Pre-Season Purgatory

So what is purgatory? It’s a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. It’s exactly what pre-season training feels like for a professional footballer.

It’s standing on the starting line, body tense, stomach performing cartwheels, eyes focused ahead, nervously anticipating the blast of a whistle that is the signal to go. It’s the voice in your head wondering if you are ready, wondering if you’ve trained hard enough. Should I, or could I, have done more? Then you hear that shrill blast and you are off. This is not the start of the 100m Olympic final I am describing, but the beginning of a pre-season training run. Every footballer that has participated in a preseason will have experienced those feelings of anticipation and anxiousness. Just the thought of pre-season can make professional footballers feel very uncomfortable.

I am in the middle of my season in the USA, as it runs from March to November. I hate to admit it, but I had been experiencing mild jealousy as I watch through the world of Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter as my ex-teammates and friends jet set around the world on their well-earned holidays to places like Las Vegas, Dubai and Marbella while I make less glamorous trips to play games in Rochester and Pittsburgh. I was not too concerned though as I knew my jealousy would subside and be replaced with a grin around the start of July. The pool parties will be replaced with ice baths and Corona’s will be replaced with protein shakes as pre-season begins and grueling three-a-day sessions become the norm. So why exactly does the mere thought of pre-season training make footballers feel nauseous?

I have been fortunate — or unfortunate, depending on the way you want to look at it — to have taken part in seventeen pre-seasons during my time as a senior professional footballer. Over those seventeen pre-seasons, I have worked under different managers, played for different clubs and travelled all over the world to different countries, but one thing that has stayed constant during all that time is the fact that pre-season is ridiculously hard work. Actually, it is painstaking and not for the faint of heart.

The first day of pre-season is akin to the first day back at school. Everyone is delighted to see their mates, share tales of their holidays and quickly start engaging in the banter they have missed so much over the past six weeks. Every pre-season, I heard the same jokes about my lack of tan despite weeks spent in Florida. Clubs and players change but the jokes stay the same. Despite the jovial atmosphere there is always a real sense of trepidation lurking beneath the surface. As a player you are always fearful of what might lie ahead. You may be returning to play for a gaffer you know well and therefore have a fair idea of what lies in store. For some reason, knowing what is coming makes things easier psychologically. If you are joining a new club, the chances are you are completely unaware of what awaits. In pre-season, no one likes the unknown.

There aren’t many happy faces once preseason gets under way.

One player will eventually broach the subject nonchalantly with the often used line “done much over the summer?” Now he’s not meaning did you get to Alton Towers, he’s trying to suss out how much training you might have got up to on your own. Every players’ worst fear is that they are going to be left lagging behind the group. The majority of players play it cool and respond by saying, “just a few runs.” That is deemed acceptable without coming across as too busy, though their integrity might be questioned further down the line if they end up miles ahead of everybody during the running looking like they have turned into Mo Farah. Then you have the jack, the lad that quite confidently says they haven’t done anything. It raises a few laughs, though the experienced lads that have seen it all before know this bravado will be short-lived and that the jack won’t be laughing come that last 800m run.

Once the pleasantries are dispensed with, it is time to get started and once you do, there is no hiding place. After a brief welcome back from the gaffer, it is time to get your trainers on and get out on the field. Although football is a team game, at this point it is every man for himself. As I mentioned before, every pre-season is different as every manager has different methods and ideas on how best to get a team ready for the season ahead. I have experienced many different methods including long distance running, track running, beach running and even swimming. Nigel Clough’s favorite was to have you push a weight along the floor of the pool. You were allowed up for air but had to leave the weight at the bottom before going back down to continue the process. Our keeper George Long could barely swim and was taking more water on than the Titanic. I am not sure how much this improved his fitness but he certainly ended up hydrated.
 
Due to the developments in sports science and the diligence taken by professionals during the offseason, the first few days now are normally used to break you back in gently and to keep injuries to a minimum, but this was not always the case.
 
