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.

 

Do or Die

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

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

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

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

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

Lifting the League title is a hard feeling to beat.

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

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

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

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

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

Watching as our dreams quickly become a nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Rooney could have ended my career

Wayne Rooney: All-time England record goal scorer and leading goal scorer for Manchester United. His name now sits above legends like Law, Charlton and Best. There is no question he will go down as one of England and Manchester United’s greats. That is not even up for debate. Though Wayne is a couple of years younger than me, our careers began around the same time due to his freakish physique for a young teenage boy. He was built like a boxer and had the speed of a greyhound and was physically miles ahead of other teenage boys. If he hadn’t been born in England, we would have been asking to check his passport. Whenever I watch him play, it reminds me of a decision I made at 18 that changed the course of my career.

I was 18 years old and starting to make my way in a man’s game. The previous season, I had played over 30 first team games for Queens Park in Scotland and was now looking to improve and try to make a step up the footballing ladder into full-time football. I had a very inconsistent first season, not unusual for a young center back still developing physically but had come back preseason bigger, stronger and ready to prove myself.

Despite being an amateur club and competing in the lower divisions, we played our home matches at Hampden, Scotland’s national stadium. This was the best of many little perks we enjoyed compared to other players at our level. We didn’t get paid but it was a fantastic club to play for and a great place for a young player to learn the game.

One of the advantages we enjoyed was a glamorous preseason fixture list. The bigger teams were more than happy to come and play us at Hampden instead of going to some ramshackle stadium to play on a pitch that resembled a car park. Our first game back was against Hibs at home and a great chance for me to test myself against a 
full-time outfit. My confidence was up after a good preseason and I played well, catching the eye of the Hibs coaching staff and others watching. The following week, we played Dumbarton at a neutral venue before the one I was really looking forward to — Everton at Hampden Park, a chance to not only play against a full-time team, but top internationals from the Premiership. It was every young footballers’ dream.

After playing a stormer against Dumbarton, the coaches were so impressed they moved quickly to secure my signature and within a few days I had left the Spiders for pastures new. It was an opportunity to play alongside better players and enhance my career. The move was only tinged with a hint of disappointment that I would miss playing against the famous Toffees.

After my first training session at the Sons, I was heading home when I received a call from a local reporter to discuss my new club. After a short conversation he mentioned that I would be glad I hadn’t been playing for Queens Park that night as they had been royally humped by Everton and to make matters worse, a 16-year old had scored a hat-trick. I remember thinking, “wow I am delighted I wasn’t involved in that debacle.”

Imagine getting destroyed by someone not even old enough to drive. I could just picture getting in the car with my Dad after a schoolboy had just ran rings round me. “You let him bully you. You need to be stronger than that, son, if you want to make a living out this game.”

I had a cold sweat thinking about it. A night like that is enough to destroy your self-confidence and self-belief in one go. It was fragile enough after my first season where I had been “old manned” by some lower league journeyman striker. The last thing I needed was someone old enough to still be reading the Beano giving me the run around.

Roll on four months and I am sitting at home watching Match of the Day and a just-turned-16 Wayne Rooney hit a last minute winner past David Seaman. Oh, so that was the “kid” that hit three past Queens Park in preseason. Now it didn’t look quite the embarrassment I thought at the time. His phenomenal winner against Arsenal was just the start. Over the coming months I watched this young boy run rampant over some of the best center backs in the world. He was awesome. Look back at any old clips on Youtube. He was a dynamo, tearing about the pitch, barging past defenders with his power and speed. I often try to imagine how I might have fared against him had I played that night all the way back in 2002. If I’m being honest with myself, I probably wouldn’t have fared very well. While two years older than Rooney, I was still a boy. There was more meat on a butchers pencil, whereas Rooney was a mix of Mike Tyson and Linford Christie along with his supreme footballing ability. No doubt he would have thrown me around like a wet tracksuit. If he was doing it to experienced Premiership players, what chance would I have had? I am just glad that my confidence and ego didn’t have to take the bashing or the roasting from my Dad.

Rooney took English football by storm for the next decade and more, winning trophies and breaking records along the way. I managed to stay out of his way through my time in England, our paths never crossing until last year when Sheffield United were drawn to play at Old Trafford in the third round of the FA Cup.

I have never been so happy with the FA Cup draw. My first love is Kilmarnock FC and I have a great affinity with Sheffield United after playing with them for many years but I am also an avid follower of Manchester United. Denis Law was my dad’s hero growing up, along with Bobby Charlton. As is usually the case, my dad regaled great stories about their past which made me a supporter as well. We have both made many trips to the Theatre of Dreams as fans, but this was going to be my first as a player.

