When a dream becomes a nightmare

“Today, ladies and gentleman, I am going to talk about something very close to my heart.” That was the opening of a speech to my class at school when I was 11 years old. 23 years later and I am again going to write about the very same subject which remains close to my heart — Kilmarnock Football Club. It’s the oldest professional football club in Scotland, born in 1869, and as the label on every bottle of whisky manufactured in the town would portray, “still going strong” or as many would currently suggest – is it?

I grew up in Ayrshire, Scotland and despite living in close proximity to two local professional teams I was surrounded by fans of Rangers and Celtic. That’s unfortunately par for the course in Scotland. Despite supporting my hometown club I was in the minority as many of my friends would dream of playing at Parkhead or Ibrox whilst my dream growing up was to pull on the famous blue and white stripes of my boyhood heroes. It consumed my thoughts on a daily basis.

My Primary 3 report card read, “Neill’s mind is sometimes at Rugby Park and not in the class room.” This was a very astute observation from my teacher as there is no question this was certainly the case. People from my small coastal town will remember me as the wee boy who ran around playing football with the Killie strip never off my back. During the week I would try to replicate my idols at the local playing field and on a Saturday my Dad would take me to watch them in action. Home or away, we would be in the terraces cheering on our team, the Killie boys.

When I first started watching Killie they were in Scottish Second Division and struggling. One of my first recollections was watching a disastrous defeat away to lowly East Stirling and witnessing the fans go ballistic after the final whistle, my Dad included, as they demanded change. Things got better quickly thanks in huge part to my boyhood hero, Tommy Burns. First as a player, then as a manager, Tommy dragged the club back to where they belonged in the Scottish Premier Division. As the club stirred and made its way back up the divisions, my love affair hit an all-time high.

Surviving in the Premier League on the last day at Easter Road. I could be found somewhere in the crowd behind with the Killie faithful.

Rugby Park was regularly packed and crackling with atmosphere. For years the average attendance was well over 8,000, including the years spent in the lower divisions. The club was on the up and everyone knew it. We were constantly featured on the TV or radio. There was a buzz around the club and in the town. We may not have been winning trophies on a regular basis like the Old Firm, but the highs far outweighed the lows. I have too many great memories of following Killie during that era to list them all, but there are some moments I have to mention. Beating Ayr Utd on New Year’s Day at Somerset Park regularly, Bobby Williamson’s winning goal at Ibrox, surviving relegation on the last day of the season at Easter Road and then winning the Scottish Cup for the third time in the clubs’ illustrious history.

John Finnie Street in Kilmarnock after the 1997 Scottish Cup win.

I watched all of this as a fan on a Saturday and on weekdays, as I sat in a class room probably bored out of my mind, my thoughts would drift and before I knew it I was running out of the smallest tunnel in Scottish football, possibly the world and onto the beautiful grass pitch at Rugby Park. For years, Kilmarnock were renowned for having one of the best playing surfaces in British football. I remember watching the players spray passes across the field effortlessly during the warm up and I yearned to be out there on such a glorious pitch. There was even something about the green pitch especially under the lights that made those blue and white striped jerseys look even more special. Would I ever be able to kick the ball like that, I wondered? My daydream would always end with me scoring a last minute winner and turning to celebrate in front of a packed East Stand. My Dad and all my fellow Killie fans that I had stood beside home and away, looking on and reveling in the fact that one of their own was living the dream.

While this was a daydream, I did everything within my power to try and make it a reality. Unfortunately, my affection was not reciprocated. Killie released me as a 14-year old from their youth team in the most unceremonious manner and then passed up the opportunity to sign me again after a trial period when I left Dumbarton before signing for Sunderland. I never got to live my dream of playing for Kilmarnock, but I instead enjoyed playing and scoring match-winning goals in England for Wolves, Sunderland and Sheffield United.

Despite breaking my heart twice, it has never dampened my love for the club. It was just business. It’s as plain and simple as that. In football we all know the way it works — a coach either fancies you or they don’t. If anything, the rejection fueled my desire to prove people wrong. I always thought the chance to wear a Killie jersey would come again but as I watch from afar, I can see that my dream as a school boy is no longer a possibility. The bottom line is my dearest wife would have something very serious to say about our family leaving the sunshine of Florida for the wind and rain of the west coast of Scotland to join a club where the whole culture and environment I enjoyed so much has been sadly eroded over the years.

You could be forgiven for thinking this was taken a few minutes before a recent home game

No longer is the walk down Rugby Road bustling with thousands of fans strolling up to the stadium in expectant mood and in fine voice belting out “Tommy Burns Blue and White Army.” Now the stadium is embarrassingly empty with little or no atmosphere. When I watch any live games or highlights on TV, it looks like a mid-week reserve game with only a few lonely souls plus friends and family in the crowd. Voices can be heard echoing around the stadium. Long gone are the days of a packed stand to run and share the exhilarating rush off a last-minute winner with.