My first pre-season with a full-time club was on trial with Kilmarnock back in 2005. I was fresh out of university and looking for an opportunity to sign my first full-time contract. My agent had arranged for me to join my boyhood heroes and hometown team Killie, managed my Jim Jeffries, for preseason. Despite having been part-time, I was as fit as a fiddle and could run all day. I had pushed myself all summer so I was as prepared as possible to mix it with the big boys. On the first day, we took part in the beep test, a standard physical endurance test, that pushes you to your maximum but doesn’t break you. I came a creditable third and was feeling pretty good about myself, though I didn’t know what was round the corner. The following day will go down as one of the toughest I have ever done as professional footballer. It began with hill sprints in the morning, but not the hill sprints you would expect. Instead of sprinting up this 100m incline and jogging back down we were sprinting the whole way. Up and down. Eager to impress, I was off like a rat up a drainpipe. I was flying and eating up the ground, blitzing everyone in my group, but the runs just kept coming and coming. Every time I thought it would be the last, another one got added.  I just about managed to keep up my fast pace, but by the end, my calves felt like they had had cement poured in. Eventually we finished, but every time I went to walk, my calves would go into spasm. It was so bad the gaffer had to give me a lift back to base in his car while the rest of the team walked.
 
“At least that’s over,” I thought as I sat down to lunch after a tough morning. Who was I kidding? That was just the start. We were back out in the afternoon for cross country runs. 4 x 1000 meters. Running round a track is tough, but through trees and up and down hills it is a nightmare. We set off through the forest and by the second run, the groups were spread out with some lads struggling more than others. By the third run, some lads had noticed a huge short cut through a field. Ian Durrant, one of the assistants, was on guard but he was turning a blind eye as the lads scurried their way through. As a trialist, I was in a dilemma. Should I take the short cut? Or go the long way? I decided to play it safe and do it right. My honest approach certainly didn’t make it any easier for me, as now I had ground to make up on the lads that had pulled a fast one. I had to strain every sinew just to finish as part of the group. My honesty was not rewarded as the gaffer added an extra run for everyone as some lads hadn’t made the required time. The expletives that this news was met with are unprintable. It is at this point when you think you can’t possibly run anymore and you have to dig in. Your muscles are screaming, but you have to dig deep and go again. One voice in your head is pleading with you to chuck it while the other is whispering to hang in there. Generally, the lads that go on to have long and successful careers are the ones that can grind through the pain, whether it be during a tough run or a game during the season.
 
The morning after this day from hell, I woke up and the pain in my muscles was indescribable. I could barely walk. As I made my way to the car, I was moving like John Wayne. It was a small consolation but thankfully every other player upon arriving at training was in the same boat. Amazingly enough we could barely walk but after a warm-up, we would get moving and start all over again.
 
Every footballer will have experienced this type of muscle soreness at some point in their career. It is part and parcel of preseason training. One type of injury that is not expected while running laps is an impact injury, but I have seen one player nearly suffer one due to his lack of honesty. Not everyone can run like Steve Cram. Every player has their expected place in the pecking order and the main thing any manager or player asks for is you give everything you’ve got. Someone has to be last but as long as you have looked after yourself in the offseason and run as hard as you can, what more can you ask? While at Sheffield United under Danny Wilson, we were going through a particularly tough set of runs with myself, Michael Doyle and Stephen Quinn leading from the front. Daniel Bogdanovic from Malta had spent every run in the middle of the pack, but now that we had got to the last run, he decided to go for it and made his way to the front. Players don’t tend to appreciate lads that hold plenty back just so they can win the last race by miles. Boggy had already used this tactic in one run and Doyle wasn’t going to let him do it again. As he made his way past Doyler, he received a proper ear bashing followed by a volley right up the arse. I would have laughed my head off if I hadn’t been breathing out my backside at that point in time. Boggy quickly dropped back in line and the lads were delighted to see he had been firmly put in his place.
 
