The Parent Trap

A picture is worth a thousand words. While this may well be the case in some instances, I don’t think it always applies. A recent picture of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez sitting watching their sons play football went viral. They were lauded for appearing to sit back and relax while their sons played for a Barcelona youth team. Despite their own word class talent and obvious knowledge on how to play football, there was no sign of either player shouting instruction. The picture kept repeatedly popping up on my Twitter feed as it was retweeted over and over by people commending these world class footballers for their approach to parenting.

Messi and Suarez sit back and relax to watch their sons play football.

I have recently coached my own son’s U6 team. “Coached” should not be used literally here as working with 5- and 6-year olds, I was generally just trying to organize them into a rabble. If you had happened to snap a photo of me on the sideline at one of our matches, you may have caught a variety of different situations all open to interpretation. In one I might be shouting and pointing. What would people make of this? Would this just be another sign of a parent expecting too much too young, while in reality was it a coach trying to tell the kids they were shooting at the wrong goal? On the other hand, you may have caught a picture of me looking relaxed and laughing. Would this put me in the same category as Messi and Suarez, not as a player, but as a laid back parent who just let the kids play?

Coaching or should I say organising my son, Patrick’s, under 6 team.

I can tell you if someone had actually taken photos of me during the games they would have caught a wide range of reactions and emotions and all each photo would have shown, was a snapshot of one moment in time. Perhaps you could have caught a huge smile as one of the lads scored his first ever-goal or a grimace as one of the boys decided to the pick the ball up despite been constantly told not to use his hands. I certainly would not want my approach to coaching or parenting dissected or analyzed on the basis of one picture and I don’t think we should put Messi or Suarez on a pedestal just because they sat back to watch their sons play football.

I understand the point many people were trying to make.

If one of the greatest footballers that ever lived can sit back and let his son play, then surely Joe Bloggs that hasn’t kicked a ball in his life shouldn’t be screaming and shouting at the side of the park telling his son or daughter what or what not to do. We have all seen it. Those parents at the side of the park that treat youth football like the World Cup Final, screaming at anyone and everyone. The poor referee, the opposition manager or even opposition parents, it seems no one is immune from their tirades. This is not acceptable and never will be. Parents should be there to support their own child’s team and everything else should be insignificant. I think despite the outpouring of admiration for Messi and Suarez, there is major grey area about parenting young sports people that people have forgotten or perhaps overlooked. Everyone was eulogizing about such a laid-back approach to watching their kids, but I can’t help but wonder if some of their praise was misplaced. Is there more to a parents’ role in helping develop a young aspiring athlete than some people think?

Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi. These three names symbolize greatness in their own sport. For my generation, these sportsmen and women are icons of their sport, synonymous with being the best in the world and they all have one thing in common. Their parents pushed them to be the best they could possibly be from a very young age. Tiger’s dad didn’t go to the driving range and sit back in his chair and just let young Tiger hit some balls on his own. He instructed him, he encouraged him, he challenged him and at times scolded him. In the end, he produced one of the best sportsmen that has ever lived. Agassi’s dad hand-built a tennis court in his own back yard and a machine nicknamed “the dragon” that fired balls out at a ferocious rate. Agassi points to this machine and his father’s constants demands to return the ball harder each time as the reason for his fantastic forehand.

Tiger and his Dad shared an exceptionally close relationship.

Tiger and Agassi are both products of an environment where they were pushed every day by their parents to be the best they could be. At times did their parents cross the line of what was considered by the general public to be acceptable behaviour? From stories I have read, I think it is safe to say they did, but was that perhaps necessary to produce a world class athlete?

While hard at times, I suspect these athletes all look back now and are thankful for the way their parents moulded them. Would they have had all the trophies, accolades and money if it wasn’t for that constant push from their parents? The Williams sisters’ dad can always be seen sitting in the tennis stadiums around the world supporting his daughters, a sure sign that their relationship is as strong as ever despite his role as taskmaster during their formative years. Where would Tiger’s career be right now if his dad Earl was still around? Many feel Tiger’s demise started when he lost his father. Earl was not only Tiger’s father, but his best friend and mentor as well. Tiger didn’t despise him for pushing him hard as a child; He idolized him.

