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My time at…Notts County..Part 2 Game over

December 1, 2010 Leave a comment

 

Our small, experienced squad made it difficult for us to have a settled team. Michael Johnson struggled to play 3 games a week. Although I was in a bit of denial at the time about this (I thought I could play 3 games a week but couldn’t either) he was pretty honest about it. He was a great player. Not just for Notts but at his other clubs.

 I remember playing against him for Grimsby Town against Birmingham City many years ago. I recall a situation during the game where I had about 10 yards on him chasing a ball. I sauntered through only to find that he had eaten up the ground on me and easily dispossessed me. Although at Notts he had lost some of his pace he could read the game amazingly. It was his last season that year and was a true Notts legend.

Training was always pretty good during my time at County. This was something that was very important to me. I had been at some clubs where training was a joke. Lots of standing around….very boring stuff. At the age I was 34, I was not going to get any better. In fact I was getting worse! So good training was essential. Lots of small sided games, passing drills, shooting drills.

The managements were very sensible with us older pros. We did slightly less training than the younger boys which allowed us to recover quicker. Ian was very good with us in this way. He had suggested that we would not be needed on Mondays for training but given that our results were not anywhere good enough then it was not an option.

We played some great stuff that season without really being too effective. We were great up to the final third but didn’t have the required quality to win enough games. We missed chances at vital times in games and conceded against the run of play too often. I was as guilty of anybody for this. I think I actually played too deep which meant that I was not in the penalty box enough when the ball arrived. Miles Weston was so quick that nobody could keep up with him !!

Myself, Delroy Facey, Sean Canham and Spencer Weir-Daley were the striking options.  The highlight of my season was my hat-trick against Port Vale. It was a day to remember for me. Unfortunately there were not enough days like that for me personally at Notts County.

By February I was starting less matches than ever before. My form was poor so I had no complaints really. Jonathan Forte was brought in and he started scoring immediately. He had the pace that our attack was missing. I remember thinking to myself at around that time that I was getting too old for this. I just wasnt a god as I used to be. age had caught up with me and it was showing. This in turn led to me becoming frustrated with myself which affected my form even further.

From then on I knew that I would not get a new contract. I also knew that this would probably be my last season in pro football.

Unfortunately Notts County didn’t see anywhere near the best of me. At the end of the season was the time when all of the out of contract players learned their fate. The season had been a failure. Our league position was poor. There were times when we flirted with relegation but it never looked like a reality to me. We lost to non-league opposition in The FA Cup to Kettering and the squad was too old. When you have a season like this then not too many players are taken on. Most of the out of contract players were released. Gavin Strachan, Richard Butcher too. I was surprised about Butch because the club were keen to discuss a new deal with him in January before his injury against Kettering.

Ian was very good when I was called in. We were not aware that it was happening but once I got the call I knew the score. He didn’t go around the houses and just told me outright that I was to be released. I replied that I didn’t deserve a new deal after the season I had so it wasn’t a sour encounter like many of these are with other players.

So there it was. Game over…literally. I knew it couldn’t last forever but when it actually happens it took a while to sink in.

C’est  la vie.

Interview with ex-Notts legend Mark Stallard. Your questions please for Mark. 

 

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My time at Bristol Rovers..Part 3. Death threats and out of favour.

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

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My form had mirrored the team. It was hit and miss, mostly miss. I was in and out of the team much like many of the squad. I never knew if I would start the next match and my performances certainly didn’t deserve my name being first down on the sheet. Although results weren’t good enough often enough it wasn’t a downbeat camp. In fact, we all seemed to enjoy coming to work. We had some really good lads who I became very good friends with. Many of us were in the same boat being in and out of the starting eleven so we all just got on with it. I think we had all settled in and all loved living in Bristol, I know I did.  

It was around this time that I was made captain by Ian Atkins. Our current skipper, James Hunt, was suspended and there seemed no obvious choice. We played away at Shrewsbury Town and I was summoned to the front of the bus on the way to the game. I thought I was getting dropped and was ready for the news. I didn’t see it coming at all to be honest but a huge honour nevertheless. That lasted 3 matches before James was back. He was the captain and rightly got the armband back.

