Prince of Pete
The electronic gates open at Stoke City’s Clayton Wood training complex, just over a mile as the crow flies from their Britannia Stadium home. I park my rather embarrassing family hatchback amongst the vehicular glitterati that belong to The Potter’s first team squad.
Parked cars, then…..
Enough has been talked and written about Peter Odemwingie and that transfer deadline day/night back in 2013. Indeed, as I’m met by Colin Burgess, the extremely affable head of Media at Stoke City, and led up to his office, it’s the present and the future I want to talk to Odemwingie about, not so much the well-documented past.
And specifically I want to discuss the injury he suffered almost twelve months ago, and the lengths he went to get himself back in the famous red and white stripes.
Peter Odemwingie has had a pretty eclectic life both within and outside football. It’s obvious that he loves talking, loves football, and has a real love of life. Born in Uzbekhistan in the Soviet Union, he spent a large part of his childhood living in the USSR and Nigeria.
It soon becomes apparent that it’s hard not to enjoy yourself in Peter Odemwingie’s company. Rarely is a sentence not accompanied by a smile, a laugh, or a pun: whether he’s talking about his career, his current club, or even about making his own Adidas three-stripe kits himself as a youngster growing up in the Soviet Union. Possibly underrated as a player by some, Odemwingie has played in World Cups, The Olympics, The Champions League, The African Cup of Nations, and five different leagues: The footballing Judith Chalmers of The Six Towns. Indeed, he fulfilled one of his biggest personal dreams in the Summer of 2014 by scoring in the World Cup Finals – and it was past his good friend, and ex-Potters’ goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, too.
“I have always wanted to score a goal in the World Cup”, Odemwingie beams, “and by doing so that means I have scored in every big competition I’ve played in. I really wanted it badly. Scoring past Asmir wasn’t my target, but scoring at a World Cup was”.
Those who know Odemwingie talk about a softly-spoken, well-mannered, family man, and he admits that he even apologised to Begovic for scoring past him afterwards. Although on their return to the dressing room for pre-season last Summer, Odemwingie brought into the changing room the boots that he had scored in and asked the giant goalkeeper if they looked familiar!
Odemwingie arrived at Stoke City, his seventh club, from Cardiff City in January 2014. Whilst Mark Hughes has transformed The Potters into an attacking, attractive, top-half-of-the-table side, when Odemwingie arrived at The Britannia Stadium (in a swap deal that saw Kenwyne Jones head in the opposite direction), The Potters were facing a potential relegation battle.
Ask anyone in ST4, and they will put a lot of credit for Stoke’s eventual ninth place finish that season to the arrival and impact of one Peter Osaze Odemwingie.
It also led to an after-the-watershed terrace song sung about the Odemwingie/Jones interchange by The Potter’s faithful; a song Odemwingie admits does make him smile. As do most things, in all honesty.
“Yeah, that song”, a lean and beaming Odemwingie acknowledges, “my son loves it too, and when I was away at the World Cup we’d Skype and he would be at his happiest when I was singing it. But let me tell you two things – I mean it as no reflection on Kenwyne Jones, plus I obviously do have to change one of the words, too!”
Odemwingie laughs and sighs at the same time. In fact, he laughs a lot as we talk. He’s articulate, bright, knowledgeable on a number of issues both within and away from football, and admits to loving life at Stoke.
In fairness, after the events of 30th August 2014, rather than laughing and joking, Odemwingie would have had more than enough justification to be defensive, tired, and rather less enamoured with his footballing lot.
Whilst his Stoke team were recording a shock 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium in a league game , Odemwingie’s season, and possibly career, looked to be in real danger of ending. After entering the pitch as a substitute, Odemwingie fell to the floor with no one around him after almost setting up a second Stoke goal. Indeed, even as he was later receiving treatment in the Etihad away dressing room he had no idea of the extent of the injury.
