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.

 

Harry for England

As a staunch and passionate Scotsman, for the first and only time in my life I was eagerly anticipating the announcement of the latest England squad. Not because I was particularly interested in what route new manager Gareth Southgate was going to pursue in an effort to change England’s fortunes or to see if Wayne Rooney could add to his cap collection, but because I was hoping and expecting my ex-centre back partner and friend Harry Maguire, currently of Hull City, to receive his first full international call-up.

Harry’s form for the Tigers has been nothing short of immense, particularly since the arrival of new manager Marco Silva. Hull’s upturn in form has coincided with Maguire becoming a mainstay in the heart of their defence. This isn’t just my opinion. Defenders and experts with a far higher pedigree than myself have given him some glowing praise recently, including Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher and ex-Arsenal stopper Martin Keown. On Match of the Day, Danny Murphy described big Harry’s performance at Stamford Bridge as the best centre back performance of the season. This was after he comfortably dealt with Diego Costa, one of the best strikers in world football.

Costa is renowned for his strength and ability to bully even the most physical of centre backs, but big Harry proved more than a match for him. Constantly shrugging Costa off the ball or nipping in front to intercept a pass with his reading of the game, Harry delivered a masterclass in how to nullify the Spaniard. Costa shouldn’t feel too bad as Big H did exactly the same to the evergreen Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Old Trafford. I can’t recall the United talisman being outmuscled too often this season or becoming flustered, Mings stamp apart, but during a frustrating 0-0 draw at Old Trafford he endured a tough evening against the hulking frame of Maguire. At one point, as Harry effortlessly held him off, he pushed Maguire into his own keeper nearly causing a serious injury. Not often will the mighty Zlatan come up against strength to match his own.

As someone that got the opportunity to experience Maguire’s rise firsthand, I can’t say I am surprised. The first time I laid eyes on him at Sheffield United’s Redtooth Academy, I thought he looked more suited to the Lions front row than the Blades defence, but after his promotion to the first team I quickly realised he was more than just a big lumbering monster.

In the English football league, every young centre back has to go through a rite of passage. Mistakes have to be made and lessons have to be learned against battle-hardened experienced pros who can teach you a thing or two that you can’t learn playing in academy football. I remember quite vividly some of the bruising encounters I had as a teenager against seasoned professionals like Roddy Grant and Paul Tosh in the lower leagues in Scotland. Thankfully, I learned quickly and these lessons stood me in great stead as I made the step up the ladder to the English Championship. Without this schooling, I fear the English game would have chewed me up and spat me out.

In his first couple of years in professional football, like any young centre back, Harry was prone to the odd error but I quite quickly realised he wasn’t your typical young defender. His consistency for an 18-year old belied his years and his physical prowess could leave me aghast. No matter how big, strong, nasty or experienced the strikers were, Harry quite casually would hold them off as he let the ball roll out for a goal kick. He treated experienced target men like rag dolls.

The true sign of just how dominant he could be was on show the day we beat Villa 2-1 at Villa Park in the FA Cup third round. Christian Benteke, who quite regularly dominated seasoned Premiership defenders, didn’t win a header all afternoon.

For anyone reading that thinks Harry is just a big clogger, think again. One of his biggest attributes is his ability to play out from the back and carry the ball out of defence. His marauding runs forward have made him a fan favourite at the Kcom Stadium. It is a great sight watching a center back striding through the midfield with the ball and one we rarely get to enjoy these days, but Harry can do it effortlessly, starting attacks and quite often creating chances with his surging runs. His passing is excellent, and, as usual, underestimated purely down to his size and appearance.

With England appointing a new manager and surely starting to look to the future, it seemed to me like the perfect timing for Harry to receive his first call up.

The squad was announced a couple of weeks ago and I was disappointed but not surprised to see Harry had been overlooked. Phil Jones, Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling were all included and are certainties while they are playing regularly for top four clubs. Michael Keane was a new addition and wasn’t too much of a surprise choice after his great form for Burnley this year.

Like Harry, Keane has been mooted for a big transfer with a number of clubs rumored to be monitoring the situation. I can’t for a second suggest Keane didn’t deserve his call up, but I don’t believe he has been selected ahead of Harry because he is a better player or in better form. I think there are other factors that made it safer for Southgate to pick Keane, as I think if he was selecting on the basis of performances this season, Harry would win.

Keane is an alumnus of the Manchester United academy, so therefore has a certain pedigree that people associate with anyone that has that type of education and football upbringing. Completely understandable when you think of the number of players that have graduated from United’s academy either to their first team or at other teams around England and Europe. I can’t help but think if Harry had been at Man United instead of the less glamorous Sheffield United in his younger days, he might be viewed differently.