One lad that you could not blame for holding anything back was young Harrison McGahey. Clough brought him to Sheffield United from Blackpool and his first day training with us was at a local athletics track. We were going through 800m, 600m runs etc. Harrison was put in the bottom group for the track runs but absolutely romped home in the first two runs looking every inch the athlete. It was hard not to be impressed with his physical prowess. The fitness coach even enquired to the gaffer if he should bump him up to a faster group. As if he knew what was coming, Clough told him to stay where he was. Race by race, the big man started to drop further and further back until he was way behind Jose Baxter. To give you an idea just how far back that is, Jose was to running what Eddie the Eagle was to skiing. Harrison’s arms were pumping and his head was nodding but he wasn’t going anywhere. He looked like a contestant on Gladiator trying to run up the travelator. I know the feeling all too well. Your legs feel like a large plate of jelly and no matter how much you try, you can’t get them to do what you’d like. They just won’t respond. All while you look like you are doing a good impression of the nodding dog from the Churchill advert. He wasn’t laughing at the time, but big Harrison was able to laugh about it later and despite a tough first day I was impressed with his eagerness and honesty to give everything he had.
 
Over the years plodding round the training ground at one pace for hours on end has become far less prevalent. More and more managers are trusting their fitness coaches and sport scientists to put their theory into practice. This tends to include more high intensity sprints and football-related movements and much less single-paced running. Everything is monitored by GPS and heart rate units that are used to indicate when players are working at their maximum intensity instead of using the old method of a player spewing up. Managers and coaches all have different views on how to prepare a team for the season ahead, and while many have embraced the improvement in sport science, some still feel there is a place for old school methods. I think this is particularly true for teams in the Football League.
 
The Football League is a marathon of a season, including 46 league games and sometimes many more cup games. I can tell you from experience that when you start playing those Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday fixtures, you rarely feel at 100 percent, but you have to grit your teeth and prepare your mind to go through the pain barrier. It’s no different to how you deal with pre-season. Some of the old school running might not make sense physiologically, but it can make or break players psychologically. The sense of accomplishment lads feel when they come through the pain barrier and finish a physically and mentally torturous run is immense. It not only feels good personally, but it brings a team closer together. Nothing forges a bond more than going through torture together. It gives you all something to relate to and certainly makes that end of season night out all the sweeter.

One of very few laughs during preseason training session with Wolves.

I can imagine some people thinking, “what is the big deal? Pre-season is just a few runs and then you get paid to play football.” My response would be this: If you didn’t have to make the sacrifices during the offseason to stay in shape and then push your body to the limit through preseason, there would be thousands of other people that would have made it as professional footballers. Hundreds out there had the ability. You can probably remember them as the best player at your school. The difference is they couldn’t make the sacrifices, couldn’t shut out that voice telling them to stop when the going got tough and couldn’t dig in when the manager added two extra runs when you had nothing left to give. Talent only takes you so far. The pain of pre-season is a necessary evil. Thankfully, I don’t need to worry about it until the beginning of next year.
 
I will spare a thought for my fellow professionals back in England and Scotland during the month of July as I know their pain, but it won’t stop me posting a nice picture of me relaxing down the beach working on my tan. What goes around comes around.

 

First published in Duck online magazine.

 

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.

 

Only as good as your strikers

Strikers. They grab the headlines, grab the glory and get paid the most money. They have broken my heart and my nose on more than one occasion. I have kicked, elbowed, nipped and scrapped with them, but when I look back over my career, I realise my CV would look rather different if it wasn’t for the top strikers I played with. There would be no league titles or promotions. For a center back, strikers are like women. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

There is a cliché in football that any team is only as good as their strikers and I firmly believe that. A look back at my own career confirms this theory. Iain Russell, Paddy Flannery, Marcus Stewart, Steven Elliot, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Andy Keogh, Sam Vokes, Chris Iwelumo and Jermaine Beckford. You may not recognise some of these names but I am indebted to them all. Without their goals, the teams I played alongside them for would have been also rans, nearly there but not quite, a footnote in the history books instead of history makers.

Now before anyone thinks I am suggesting a striker alone can carry you to glory, I am not. Even the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo needs help sometimes. Pepe was awesome at the back in helping Portugal to the European Championships and his teammates played their part but Ronaldo was the difference. At important moments when games could have gone either way, Ronaldo stepped up. He broke Welsh hearts in the semis when he rose like a salmon to break the deadlock. That’s what the good strikers do — score when it matters.