Odemwingie, sits a couple of yards in front of me in training top, shorts and trainers; legs crossed, clutching his injured right knee up to his chest. He has a vivid of that day. “Yeah, sometimes you hear a noise with that kind of injury, but I really didn’t know the extent of how bad the injury was at the time”.
Frank and totally honest about the injury over the course of the next half hour, Odemwingie admits that he was “in huge pain at the time” and was actually scared at the time that he had dislocated his knee due to hearing the crack of his knee bone as he fell. Taking a long swig from his bottle of water, the player talks candidly and openly about what happened next on that fateful day, plus the self-education process he went through to aid his recuperation.
“I looked down and my knee was straight, so I knew that it thankfully wasn’t dislocated. We did the Lachman Test immediately (a clinical test used to diagnose injury of the anterior cruciate ligament). It was 50/50 at that moment as to whether there was ligament damage or not”.
During an injury-ravaged season, where The Potters eventually finished an excellent 9th place once again and boasting a second consecutive record Premier League points tally for the club, Odemwingie wasn’t the only key forward at the Britannia Stadium to suffer knee ligament damage that would effectively end their season.
Bojan Krkić was in a period of devastating form for Stoke when he too went down under no challenge, this time at Spotland in the FA Cup. “Bojan was on fire, playing superbly for us, but with his injury I think they could tell straight away the extent of it, but with mine they couldn’t tell until I went in for an MRI. This confirmed it”, comments Odemwingie.
Many footballers, indeed non-footballers, would have felt sorry for themselves after such an injury. You know, lock yourself away, put your fingers in your ears, play Leonard Cohen cd’s, and generally feel sorry for yourself. Not Odemwingie.
Despite his apparently fragile, lithe frame, Odemwingie is obviously made of mentally stern stuff. He admits to being an extremely positive person – as did Mark Hughes about the player the week after the injury – and also in having an inquisitive anatomical mind, possibly due to his parents both being medical students.
The first thing Odemwingie did was to find out just how long he would be out of the game for. He soon sourced a long list of players who had suffered the same injury, and he took comfort that players did come back from it, and that the likes of Roberto Baggio did so relatively quickly. Indeed, quite matter-of-factly, Odemwingie then cites and describes in detail some of the many testimonies he found on the internet by people who had gone through this injury.
It’s pretty uplifting and very educational how Peter Odemwingie discusses this major injury. It’s an injury that, quite rightly, strikes fear into footballers. But seemingly not Peter Odemwingie. For him, knowledge was power, and central to the recovery process was a desire to find out as much information as possible about ACL injuries.
“Well, I firstly prayed that the diagnosis was wrong, but the bad news came, and so I decided to be proactive and positive and looked myself on the internet about all the relevant details of the injury: how long it would take to get back to full fitness, and what the operation involved and things like that”.
Odemwingie studiously spent hours on various websites trying and succeeding in educating himself about the injury, and the appropriate recuperation process.
The player uncrosses his legs, and leans forward pointing at his knee, hardly taking a breath as he continues, “I looked at the operation procedure on YouTube quite a few times. It was scary the first few times, but I got used to it and got it in my mind that players had come through it and come back strongly”.
Whilst acknowledging that, football-wise, he had more good years behind him than in front of him, Odemwingie was encouraged by his own research work. He also took comfort that his friend and colleague at West Brom, Zoltan Gera, had exactly the same injury in front of him in a match, and he had returned strongly and is still playing. Indeed, Gera has suffered the injury twice.
Describing himself as “naturally fit” and a “glass half full kind of person”, Peter Odemwingie’s long road back to fitness wasn’t without its problems. A second minor operation put his recovery back for a few weeks. The player leans forward and examines the knee, pointing out various incisions and lumps on and around it, making light of both the injury and how it’s left his knee looking.
When I ask if I can have a closer look at said knee, Odemwingie is obliging and moves towards my chair, lifting his knee up. “It feels stronger, but the scars are thick as they went over them twice, but they should be settling down soon.”