A close look through youth international teams shows the biggest clubs will always be heavily represented. You would like to think that coaches and managers will always pick the best players regardless of clubs, but this is far from the case. In Scotland, the minute you sign for Rangers or Celtic, your chances of playing in the dark blue shoot through the roof. It is not too dissimilar in England if you are at one of the big six clubs. Nowadays, you don’t even have to be a regular to get picked.

Becoming an international can be akin to receiving a life sentence. I am not for a second insinuating it is a disappointment to be called up. In fact, it is the highlight of your career, but like in jail, once you’re in, it’s impossible to get out. Certain players, whether they are playing or on the bench, in good form or have no form, will still see their name on that 23-man list come what may.

Keane performed admirably on his debut in Germany and justified his selection, though I can’t help but think Harry would have thrived while playing on the right hand side of a three at the back, a position that he occupies regularly for Hull. His forays forward would give England a different string to their bow and his aerial ability on set pieces would be invaluable. The only thing Harry area wouldn’t be able to help England improve on are penalties. His record in shoot outs is pretty appaling for someone with such a fantastic right foot.

While Harry would barely give a second thought to his omission, as he is such a laid back person that will just concentrate on doing his best for Hull City, I couldn’t help but be disappointed for him when Ben Gibson was called up for the Slovenia match after Chris Smalling went back to Manchester United with an injury. The difference between Keane and Harry could be considered negligible, but the selection of Gibson strikes a different chord with me.

Ben Gibson is having an excellent season in a struggling Middlesbrough team and has been linked with a move away from Teeside. I first came across Ben when he was on loan at Tranmere Rovers in League One. I could tell from playing against him he was a rugged defender who enjoyed defending. Being left-sided gives him an added edge as left-sided defenders are always hard to come by, but despite all his strengths, I don’t think he can match the performances or attributes that Harry can point to. So why would Southgate select him ahead of Maguire?

Southgate wouldn’t favour a Middlesbrough player over a Hull City player would he? Southgate has played and captained Middlesbrough for many years before graduating to the managers’ role. I think it is safe to assume he enjoys a good relationship with Steve Gibson, the Chairman of Middlesbrough, who just happens to be Ben Gibson’s uncle. Some people will decry this theory and defend Southgate, but I have been in football long enough to know this is the way it goes. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes it works against you. In this case, Harry has drew the short straw.

The statistics don’t help Southgate’s case. Between them, Gibson and Keane have twenty-six U21 caps. Harry has one. When you delve deeper, that doesn’t make sense. Harry has almost 100 more club appearances than Keane. Ninety five to be exact and fifty more than Gibson. Harry has reached two hundred and fifty career appearances at the tender age of 24. The other two have impressive appearance records as well  for young centre backs, but not as impressive as Harry’s. A lot of those two hundred and fifty appearances were in League One,  you might say. They may have been, but in each of those years, Harry was named to Team of the Year by his peers and he picked up countless Player of the Year awards. He was an integral part of the Sheffield United team that broke long-standing clean sheet records with twenty one in a season and eight consecutive clean sheets during another season. He proved himself against Premier League opposition on numerous occasions during our run to the FA Cup semifinal. Like Keane and Gibson he has a promotion from the Championship on his CV. Does that sound like someone who should have earned one England U21 cap compared to Keane and Gibson’s cap haul?

I understand Southgate may have known more about players he worked with during his U21 tenure, just like I know Harry better having played beside him in more than one hundred and fifty matches, but the fact he is still going under the radar despite his imperious performances astounds me. Steve Bruce pulled off a master stroke when he signed him for Hull City. At the time, I couldn’t believe one of the so-called bigger clubs did not sign him. Many people asked me my opinion on the big man and I say the same now as I said then: he is destined for the top.

I have raved about him to anyone that will listen. I told Joe Cole to keep an eye on him, and, after watching him dominate on a trip to watch his old club West Ham, he came back eulogising about the big man. Ask anyone that has seen him up close in training and they will say the same.

Harry might not have made this squad, but it won’t be long and he will make made another step up the football league ladder with a number of high profile clubs ready to pounce (sorry Hull City fans) and then maybe Southgate will have to pick him. One way or another, this boy will play for England. It just might take longer than expected through no fault of his own.

You can’t handle the truth

“It’s a marathon not a sprint.” “We all need to look in the mirror.” “It’s a six pointer today.” “We gave 110%.”

Football clichés, we hear them every week after every game from players, managers and pundits. I’d be lying if I tried to suggest I didn’t throw in the odd cliché myself every now and again. Sometimes we really are just taking it one game at a time.