To add to the apathy and lethargy that surrounds the club, the power brokers have also introduced an artificial pitch. Instead of the beautiful green grass that used to be the envy of many, it has been replaced with a “state of the art” heap of rubbish. As if the product being served up right now is not bad enough, the people “in the know” have managed to make it worse. As a professional player who, since arriving in America, has had to play on various different artificial surfaces, I can tell you categorically that it does not make for better entertainment for the fans, and, at the end of the day, is the game not all about the fans. It is like playing a different sport!

One of the main reasons I came to play for the Tampa Bay Rowdies is the glorious grass pitch we get to play on every other week. The surface always allows us to pass the ball quickly and crisply. Our attacking players can dribble and commit defenders at will as the ball glides along the surface. Is this not what fans want to watch? Teams have struggled to cope with our incisive football at home as we have enjoyed a fabulous record of 11 victories, 4 draws and 1 defeat. Compare this to Kilmarnock’s recent home record, which is abysmal to say the least.

This is what a football pitch should look like.

Killie currently sit bottom of the SPL on three points after eight matches and have sacked their manager who was only appointed in the summer. After years of dodging relegation almost by default, I fear this year we won’t be so lucky. Everything associated with the club right now is negative. Every journalist or pundit is lining up to take a shot at the board, coaching staff or players. I cannot remember the last time I saw a positive news story about our club. Having said that, the club Twitter did post a nice picture of the players attending a cook school recently! Perhaps serving up something better on the pitch would be of more interest to the fans.

Who authorizes this stuff? Not what Killie fans want to see while their team languishes at the bottom of the league.

If anything sums up the state of the club right now, it is the fact that my Dad does not go. He has blue and white blood running through his veins. He once told me when I was a young boy that he would go to watch Killie if they were playing on the moon and I never doubted him. I once remember us both heading through to Edinburgh on a freezing cold school night in the middle of the winter to watch the youth team play in a BP Youth Cup tie against Hearts. That’s not quite the moon, but you get the picture. Whilst my Mum thought for a while we were mad, she quickly realised how much it meant to us and before long both her and my sister joined us.

So may I beg the question why is all of this happening? Why are there so many likeminded Killie fans totally disillusioned by the whole club and the way it is run? May I suggest that like most organisations that are failing, the trouble stems from the top? Yes, the club is debt-free and we are grateful for those who helped achieve this. But at what cost? The money men and the leaders (or so-called leaders) of the club strike me as being totally devoid of ideas in terms of what the supporters and the community need and want. Do they really know how to make our club great again and punch way above our weight as the leading provincial club in Scotland? From what I see and hear the clear answer is no.

Is it a co-incidence or good luck that a club like Swansea City are where they are, performing way above their station in life on a consistent basis? Or is it the case that a group of clever directors with an excellent vision and knowledge of football have set out to run their club with a distinct ethos, way of playing etc., that everyone throughout the club buys in to and replicates from tea lady through youth teams to the first team? No prizes for the correct answer, so why do Killie not do likewise?

Killie is at its lowest ebb for a long, long time but the good thing about a club with such tradition and history and deeply loyal fan base is that it can still be turned around. Not perhaps in time to save our Premier League status this year, but to make sure the club can return at the first time of asking and thrive in the Scottish Premier League again.

So what will it take? Firstly, someone in the board room with a plan, a vision, a strategy. Bobby Fleeting was the man responsible for dragging Killie from their doldrums at the bottom of the Scottish Second Division. Right now, I don’t see anybody with the foresight, knowledge or passion for the club striving or capable of doing this. Look at any big club that suffers a fall from grace. Managers get sacked and players get pelters, but the decline starts at the top and this is certainly the case at Killie.

Only after things improve at the top will the manager be able to make an inroad to the pitiful home form and overall team performances and results. As I write this, the manager’s job is vacant and I have no idea who would be the correct appointment under this board and with the current playing staff. One thing I do know is they need someone that can relate to the club. It is not a prerequisite that the manager has played for Killie. Tommy Burns had never played for Killie before he signed. He was a Celtic man through and through, but what endeared him to the fans was as soon as he joined he showed an intense passion for our club. He could see instantly the way the fans cared and through his words and actions he was able to inspire them.

The above picture says it all.

The new manager must have the character and traits to do this along with charisma, bullishness and passion. The Killie faithful used to sing “There’s only one Tommy Burns.” Unfortunately, they were right, God rest his soul, but if we can find someone with the same characteristics as that man, I have no doubt my great club will rise again.

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.