Anyone that has been a defender will understand how much the perception of your performance changes when you are playing in a team that can’t score goals. Imagine playing at center back and dominating your opponent for 85 minutes of the match. You don’t put a foot wrong. The score is tied at 0-0, your front men having missed various opportunities and you lose a late deflected effort. All of a sudden you are part of a losing team despite a strong personal performance. Compare this to a team that is clinical in front of goal. You go two-nil up and although you lose a late goal, your star striker scores another to give the team a comfortable 3-1 victory. I have experienced so many games like this where my performance level is the same but the outcome is dictated by your strikers’ ability to find the net. When your team scores goals, it hides a multitude of sins. When a team struggles to score everyone come under pressure. Goals don’t just change games they change people’s perception of an entire performance.

The importance of good strikers really hits home to me when I look back at my own career. I think it would be fair to say I played some of the best football of my career during seasons that ended in disappointment for the team. Yet, I’ve finished some seasons without the same level of personal consistency and won promotion. The difference in promotion-winning seasons hasn’t been down to my performances or that of the defence, but more often than not the teams’ ability to put the ball in the net. There are two seasons that come to mind that I think highlight the difference strikers really make.

In my first two years at Wolves, we kept the most clean sheets in the league with 18, yet only managed 5th and 7th place due to our profligacy in front of goal. During pre-season in my third year at the club, we were looking strong. Previously we had added the best striker in the league, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. Sylvan was accompanied by Andy Keogh and Sam Vokes. A fantastic trio of strikers at that level but still missing something to help us cross the threshold and into the Premier League. Chris Iwelumo was signed late in July and it was like the final piece in the jigsaw. All of a sudden we went from being a team that struggled in front of goal to having a plethora of strikers with a range of qualities and, most importantly, they could all find the net.

We won 15 out of the first 19 games. I wish I could say it was down to our fantastic defence or tiki-taka style of football, but truth be told, the difference from previous seasons was we could punish teams and capitalise on our chances. Anyone that watched or played against us that season will tell you how ruthless we were in front of goal. If we were playing well and creating chances, it could be a rout. If we weren’t at our best, our strikers would score out of nothing. It was the recipe for success. If the opposing team somehow did manage to stop Ebanks-Blake or Iwelumo, which was rare, then on would come Keogh or Vokes. When you play in a team with options like that, you feel like you can beat anyone. That confidence makes you such a dangerous proposition, while if you don’t have confidence in your team scoring, you feel very fragile.

The antithesis for this was my third season at Sheffield United, which was our second year in League One. We were top on Boxing Day and riding the crest of a wave. Sean Miller and Dave Kitson had formed a great partnership up top and were supported by Nick Blackman out wide, who was a regular source of goals and assists. As if struck by the same curse that had seen us lose Ched Evans the year before, Sean Miller suffered a season-ending knee injury on Boxing Day and Nick Blackman was sold in January. We lost our two best goal threats in one month. We went on to record a club record 21 clean sheets that season but could only finish fifth. We had four consecutive 0-0 draws at Bramall Lane. That is unheard of and certainly not the sign of Champions. There is not a doubt in my mind that had we not lost Miller to injury and kept Blackman, or at least adequately replaced them, Sheffield United would have returned to the Championship. Instead, we meekly surrendered in the playoff semifinals to Yeovil. We managed one goal over the two legs. The previous season, we had managed one goal in three playoff games and ultimately lost in the final on penalties.


At the end of the season we had a clean sheet record and, on a personal note, I had scooped more than a few Player of the Year awards, yet the season finished as one of the most disappointing of my career. I would have swapped all the personal accolades for promotion and enthusiastically applauded our striker as he walked on stage to pick up all the awards and receive all the adulation if I was sitting with a league winners medal around my neck thanks to his goals. A look through the history books and you will struggle to find a team that won trophies without a twenty goal a season man.

One of my favorite teams of all time was the Manchester United treble winning team that had a quartet of strikers that was second to none. Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solsjkaer. I think it is fair to say history would be different if it hadn’t been for these guys. That United team was never beaten as it could always rely on a goal from one of these players. During that 98/99 season who can forget the late goals against Liverpool in the FA Cup or the European final against Bayern Munich? Coming off the bench Sheringham and Solsjkaer both notched a goal to grab victory from the jaws of defeat. These goals changed the whole context of their season. The difference between David May holding a Champions League medal or not came down to the quality of the teams’ strikers. At any level it I think it is vital to have options up top. It not only can change the whole dynamic of a game but can change a clubs’ history.