The media coverage and scrutiny that players receive now is phenomenal. Whether it be Sky Sports News, local radio or the clubs very own TV channel or internet service, there is a constant demand for players and managers to answer questions. If I am being honest, after games or during highlights shows I don’t pay much attention to interviews with players. They are so bland and boring. Once you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all. I could literally reel off what a player might say once I hear the question. After years of doing interviews myself and listening to them as a fan, you realise there literally is only so many ways you can answer, “Are you pleased with the win today?” I really don’t think people understand how tough it can be for players to constantly have to face the media when they are handcuffed with what they can and can’t say.

The best way to describe doing an interview as a player is the equivalent of speaking to your wife while she’s trying on a new pair of jeans. “Honey, does my bum look big in these?” she asks. We all know the real answer will see us sent to the spare room for the season, so instead we opt for the diplomatic answer that sees us live to fight another day.

Imagine coming off the back of a run of bad results when the first question a journalist asks after another demoralising defeat is, “How is the mood in the camp?” It would be great to be able to respond with the unadulterated truth, “Well, confidence is at rock bottom. The fans are slaughtering us. There is a split in the dressing room and the manager has pressed the panic button. Apart from that, it’s just excellent.” Instead we have to patronise the fans and everyone else listening by spouting out lines like, “We are all pulling in the same direction. The team spirit is good and we are not far off turning it round.” Of course as a professional you always have to be optimistic and ready for the challenge, but there is being philosophical and then there is bare faced bullshit. Unfortunately, more often than not, we have to give the version that, while not the truth, spares us a lonely night in the spare room.

I noticed recently my ex-teammate and fantastic professional Dave Edwards come under fire from certain Wolves fans on social media for having the audacity to face journalists after a fifth-consecutive defeat at Reading. People may or may not be aware that players are contractually obliged to deal with the media. Clubs have certain media commitments to fulfill and it is always in their best interest to have a healthy working relationship with the local journalists. With Wolves in the middle of a mini crisis, the last thing Edwards would want to do is speak to the press, but these guys have column inches to fill and as players we are happy to wax lyrical about everything and everybody when things are going well so we have to take our medicine when things are not quite so hunky dory. Unfortunately, in these situations it can be the same group of players that get put forward and the fans can easily get fed up seeing the same player repeat the same empty platitudes they did weeks before. They want action on the park, not empty promises.

In my six years at Sheffield United, I was quite often wheeled out to face the music after particularly bad results as the club would always rather an experienced player deal with the tough questions than a young pup who was more likely to say the wrong thing. While I never refused a request from our press team, there were times I wanted to just board the bus and keep my head down. I knew the Blades’ long suffering fans would be fed up hearing or reading about me or any other player trying to pacify them. I was at risk of offending their intelligence when really deep down, I could understand their frustration and was hurting and just as angry as them.

Managers also have to face an incredible amount of scrutiny, but being the boss gives them the opportunity to say what they like. Managers can be much more open with the press and they can quite easily lay the blame at the players, directors, referees or even physio’s door in some cases, although ultimately it is them that will pay the biggest price if results don’t improve quickly. How often have you heard the following? “We worked on set pieces all week but the players didn’t take it on to the pitch,” or “The players won’t be here if they keep performances like that up?” One of the most common for a struggling manager is, “I can’t legislate for schoolboy errors like we seen today?” Can you imagine a player came out and said, “No surprises with the result today training has been poor all week and the Gaffer only turned up to the training ground on Thursday?” While it may be true, the player would be vilified.

As players we always have to toe the party line and certainly can’t be seen to question the hierarchy. I am not for one second suggesting that players should start berating their boss in public or start sharing dressing room secrets, but I am trying to make the point that the next time you hear a player get asked if they are behind their under-fire manager, take their answer with a pinch of salt as I’ve not to this day heard someone say live on talkSPORT, “Nah, it’s time for him to go.”

There is the odd occasion when a player does decide to stick his head above the parapet and tell everyone how they really feel, only to quickly retract everything once the shit hits the fan. They are usually never slow to say everything was taken out of context once their agent reminds them that their lucrative contract may be at risk.

The media has such a big part to play in the modern game, but if done correctly it can be used in a positive manner for managers and players. Alex Ferguson was fantastic at using the media to his and his clubs’ advantage. He was a master at using the press to get under opposing managers’ skin. Who can forget Keegan losing the plot and Rafa Benitez literally unraveling in a press conference? They could have handed Manchester United the Premier League title there and then. Sir Alex had a penchant for using the media to create a siege mentality amongst his players. He made the players think the world was against them and this helped forge a great determination amongst the troops to prove everyone wrong and this brought great success not only at Manchester United but also at Aberdeen.