As a young child growing up you need advice, guidance, encouragement and support, but at times, you need to be disciplined, challenged and pushed to reach your full potential. While I never reached the heights of the aforementioned athletes, I have enjoyed a career in professional sport for more than 15 years. I think I have managed to get the most out of the ability I had thanks in large part to my parents.

Of course children at times need to make their own mistakes and learn from them, but the experience and wisdom a parent can pass on from their own experiences are invaluable. During your teenage years, when there are so many distractions, you need someone to point you in the right direction. At that age, it is so easy to just follow the crowd and succumb to peer pressure. If you have parents that can warn you about the pitfalls of making the wrong decisions and guide you along the right path, then the impact later in life can be huge.

Before a parent can really push a child to reach the top in sport, there are two ingredients the child must have. For anyone to reach their potential at anything, they need to be passionate about what they do. I have always lived and breathed football. Growing up, it consumed my thoughts every hour of the day. One of my report cards once read, “At times Neill’s mind is at Rugby Park and not in the class.” To be fair to the teacher, she was spot on. I was single-minded in my desperation to be a professional footballer.

On top of a passion for the sport, you need to show an aptitude for it. I have seen many players who loved football but even with the best will in the world, they just didn’t have the ability no matter how much they wanted it. If you have both the aptitude and the passion, then I think you’re able to handle a parent pushing you to be the best you can be. If you don’t have these ingredients, it will just end in tears for everyone.

When I read autobiographies or listen to interviews from sportsmen or women, they often site their parents as the biggest influence in their career. The influence of parents obviously varies with every athlete. In some cases, their parents didn’t have any clue about the sport their child participated in, but supported them in other ways, like ferrying them all over the country to and from training and events, lending emotional support after disappointments and encouraging a level head after great victories. In other cases, parents have vast knowledge on their child’s particular sport and were able to actually coach the intricacies of the game. Would Andy Murray be world number one if it hadn’t been for his mother Judy’s influence in the background?

As a father of four young children myself, I appreciate I will have decisions to make over the coming years on how to best help my children pursue their dreams whether it be in sport or academics. One thing I know is that they are all already uniquely different characters and will therefore each require help in different ways. Growing up, I had a vastly different character to my sister and for that reason, my Mum and Dad would push, encourage and cajole us in very different ways. While I have enjoyed a career in professional football, my sister went on to earn many caps for the Scottish Women’s Netball team as a goal attack.

To produce a professional athlete, I don’t think it is a prerequisite to have a parent as a major influence, but I guarantee if you ask any sportsman or woman, they will all have an important figure that played a major role in helping them on their journey. It may be an aunt, uncle, grandparent or coach but there is no question help and guidance has to come from somewhere.

My dad played a huge role in my football career. He was my coach from the age of 6 to 13. He enjoyed a short professional football career himself before becoming a Chartered accountant and continuing to play semi-professionally. My dad would be the first to admit he didn’t take the Messi approach to watching me play football.

I can remember appearing for the second half in games and looking over to my dad and getting the distinct signal to liven up, or, as we say in Scotland, get my finger out my arse, if I hadn’t reached the standards I was capable of. There were also days I hopped back into the car after a game thinking I had performed well only to be told in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t. “You need to do things quicker.” “Why didn’t you get tighter?” As a youngster there were times where I didn’t like this frank appraisal, but it always made me strive to do better and raise my standards and this was exactly the response my dad was hoping for. He could see the ability I had and how much I wanted it, but realized I needed to be pushed to achieve it. I can safely say that without these demands being placed on me, I wouldn’t have made a career out of the game. If I had jumped in the car after every game and been told how great I was, I doubt I would have made it past semi-professional level in Scotland. I needed to be pushed to reach my potential. I knew what I wanted to achieve but my dad knew HOW best to get me there having made the journey himself and from years of life experience.

Playing for Queens Park at 17 in the Scottish Third Division my Dad looking on in the background. He didn’t always look so relaxed.