I was desperate to face Rooney and the rest of the United first team. I wanted to test myself against the best they had to offer, not some second string. I might not have been ready for Rooney all those years ago, but now I felt I had the experience and nous to test myself, along with the fact that I had put on a few pounds and wouldn’t get blown away in the wind.

I was not kidding myself that this was Rooney in his pomp. As a United fan, I was well aware that he had dropped off from his previous standards, but he was still the countries’ leading goal scorer and an icon of the last decade. When the team sheets arrived on the day of the game, I was not disappointed. “Rooney 10” was on the team sheet and he was playing up front.

As always when up against players of such a high caliber, I decided to get right in their face from minute one. Bumping into them when the ball is nowhere to be seen just to let them know I’m there. I did this to Rooney and he turned round and asked me quite abruptly what I thought I was doing. Not to be put off, the next opportunity I did it again. Now it’s a common perception that Rooney plays his best when he’s angry. Well, if that really is true, I should have been worried as he started charging round like raging bull. As fate would have it, a ball got played in the channel and we both chased after it. I knew he was coming for me, but I not only managed to win the tackle, but come away with the ball and play a neat one-two round one of my heroes to cheers from the huge Blades traveling support. If Rooney wasn’t already seeing the red mist, he was now, but my confidence was sky high and I proceeded along with the rest of my teammates to blunt any attacking threat from Rooney for the next 89 minutes or so. While it might not have been the biggest game on Rooney’s fixture calendar, he still possessed an incredible will to win, but just couldn’t muster the same magic or threat that had been his trademark throughout his career. It confirmed my own suspicions that as an out -and-out striker for the biggest club in England, he was nearing the end. Nearing it, but not there just yet.

With the score tied in the 92nd minute and heading for a well-deserved replay, Dean Hammond upended Memphis Depay to concede a penalty. Rooney coolly stepped up and slotted it away in front of the Stretford End to ensure his name would be on the back pages the following day despite his insipid performance. The following week, he proceeded to score a double at St James’ Park on the Wednesday night and scored the winner at Anfield that Sunday after another below par performance. I suppose that’s what the greats do — they produce the goods when they are not at their best. They step up for the big moments when their team needs them. His all-around performances were far removed from the swashbuckling days we love to remember, but he could still find the back of the net.

Fast forward to the present, when on Saturday morning I settled down to watch Stoke v Manchester United. One of the perks of living in the States is getting access to watch all the Premiership matches, even those that kick off at 3pm back home. After losing an unfortunate opening goal to a deflection, United proceeded to pummel Stoke, creating chance after chance. With 25 minutes to go, their talisman for so many years was brought off the bench when Rooney replaced Mata in an attempt to rescue the match.

United continued to probe, but to no avail. For years, Rooney was the first name on the team sheet. The only time he may have been required from the bench would be if the understudies didn’t manage to get the job done during a game he was allowed to rest. Under Mourinho, he’s had to accept this role, though I struggle to think of a game he’s came off the bench and made a significant impact the way Rashford does with his exhilarating pace.

Saturday was no different and with only three minutes left to play and United heading to defeat, I Facetimed my Dad to dissect the game and primarily discuss another ineffective substitute appearance performance by Rooney. I was greeted by a huge grin, which threw me, as my Dad is more of a glass half empty person in the immediate aftermath of a Manchester United defeat.

“What about Rooney’s goal?,” my dad asked. Now I was really thrown out my stride, as I sat and watched the clock tick down with the score at 1-0. “He’s broken the record.” With games being beamed from the U.K., there is normally a slight delay, but in this case, there was around a two-minute lag. Just as I began to believe my Dad was telling the truth, I notice Rooney standing over a free kick on the corner of the box. The rest, they say, is history.

Over the past couple of years as a United fan, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Rooney has frustrated me. He’s been a shadow of his former self and playing against him confirmed my suspicions, but as I watched him whip in that world class free kick to break one of the most sought-after records in world football and then sprint to get the ball to try and get the winner, I realised why he truly is a United great.

No one could have begrudged him an exuberant celebration after scoring a last minute equaliser to break a 40-year old record, but that’s not Rooney. He’s a winner. Darren Fletcher said it best when he said, “most strikers are selfish but Rooney is selfless.” Never has a truer word been spoken. He’s broken these goal scoring records and still been a team man. If he was my teammate, I would run through a brick wall for him and I suspect that’s why so many of his ex-teammates have protected him in the media while he’s not been at his best. It’s exactly what I would do for someone that had put his body on the line for the team while still grabbing vital goals.

Left midfield, right midfield, center midfield he’s played everywhere. Even at his best, he did the graveyard shift to accommodate other luxury players. Did he like it? Probably not, but he did it for the good of the team. Not many superstars do that. I’ve played out of position and never batted an eye lid because I knew if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be in the team. Guys like Wayne Rooney didn’t need to worry about that, but still did it with no complaints.