By this stage, the Stoke media team are all gathered with me around the Nigerian international’s right leg. Once more, Odemwingie’s perma-smile turns into a chuckle. “Folks, if you look closely at my leg it looks like a face has been drawn on it with the scars from previous injuries. See, there are two eyes, a nose and a mouth further down my leg, ha ha”.
When asked about the ‘smile’ that is on this rather unusual and macabre face – a wide scar across the inside of his right shin – Odemwngie laughs again as he recalls the day as a youngster that he ran through a glass door.
Probably the only time that Peter Odemwingie’s face turns deadly serious during our interview is when discussing his comeback appearance for Stoke, back in April. OIt’s well documented that Stoke fans took to Odemwingie from day one, and the renowned Britannia Stadium decibel level was raised a notch or two when he returned to action as a substitute (ahead of schedule) in the 1-1 draw with Sunderland on 25th April 2015.
Odemwingie’s eyes narrow as he recalls the crowd’s reaction to him warming-up down the touchline during the first half, and the ovation he received when finally entering the fray.
“I was always surprised how quickly Stoke fans took to me. I came here and fans saw I was really happy with the move. Everything about the club was right for me. The reception I had that day at comeback game was truly amazing. Ryan Shawcross has been here a number of years and even he said at training during the next week that he had not heard anything quite like it!”
The odd twinge of pain apart, Odemwingie’s speedy recovery has been rewarded by a new contract at Stoke City. He’s well-liked by players and staff at Stoke and despite being 34 has no thoughts of retirement yet. So will Odemwingie remain in sport or possibly even follow in his parent’s medical footsteps?
“I’ve not given it too much thought to be honest, and I could remain in sport. But I definitely do want to get some more education. You never know what will happen next in life….do you?”
And with one last chuckle and smile he was off for another day’s training. Another day on, quite literally, the treadmill of getting back to his fitness levels of yore. Whatever happens to Peter Odemwingie, he’s a unique player – indeed, as he says himself, there are few people about who actually have two smiling faces on them at the same time!
“Any chance you can get to the Welsh team hotel for about 8pm on Wednesday? Joe can meet you then.”
Wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me from getting there. Unfortunately, wild horses aren’t as head-wobblingly dreadful and stressful as the M6 and M5 motorways, which can make absolute mincemeat of any ideas and plans – especially when you can’t set off from work until 3.30pm!
Thankfully, as we know, God is a Stokie, and the motorways were traffic-free, so I arrived at the Welsh Team hotel in plenty of time.
An absolutely brilliant set-up, the only problem was the name of the place: The Vale Resort! I’m sure Joe wouldn’t have blamed me if I’d got back in my car and headed back to The Potteries there and then, but I braved it, and so in I stepped….
Staying there were the Welsh football and rugby union teams: both with international matches ahead of them at the weekend. The mood was relaxed and jovial, with the football players playing darts, table tennis and (simulation) golf, on the landing above the grand entrance. A handful of hotel guests and fans were milling around, and the players never refused one autograph or photo that night. As it should be.
It was all a bit surreal, to be honest. Ashley Williams holding the door open for me and Joe Ledley sat on the same settee, chatting to his dad…..and then Joe Allen came down the corridor, flanked by Mark Evans from the FAW. Mark’s a great bloke (and an ex-fanzine editor himself!): a sounder bloke you couldn’t wish to meet.
We found a table and started to chat; about the Checkatrade Trophy and the game at West Ham a few days previously…. before we got down to the nitty gritty.
You grew up in Narberth, South Wales ….
Yeah, Narberth is a small town near Carmarthen, in Pembrokeshire. I went to both schools there, and they were really good and really good for sport as well. I was a good kid, I suppose. Well behaved, and I worked hard and was decent in class. I was pretty academic, and I enjoyed it at school and left with some good GCSE’s.
Did your education continue?
I started a Psychology degree, but it’s on hold at the minute and I don’t know yet when I’m going to take it on again.