For any parent reading this thinking that this is the approach to take, I would urge that there is no one-size-fits-all method. While at times my dad was demanding, I was also always aware he was my biggest fan. During some of my biggest disappointments, he was always there to pick me back up and restore belief in my ability. At fourteen, I was released by my boyhood heroes, Kilmarnock FC, and Aberdeen FC within a week. I was devastated and suffering a crisis of confidence, but my dad was steadfast in his belief that I would come through this stronger. His unwavering support despite the knock backs gave me confidence to keep going and prove the doubters wrong. Without this support at an age where insecurities are magnified, I would have believed the so-called experts and just faded into the background never to be seen again. The people that hold the positions of influence and power do not always know best. It is worth bearing in mind Michael Jordan did not make his high school varsity team.

Every athlete takes a different route on their path to professional sport, but one constant is the need for a positive influence, whether it be a parent, family member or close friend. It has to be someone that solely has the athletes’ best interests at heart. Coaches have a huge number of players to look after and a club to answer to. Agents might say they have your best interests at heart, but really have clubs, managers and chief executives to keep happy if they want to enjoy a long working relationship in that industry.

A parents’ role should never be underestimated, as in reality, they are the one person with only their childs’ best interests at heart. If they don’t try to push their child to be the best they can be, there are no guarantees anyone else will. So the next time you see a parent at the side of the park trying to motivate their child to do better, think twice before condemning them. They might just be nurturing a future champion.

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.

The Law of the Jungle

“What do you miss most now that you have retired?” A simple question asked of ex-professional footballers and normally met with the same response. “The banter in the dressing room.” It’s not the feeling of scoring a goal or the surge of adrenaline when their team secures three points. It is not the adulation of the fans singing their name or asking for their autograph. It is not the tidy sum of money they got paid every month for doing something they love. While I have no doubt players still miss these aspects of the job, the part they miss more than any other is sharing a smelly dressing room with twenty-five other like-minded hairy-arsed men. Go figure.

So what is it that makes the banter in a football dressing room so special? To be honest it is not one thing — it is a million and one things. It could be a witty comment, a dry remark, a planned prank or a hilarious mishap, but there is one guarantee. Every day you come to work, you will laugh. Sometimes so hard your stomach hurts. This blog gives a small insight to some of the shenanigans that go on behind those closed doors.

I suggest you stop reading now if you are easily offended. A football dressing room is an HR disaster and no place for the faint of heart. I am not for a second trying to say you need to be a macho man to survive, but having skin as thick as a rhino certainly helps. In offices and workshops all over the world, there will be a certain level of workplace banter that is considered acceptable. All these rules go out the window the second you enter a football dressing room. Imagine sitting at your desk working on a laptop when a colleague arrives and they are greeted with, “Did you get dressed in the f%#@&?g dark this morning?” Quickly followed by another verbal volley of light-hearted abuse from nearby work mates. Most likely along the lines of, “I wouldn’t wear that to paint my house,” and other similarly witty quips. In any normal workplace you would be marched straight to the boss and given a verbal or written warning for harassment or bullying. In a football dressing room, this type of behavior would be met with universal laughter and back slapping.

There have been many mornings I have prepared to dress for work and had to spare a thought about what the the boys may say about my selected attire. There have been certain pieces of clothing that just were not worth risking in front of the football crowd. Who would have thought getting dressed for work could be such a minefield?

Charles Nzogbia obviously didn’t worry about what his team mates thought. I would have hung this shirt from a flag pole.

For those unfortunate souls who wear something that doesn’t meet the lads’ high standards, you can guarantee that after training the offending piece will be hanging from the dressing room ceiling for everyone to see. It’s a clear sign from the boys that this item is considered unacceptable. At Sunderland, I came back in from training one day to see a huddle of lads laughing at an item that had been hung up. I walked down chuckling and keen to get involved in the high jinks only to find it was my t-shirt that was displayed on the hanger and in need of a good wash. It was a plain white t-shirt covered in stains. My laugh was quickly replaced by embarrassment as I grabbed the t-shirt down and realized the joke was on me. Mental note, time to learn how to use my washing machine.