I have been very fortunate to play with some fantastic strikers through my career. Out of all them, Ebanks-Blake eptomised everything you would want in a striker. He would die to score a goal the way a top defender would die to keep one out. If the team won and he didn’t score he was disappointed. Not in a way that was detrimental to the team spirit, but he thrived on scoring goals. At the back I could often hear him moaning about one thing or another but it’s another “strength” that all strikers seem to have. If they don’t get the ball they will tell you about it so the next time you won’t think twice before giving it to them. Many people think defenders need to be aggressive and uncompromising, but so do strikers, just in a different way. Strikers can’t be the nice guy. They have to want to get that ball in the net. It has to really mean something to them.

I can’t talk about strikers and not mention Kris Boyd. I had the challenge (I was going to say pleasure but it was anything but) of playing against Kris during my teenage years. Boydy is the all-time top scorer in the SPL and I can’t say I am surprised.

It was as if he was born to score goals. Like Sylvan, he had all the typical striker traits. A nose for goal, composure under pressure, clean finishing and he was a moany b&@£%#d.

My school, Marr College, and Boydy’s school, Mainholm, were the best in the area so we often met in cup finals. I should point out at this stage in our lives, while we were the same age, we were at completely different stages in our development. Boydy was a hairy arsed man while I was a spotty, scrawny little boy. It was a complete mismatch physically. One cup final we got humped 5-2 and, you guessed it, the big man got all five.

The following year, my school got to the final again only to be met by Boyd and Mainholm. With half the school coming to watch, I couldn’t have a repeat of last year, a Kris Boyd exhibition of finishing. I took it upon myself to man mark him. When I say man mark, I mean you couldn’t have slipped a fag paper between us. It certainly wasn’t the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played, as I sacrificed joining in the play to stand next to Boydy and upset him. Pep Guardiola would have been disgusted with my lack of attempt to get on the ball, but I had one thing on my mind and that was to stop this boy in a man’s’ body from scoring and it worked. We won 1-0 and I could go to school the next day with my head held high, comfortable in the knowledge I had kept a professional footballer in waiting from scoring. There are no sure things in football but Boydy making a living of out the game was as close as it came. Many people in Scotland underestimate him and focus on what he didn’t have in his repertoire, but in terms of desire to score goals that fire has burned brightly since his schoolboy years.

One of the best theories I ever heard regarding strikers came from an old assistant manager, Frank Barlow, who knows the game inside out. His philosophy is that if you look at any good strikers’ record, they will have been scoring goals all through their career from youth level through reserves and into first team football. While you can improve your finishing and practice on making it better, the best front men have a nose for goal that can’t be taught, though it can be honed.

Alan Russell, an ex-player who I did battle with in my early years in Scotland, is now a striker coach. You may know him better as the man behind Superior Striker and his regular appearances on Soccer AM. It is a sign of the game evolving all the time that position specific coaches are starting to appear. Watching some clips of the sessions he puts his clients through should be enough to strike the fear of death into any defender. Gone are the days where the assistant stands at the edge of the 18-yard box and players line up to receive a one-two and lash the ball past the goalkeeper. It may be fun, but it’s not very realistic. Russell has strikers replicating game-like situations and movements that help improve timing and finishing. A quick glance at the players he works with and their record on the pitch is proof that he’s making a positive impact. Andre Gray is a fantastic example of how the extra work can pay off. He is managing to combine his power and pace with cool finishing. It’s something clubs should look at closely.

I think I have already covered how important it is to have your strikers firing on all cylinders. There is no shame in bringing in the “experts” to work 1-on-1 or in small groups with different parts of the team.

The English season is now moving into what Sir Alex Ferguson describes as “Squeaky bum time.” I would say your arse should be twitching if you don’t have confidence in your team finding the onion bag. Whether it is Costa, Kane or Sanchez in the Premiership or Billy Sharp, Ross McCormack and Glen Murray in the Football League, all these guys are going to need to produce the goods if their team is to be lifting silverware come May.

Out in the cold

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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