So whether it’s as a United fan, England fan, opposition fan or as a fellow professional footballer, we should all recognise his fantastic achievements and how he embodies all the values that fans and players in our country love. I will be forever grateful I made my move to Dumbarton and missed out on the opportunity of playing against Everton. While I know for sure I wouldn’t have made a dent on a young Wayne Rooney’s confidence if I had matched up against him, I also know he could have severely damaged mine and who knows where my career would have gone.

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.

Out in the cold

 

A Saturday afternoon spent shopping in the city centre with the wife, down the park with the kids or just sitting in front of the TV watching super Jeff Stelling could be some person’s idea of bliss. For a professional football player it can be a living hell. While your teammates are out doing what they get paid to do you are left at home feeling like a spare part. There are no nerves, no adrenalin, no acclaim. Nothing. People who haven’t played the game just can’t understand how empty this feeling can be. All week long you train to get ready for a Saturday so that you can run out onto the pitch and just hopefully have that moment of ecstasy at the end of 90 minutes when you’ve won. At 4.50pm on a Saturday evening playing your part in a winning team is what it is all about. The buzz is fantastic.

A Saturday afternoon on the pitch is your release, a chance to go and do what you love doing in front of paying customers. I often hear fans complain that players are just happy to pick up their wage packets but apart from a few mercenaries this is simply not true. Anyone who has made it as a professional football player has an innate desire to compete. They might be driven by a will to win, to show people how good they are or even to prove their critics wrong. If there is no game at the end of a week’s training the void is huge.

Only a player’s spouse or family can get a close up view of how this situation can affect someone. Those Saturday afternoons are a write off. You may be there in person but your mind is somewhere else. There is one thing for certain – it tests the strength of the relationship with those nearest and dearest. One wrong word and snap – the frustration comes pouring out. So how do you end up in Asda on a Saturday afternoon?

Let’s get straight to the point – there’s a difference between not getting picked in the first eleven and being totally “bombed”. When you are not picked in the team it can be very frustrating but after the initial disappointment you have to realise you could be called off the bench at any time. It’s part and parcel of football – the manager can only pick eleven players. You may express your displeasure to the manager in private and I certainly did on more than one occasion. But once it was dealt with I always made sure to get my head down, train hard and get on with it. You may be out of favour on the Saturday but the next game is always right around the corner.

If you are out of favour for a particular reason, you still have to keep in mind you are part of the squad with a vital role to play. Some weeks you may even find yourself left out the squad of 18 and watching from the stand. This is not enjoyable as you feel so removed from the lads out there on the pitch but at a time when clubs are carrying huge squads to cope with the phenomenal number of games it need not be the end of the world. A suspension or injury and you can be back in the fold the following week. So the message here is keep the head when others around you may be losing theirs! Your chance will come.

Ok, so we can deal with scenario one but what about scenario two – where being “bombed” is a completely different kettle of fish. You feel like the whole team could go down with food poisoning and the manager would still pick the canteen lady in front of you. When the team travels away you are left at the training ground with the fitness coach and, if you are fortunate, maybe a couple of other “lepers” – sorry, players – for company. Indeed, if you are very “lucky” you may have a manager who will explain the situation to you face to face and treat you with the respect you deserve while you are still at the club. He might not pick you to play but otherwise will still treat you the same as everyone else. These managers tell you straight down the middle where things are at, why you are out of his plans and what the future looks like. You may not like it but like everything in life if there is bad news it is best to hear it straight. Unfortunately these types of gaffers are few and far between.

It is far too common for clubs to decide to force players out through a series of underhand tactics which in any other workplace would be described as bullying and harassment and of course in breach of probably every clause in any contract that was ever written. So what does this involve? It can include any number of things, such as sending senior professionals to train with 16 and 17-year-olds on a regular basis then shipping them out of the first team dressing room away from friends and teammates. Players are starved of reserve games as every attempt is made to smoke you out. The ranks close in and the previously happy and friendly number two all of a sudden doesn’t wish to be seen conversing with you for fear of being seen as sympathetic to your case. In essence everything that can be done will be done to make your life miserable in the hope that you tear up your contract and leave.

After Wolves suffered consecutive relegations to League One they were stuck with players on Premiership wages who the fans were completely disillusioned with. The manager Kenny Jackett formed a group known as “Group 3”. It might as well have been called the “Outcasts”. This group of players trained in the afternoon on their own. On a good day there might have been eight training but as some found pastures new the numbers for a training session could be as low as three. They did not want these players around the first team, development team or under 18s, scared they would have a negative impact. Despite some of the “Group 3” players’ previous misdemeanours there were some fantastic professionals amongst the group who had given sweat, blood and tears for the club. Their time might have been up in terms of pulling on the black and gold but at the very least they should have been shown a modicum of respect and human decency by giving them the appropriate training conditions.