I have seen a multitude of pranks with players’ clothes, from holes cut in socks to shoes nailed to the floor, but, unfortunately, it isn’t just your everyday clothes that are at threat. Your training kit can also come under attack.

It isn’t unusual for the press to make you sweat with some probing questions but during one particularly relaxed interview before training at Wolves, I was so uncomfortably hot and sweating profusely and I could not wait for the interview to be over. My answers were getting shorter and shorter as I squirmed in my seat. Only afterwards did I realise the source of my discomfort was emanating from the deep heat Andy Keogh has rubbed in my slips that very morning. It was payback for the itching powder I had put in his a week earlier. In a football dressing room, what goes around usually comes around. Players have memories like elephants.

Even well-dressed players are not immune and a cutting edge piece of clothing can bring great hilarity, as my ex-Sunderland teammate Chris Brown found out. He came in one morning sporting a very nice black leather jacket. Myself and a couple of boys decided to make some improvements by adding “T Birds” to the back with some white physio tape. Big Browny put the jacket on none the wiser and headed in to Sunderland town center for a bit of shopping completely unawares he looked like an extra from Grease. He only found out when he bumped into our masseur at the petrol station and clocked him taking a double take of his jacket. Just imagining the big man swanning about the town like John Travolta was enough to have us all in stitches.

Chris Brown was the butt of that joke, but on most occasions, he was the instigator. Every dressing room is made up of different characters all bringing a variety of things to the party and big Browny, in my time with him at Sunderland and Preston, was king of pranks. I quickly learned to always to be wary when I sensed he was up to something. He would go to any length to get a laugh from the boys. He once drafted a letter to Gary Breen claiming to be Umbro wanting to design and release a special range of Umbro Breen clothing. Breeny was a wily old fox though and saw right through it, unlike Kevin Ball, who Browny caught hook, line and sinker while he was caretaker manager. Our friend and teammate, Dean Whitehead, had bought a new dog and Browny decided to have some fun at his expense. A letter was duly written to the club pretending to be a fan complaining that they had recently bumped into Dean while walking his dog and, though pleased to meet the captain of the club, they were disgusted as Dean’s dog “curled out a log right in front of them and then Dean refused to pick it up.” Kevin Ball called a team meeting to remind everyone of our responsibilities while we represented Sunderland Football Club. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Dressing room banter is certainly not limited to verbally slaughtering or vandalizing people’s clothes. It can, at times, be very subtle and pretty dry. As a 17-year old in Queens Park’s first team, I learned the hard way as I was often the butt of the experienced pros’ well-rehearsed lines. On one trip home from a match, as I sat down the front, my name was shouted from the back by player coach Paul Martin. I was asked to let him know when we were passing Strathclyde Park as that was his drop-off point. Eager to please, I immediately focused my gaze out the window and noticed at that precise moment we were passing his drop-off point. Quick as a shot I jumped up to let the big man know we were already there only to be met with hysterical laughter from all the experienced players at the back of the bus. I wasn’t just learning on the pitch I was learning vital lessons off it too.

In a football dressing room, you can’t hide anything, and if there is anything you feel slightly self-conscious about, you can guarantee one of the boys will bring it up and make a joke at your expense. There are literally no boundaries. Forget the PC world we now live in because it doesn’t seem to apply in a football dressing room. I have been taken to task over my milk bottle complexion, my ginger hair and of course for being a Jock. There is obviously a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but it’s much further away than in most workplaces. There is absolutely no sympathy or time to feel sorry for yourself. It’s best to just laugh and think of a quip to throw back or, perhaps better still, put some deep heat in their underwear.

At Sheffield United, Danny Wilson brought in a new fitness coach, Dave Morrison, who had previously been a professional footballer. Dave was unique as he only had one hand. Having been a player himself, Dave knew the environment he was entering and endeared himself to the lads in his first session by making a joke at his own expense. Straightaway, he was one of us and the banter flew back and forward all season between him and the players, never once getting out of hand. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.)