Were you always sporty? Judging from your displays for Stoke, I bet you were pretty ace at cross country?
Ha, I wasn’t that good at athletics, really. But I played lots of sport, not just football. I enjoyed tennis, but that tailed off when I got to about 13 years old. I also played quite a lot of rugby. Narberth is a pretty big rugby town, but for me it was always football.
My dad played rugby but he also loved his football, too. As I said before, I played quite a bit when I was a kid, but I always loved football. I always had my heart set on being a footballer.
As a youngster you played for Tenby. Was that where Swansea spotted you?
Tenby had a great set up, and I joined them at seven. But I was playing for my school team, at the age of nine, when I got spotted. Ray Evans was the scout that saw me in a school game and called my dad and arranged a six week trial at Swansea. There was a lot of travelling, but I loved the game so much it was never ever a chore. After the trial ended, Swansea wanted to sign me up and I was thrilled to do it.
Did the young Swans teams play Cardiff?
Oh yes, that was the big one: even as kids it was big, especially to the kids from Swansea. It was massive.
I then got offered a deal at 16 and then a YTS contract after that, and made my first team debut in the Welsh Cup at 16.
Let’s fast-forward almost a decade later…….. you’re still only 26, but you’ve played at The Olympics; have over 40 caps; were picked in the Team of the Tournament at the recent Euros; have nearly 150 Premier League games under your belt; won numerous awards; captained Wales – that’s a lot for 26. Ever think “WOW!”?
Ha, Ha, yeah, when you put it like that, it does seem a lot. Thank you, ha, ha!
In my most challenging or pensive moments I do think, “yeah I’ve done alright, I suppose”. I’ve had some great experiences in a short space of time. But for the last two years I’ve been wary – when I was at Liverpool – of my age, and the need to be playing regular first team football. I didn’t want to be a bit-part, rotation player at the age of 26.
Er, thanks for making me feel really old, Joe!
This is not a criticism, but this Welsh team reminds me a bit of Stoke City under Tony Pulis….
How do you mean?
…..a siege mentality; 100% commitment to the cause; organisation; belief…..
Yes, I can see where you are coming from – we are very organised squad and team, and we all put in a huge shift. Good point. Yeah, I do see it as a big compliment what you are saying with regards to Stoke under Tony Pulis.
A massive reason for our success is that we are a bunch of lads with no issues, no egos, we all get on great, and all accept our role. We implement game plans and strategies down to a tee, and we have a mentality of being together as a team the whole time. It is like a club environment.
The manager gets the very best out of us, too. Perhaps in the past Wales had lots of good individuals but not as big a team spirit as we now have? I don’t know, but I do know the whole vibe and set up now is fantastic!
You were down in the Olympic Games programme as being English. Ever get a reprint done?
Ha ha, no I never did!
We’ve touched on you playing against Stoke City. Were we as bad as everyone made out back then?
It was tough, yeah, of course it was. Stoke were very organised, very physical…but they had some really good players as well; a real mix, different types of players…… I’m not one to criticise any styles of play at all, and never would. There’s no right or wrong way to play football, it’s all about the end result. It’s not for me to comment on how others play. It’s up to a team to combat it and find ways of winning.
I’ve played in both Swansea and Liverpool teams who have gone to Stoke and got beaten. I’ve never had an easy game there. At the end of the day, you play matches to win with what you have at your disposal.
So why join Stoke City, and how did it come about?
I was on holiday in Ibiza at the time. The first I heard about it was on Sky Sports News saying that Liverpool had accepted an offer for me. It was a bit of a strange way to find out, but I was excited. I think other clubs were in for me too, but I don’t think anyone else agreed a fee or anything like that. It was Stoke who made the move, and it happened pretty quickly.
As I said before, I was genuinely excited. After that, it was just about agreeing personal terms and getting ready for pre-season.
Mark Hughes. Was he a big factor in coming?
