The Trialist – Tam McManus

By Tam McManus        –    Click here for his site

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The trialist.

He appears on team-sheets across the country every year – often adding spice to a pre-season friendly.

A mystery figure Jeff and the boys on Soccer Saturday will have a right old giggle about, at least a couple of times a year.

But who is he? That’s what supporters ask.

‘Please, please let it be an exotic name who has played in France or Spain, who can be immediately Googled, and not an ageing Scottish journeyman who has bounced around the SPFL’.

The kind who you know will have fans of his previous Scottish clubs slaughtering him on fan forums.
That covers it for me as I’ve been there, done it and got the t-shirt (or training gear in this case).
What does it feel like to be a trialist? To be out of contract at any sort of level?

In short, absolutely excruciating and I’ll explain why. Rochdale. Yeovil. Grimsby. Exeter. Bournemouth. Colorado Rapids. Falkirk.

No, it’s not an Ian Black accumulator, but a list of the clubs whose team-sheets I’ve appeared on as A Trialist. From that list I’ve had more knock-backs than Derek Riordan on an Edinburgh pub crawl.
I trained with Rickie Lambert at Rochdale and Andros Townsend at Yeovil..
I did shooting drills with Matt Oakley and Marcus Stewart at Exeter. I even played up front in one trial game for Bournemouth with a young Jayden Stockley, who is now at Aberdeen.

Going down south was incredibly tough.

For example, I flew down to Heathrow for a trial match at the crack of dawn, and jumped on a train to Crawley to play against them for Bournemouth the same day. I didn’t know a single person’s name and played the 90 minutes, only to be told by Lee Bradbury that they were ‘looking for a different type of striker, a target man’. Maybe he just meant someone who could score goals and didn’t want to hurt my feelings… I flew straight back up the road.

Then there was Rochdale, just after I’d left Dundee. After my first training session I was told I’d have to pay for my own accommodation or kip with the kitman and his cats. Thanks, but no thanks. Into the car and up the road.

Walking into those dressing rooms for the first time with everyone looking and thinking ‘who the f*** are you?’ was horrible. You don’t know anyone, you are treated as an outcast by the other players as, after all, you after their job. You get an old set of training gear that’s usually different to the one the rest are wearing and it’s just a very uncomfortable position to be in.

Add in being without a club for two to three months, so I was nowhere near the fitness level I had to be. It was no surprise if a deal wasn’t forthcoming. When the window is closed managers have a look at free agents but you need to be ready to play as the season is well underway.

For players who have not trained or played in four or five months to be in that kind of shape is very tough.
You need to be so disciplined in terms of training and diet and, honestly, I just wasn’t.
It pickled my brain the fact I was out running and going to the gym yet week after week not getting a sniff from a club.

The longer the phone didn’t ring the more ragged and unravelled I got.
It then was almost impossible to go in and hit the ground running against players who had a full pre-season and five or six games in the tank. You were bang up against it.

Up until I left Colorado Rapids in November 2008 I had earned good money and led a pretty comfortable life and really enjoyed my football but then it all changed when I went to Derry City, when I went six or seven months without wages.

I estimate that from that point until I retired at Limerick in Nov 14 I spent an incredible 23 months out of contract and not getting paid!

Nearly two years of sitting waiting on the phone to ring with no wages coming in.
Two years of plodding around public parks in the p*****g rain with bills coming out your ears.
Those rainy day savings are soon eaten into.

You have to borrow money from your family and even, on the odd occasion sign on the dole. That’s a truly awful experience.

Your family and long suffering wife constantly ask ‘have you got anything sorted yet?’ or ‘is it time to get a REAL job?’.

I loved the game too much to give it up although it did cross my mind on so many occasions.
Add in only being paid seven months of the year in the USA with Rochester Rhinos (you only get paid the duration of the season), so football in the latter part of my career was not enjoyable at all.
In fact, in fact it was pretty miserable and truly I had some dark times in my life being a free agent.
At the top level of the game of course guys out of contract can sit in the mansion and knock back those paltry £25,000 a week offers but when you are biting and scratching to get £350 a week at Falkirk under Steven Pressley it’s a different ball game.

When you are playing in trial matches the pressure is unbelievable, especially when you are not getting paid and have a family to support.

One bad touch or missed chance could mean you going another two months without wages. I remember playing for Falkirk against Stirling in a ‘trial’ match September 2010.

I had been in training for a week and had worked my nuts off to get into decent condition. Running up and down Stirling University while the rest of the guys popped in for lunch.
Grafting to get back in the game.

I had left Ayr that May and had spent the whole summer with no phone ringing and no wages.
I NEEDED a contract.

I played with the kids that night at the Falkirk Stadium and we got a penalty after 20 mins. As I stood over that penalty I felt the pressure.

Pictured going home to tell my wife and parents again ‘nah, I’m not what they are looking for’ and seeing their shoulders sag.

Scoring in a penalty shoot-out semi-final win against Rangers in front of 25,000 of their supporters seemed like a breeze compared to this.

As the ball hit the net I screamed with relief.

I knew that would be massive in getting me that contract.

There were no negotiations after that with Elvis. I knew there were boys earning four or fives times that at Falkirk at the time but I was not in a position to play poker.
I was drawing dead.

So the next time A Trialist pops up at your club in a boring run of the mill pre-season friendly in front of two men and a dog and looking a bit nervy, or if his identity is on your fan forum being ridiculed, remember that one man’s meat is another man’s poison and that missed chance could be fatal.

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