While it might be described as dressing room banter, it certainly isn’t confined to the training ground alone. Some of the best laughs can be found while traveling away on the bus or whiling away the hours in a hotel. Quite often, the fun and games begin while trying to curb the boredom that sets in spending hour upon hour resting in a hotel room. A bucket of water balanced in front of someone’s door is always a banker for a good laugh, and getting hold of someone’s room key while they are busy with the physio always results in tears — tears of laughter for the perpetrators and tears of anguish for the victim.

With all this spare time on our hands, the lads are never far from their mobile phone but if they take their eye off it for a second, it can prove costly. Big Matt Murray, ex-Wolves goalkeeper and now Sky Sports pundit, made such a mistake just as we boarded the bus for an away trip and it gave me enough time to change my number for manager Mick McCarthy’s before returning his phone. Matt was none the wiser to what had just happened. Sitting up the back of the bus, me and a few other lads decided to pull the pin out of the grenade. A text was sent to Matt asking him to come for a chat. We muffled our giggles as Matty rose from his seat and made his way down the front of the bus to see what the Gaffer wanted. As Matt approached, he hesitated as he could see Mick was busy on a phone call. At the back of the bus, we were on tenterhooks as we watched Matt nervously shuffle around Mick without actually disturbing him. Eventually Mick turned to the big man and asked what he was hovering around for. Matt mumbled, “Did you not want to see me?” Mick, in his upfront Yorkshire way, told him rather bluntly he did not as the back of the bus broke out in hysterical laughter. Mission accomplished.

Snodgrass is a fantastic player but also king prankster.

Matt is one of many players that have fallen on the sword of modern technology. With players always looking for their next big move or 15 minutes in the limelight, it is easier than ever to catch someone out with a prank call. I like a good laugh but nothing makes my stomach ache more than someone getting caught out by a bogus caller. I played with two of the best prank callers of all time and I’ve seen some hilarious calls. The list of names to fall foul of Chris Brown and Robert Snodgrass’s prank calls is endless. It reads like a who’s who of football. The pair of them effortlessly dupe people into thinking they are someone else, normally a reporter or agent, but sometimes even a manager or chairman. If I ever receive a call from a number I don’t know from someone claiming to be an agent or a journalist, my guard goes up immediately. I have witnessed too many innocent players caught out in similar circumstances.
I once managed to persuade teammate Jackie McNamara to phone ex-flat mate Iain Russell for an interview on being nominated for Scottish Second Division player of the year. Beany, as he’s most commonly known, used to vow I would never catch him out, but Jackie played the roving reporter fantastically well and went through a series of awkward questions that Beany duly answered as professionally as possible. To finish, Jackie told Beany he had actually won the award but not to tell anyone. Beany said he was not surprised and felt he really deserved it. I had to stuff my fist in my mouth to stop myself from laughing and, thankfully, I was still smiling the following week when Beany really did win the award. It certainly softened the blow for him knowing I had got one over on him.

You may read this and think all this micky-taking, bantering, scheming and conniving sounds awful. Your clothes, accent, physical appearance are all open to scrutiny and ridicule. How can this possibly be the best part of being a footballer?

Let’s get it right. You can’t arrive in a dressing room and, from the first second, start poking fun at people like you have known them all your life. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t go down too well. The great laughs and banter arise from the relationships and bonds that are forged over time that bring you closer together as a group and as you develop a great respect for each other.

When I look back and think of some of the great laughs I enjoyed with my teammates, they came in teams where we enjoyed a relative amount of success on the pitch. The majority of funny stories that come to the forefront of my mind were during Championship-winning seasons at Sunderland and Wolves. We had a togetherness and camaraderie that grew the more we won together and laughed together. I always found that the players that were closest could be the most brutal with each other. You knew your pal could handle it and, deep down, while you were slaughtering their gear or their new barnet, it was considered a sign of affection and acceptance. It’s not always easy and you have to stand up for yourself at times. It’s not an initiation as such, but some of the stick is a way of testing you and seeing how you handle it. Once you proved to the group that you can laugh at yourself, it goes a long way to being accepted. The saying ”if you give it out, you have to take it,” applies here.