Yeah, a big factor. He’s changed the style of the team a lot in recent years, and they’ve impressed me when we’ve played against Stoke teams. The players he’s brought in has shown how he wants to play, and we have a lot of excellent footballers at the football club. They’re a good bunch, too.
The manager showed me that the club had ambition, didn’t want to stand still, and despite a poor start to the season, we’re showing what we’re about now.
But you broke our hearts ten months ago, you know that don’t you?
The winning penalty in the semi final? Ha, ha sorry!
I thought I did well in those two games, especially the first game when I played a bit further forward than I usually did at Liverpool. It was my first start for a while, as I’d not had a run in side, and really wanted to take my chance. We had a few injuries that night at Stoke, so it was probably a bit by default I was playing, to be honest.
We pressed well that game. I was straining to play and so I charged around from the off. My fitness was good and I was raring to go, especially in a semi final.
If I’m honest, Liverpool deserved to win the first leg and Stoke deserved to win the second leg. Then it went to penalties, and it’s anyone’s game then….
The last five months: the best form of your career so far?
Yeah, I would say so. As a combination, how things have worked out with Wales and at club level, then yes, I have to say it is. I obviously wasn’t getting too much time on the pitch at Liverpool, so, yeah, I feel I’m playing quite well both in the league and at international level. It’s all about getting a chance to play regularly…..
Positionally – where do you prefer to play? Where you do for Stoke or for Wales? Oh, and you are definitely not allowed to say “Wherever the gaffer wants me to play”!
At Swansea, Leon Britton always played in front of the back four as the holding midfielder, with two advanced midfielders in front of him: so it would usually be me and Gylfi Sigurdsson in front of him. It suited me. That was always my position for Swansea. For Wales and Liverpool, I’ve been asked to play deeper.
I’m not sitting on the fence here, but I genuinely don’t know 100% what my best position is, although my preference is anywhere as long as it’s somewhere in central midfield. I am genuinely happy to play anywhere the manager wants me to.
It’s taken me by surprise how well I’ve done in terms of goals this season – 4 in 3 is unheard of for me, really! I thought that if I got the chance to play further forward regularly, that I would be getting chances and be able to score a few and also add a few assists. It’s gone really well so far, and over the course of the season I’m ambitious enough to say I’d want to be getting a few more goals if I continue playing there.
Thing is, there are lots of excellent players in all positions at Stoke. We have a really good squad, with several options, and so if you lose your place it’s hard to get it back again.
Does competition for places drive you on?
Definitely. It always keeps me striving to play well and striving to keep my standards high. I’ve said this before: you simply can’t get complacent or stand still in the Premier League. You’ll get overtaken. We have that drive at Stoke, and we also have a squad of excellent, technical players, who are a great bunch. I’m not just saying that, either.
Who are your best mates at Stoke?
I obviously knew the ex-Liverpool lads well from my time there, but we all get along great to be honest.
The start of the season was slow for the team, but you personally got the furthest in the Euros and yet have been our best player so far. That doesn’t tally up?
Ha, ha, you’ve got me there, ha, ha.
It’s difficult to comment on really, as I came into the squad a bit later in pre-season. The lads were never overly worried though, as we have got stronger in previous seasons as the season has worn on.
I felt the game where we let ourselves down was Palace away, which was just a really bad day at the office for us. But we worked hard to put things right and you can see now we are hopefully back on track. We gave away two early goals at Palace, and they’re a hard team to play against, but we didn’t give ourselves a foothold in that game at all. I can assure people that our bad run was not down to a lack of effort. Hopefully, we’ve turned the corner now.
Is the training at Stoke different than at other clubs, such as Liverpool?
No, not really. Every manager has a different model or way of working. People may think that there’s a big difference between the two clubs in the little things that they do, but I can assure you that there isn’t at all. I’ve been really impressed by Stoke City, but I knew I would be. The staff there are great, and are always pushing us forward.
