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.

Lost the dressing room

“Has he lost the dressing room?” Anytime a manager loses his job these days I hear pundits trotting out this line and going on to condemn the players. The players should be ashamed and embarrassed they say. The phrase itself makes out the players have just given up and that they are no longer trying for the manager. Many of these pundits and so-called experts will have been in situations in their career where their manager has been sacked in similar circumstances. Were they ashamed and embarrassed? Or was that different? Had they given their all for the manager and just not been good enough or had the manager maybe deserved the sack?

In the last few days Claudio Ranieri, only 10 months after leading Leicester City to the English Premier League title, has found himself out of a job. The man affectionately known in the English press as the Tinkerman, has received a huge amount of sympathy from pundits, supporters, players and managers. I was gobsmacked when I heard the news after watching his team feature in a creditable 2-1 away defeat to Sevilla in the last 16 of the Champions League only 24 hours before, leaving them in a good position to qualify for the last eight. Yes, that’s right. Leicester City in with a shot at the last eight of the Champions League and they sack their manager. I share the same views as many others that it was an extremely harsh decision and highlights everything that is wrong in modern football. What I can’t agree with is that the players are solely to blame and player power alone cost him his job?

Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha is the owner of Leicester City and is the man that ultimately decided to sack Ranieri. He is the boss and the man that calls the shots. The decision to sack Ranieri was his and his alone. For anyone to think this billionaire and top businessman just dances to the players’ tune on decisions as big as sacking the UEFA Manager of the Year need to think again. If people are looking for someone to blame they should point the finger at the owner as it was his prerogative to keep Ranieri despite players’ misgivings, poor results and poor recruitment. If he wanted to give Ranieri time to turn it round he would have been well within his rights to and no one would have batted an eyelid. It would actually have been refreshing to see an owner take a long term view. I suspect he would have been commended for it.

What I can’t understand is the outpouring of scorn toward the players, particularly from knowledgeable people in the game or media whose views are normally worth listening to. They would almost have you believe that the players had a vote on the plane home from Sevilla and decided Ranieri’s fate by a show of hands before telling the owner to pull the trigger. There should be far more emphasis put on another owner just wielding the axe at the first sign of trouble.

Swansea are a great example of how important the people at the top are to the success and stability of a football club. A club that has been on an upward curve for the last ten years, culminating in promotion to the Premier League and a League Cup success, all underpinned by a philosophy on how the first team should play and good managerial appointments. They all of a sudden seemed to throw that blueprint for success out the window with the hasty sacking of Gary Monk. At that point, the club decided to start firing managers quicker than Alan Sugar on The Apprentice. The appointment and subsequent sacking of Bob Bradley only three months after being hired summed up the lack of coherent structure at the club. Apart from Chelsea, is it any surprise that the clubs that are most successful are well run from top to bottom and have stability? Perhaps it’s time the media and pundits really focused on what actually goes on behind the scenes instead of surmising and jumping to conclusions that provide easy soundbites.

So what does the phrase “lost the dressing room” actually imply? In my mind it infers that the majority of players have lost faith in their managers’ ability to help the team win games of football. A perfect example of a manager losing the dressing room would be David Moyes at Manchester United. The high-profile squad who were just off the back of a title win would not have been overwhelmed with his appointment, considering Moyes, who despite his stellar job at Everton had never won any silverware. I have no doubt they would have started preseason with an open mind to his methods and given no less than 100 percent, but after months of below par results, his different training regime and man management style will have come under scrutiny. The players would start to doubt his ability to help them win trophies. Some of his decisions quite clearly damaged his credibility with the players and results continued to deteriorate despite the players’ best efforts. Once a manager reaches this point and the players feel he is just setting them up for failure, he has effectively lost the dressing room and there is normally no way back.

