My Mum had five boys, which couldn’t have been an easy thing for her. We were a big football family, and my Dad played semi-professionally, so we’d go and watch him play at the weekend. Football was always on in the house whenever we weren’t out playing, and my poor Mum would get so annoyed at us kicking a ball at her windows.
I moved to Nottingham at a really young age and one of the highlights of my career was scoring on my club debut at the age of eighteen. It was just a dream come true. Being young meant you didn’t need to do much preparation; you could just fall out of bed and start running about. An average training day would end at around 2.30pm, so trying to fill your day up could be quite difficult. When you’re young and you’ve got that much time on your hands, it’s human nature that you’re going to find some way to get yourself in trouble. I was lucky that I started to learn to play the guitar from the age of sixteen, so that kept me entertained and away from the gambling and other problems that younger players can get involved in.
An average week would consist of training Monday and Tuesday, a day off on Wednesday, training Thursday morning, then doing some light training and opposition work on Friday. By then, you’d already done all of the physical preparation, so you’re more focused on getting yourself ready mentally. Then Saturday comes around and it’s fantastic. I always loved waking up knowing that I was going to be playing at 3pm – it was just so special. It starts as a nervous, excited feeling then, when you get to the stadium at around 1pm, everything starts to get a bit more focused. Once you’ve got in the changing room, had a bit of a chat and listened to some music, that’s when things get really, really serious. You’re mentally preparing for a battle, visualising yourself against whoever you’re going to be playing that day. You just want to win so much.
I was fortunate enough to play in some of the biggest derbies all over the UK, and the Forest vs. Derby rivalry is right up there. They’re the games that everyone is looking for when the fixtures are released, and there’s always so much build-up to it. I was somebody that took a lot of corners and set-pieces, so when you’re away that means getting a lot of stick from opposition fans. They usually have a few choice words for you, but you have to take it with a pinch of salt. The games themselves aren’t usually known for their quality, but the intensity makes them great to play in. There’s a real grit and edge to them, and you have to be focused because things happen really, really quickly. You can feel the excitement all over the East Midlands, and it’s great to have the opportunity to get one over your local rivals and get hold of that Brian Clough trophy. Even when I left Nottingham, I kept a house here. I love the area, and the fans were always good to me.
There’s nothing surer than the fact that football will be back stronger than ever… The game has too much of a hold on the world to just fizzle out
The strangest thing I ever saw throughout my career, without a doubt, happened on the morning of a really important match. Eight or nine of our key players came down with food poisoning, and there were all sorts of rumours in the media that we’d been poisoned deliberately. It was utterly bizarre.
Football is in a weird position at the moment with the COVID crisis. Players came under a lot of pressure to contribute financially early on, but I don’t think anyone should be forced to give a percentage of their wages for anything. That’s a personal choice – it’s their hard-earned money, and they’re entitled to make whatever decision they want with donating it.
It looks like we’re getting to the stage where it’s safe to start playing again now, but there are still so many issues surrounding it. Numbers are starting to drop, and you can see how they’ve managed to reintroduce games in Germany without any issues. Obviously football is not the same without the fans, but it’s a balancing act between bringing the game back and keeping people safe. We still need to keep a close eye on testing, and consider that the disproportionate level of risk facing BAME players, or those with family members with health issues, has to be taken into consideration. We just need to take things slowly and trust the science, but there’s nothing surer than the fact that football will be back stronger than ever. It might take some time, but you can’t keep it down. The game has too much of a hold on the world to just fizzle out.
There’s a big misconception about the type of people that play football professionally. You hear the stories of certain things happening, or players being in the papers for the wrong reasons, and money has had a negative impact on the game in many ways. But 95% of footballers are really down-to-earth family men, who like to go home to their wives and kids after training. Football doesn’t discriminate, whether you’re a working-class kid from a council estate or from a middle-class background, if you love the game and work hard, you’ll get just as much enjoyment from it.
It’s all I’d done since the age of fourteen and suddenly it was all gone. All that’s left is, ‘What am I going to do now?’
The lowest points of my career came with my injuries. It’s so difficult watching everybody else going out to train, or playing in matches. People look at footballers, and look at the money and the adulation, but there’s another side to it, and it isn’t a particularly nice one. It’s difficult for players to deal with.
Some people look at footballers and think ‘what have they got to be depressed about?’ But they don’t understand that it’s an illness, and professional footballers can suffer the same as anyone else. There are so many issues surrounding gambling, alcohol and mental health – there are real pitfalls out there, particularly for young players. My injuries eventually led to my retirement and, I’m not going to lie, it was a difficult time – probably the most difficult of my life. I really struggled with it, and couldn’t comprehend what it meant. It’s all I’d done since the age of fourteen and suddenly it was all gone. All that’s left is, ‘What am I going to do now?’ But you’re still young, relatively speaking, so you’ve got to find your way and attack whatever you do next with a strong mental attitude. If you do find it difficult, it’s really important that you talk to people and find the help that you need.
I moved into coaching after retirement and, to be honest, I have really lofty ambitions. I’m still in the infancy of my learning as coaching is so different from playing, but I eventually want to coach at the highest level. I always want to learn, and I feel like I’m getting better all the time. It’s an ongoing process, but I want to shoot for the stars and see how high I can go.
There is a specific moment on a match day: it comes after the teams have come out, the players have shaken hands and the captains are doing the coin toss with the referees. There’s a few seconds where you’re standing there, looking around and realising that the game is about to start. That was the feeling I loved, and it’s the feeling I miss the most now that it’s gone. Whether you’re having a kick about in the park with your mates or playing in a stadium packed with thousands of fans, football gives you the same amount of enjoyment. That’s why I love it, and why I consider myself so fortunate to have been a professional footballer. There’s no better job in the world.