Football from the Inside

More from David Farrell’s excellent blog. Remember his book is out soon and can be ordered by clicking here

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FULL TIME

Football is the most addictively potent mix of joy and pain. How else do you explain continually going back to watch your team, week after week, when they’ve let you down so many times? Why would you STILL play five-a-sides once a week after work, when you can barely SEE your feet, never mind have the energy to run with them? Why else would you wake up the next morning, hardly able to walk, performing that weekly ritual of lumbering Meccano jointed bones to the car? Why? Because it’s in us, all of us; players, coaches, managers and fans alike and there’s no getting away from it.

Going

Now I’ve been out of the game for six months, a period which is approaching the longest time I have been without professional employment in football for 28 years. I’ve been through the joy and pain as a fan, a player and a coach, ALL the highs and lows. I have now reached the stage where MY left foot takes two hours to warm up in the morning and, neither knee can decide which one should be the first to give way on any particular day. But I wouldn’t have given up one second of it and, if Willie McStay should phone tomorrow and ask me to assist him again somewhere, or, God forbid, if a chairman should think out of the box for once and decide to make me their manager, I’d be back in a shot. It’s almost sadistic when you’ve been sacked so many times, to want to go back into that unforgiving pressure pot. The day after the sack you feel lost, lonely and there is an inevitable feeling of “what will I do now?” but it passes within a week or two and the whole merry-go-round of going to games to ‘keep the eye in’ starts again. It rarely works, that, ‘keeping the eye in.’ The premise behind it is that you go to games, see all the coaches and managers, keep in touch with people and let everyone know you’re available. The reality is that football is a very nepotistic game and all you do is keep bumping into the same out of work managers and coaches. It’s like a school for football drop-outs, a football manager’s Dead Poet’s Society.

But none of it, the coaching, the managing, nor the supporting, none of it compares to playing. It’s why YOU labour through that sick, five-a-side ritual and why I played for as long as I felt I was doing myself justice. But what happens when you hear that first dissenting “your legs have gone?”

Going

I was a fan, my Dad would take me everywhere; all the grounds, home and away from the age of three. I loved it. The atmosphere, the day out, all of it. It felt just as good going to East Fife as it did Pittodrie. My 10th birthday present was being allowed to go to my first Old Firm game, a Roddie MacDonald header won it. I had two options as a kid, play football or watch football. I don’t blame the kids these days for taking up the XBox because if I had the alternative of playing football on the TV, I’d have probably taken that too. But we had the ZX Spectrum and that wee ping pong game that was battled out on screen for competition. And we wonder why playing football in the streets was a better alternative to what’s on offer now.

After all that, I was fortunate enough to play on all of those grounds I had visited. Every single one in Scotland and that surreal feeling of realising that only a couple of years earlier I had been on the other side of the fence. I never wanted it to end, but of course, it did.

I can trace the beginning of MY end to a fateful day at Airdrie that was to be the start of a downhill slide, one I couldn’t stop.

I had a piece of bone jutting out from the ball of my heel and it needed shaving off. We had no medical cover at the club due to finances, so I kept playing whilst on the waiting list. The pain, at times, was excruciating but I hoped to make it until the end of the season to avoid paying for the op myself.

There was one last throw of the dice. An injection into the bone might settle the inflammation. I’d had one at Hibs to cure a niggle on the knee between the League Cup semi-final and final and it worked a treat. Everyone in football knows you are allowed three, any more and you risk serious damage in later life, so I had two left, two jags of the needle that would determine how much longer I could prolong the season. Neither worked, but the third one did (well, Airdrie never knew I’d had one at Hibs) and I was back playing… briefly. What I didn’t know was the injections also weakened the area of the original injury, the plantar fascia (the tendon which holds the front and back of the bottom of the foot together).