One of the best examples of his experience at how to handle the media was after David Beckham’s wonder goal from the halfway line at Wimbledon. Immediately after the game, he insisted Becks got on the bus without speaking to anyone from the media. No Match of the Day interview, no radio interviews, just head down and mouth shut. This was his way of protecting a young player from the media spotlight so he could concentrate on his football. He let everyone else eulogise about what they had just witnessed and let Beckham concentrate on his on-field duties.

It is a pity no one at Bournemouth took a leaf out of Fergie’s book after their game against Manchester United earlier this month. I was amazed to see Tyrone Mings in front of the Sky camer’s immediately after the game talking about his altercation with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Surely this was an occasion where the club should not only have protected the player, but protected the club itself. I quite frankly found it painful to watch him try and explain his actions. If someone had the foresight to foresee this, they could have saved an embarrassing situation.

It isn’t just TV, radio and written press that players have to worry about these days but the ever-growing social media platforms, too. Thanks to the growth in social media, the appetite for constant updates and up-to-the-minute news is insatiable. What is considered news now is also so far ranging it is farcical. Twenty years ago, who would have been bothered with a picture of a manager standing in a kebab shop? Nowadays, for anyone in the public eye, you are always in front of a camera. Effectively, everyone with a phone is a journalist. Twitter and fans forums give everyone, no matter how young or old, knowledgeable or ignorant, a platform to air their views on football. I agree with one of my ex managers when they famously said, “Everyone has an arsehole but it doesn’t mean they should all be aired in public.”

Poor Steve Bruce can’t order a doner kebab and a side of cheesy chips these days without it going viral and being seen around the world. Let’s be honest, I don’t need video evidence to know the ex-Manchester United legend and current Villa manager likes a takeaway now and again, but why would anyone be interested when he’s doing something Joe Soap does every week?

Only last week someone posted a picture on twitter of Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths sitting with his family having a meal in TGI’s. The Daily Record online even ran a full page story about it. Is it any wonder that players are so guarded when it comes to dealing with the press? I sometimes hear people complain about how the relationship between fans and players is growing ever wider, yet some players can’t even eat out with their family in peace without someone trying to take a sneaky photo. Is it any wonder watching some interviews are as excruciating as a trip to the dentist? Modern day players at the very top have had to learn to put barriers up from the general public to protect themselves from unwanted attention and unwarranted controversy. For every genuine football fan wanting a selfie there is someone waiting to stitch you up.

I quite often hear football fans complain about the disconnect between themselves and modern day players compared to previous eras. Unfortunately, at a time where more people than ever before are able to connect and converse online, it is almost impossible for these high-profile people to show their true character and personality for the fear of being abused and constantly judged. Paul Pogba has been derided as much for his social media posts as he has for his poor performances on the pitch.

I have seen players post on Twitter that they are off for a “cheeky Nando’s,” only for their Twitter feed to go into overdrive from outraged fans. “How dare you enjoy a meal out with your mates after we lost at the weekend?,” or, “Don’t you care about the club?,” along with much more abuse. It is such a vicious circle that players find themselves in if they decide to be visible online. I am only new to Twitter myself and am amazed by the number of generic posts from various players I see after games on a Saturday afternoon like, “Tough result today lads. On to the next one. Great support from the fans.” On one hand they are trying to connect with the punters, but instead of being their self, they end being a caricature of themselves so afraid to say the wrong thing at the risk of upsetting people that they end up getting trolled and abused anyway.

I am currently at a club in the USA, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, which makes fantastic use of social media to promote the club and its current fight to gain entry in to MLS. They also provide our fans a fantastic behind the scenes look at training and off-the-field activities. Instead of boring interviews, they produce interesting videos that show the players are not robots but normal people who can laugh at themselves and the fans can relate to. I have included a link at the bottom of this post to a video of me and a few other team mates taking part in a “Rowdies Spelling Bee.” It doesn’t do anything for the stereotype about footballers being intellectually challenged, but it should give you a good laugh.

Talking about having a laugh with the media, during my spell on loan at Hartlepool, the lads came up with a game to make dull interviews slightly more exciting by trying to include specific words. After a few successful attempts they decided to get a bit more adventurous and the word of the week was “gangsters”. After a great one-nil win away from home, it was young left back John Brackstone’s turn to face the press. That week we all waited on the local paper with eager anticipation to see if he had somehow slipped in our word of choice. When the local paper came out we were not disappointed. “It was a great result and although we came under some pressure at the end, the boys defended the goal like gangsters protecting their turf.” Now that certainly wasn’t a cliché many will have heard before.

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.