The polar opposite to this was the impact of Jose Mourinho when he arrived at Chelsea having just guided Porto to the Champions League. My current teammate Joe Cole, (I never thought I would write that sentence) told me about his first meeting with Mourinho after his appointment whilst away on England duty. Jose arranged a meeting with the current Chelsea players and, after disposing with the niceties, he told them they had all won nothing but if they wanted to be winners to follow him as he knew how to win.

Now these are only words and he still had to deliver but I have no doubt he had grabbed the players’ attention. It certainly would have gotten my juices flowing. Who can forget his first press conference when he announced himself as “the special one?” This was in stark contrast to Moyes’ first press conference at United, when he looked and acted like someone who didn’t feel comfortable in his new role. Players feed off this type of behavior both positive and negative. Chelsea hit the ground running from the first game of the season and from that moment the players were hooked on Mourinho’s every word. If Jose had told them to run a hundred laps of the training pitch, they would have done it as they believed his methods would work and his record suggested to them it would lead to trophies. A player and teams belief in the manager is vital.

I distinctly remember a time while I was at Wolves when Mick McCarthy came under pressure from the fans and we, the players, knew he needed a result. The previous season he had overachieved by guiding Wolves to the playoffs, not quite the same fairytale that Leicester achieved, but it had certainly raised expectations among everyone at the club for the following season. When we weren’t meeting these expectations, you could sense there was dissent amongst the crowd and we were well aware the new ambitious chairman, Steve Morgan, wouldn’t hesitate in making changes if he felt they were required.

One of the keys for McCarthy in keeping his job and coming through the tough period was the faith the players still had in his ability. As a group of players, we trusted Mick and we would have ran through a brick wall for him. During trying times at every club, there will always be players keen for a change largely due to the fact they are not playing and the manager not fancying them. The best managers identify these players and deal with the situation.

Prior to a really tricky away tie at Crystal Palace, when anything other than a win might have seen Mick lose his job, he picked the team on the Friday and pulled us together for a chat on the training ground. He made it very clear that he was picking a team of players that he could trust and rely on to give every ounce of effort and to go and get the job done. It wasn’t the most glamorous team and it wasn’t the most technical, but he knew he could bank on their total commitment and ability to carry out his orders. In the team huddle before kickoff, we made a point of saying let’s win for the manager and we did exactly that, winning 2-0. That season we missed out on the playoffs by a goal but won the league the following season at a canter. We knew we had a good manager and it was up to us to deliver for him.

I have been in similar situations where lesser managers have been under pressure and, as a team, we have realized the severity of the situation and tried to rally the troops but, despite our best efforts, the managers just didn’t help themselves whether it be with tactics, team selection or man management.

What people need to realise is that players want to win, but, to do that, they need to have belief that the man in charge can lead them there. If we didn’t think Mick McCarthy could take us where we wanted to go, we would still have tried our best but we wouldn’t have had the same togetherness and platform to perform to help rectify the situation.

The biggest insult the Leicester players have faced amongst all the criticism is the question mark against their effort and commitment. I was astonished at widely-respected Jamie Carragher’s criticism of the Leicester players after their victory over Liverpool the other night. He commented, “Both teams should have came off the pitch ashamed,” blatantly implying that Leicester hadn’t been giving their all prior to Ranieri’s departure. For someone who is usually very astute in his analysis, it seemed to me like a bitter rant. Had he forgotten the game earlier in the season where Leicester and Vardy had destroyed Manchester City? I suspect Leicester’s success in the games I’ve highlighted was more down to both sides playing right into their hands and leaving themselves ripe for the counter attack, A trademark of their title-winning run. This season, teams have defended deep to nullify Vardy, which is just one of the many problems Ranieri faced and didn’t quite solve.

Unfortunately, when things are not going well, performances can look uninspired and insipid no matter how hard you try. This can lead to questions of the managers’ ability to motivate the squad. While there have been some poor performances, and certainly a couple of players attitudes have been suspect to question, blaming the whole squads’ commitment strikes me as lazy analysis and a failure to look at the wide-ranging problems.