Three or four games later and whilst chasing my old pal Mark Yardley – chasing in the loosest possible sense I might add – the bottom of my foot ruptured. The injections had taken their toll and my Airdrie career was all but over. The club went into administration and I continued to play out my contract whilst trying to get fit. It was a long nine months before I could play again and when I did, it soon became clear my foot wouldn’t take full time training. Steve Archibald had been good to me, paying my wages until I was fit again and it was only right now I was fit that I should walk away and we should part ways to let me find myself a part-time club. Stranraer was to be my destination and things went well until the foot flared up again 18 months later.

Gone

The Second Division was a stroll, I was playing sweeper and most weeks could have played with a suit on and never needed it dry cleaned. But my foot was stiffening up more and more and, through the adjustments in my running style I was picking up more calf, groin and hamstring injuries. I’d tried orthotic inserts, but ironically they gave me sore feet. I signed a new contract, but in the first pre-season friendly on astroturf, it flared up again. I was struggling. I missed a couple of weeks training and heard whispers that the club thought I had signed knowing I was injured. It wasn’t true, I was no worse than when I first signed 18 months previous. I went to a specialist and prognosis wasn’t good either, I was pretty much finished. However, he gave me one glimmer of hope – AN INJECTION.

I had to get back playing. I was only 32 and wasn’t ready to quit. I was on the way down but I wasn’t out yet. I took the plunge. Needle number five, 10 days rest and back to training. Finally, after the 6th injection, three weeks later I was back playing. I had to, I couldn’t have them thinking I had signed under false pretences, that meant more to me than anything else, but it also meant I had another year or two in me. Or so I thought.

The next season I signed for Albion Rovers. Now the wee Rovers are a smashing football club. They don’t have much and the stadium is a bit rundown, but they treated the players well and they lived within their means, something a lot of our clubs could learn from and at the time, we had a few decent players and a good manager in Peter Hetherston. Now I knew Peter well, he was an old friend and I knew he hated running as a player, so I knew his training would be all about ball work and technical drills. How wrong I was as I had forgotten Silky had spent his latter years at Airdrie. I was 34 and had seen it all, I didn’t need this. But I was soon to find out my body didn’t need it either.

The football itself was easy, it looked like I was playing well, but there were signs that others couldn’t see. My knee and foot were playing up and average players were beating me, turning me and getting away when two years previous they wouldn’t have been on the same pitch. I knew, and as a player, don’t let anyone tell you differently, they know when their time is up. Anyone who plays beyond that point is deluding themselves and their club. The final indignity for me came when I banged my dodgy knee again.

I was training on my own at Cliftonhill, in the middle of the winter to try and get fit, the knee was now a pale shadow of what it should have been and even though the foot was now bearable, I was toiling. Eight sets of 200-yard runs, and although a sniper on the roof of the Cliftonhill stand may not have been out of place in Coatbridge, it was clear it wasn’t a bullet that hit my calf. Lying there in pain from a torn muscle, I’d had enough. I can still vividly remember saying out loud “what am I doing here?”

I walked in and went home. I told Kevin McCallister (who by now was the manager) at the next training session I was chucking it. He could tear up my contract if he wanted, but it was agreed we would keep it quiet and I would play if he needed me and most importantly, when I was fit. I played a few more games and he gave me the honour of captaining the team in the last day of the season for my final appearance at Stranraer of all places. After 18 years it was over. No tears and no grand exit, I had done my bit.

Coming back

Should I have taken all those injections over the last four seasons? Undoubtedly no. And it’s important for me to state here I was put under NO pressure by anyone to take them, it was entirely my choice. I just wanted to keep playing. It’s the same, masochistic reason I would get back into coaching tomorrow, even after having been sacked so many times and the same reason you’ll drag yourself to fives this week, and pour yourself from bed the next morning. It’s also the same reason we keep going back to watch our teams after they lose to someone from a lower division in the cup and we say “never again!” It’s football and it’s in all of us. So apart from the injuries, the injections, the ZX Spectrum and the snipers, we’ve all got a lot more in common than you think when it comes to ‘playing the game.’

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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