Again I reverted to being in and out of the team. It was around this time that I received a letter in the form of a death threat. At first I thought it was somebody winding me up. It became clear that it  wasn’t  a prank as I read the whole letter. It actually threatened my wife and children which wasn’t very pleasant. The letter was written by hand and the spelling and grammar was very poor so I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It said that if I didn’t stop scoring then me and my family would get it. Now, my goal scoring form was poor at best during my time at Bristol Rovers so maybe it was a wind up after all !! I didn’t take it too seriously. I showed the manager who said he would deal with it but nothing further happened.  I also received another similar letter when Lennie Lawrence and Paul Trolloppe were in charge by what seemed like the same author too. A bit strange really but slightly un-nerving nevertheless.

At the end of the season I felt like I was being forced out. There was one game to go and we had nothing to play for. There were quite a few injuries so I thought I would play. Ian decided to draft in an emergency signing. Even though deadline had gone he sought permission from The Football League. Jefferson Louis signed and started the match. It was a massive sign that Ian wanted me out although he denied it. The following week we all had a one to one with the manager to talk about our performances over the season. Apparently the board wanted to get me off the wage bill. I was in the top bracket of earners at the time and they felt that they didn’t want a top wage being spent on a player that wasn’t playing all of the time. I didn’t know what to believe but it didn’t stop them circulating my name for transfer. Boston United showed an interest but it wasn’t right for me to leave at that stage. It would have meant up-rooting the family again and we were all very settled. I had two years to run on my contract and thought that I could improve the following season.

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My time at Lincoln City..Part 4. Another play-off disapointment

November 22, 2010 Leave a comment

 

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Mansfield Town away for me was one of the most memorable days of my career. It was one of those days where everything I hit seemed to go in. I scored four goals for the first time in the league in my career. I had scored four on a few occasions in reserve matches over the years but they don’t count. It does when there are league points at stake.

When I arrived at Lincoln City Paul Mayo was the penalty taker. His penalties were ferocious. He has a cracking left foot on him and he blasted his penalties. I always liked taking penalties. Obviously it was a superb goal scoring opportunity but I always liked the pressure that came with taking penalties. Pass or fail. It was one or the other. Missing was a horrible experience and it could ruin your performance for the remainder of a match if you allow it to. I missed one of my few penalties at home to MK Dons which really annoyed me. We were 0-2 down just before half time and pulled one back only to be given a penalty to draw level. The keeper guessed correctly and saved it. I remember chewing over it for the whole of the half time period. It did cost us as we lost the match in the end, our first defeat of that season.

Back to the Mansfield game. As Paul Mayo had missed the last penalty away at Torquay I decided to get myself on them. I got two penalties that day to go with my other two from open play. I always enjoyed playing against Mansfield and scored against them many times over the years. This match got me off and running for the season which came as a huge relief after starting the season slowly in terms of goals.

We were a free scoring team in the first half of that season. We had goal threats from all over the pitch. We always thought that we could outscore any team we came up against. We let a fair few in at the other end so I guess we were good to watch. Many people tell me that particular Lincoln City team of that time was the most pleasing on the eye that they have seen. We really should have achieved promotion that season. We fell away in the second half of the season and stumbled into the play-offs. There were lots of opinions why we didn’t do it. I know that John wanted to strengthen the squad in the January window but wasn’t able to get the players he wanted. Our small squad probably couldn’t cope well enough with the long season that panned out too. Although we had a good blend of youth and experience I don’t think that the squad as a whole had enough depth. I also think that opposition teams wised up to us too. They knew our strengths and combated them effectively enough to annul us.

Bristol Rovers awaited us in the play-offs. We played them in the league towards the end of the regular season and it seemed that they had more than an uphill task to reach the top seven. I had a great chance to win the game and all but end their play-off hopes but squandered it. That came to haunt us unfortunately. They were my previous club who hadn’t wanted me so I was very keen to beat them.

A tough away leg saw us return to Sincil Bank with a 2-1 deficit to overturn. We thought we could do it but two early goals at Sincil Bank made it a very tough ask. We put up a fight but in the end we were second best over the two legs. It was a tough defeat to take. My old club had got the better of me and I also thought that it was maybe my last chance to play at the new Wembley and gain promotion. Although I had another year left on my contract you can never take a play-off place for granted.

So the second season in a row had finished at the play-off semi final stage. A horrible way for a season to finish but overall you have to say that it was a successful one. The wage bill had been cut and we had lost McCombe and McAuley as well as a couple of others. That defeat stayed with me all summer and I was glad to get back for the start of pre-season training in the July.

