round the corner. The following day will go down as one of the toughest I have ever done as professional footballer. It began with hill sprints in the morning, but not the hill sprints you would expect. Instead of sprinting up this 100m incline and jogging back down we were sprinting the whole way. Up and down. Eager to impress, I was off like a rat up a drainpipe. I was flying and eating up the ground, blitzing everyone in my group, but the runs just kept coming and coming. Every time I thought it would be the last, another one got added.  I just about managed to keep up my fast pace, but by the end, my calves felt like they had had cement poured in. Eventually we finished, but every time I went to walk, my calves would go into spasm. It was so bad the gaffer had to give me a lift back to base in his car while the rest of the team walked.
 
“At least that’s over,” I thought as I sat down to lunch after a tough morning. Who was I kidding? That was just the start. We were back out in the afternoon for cross country runs. 4 x 1000 meters. Running round a track is tough, but through trees and up and down hills it is a nightmare. We set off through the forest and by the second run, the groups were spread out with some lads struggling more than others. By the third run, some lads had noticed a huge short cut through a field. Ian Durrant, one of the assistants, was on guard but he was turning a blind eye as the lads scurried their way through. As a trialist, I was in a dilemma. Should I take the short cut? Or go the long way? I decided to play it safe and do it right. My honest approach certainly didn’t make it any easier for me, as now I had ground to make up on the lads that had pulled a fast one. I had to strain every sinew just to finish as part of the group. My honesty was not rewarded as the gaffer added an extra run for everyone as some lads hadn’t made the required time. The expletives that this news was met with are unprintable. It is at this point when you think you can’t possibly run anymore and you have to dig in. Your muscles are screaming, but you have to dig deep and go again. One voice in your head is pleading with you to chuck it while the other is whispering to hang in there. Generally, the lads that go on to have long and successful careers are the ones that can grind through the pain, whether it be during a tough run or a game during the season.
 
The morning after this day from hell, I woke up and the pain in my muscles was indescribable. I could barely walk. As I made my way to the car, I was moving like John Wayne. It was a small consolation but thankfully every other player upon arriving at training was in the same boat. Amazingly enough we could barely walk but after a warm-up, we would get moving and start all over again.
 
Every footballer will have experienced this type of muscle soreness at some point in their career. It is part and parcel of preseason training. One type of injury that is not expected while running laps is an impact injury, but I have seen one player nearly suffer one due to his lack of honesty. Not everyone can run like Steve Cram. Every player has their expected place in the pecking order and the main thing any manager or player asks for is you give everything you’ve got. Someone has to be last but as long as you have looked after yourself in the offseason and run as hard as you can, what more can you ask? While at Sheffield United under Danny Wilson, we were going through a particularly tough set of runs with myself, Michael Doyle and Stephen Quinn leading from the front. Daniel Bogdanovic from Malta had spent every run in the middle of the pack, but now that we had got to the last run, he decided to go for it and made his way to the front. Players don’t tend to appreciate lads that hold plenty back just so they can win the last race by miles. Boggy had already used this tactic in one run and Doyle wasn’t going to let him do it again. As he made his way past Doyler, he received a proper ear bashing followed by a volley right up the arse. I would have laughed my head off if I hadn’t been breathing out my backside at that point in time. Boggy quickly dropped back in line and the lads were delighted to see he had been firmly put in his place.
 
One lad that you could not blame for holding anything back was young Harrison McGahey. Clough brought him to Sheffield United from Blackpool and his first day training with us was at a local athletics track. We were going through 800m, 600m runs etc. Harrison was put in the bottom group for the track runs but absolutely romped home in the first two runs looking every inch the athlete. It was hard not to be impressed with his physical prowess. The fitness coach even enquired to the gaffer if he should bump him up to a faster group. As if he knew what was coming, Clough told him to stay where he was. Race by race, the big man started to drop further and further back until he was way behind Jose Baxter. To give you an idea just how far back that is, Jose was to running what Eddie the Eagle was to skiing. Harrison’s arms were pumping and his head was nodding but he wasn’t going anywhere. He looked like a contestant on Gladiator trying to run up the travelator. I know the feeling all too well. Your legs feel like a large plate of jelly and no matter how much you try, you can’t get them to do what you’d like. They just won’t respond. All while you look like you are doing a good impression of the nodding dog from the Churchill advert. He wasn’t laughing at the time, but big Harrison was able to laugh about it later and despite a tough first day I was impressed with his eagerness and honesty to give everything he had.
 
Over the years plodding round the training ground at one pace for hours on end has become far less prevalent. More and more managers are trusting their fitness coaches and sport scientists to put their theory into practice. This tends to include more high intensity sprints and football-related movements and much less single-paced running. Everything is monitored by GPS and heart rate units that are used to indicate when players are working at their maximum intensity instead of using the old method of a player spewing up. Managers and coaches all have different views on how to prepare a team for the season ahead, and while many have embraced the improvement in sport science, some still feel there is a place for old school methods. I think this is particularly true for teams in the Football League.
 
The Football League is a marathon of a season, including 46 league games and sometimes many more cup games. I can tell you from experience that when you start playing those Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday fixtures, you rarely feel at 100 percent, but you have to grit your teeth and prepare your mind to go through the pain barrier. It’s no different to how you deal with pre-season. Some of the old school running might not make sense physiologically, but it can make or break players psychologically. The sense of accomplishment lads feel when they come through the pain barrier and finish a physically and mentally torturous run is immense. It not only feels good personally, but it brings a team closer together. Nothing forges a bond more than going through torture together. It gives you all something to relate to and certainly makes that end of season night out all the sweeter.

One of very few laughs during preseason training session with Wolves.

I can imagine some people thinking, “what is the big deal? Pre-season is just a few runs and then you get paid to play football.” My response would be this: If you didn’t have to make the sacrifices during the offseason to stay in shape and then push your body to the limit through preseason, there would be thousands of other people that would have made it as professional footballers. Hundreds out there had the ability. You can probably remember them as the best player at your school. The difference is they couldn’t make the sacrifices, couldn’t shut out that voice telling them to stop when the going got tough and couldn’t dig in when the manager added two extra runs when you had nothing left to give. Talent only takes you so far. The pain of pre-season is a necessary evil. Thankfully, I don’t need to worry about it until the beginning of next year.
 
I will spare a thought for my fellow professionals back in England and Scotland during the month of July as I know their pain, but it won’t stop me posting a nice picture of me relaxing down the beach working on my tan. What goes around comes around.

 

First published in Duck online magazine.