Is this type of behaviour from clubs any different to a player trying to engineer his way out of a club by foul means when he wants a move? Players are vilified for it and rightly so. They should act professionally and give 100% until their club agrees a transfer fee. I hear quite often the phrase “player power” but it really only exists among the elite. Not enough mention is made in the media of the power the clubs wield over players and how they abuse that power when they decide they don’t want them anymore. It really goes under the radar. The PFA in England is the best union in the world. They have achieved so much for footballers but I feel this is an issue they must improve on. Meeting the financial terms of a contract is one thing but there are other areas that clubs fail to meet once they lose faith in a player. There must be stricter criteria for clubs to follow when dealing with unwanted players. Football is a unique job with a very short career span. If a club lets you rot it can ruin the rest of your career.

There have been two high profile cases recently where World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger and Yaya Toure – who has won the Champions League – were frozen out at their respective clubs. Both situations had the common ingredients that seem to be in the mix when players are sent to the footballing equivalent of Siberia. In Schweinsteiger’s case he is an ageing player on big money who doesn’t fit into the new manager’s plan. Toure’s is a case of an ex-manager who had previously sold him coupled with an agent stirring up trouble. Pep Guardiola was pretty upfront about the situation unlike most managers in similar situations. Instead of hiding behind smoke and mirrors he quite simply explained an apology from his agent and Toure would see himself brought back in. I am sure City’s form had nothing to do with it but once an apology was forthcoming he was back and back with a bang as he scored a double against Crystal Palace in a 2-1 victory.

However the problem most players face is clubs and managers are not usually as transparent to the media over their intentions as Guardiola was. That can be due to a fear of showing their hand and strengthening the player’s case when it comes to negotiating a settlement or move away from the club. I have witnessed many clubs make it their aim to force a player to beg to leave in this way, giving them a stronger hand in negotiations. The clubs want to have their cake and eat it. So often managers will give out mixed messages regarding the reason behind a player’s absence. It can leave fans to assume – and we all know what happens when you assume.

I very recently found myself in a situation where I was frozen out at Sheffield United having been a mainstay for the previous three seasons. I could see the writing on the wall long before Nigel Clough finally made his move and banished me from the first team squad. I could read him like a book and, if the truth be told, Clough knew that. There was no bust up, no argument, no fall out. I wasn’t just dropped to the bench or the stand I was made persona non grata. My ticket to Siberia was well and truly ordered.

There was no explanation from the manager and as he had the local media in his pocket they never pushed for answers. Social media went into overdrive – “what has Collins done?”. “He punched the manager?”, “He persuaded Maguire to leave?” and some other ridiculous suggestions that do not bear thinking about. It really did get that out of hand. All the fans wanted was a logical explanation and there certainly wasn’t one forthcoming. If the truth be told there wasn’t one that could be given. The question wasn’t why was I not in the first eleven as ultimately that is the manager’s prerogative but more importantly why was I bombed completely having played almost 200 games consecutively with a flawless disciplinary record on and off the field?

All this time I had to keep my head down and keep my mouth shut. People were questioning my attitude, my integrity, my professionalism. My reputation was being tarnished as people started conjuring up ideas that I must have done something to warrant this type of treatment. I got the opportunity to speak to the press on one occasion and had to explain nothing had happened. You could forgive people, however, for thinking it was bullshit. No way were they buying that. A player just doesn’t disappear from the first team quicker than Lord Lucan for no good reason.

So what options does a player have when this happens? Not many now due to the changes in the transfer window regulations. You can’t leave on a permanent transfer and you can’t leave on a loan so unless it’s during a transfer window you are stuck. But there is a way back. It takes incredible mental strength and a lot of willpower but things can change. Schweinsteiger trotting onto the pitch at Old Trafford recently proved that. He looked dead and buried but through hard work, a positive attitude and true professionalism he fought his way back. I managed to do the same at Sheffield United. I was determined to pull on the red and white stripes again, even if it was just once. I knew I still had something to offer. Being a model professional in these situations is almost not enough. You have to turn into James Milner, the ultimate professional. I have never been so focused as to not let them grind me down.

During the summer after my season in the wilderness Clough was sacked and replaced by Nigel Adkins. I was still under contract at Sheffield United and all of a sudden I had a chance to play at Bramall Lane when it looked like all hope had previously been lost. In my second game back for the club I came off the bench at Morecambe to score a last minute winner. It wasn’t the most glamorous game I’ve ever played in but it meant so much to me and my family after coming through such a torrid period in my career. Afterwards I gave an interview to the local media which is available below. May I finish by asking anyone who doubts how much a footballer cares to listen to that. I care and my fellow professionals care much more than you will ever know.