Players like Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Kasper Schemichel, to name a few, have not hit the heights of last season. But that is why last season was such a fairytale. They are back to playing at the level their ability suggests. Of course they can still produce performances like the one against Liverpool the other night, but not on a consistent basis. Otherwise they would all be playing at one of the big four. I suspect Carragher’s analysis is tinged with some deep-rooted regret that some of these “average” Leicester City players mentioned above achieved something he never could by winning the English Premier League.

Instead of writing big fancy headlines and making bold statements, the people that are, or have been, involved in football and should know better need to give the fans a much broader view of the problems Leicester City have faced this season instead of blaming it all on the players.

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.

The Art of Heading

Close your eyes and just picture the scene. You are in the away end sitting behind the goal cheering on your team with the scores tied at 1-1. There is a minute left on the clock and your team get a corner. They are attacking the goal right in front of you and it’s their last chance to snatch the three points. Along with the rest of the die-hard away fans around you, you give it one last roar as the linesman points his flag to signal for a corner, hoping to galvanize your team for one last push. The ball is delivered and it’s like slow motion as you watch it hang in mid-air waiting to be attacked and then above everyone your centre back rises and meets the ball perfectly with his forehead sending it like a bullet in to the net. 1-2. He wheels away, arms aloft, towards you and your fellow fans. Queue delirium.

Some types of goals just seem that bit more special. A mazy run beating four men before slotting past the keeper. A long range thunderbolt from 30 yards. A cheeky chip over a stranded keeper. We all have our own favourites and for me a thumping header can be a thing of beauty but sadly it is something we rarely see these days and I think it is because heading the ball is becoming a lost art. Recently in the United States they have placed a ban on children under the age of 10 heading the ball and certain restrictions on 11-13 years due to health concerns in later life. Oh dear where does this leave me as from the age of nine I used to practise heading every day with a mitre mouldmaster ball? For those of you that are too young to know what that particular ball was like just think netball/cannonball or as my Dad would say “A clubby”.

Regardless of these rule changes in the US designed to protect younger players from head injuries, heading the ball amongst young players has been non-existent for a while. Heading does not seem to be a skill that is practised or coached in youth academies up and down the UK any more. Many youth team games I have watched at differing age groups all seem to follow the same structure of slow build up play from the back with plenty of emphasis on passing. In some respects it is great that as a nation we are constantly trying to improve and get away from the kick and rush type game we may have seen 10 years ago with the goalkeeper trying to kick it as high and as far as he can every time he got it. Unfortunately I fear we may have moved too far the other away as the youth team games I watch are so far removed from what actual professional football is really like. Go to any football league game and count how many times the centre backs on each team head the ball. I know from experience it will be a lot and if it’s not the chances are their team will be shipping goals because if they are not heading it the opposing centre forward certainly will be.

Even the best teams in the world need people that can attack the ball in the air. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the finest players to ever play the game and yet one of his biggest assets is being able to head the ball. Speak to anyone that had the pleasure to watch Pele and they will tell you his timing, spring and bravery made him a fantastic header of the ball some of his finest goals were headers. I am not sure if this aspect of the game is neglected because many coaches feel coaching heading makes them look old fashioned or because players don’t find it as exciting or as fashionable as dribbling or shooting but one thing I am sure of is that there are a dearth of young players coming through that can head the ball the way some previous generations could. I grew up watching players like Steve Bruce, Tony Adams, Richard Gough, Duncan Ferguson, Alan Shearer to name a few who were awesome in the air. In today’s game they would create havoc with their aerial ability.