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My time at …Lincoln City. Part 5 Out of contract. Should I stay or should I go ?

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

 

Another pre-season began for me for the 2007-08 season. I think that it was my 18th pre-season and I can tell you that they don’t get much easier as you get older.

Again, we lost some of our main players. Jeff Hughes, the biggest casualty, earned a move away from Sincil Bank. He had scored quite a few goals the previous season and contributed heavily to our season.

Lincoln City had been in five successive play-off campaigns and not managed to achieve promotion on each occasion. Although everybody wanted to go one better it was always an uphill task given that playing budgets were cut year on year.

The season began at home to Shrewsbury Town. We were on the end of a heavy defeat to start off the season and it set the tone for a disappointing campaign. The squad was older and weaker. Teams had found a way to play against us and we found ourselves towards the wrong end of the table. Because of this we never had much of a settled team. We changed personnel, formation and tactics but our form never matched that of the previous season.

We played MK Dons away which we lost 5-0. It turned out to be the last match under John Schofield. The team looked like conceding goals too often and we didn’t manage to be as much of a threat in attack. I thought his departure was a little bit premature at the time but nothing surprises you in football. I have a lot to thank John Schofield for. He rejuvenated me at a time when my career was coming to an end. I don’t think that the circumstances at Lincoln City when he left were all his fault but I honestly believe that he would be a success if he were to manage again. The abuse he took from some sections was disgraceful. I even heard one fan threaten to stab him as he walked past the dug out toward the end of one match. When you consider what he did for the club it does make you wonder what some people expect.

So Peter Jackson was installed and immediately gave the whole place a lift. I had a couple of niggling injuries at the time of his arrival and, again, wondered what the immediate future held for me. We turned into a gritty, hard working team who ground out results to steer us away from danger. It wasn’t all that pretty but confidence grew and we did enough to be safe. I had a lot of time for Peter. He managed to turn things around really well and had everybody playing for him.

Unfortunately his illness meant that he was away from the club for a lengthy period of time. It was obviously a tough time for him and thankfully he won his battle against cancer. He won Manager of the Month before he left for his cancer treatment which shows the form we were in up to his departure.

Iffy Onoura took over temporarily and it was just a matter of keeping things ticking over.  There were quite a number of us who were out of contract that season. I felt like I had to perform to get anywhere near an offer. At my age even that may not have been good enough. We were told that no decisions were to be made about any of us until he season had finished. I had to accept it even though it was frustrating. I honestly didn’t have a clue if I was to be offered one until I walked in to see Iffy at the end of the season. Normally you get a feel for certain situations and if I was honest then I didn’t feel that confident.

 I was one of the fortunate ones to be offered a contract. To be honest there were a few scenarios that could have occurred. I could have been released, offered a contract on significantly less money or offered a contract on the same terms. There was little chance of a pay rise seeing as though I was 33. So the outcome was as good as could be expected, a 1 year offer on the same terms. I was very happy with that although there were a couple of other stipulations relating to my off the field activities. I was running a soccer academy at the time and Lincoln City were concerned that there was a conflict of interest between my academy and the club, who have their own coaching set up. It was a shame but it forced my hand a little bit. The dilemma I faced was to play for Lincoln City under restrictions or move under no restrictions. I can see it from both sides but I was 33 and knew that there were not too many years in the tank remaining so I had to choose for the sake of my future.

 

My time at Northampton Town…Part 3 Dipping form and nearly sold

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

 

 

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As the season progressed it became evident that the club were having some financial problems. They had stretched themselves with the recent signings after winning promotion and the collapse of ITV Digital was hitting all clubs hard.

The form of the team was alarming to say the least. A promising start ended up by us looking over our shoulders at the wrong end of the table. My own goal scoring form deteriorated. The first half of the season saw me scoring freely but after Christmas was a stark contrast. I am not sure if the clubs form was due to my lack of goals or my lack of goals was because of the team’s poor form. Probably a bit of both.

On the whole though my season personally was a success. This brought about interest from a few clubs. I had heard that Hibs were watching me, as well as Wigan Athletic and also Millwall. Millwall were in our division that seaon but were on the verge of promotion.