I often hear my Dad complaining that people in a normal business environment don’t enjoy the same camaraderie with colleagues as those in a sporting environment, and, whilst it may be understandable that the pranks and banter which footballers create would not exactly be those accepted in a professional accounting firm, there is no doubt in my mind that the business world could improve a lot if people were less sensitive and precious about themselves. If something needs to be said, then let’s say it and move on. There have been many sportsmen over the years who have developed very good business models through the implementation of their experiences in the sporting environment and the creation of an ethos of togetherness, honesty and openness. In other words, “guys let’s call a spade a spade” or if in Scotland a f@$&%!?g shovel. Handle the dressing room and you can handle the boardroom like a stroll in the park.

So when players say they miss the banter of the dressing room, it is not because they miss someone abusing their new shirt or latest haircut, but because they miss that bond of friendship and camaraderie that develops over all the hours spent winning, losing, training and traveling together. You really are a band of brothers. Football is full of so many highs and lows that these childish pranks and laughs give players a break from the pressure. It is a release from thinking about the next game, the next training session or their next move. Playing football isn’t like many other jobs. You not only get paid to play the sport you love, but you get to do it with a group of lads that become your best mates.

Wolves Championship Winners 2009. At Jody Craddocks testimonial dinner 2015 it was as if we had never been away from each other.

You may not keep in touch with every player you ever played with, and I certainly haven’t been best buddies with every single one of them, but the second you meet up with ex-teammates, the banter carries on from where it left off. It is like you have never been away. Of course you reminisce about great victories, bad defeats and dressing room bust ups, but the main conversation is about great times, great laughs, great nights out and of course some banter about what your ex-teammate has decided to wear for the evening.

 

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.

Jumpers for goalposts

If you were born and brought up in a certain era you will know what it was like to rush home from school, whip off your uniform, change into your favourite football jersey and rush out to play football until it was dark only taking a break for tea, which would be consumed in record time afraid you might miss something. Indigestion was never a thought as you rejoined the game still munching the remnants of a buttered roll. You will also be familiar with games like world cuppy, doubles, comby, wally and phrases like “any man save”, “next goal and in” and “no poaching”. I spent my childhood down the park playing these games and uttering these very phrases as did countless others all over Britain. My Mum and Dad used to tell me it would be the best time of my life. Playing football every hour that god sent with my best friends making our own games and our own rules. How right they were. No one to impress other than your peers, no one to tell you what position to play or how to play it. It really was the time of my life.

Now, whenever I get the chance to go home to Scotland I often drive by my old stomping ground, Barassie Park, and relive some of those childhood memories. The epic games that were tightly matched at 32 each but concluded because Mrs. Devlin was calling Krissy in for his tea or that volley I scored the first time I got to play with the older lads. I can remember some of these games just as well as games I featured in later in my professional career.

Unfortunately now when I drive by the park it is deserted. No longer is there the buzz of forty unruly kids playing in their own World Cup final. Instead, there’s just silence. The grass is perfectly green with no sign of badly worn goalmouths at either end of the park — a symbol of how little football is played there.

The lack of “street” football doesn’t just apply to the park in my hometown, but every park I pass by now. Whether it be in Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham, I don’t see kids imitating Ronaldo or Messi, playing games of headers and volleys or shooty in. You could be forgiven for thinking ball games had been banned nationwide. In Ayrshire these days they are replacing the “No Football Here” signs with “Please Play Football Here.” Such is the lack of activity at recreational areas.

Now I understand people will say society has changed, that it is not as safe as it used to be. In a day and age where every child seems to have a mobile phone I wonder if this is really true when your parents are just a phone call away. We only need to watch the news to realise there were a lot of bad people about even back in the so-called “good old days”. Regardless, I fear these halcyon days are gone for good.

I recently listened to an interview where former Celtic manager Neil Lennon commented on how he feels football has become sanitised for young players and it is stunting their development. In his opinion, players are over-coached and are deprived of the opportunities to improve and learn through street football that past generations have had. For years, Scotland, Ireland and Wales produced some of the world’s best players, George Best, Dennis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Duncan Edwards to name a few. Players produced not from professional clubs’ academies, but from playing endless hours of football whether it be with friends, school teams, boys club teams, county teams, literally any team that would have them.

