Home > Football > My time at… AJ Auxerre. Part 1 Abroad at 16

My time at… AJ Auxerre. Part 1 Abroad at 16


People often ask how it came about that I began my career in France with A.J. Auxerre. I was lucky enough to have been selected in the E.S.F.A (English Schools Football Association) U15’s. This was a different  governing body to the FA. E.S.F.A represented children who attended schools in England. This meant that you could be any nationality and represent England. A case in point being Ryan Giggs (then Ryan Wilson) . We were due to play against France U15’s at Wembley. Auxerre , at the time , were very much pioneers of bringing players from their own youth system and turning them into top players, seasoned internationals in some cases. Eric Cantona is probably the biggest name to have been through their ‘Centre de Formation’ . This was a building, much like the academies in this country these days, with bedrooms, classrooms, changing rooms and football pitches on one complex. Having been approached by a representative we were made aware of their interest before this match. As pioneers they were attempting to assemble top players from across Europe to improve their youth system. This was back in 1991.Subsequently the top English clubs have followed suit with their academies although Auxerre were light years ahead in terms of coaching young players. The training methods were far superior to anything I experienced in my time at Leeds United and their record of producing players spoke for itself. One reason for this I believe is the difference in the systems. In France at that time young players were given more time to develop and more emphasis was on technical and tactical skills.

At the time I had the pick of clubs to choose from. I was a free agent up to the age of 15. Most players at that time had signed for their chosen club although I never really knew where I wanted to go and didn’t want to rush into a decision and then regret it. During school holidays since the age of 13 I went training with many different clubs. Arsenal ,Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United were the clubs I were interested in most. I was a boyhood supporter of Spurs although out of the four clubs they were the least interested.My home town club, Blackpool, had expressed a huge interest from the age of 12 although with bigger clubs wanting me it seemed like I should look at one of those. In fact Alex Ferguson visited my house in Blackpool when I was about 14 trying to get me to sign for them. At that time they wanted to sign me pretty badly. I played against a select Manchester United team with the FA National School of Excellence at around that time at The Cliff training ground. Sir Alex was there and signalled me up to his office for a chat. In his office was Archie Knox, his assistant. As I entered the room Sir Alex began asking if and when I was going to sign for them. Meanwhile Archie Knox was beginning to change into his training kit. After a couple of minutes I didn’t know where to look. I had Alex Ferguson, Manchester United manager, legend, telling me that Manchester United was the club for me and Archie Knox half naked next to him nodding away in agreement. How times have changed. These days Archie Knox could find himself in court for that.

So as time went on myself and Kev Sharp had to make a decision as to where we wanted to play. For me it was out of Auxerre  and Manchester United with us both choosing the former.  At the time it felt like they wanted me a little bit more than Kev. I think they had this image of a ‘traditional’ English striker putting himself about. They had said that with the English ‘spirit’ coupled with the French technical ability would mean that they would have a couple of talented players on their hands. I was never sure though why they had me in mind as a striker. Their system was a big man up front on his own with a ‘numero 10’ (skilful playmaker)  just behind him and two flying wingers supplying the ammunition. That was the way every team played throughout the club. You only had to take one look at my dad who was all of 5’3’’ to know that I wasn’t the next Peter Crouch in the making. Now I do realise that kids can shoot up between 14 and adulthood but they were stretching that idea to the limit. To be honest, if they had been correct I would have seriously been questioning the fact that he was my biological father !

 So in the end I was not tall enough to play the lone striker role, not technically gifted enough to be a numero 10 (they grew on trees in France ever since Michelle Plattini had become a national legend), and not quick enough to fit in to the ‘flying winger’ role. It really didn’t happen for me at all. I enjoyed my football but just didn’t progress as they wanted me to. Kev, on the other hand, was flying.  Within a month or two he was playing reserve football so he had a real chance.
So Christmas came and with that the traditional winter break. We had only been back once since pre-season and we were really looking forward to getting back home to Blackpool for a couple of weeks. The way things were done over there were pretty strict. When we weren’t training or studying we were made to rest. This meant being forced up to your room for 3 or 4 hours sometimes.

So pretty much straight from school we left English shores for the French club.  Although I missed home from the beginning I really wanted it to work in France. We were given a few hours of French lessons every day and I quickly managed to master the language. I would say that I could get by within a couple of months and by the end of the year the French lads told me that I was no longer speaking with an English accent. In fact after only two months or so  Auxerre were drawn against Liverpool in the UEFA Cup. Media attention for the game was huge and we were asked to conduct an interview live on French TV. I got really stuck in to learning French. Even though the French lads wanted to practice their English skills on us they soon got bored with this and I didn’t want to go on thinking what was being said all of the time.

Now I do realise with hindsight that this was probably the best thing that I should have been doing. Training was always taxing, as it should be at that age, and rest is extremely important. But you try telling that to a 17-year-old. We were allowed ‘out’ on a Monday evening until 10pm  but the town was pretty much a ghost town. At that age I wanted to be enjoying myself. I was having conversations with mates at other clubs back in England and they seemed to be given much more freedom than us. I also think that when you are forced to do something at that age then the natural rebel in you comes out and it turns out to be the last thing you want to do. It was that extreme that one of the coaches was assigned to live in the same centre with us and checked up on us to make sure we were in our rooms when we were supposed to be. I remember one instance where he poked his head in our room, saw we were in there resting , shut the door and actually locked us in our own room. I couldn’t believe it !

Don’t get me wrong. Their way of doing things was a tried and tested successful way of turning young talented footballers into top players but at that time in my life it was 24/7 football. I had to live and breathe it. I’m still not sure if it was their system, my age, my attitude, homesickness or a combination of all of these factors that made me want to want to break free. I felt like I was missing out on life. I should have thought that I was in a privileged position that lots of lads my age would have wanted. So when Christmas arrived I had some catching up to do. What a two weeks we had. I certainly let my hair down over the festive period.

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