There may be the view that the game has changed and that the ball isn’t played in the air as much . That may be the case but what does a team do with ten minutes to go and they need a goal? They start throwing it in the “mixer”. This is when you either need a striker that can head one in the net for you or fashion a knock down or a centre back to come and head everything out the danger zone if you are protecting a lead. Let’s not forget the number of set pieces that you have in a game where aerial ability is vital. France won a world cup final with one of the best players of his generation Zinedine Zidane scoring two headers from corner kicks. Heading is an important part of the game which cannot be ignored. I have been fortunate to carve out a 16 year professional career mainly based on my ability to head the ball. Don’t get me wrong being good in the air isn’t enough to sustain a professional career even in the lower reaches of the football league but it does provide a skill that makes you a very valuable asset to your team .

When growing up my Dad always told me that if I wanted to become a professional football player I would need to be exceptional in one specific area of my game. I always played centre back and used to attack the ball aggressively when it was in the air. Whilst I also worked on many other aspects of my game and in particular those areas where I was weaker I recognised I had a great strength in the art of heading the ball and needed to develop that art also. I would spend hours heading balls, working on my timing so that I was meeting the ball at the highest point and if possible well above everyone else.

Considering that I am 6ft 3in with a very good vertical jump I had all the ingredients to be excellent in the air. I believe I was completely dominant in the air at under 16 and under 18 level but I quickly realised I still had a lot to learn as I moved up to reserve team level at Queens Park in Scotland. In my first few reserve games I struggled aerially as far more experienced strikers would body check me or nudge me enough for them to win the header. It was a steep learning curve and one that was valuable at that stage in my career. I wonder where young players nowadays learn these lessons. Some of the lucky ones get to go out on loan where they are guaranteed to learn how different the man’s game is but too many are left playing meaningless under 18 and under 21 games against the same players they have played against their whole youth careers. A young Chelsea 17 year old centre back would learn more in one match against Newport County’s beast of a striker John Parkin than he will playing 6 months of U21 fixtures.

One thing that has improved and will continue to benefit professional footballers is the attention now being given to the treatment of head injuries. Far more stringent rules are being put in place to protect players that have suffered serious head injuries. Gone are the days when someone can get knocked out sit up count the number of fingers the Physio is holding up and carry on. When I look back at my career I wince at some of the head and facial injuries I’ve experienced and the way they have been dealt with. Playing centre back in the English football league has done nothing for my good looks. I’ve suffered multiple broken noses, a broken cheekbone, stitches to my eye, lip and face. I distinctly remember one game, away to Colchester United in the FA Cup, where I played with a lump the size of a golf ball on my forehead. I couldn’t head the ball for the pain. I struggled through the 90 minutes and my face was yellow by the end of the match as the internal bleeding began to spread. I have always been able to play through the pain barrier and duly carried on playing . In hindsight however should a medical expert not have made the decision for me and insisted I was removed from the field of play? Is that not where the ultimate duty of care really lies?

Going back to the rule changes in the US I can understand the thought process of stopping children from heading the ball at an early age it will protect their brain while it is still developing. Surely at a young age children could still learn to head the ball with a sponge ball or even a balloon. They can learn the technique without constantly heading a size 5 leather ball. It should also be remembered a modern football is nothing like what they were thirty years ago. They are lighter and don’t take on water so again advances are always being made to the benefit of the player. I actually think that the rule change will have an adverse impact and cause more injuries. How do you play a game of football when you can’t head it? What do you do when someone crosses the ball in the box? Players will more than likely start trying to control the ball or kick it in a very dangerous fashion, increasing the number of fouls given for high feet and reckless challenges. When the players are old enough to head the ball I predict that their technique and timing will be so poor it will cause even more injury problems for them and their opponent.

A large number of head injuries are caused by players who don’t know how to head the ball in the first instance or indeed are just reckless when they attempt to go for the ball. Players that are strong in the air invariably don’t inflict injury to opposing players as their timing and spring is so good they leap above everyone and head nothing but the ball. I fear in a time that whilst many things are changing for the good some aspects of the game will be lost forever as the word of political correctness takes over. I sincerely hope heading the ball is not one of them.