They say you have to have 10,000 hours of quality practice to become an expert in your field. Many players would have been considered experts in their teens if you added up the amount of football they played back in a bygone era. Lennon is not alone in thinking that the change in football culture, particularly in Scotland, has made for a dearth of natural talent. It has been a long slow death and another nail was hammered home when Scotland were the only home nation to miss out on this summer’s Euros. Many pundits raised similar concerns over England’s ability to produce top quality players with character after being ruthlessly dumped out by the minnows of Iceland. The academy system has quite rightly come under scrutiny.

I know boys as young as nine years old now that are tied down to professional clubs and therefore don’t get to experience what it’s like to play with their school on the Friday, boys club on the Saturday, County on the Sunday and in the middle of all that, squeeze a game of wally in with their friends. Instead they will train in what Lennon describes as a sanitised situation playing “false” football at an academy where they will be instructed what to do from the minute they arrive to the minute they leave. The whole process is far too linear. There are very few problems for these players to overcome. They get the best kit, the best facilitie and the best mode of transport to and from games. Their toughest choice is sometimes what colour boots to wear.

Now, some people may argue that good, quality coaching in a professional academy is surely better than battering a ball off a wall for half an hour with your mates, but I am not so sure. First of all, quality coaching is hard to find even at the highest level in the professional game. Unfortunately, in my experience there are more average coaches than good coaches, so just being in academy doesn’t guarantee development or fun. On top of that, how much coaching do you really need at nine years old? Yes, you need to learn the basics and be guided in the right direction, but it is amazing the improvements that can be made just playing in any capacity with the freedom to express yourself. A simple game like “Wally,” when you take it in turns to hit the ball against a wall until someone misses, works on so many aspects of your game. You start finding ways to drive it, chip it, or curl it, along with learning how to use the inside and outside of your foot. Think how many touches you get in half an hour playing this compared to being a just another number in a group of 14-20 players.

When out playing with your friends at a young age, a game as simple as trying to hit a lamp post can be where a dead ball expert is born. So many times I look back at games I played when I was a kid and now realise I was honing my technique without thinking, coaching myself, as I wanted to find a way to beat my pals whilst having unbelievable fun.

On top of improving the technical side, you also improve the psychological side. Nothing builds character more than fighting your corner down the park with your mates. I can remember many scraps breaking out over whether the ball that rolled over a jumper impersonating a goal post was in or out. That first time you got called over to play with the big boys, three years older than you, and you had to sink or swim. How often are academy players really taken out their comfort zone?

The state of Scottish football has raised intense discussion on what can be done to improve the nation’s game. Ex-Scotland international John Collins has some pretty strong views on how, as a nation, Scotland should change things to aid player development and many of them are excellent but one point I can’t agree with him on is that young players should play non-competitive football up to the age of 18. How will players adapt going in to a first team at 18 years old when all they have known up to then is that winning doesn’t matter?

When British football was producing genuine world class players by the barrel load, the route through to the professional ranks was via competitive boys club, school and street football. I was very fortunate to play at a time when schools football was extremely strong. The standard of talent at the surrounding schools was high. In a previous blog I talked about matches against Scottish international Kris Boyd. These type of games were fantastic for pitting your wits against the best players in the area. Alan Hutton, who also went to my school, Marr College, would join us from time to time playing up front and scoring goals for fun with his electric pace.

Boys club football in Ayrshire was equally competitive and full of high-quality players that went on to achieve professional careers. Scottish international Kirk Broadfoot featured against us regularly and my own small town team, Troon Thistle, included three future Scottish Under 21 internationals, myself, Tom Brighton who played for Rangers, Clyde and Millwall, and Craig Samson, current goalkeeper for Motherwell in the SPL.

Top left to right. Tom Brighton, myself and Craig Samson all went on to play for Scotland U21’s together.

At around 16, I was playing for Ayrshire schools on the Monday, Queens Park reserves on a Wednesday and Queens Park Under 18’s on a Saturday. I have no doubt all these games and the experience I gained from playing so much “real” football accelerated my development past all the other 16 year olds that had gained YTS or Academy contracts. While I was out learning my trade playing in all various different levels of football, they were being mollycoddled, playing one game a week if they were lucky. At 16 they were considered better than me. By 19, they were well on their way out the game.