Deadline week in March saw them try to sign me on a permanent basis. There was a lot going on which I didn’t find out about. It turned out that they offered £325,000. A lot of money considering they paid a club record £150,000 for me less than a year ago. They said that they valued me at £1 million. I had had a good season but that valuation was ridiculous. I thought at one stage that it would be accepted but Kevin Wilson really dug his heels in. He told me that he would have been sacked if he would have allowed me to go. He thought that the fans would have turned on him if I had been allowed to leave.  A very selfish point of view in my opinion.  It would have given me the opportunity to play in a higher league but it didn’t happen. During the same week Steve Howard went to Luton Town. The club didn’t want to lose both of us on the same day and his contract was due to expire that summer so they would maybe have lost him anyway so in the end they received £50,000 for him. It doesn’t seem much now considering the career he has had but they could have lost him for nothing.

As the season finished I had a few issues to contend with off the pitch. My wife was pregnant with our second child and she had to spend the last 12 weeks of her pregnancy in hospital full time. Although most of that time was during the close season we did begin pre-season training for the following season while she was still in hospital. There were quite a few complications so it was a tough time. The pre-season tour was over in Dublin as it was the previous year. I needed to come back a couple of days earlier than the rest of the squad as my second child Frankie was due to be born by caesarean section. He was to be 4 weeks premature which required him to begin life in the special baby unit.

A week before the season was to begin I was told that Wycombe Wanderers had offered £200,000 for me. It would have been their club record transfer so a big move on their part. Only four or five months after the club had turned down £325,000 for me they accepted £200,000 from Wycombe. It was all down to the finances at the club. They couldn’t wait to get me out. It was incredible.

I went for talks with Lawrie Sanchez who was their manager at the time. Most of the meeting was about him and how good he was as a player and about how good a manager he was. He didn’t really convince me that I should sign there to be honest. He also asked me to take a wage cut from my Northampton Town salary. He asked me to make a football decision and he argued that Wycombe were a bigger club than Wycombe.  All in all it wasn’t right so I turned it down.

That season started off poorly and Kevin Wilson left the club. I was pleased when Kevan Broadhurst was brought back in. There were rumours that he came back because he was still on the payroll following his exit as assistant and the club couldn’t afford another wage. We were in a relegation battle at the time and looked like we were destined to drop down to the basement division.

I had been playing poorly up to that point under Kevin Wilson. Broads came in and gave everybody a kick up the backside.  My form returned and we began to string a few positive results together.

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My time at ..Lincoln City. Part 3. A new era

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

 

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As I reported for pre-season training I hadn’t managed to sell the house in Bristol. This was a real pain. Luckily for me my mother-in-law allowed me to stay with her in Grimsby meaning that I was to commute to Lincoln during pre-season training. I travelled in with Martin Gritton. Although it was under an hour from door to door I wanted to get all the family moved up as soon as possible. John Schofield was brilliant for me during that time. We had weekends off during pre-season for the first few weeks which allowed me to get back down to Bristol. It was a 5am departure on a Monday morning to trek back up to Lincoln for training though.

John Schofield was promoted to first team coach with John Deeham coming in to assist him. John was brilliant as youth team coach and I got on well with him when he was assistant to Keith Alexander. In my opinion he was rightly given the opportunity to lead the first team following the departure of Keith.

Two of Lincoln’s biggest players, both in height and status, had left over the summer. Jamie McCombe and Gareth McAuley left to play for Bristol City and Leicester City respectively. Both were leaving for higher divisions so you can fully understand their departures.

Although there were other players that left at that time you always felt that McAuley and McCombe would be tough to replace. The budget was cut, as it so often is at lower league clubs so the recruitment was important.

Adie Moses was brought in. Nat Brown and Paul Morgan were the other recognised central defenders. Paul Mayo played at centre half occasionally too but John Schofield was to put a larger emphasis on attacking when he took over. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t as if he completely neglected the defensive side of the game but he had so many attack minded players at his disposal that it made sense to play the way he did. When a new manager comes in they always like to put their stamp onto their team as early as possible. John made his values clear from very early on.

Mark Stallard was signed too from Shrewsbury. We immediately hit it off both on and off the pitch. We are the same age, only separated by a week or so, and we had played against each other many times for our previous clubs over the years.

