How to Become a Professional Footballer - Part 3 - To the Toon

Newcastle United FC. Not a bad place to start a career as a professional footballer even if it was at the ripe old age of 20. This was not my ambition or even my dream to play football. I know most young boys (and now young girls too), spend a lot of their childhoods fantasizing about running out at Old Trafford or Highbury, or scoring a diving header to win the FA Cup Final at Wembley. But I’m much more of a realist to believe that I could ever do this.

It was one of them scenarios that was just too big to believe and the amount of good fortune, determination and skill needed to rise to the top of football was something beyond my comprehension at that age. However after spending 10 years as a professional footballer, traveling much of the world, moving to Belize and setting up a Jungle Lodge in Central America, Adventure Travel Company and marrying an MTV VJ, I personally believe that you can create anything you wish and achieve anything you wish with the right mindset. Because life is ever evolving and changing around you and it’s up to you to shape it and create the things in your life that you desire.

Anyway back to the Newcastle United. Little did I realize that this was a club in turmoil. Was I ready for an extremely hardcore set of fans, a club stuck in its past reminiscing about days gone by and a team of ageing players on the edge of the play offs in the old Division 1. I don’t think I was. Still sometimes you have to push yourself beyond what you think you can cope with and hope that with the right attitude and a little bit of luck things would work out fine.

I came into a side that was a decent team but the pressure on them was enormous, although I didn’t feel it too much being a young na├»ve newbie to the world of pro footy. Of course it sooned dawned on me what a cut-throat world it was as the manager that signed me was sacked soon after my arrival!! Doh, as Homer would say. What happens next? A manager being sacked sends shivers down the spines of any club. I became used to this along my career seeing 5 different managers in my time at West Bromwich Albion and 3 at Newcastle United. It was a great relief to join Charlton Athletic several years later, who have stuck loyally with their manager Alan Curbishley for 15 years. And what a comforting feeling that is as a player to know that regardless of a few bad results the general purpose and direction of the club was heading the right way.

Jim Smith departed, which was a shame because I didn’t get to know him much. It would have been nice to have played for him for a while but this was not to be. Still I am thankful he signed me and will always remember calling him “Jim” for the first few days in training, which made the other players laugh. He called me to the side one day and explained that it would be better if I called him “boss”. I still find it hard to not use a persons first name. Even now we respond to our guests email enquiries by first name terms, which I know in America the standard “Sir” is used when dealing with customers/guests. I’m sure if I got to meet the Queen I would call her “Liz”.

Ossie Ardiles replaced “Jim” and I got to know Ossie extremely well and followed him to West Bromwich Albion a few years later. He was great fun to be around. As a manager I think he lacked a little bit on the defensive duties of a team but what an inspirational coach for attacking midfielders and strikers. We used to do so much shooting and ball skills. Ossie only ever wanted to do Ball work in training. He also wanted to play all the young players, which again was a failing on his part because there were some good experienced pros at Newcastle who were overlooked. All team sports are about balance. You cannot have all young players as you cannot have all old players. You cannot select 10 attacking players or 10 defensive players. You cannot select 10 short players or 10 tall players. It’s as simple as that really. What isn’t simple is finding that correct balance of attacking and defensive qualities, youth and experience and blending a team.

But for me Ossie was a dream to play for even if his team talks were a little hard to understand, as his English was unclear. We had a bunch of excitable youths charging around the field, scoring lots of goals and conceding lots of goals. What fun. Not for the fans of course because the results were not too promising. I played with some great players in my time at Newcastle. Gavin Peacock, Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott, Steve Watson, Alan Thompson. Wow, it seems like such a long time ago. Apart from Gavin Peacock, the others I mentioned were the cream of the youth system in Newcastle who dreamed of playing for their home town. It was amazing watching their faces as we went on to the pitch. Alan Thompson used to ‘throw up’ before every game and even at half time. He must have been so nervous playing for a team where all his heroes had come from. It was pretty gross as he turned a beautifully manicured pitch into piles of puke….

We didn’t really achieve much as a team in the first year, apart from the development of the younger players. The club was still in turmoil and lacked direction. Ossie refused to change his attacking ways, which I believe was his downfall. It was all a bit too much for the fans and the board to take and in the end they couldn’t stick with Ossie. Newcastle have just sacked there most recent manager Graeme Souness and it’s a pity they can’t find or stick with someone too really develop the club into a powerful force in the premier league and Europe. What a great stadium they have now. Although I never really clicked with Kevin Keegan (Ossie’s successor), I believe that he had the charisma to run that club and was a perfect fit for Newcastle United. Maybe he should go back there one day.

I have very fond memories of Newcastle. I left home to set up a new life there, started a career as a footballer, was introduced regretfully to the nightlife of the Big Market (my head hurts thinking about that place), froze my #$%* off practicing at the old Training Ground (the name eludes me). Of all the places to put a training ground in the North East, the top of a hill was not one of them. We get hurricane season here in Belize, but Newcastle used to have ice cold wind season for what felt like most of the year. Add the rain to this and you get a lot of unhappy faces trudging out onto the practice field every morning. Which brings me back to the hardcore fans. I still remember seeing the fans walking down the streets before and after the game, wearing little more than their short sleeved replica shirts protecting them from the biting wind. Newcastle was my initiation into the world as an independent person, away from friends and family, a place where my career started and where the generous Geordie spirit and infectious sense of humour always made me laugh. I wish them good luck in finding a successful replacement to Souness. They really are the definition of the word “Sleeping Giant”

Part 1 of How To Become a Professional Footballer - Ashill to Arsenal
Part 2 of How to Become a Professional Footballer - Kettering to Newcastle United

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