It is in a competitive environment under the most stressful conditions that you put your technique to the test and find out how good it really is. For example, taking a penalty in front of your whole school at a cup final gives you a small idea of the pressure you may face later in your career. Non-competitive sport just doesn’t create moments like this.

You would think all this schools and boys club football would be enough, but my thirst and my friends’ thirst for football wasn’t quenched, so we decided to invent our own team, Barassie Madrid. We all chipped in a tenner each and I was trusted to pick our new teams’ strip from the local market. I probably picked one of the worst strips of all time, a green and white Swindon away strip. Even an ardent Swindon Town fan would have turned his nose up at it, but we loved them because they were ours. We had local rivals called the Barassie All Stars and they donned a Russian national strip from the late 80s. Forget the Old Firm. As far as we were concerned, this was the only derby that mattered. When games took place down our local park it was like the Wild West, all sorts going on. We even attracted a crowd, mostly girls that were hoping for a winch after the game. No quarter was given or asked and we would scratch and fight to try and win the bragging rights.

Barassie Madrid home kit. Voted one of the worst kits ever but not in my eyes.

When people suggest playing non-competitive football, I think they are missing the point. When is football amongst youngsters ever non-competitive? Even my five-year old son wants to beat me when we play out the back. As a young child you don’t carry defeats the way you do when you reach the professional game. You might shed a few tears in the car home, but by the following morning, you are playing your next game in the school ground with hopes and dreams still intact. It is the coaches and parents that need to learn how to teach players the balance between the importance of winning and improving at a young age.

One academy I have come across that has noticed the change in society and our culture was Sheffield United under ex-Academy Director Nick Cox, now at Manchester United. Nick was kind enough to let me get involved in academy coaching at Sheffield United and I could see he was well aware that children weren’t getting the opportunity to play football on their own terms anymore. In an effort to create as good an environment as possible, one night instead of normal training, the boys would pick teams and just be allowed to play. No rules, no coaching. The best smaller boys, regardless, of age would get the chance to play against the bigger boys — the same type of natural selection that used to happen in any street game. If you were good enough, you were old enough. All of a sudden, instead of dribbling past boys their own age or smaller, weaker players, they had to think on their feet. Now, their physical attributes weren’t enough and they had to on technique and their reading of the game. All the things we did without thinking when we got pitched in with bigger, stronger lads. Nowadays, we need more academy bosses to think like Nick Cox and try and give the players a chance to improve by improvising.

With three sons of my own, I feared they would never get the opportunity to experience the childhood memories that I did, playing football with friends down the park but since my move to Florida, my fears have been well and truly allayed. Culture and society has changed in the U.K. and will never revert, while something special is happening in the States. Every park I go past has goalposts up with nets hanging from them and when I say nets, I mean real goal nets not some fishing nets that have been procured to replicate a goal net.

I remember when a set of goal nets appeared down Barassie Park every now and again, it was like a scene out of the Kevin Costner film, A Field of Dreams. Players would start appearing from all parts of the town like wasps attracted to a pot of Hartley’s strawberry jam and before you knew it, a 13-a-side game would be underway. Goals with nets turned our basic park in to a Hampden Park. All of a sudden, a goal looked much more aesthetically pleasing, instead of the monotony of having to chase after the ball every time it went through the posts.

My son and I playing down our local park in Florida.

Not only are there perfectly green pitches around every corner with beautiful white goal nets hanging, but there are boys and girls playing in them. The same type of games I played all the way back in Troon 25 years ago. If my theory is right and kids playing football up the park has an impact on the national game, then keep an eye on the USA. It might not be in the next five or ten years, but I expect in the next fifteen to twenty years, they will make huge strides and find their place in higher echelons of international football. Not only have they got kids playing on their own but they have a strong boys club and high school soccer scene to boot.

Scotland’s national team might just see the benefit from the street football culture in USA in around 20 years’ time as my three sons will all get the chance to play down these parks while wearing the lion rampant on their chest.

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.