We adapted a 4-3-3 formation for the pre-season matches but also worked on a 4-4-2 formation. We had the personnel to change formation without changing players. I really didn’t mind which formation we played but I think we were more effective when we played 4-4-2. Mark Stallard and I seemed to have an understanding of how to play up front together. Lee Frecklington burst onto the scene too which made us both look better than we were. Freck had a rare quality of being able to run beyond both Mark and I. His energy along with his quality gave the team so many options. The younger legs of Jeff Hughes and Ryan Amoo also took the pressure off the two of us up front. Our football brains and re-vitalisation that playing in that team gave us allowed us to be a big reason why we reached the play-offs that season.

A 1-1 draw at home to Notts County saw us get off the mark. The next two away matches were perfect for me. Hereford United and Torquay United were not too far from Bristol and John allowed me to stay down that week. These gestures go a long way for me. He could so easily have made me train up in Lincoln that week.

6 points from those two games gave us a great start to the season. A stoppage time winner at Torquay by Martin Gritton was a great way to win a match. A defeat to Scunthorpe United after extra time in the league cup was not ideal but allowed us to focus on the league matches which definitely helped. Although I had contributed towards our results I hadn’t scored in the first four matches. My experience taught me not to get too uptight yet I always felt a pressure to get off to a scoring start to any season. I think John Schofield saw that and pulled me to one side. He said that the goals would come and he proved to be correct.

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My time at Lincoln City…Part 2 Clocking up the miles and making it permanent.

November 3, 2010 Leave a comment

I headed back to Bristol after the home victory against Grimsby Town knowing that the following week would be a big one. I am not just talking about the size of the matches but also the amount of mileage that I would be clocking up. Away games at Carlisle and Darlington were the fixtures for that week. Bristol was a long way from both. I met the squad at the team hotel in Carlisle on the Tuesday evening after a frighteningly long drive. A defeat at Brunten Park made for a very long day. I think I arrived back home at about 3am.  It was back in Lincoln on the Thursday and Darlington on the Saturday. I asked one of the young lads who was not playing to drive my car behind the team bus so that I could go directly home to Bristol from Darlington instead of travelling back to Lincoln.

I remember at half time that Keith threatened the team with a spot of Sunday training if we didn’t pull our fingers out. This would have been disastrous for me and was hoping that it didn’t come to that. Well, we lost the match and the half time threat turned to a reality. Thankfully he let me off. As a loan player it was a slightly different situation for me but he really wasn’t happy with the performance. Keith didn’t come down too heavy on players as a general rule but you always knew where the line was with him.

An enjoyable and successful loan spell was turned into a permanent transfer before the play-off matches against Grimsby Town. There was quite a bit of negotiating to do for all parties. I had an extra year beyond the 2005-06 season on my contract at Bristol Rovers. I had to take a cut in wages so things had to be right for me. Eventually it was Keith that made the difference. I have to say that if it wasn’t for him then I may not have signed at that time. He even suggested that I stay living in Bristol and travel up on a Thursday like I had done on loan. This worked for a short loan spell but I didn’t feel comfortable doing it for a further two years. It would not have been fair on the rest of the lads and my fitness and form would have suffered as a consequence.

So I had agreed to become what was Keith’s final Lincoln City signing before the end of that season. It gave me a bit of an advantage is putting the house up for sale in Bristol. There was a chance that we could we could be moved up to Lincoln by the start of pre-season training.

Our play-off spot was secured which meant that we faced Grimsby Town in the play-offs. The 5-0 victory against them did us no favours whatsoever. It made them more determined to gain some revenge. The pre-match talk made us favourites but we all knew there would be an improved performance by them after the heavy defeat they suffered. A 0-1 home defeat put them in the driving seat for the 2nd leg at Blundell Park. Although we equalised quite early on we never played well enough to deserve a place at Wembley.

I had a brief chat with Keith after the game when we returned to Sincil Bank. Effectively it was the end of the season so needed to know how the land lay as I was heading off to Bristol. It was a funny conversation really. We were obviously all very downbeat. Keith mentioned that he may be leaving for pastures new. I had only signed a week or two previous to that so didn’t want Keith to leave. He was such a big factor in me signing that I felt left in the lurch a little bit.

Keith eventually did leave which led to a summer of uncertainty for me personally. I had just signed for Lincoln and the manager was off. I don’t blame Keith at all. You need to think of yourself in football. There was all sorts going through my mind. The next manager may not fancy me, for one.

Thankfully for me John Schofield took over.

I would like to say thank you to the sponsors of this blog: JJB SPORTS who have a 3 for 2 offer.

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