The Xavi/Pirlo comparisons and comments – embarrassing?
The whole TV programme documentary (Being: Liverpool) was everything I don’t really like to be involved in, to be honest. I was up there one day to finalise a move to Liverpool and was followed around by a documentary camera crew. That’s not what I’m about, and didn’t enjoy it. I like being under radars and not in the spotlight. I thought, “What on earth is going on here!”
I suppose it was what it was. But I didn’t enjoy it, but I suppose that’s how the game has changed. I don’t think it worked out well for me. The ‘Welsh Xavi’ tag was a harmless throwaway comment at the time, but it got taken way out of context and I suffered a bit as a result. It was a nightmare.
Ever find out the names in Brendan Rodgers’ three envelopes?
Ha, ha, no!
You have a young lad – does he watch you and come to Stoke games?
Yes, Alfie comes to the home games, and as he’s now four he has really started to like coming to watch.
Not too cold in that ground for him is it?
Ha, ha, no, he loves wearing his little Stoke kit. The only problem was when we played Swansea and he got a bit confused on who to support! I’ve got a brother and two sisters who also love coming to games, too. They watch my Welsh games and come to watch my Stoke home matches whenever they can.
You also like your music?
Yeah, I like my guitar music to be honest, but it seems like I’m in a minority in the football world now, ha, ha. We’re really clinging on now, ha, ha!
And finally…..Swansea City, Stoke City….you’ve just got Stockport County to go for all the SCFC’s….
Ha, ha, yeah…but not for a few years yet!
footnote 1: Huge thanks, part one
To Joe, for taking the time to chat to me. As you’d probably expect, he’s an absolutely lovely bloke: softly spoken, bright, articulate, and an absolutely brilliant ambassador for our football club. He also took some good-natured stick during the interview from various Welsh teammates who popped their heads around the door, too!
footnote 2: Huge thanks, part two.
I was driving back to Stoke straight after the interview. Or so I thought.
“No need, we’ve booked you a room in the hotel, so you can stay over if you want to”, said Mark from the FAW.
I was staggered. This was absolutely different class, and something that he really didn’t need to do at all. A past-his-sell-by-date fanzine editor from Stoke, stopping in the Welsh team’s hotel? Can you seriously imagine that happening where other teams are concerned!!???!!
When people ask just why Wales have done so superbly well over the last few years, why they have an amazing spirit about them, and why they have a positive relationship with the media – it’s because of the small things, the forward thinking, the personal touches, the caring: The human side of football. Wales get all that right, as they so obviously did with their training camp in France this summer, too.
Not only was it an honour to stay at the team hotel, but it was very much needed and appreciated, too. Seven hours or so on the road in half a day wouldn’t have killed me, but I was so glad to be able to travel back the next morning, instead of getting back at daft o’clock.
I was hugely grateful just for the interview, but this was something else.
Absolute class acts, Joe, Mark and Wales. Class acts.
COPYRIGHT: NONE OF THIS INTERVIEW, EITHER WHOLE OR PART, IS TO BE USED BY ANY OTHER PERSON OR PARTIES WITHOUT PRIOR PERMISSION FIRST FROM US DIRECTLY.
Tell us a bit about yourself growing up in Manchester.
I would say I was probably the most hyperactive kid around. I just wouldn’t sit still and would spend most of my days when not at school in the local park from nine in the morning till night fall, only occasionally going home to tell my parents I was okay. We would play football non-stop and never get bored. I have an older brother who was a decent player at non-league level and I would go and watch him play everywhere with my parents.
Who did you support?
I grew up a Man United supporter and all our family were reds. There was always a debate of some sort going on at my dad’s local because where we lived you were either United or City – no other team existed. It’s safe to say that I was a huge Man United supporter from as early as I can remember and I still support them now, but I also have other teams that I follow, too.
How did you get spotted by United?
At the age of nine I was at Man City and we trained once a week down at Platt Lane, just across the road from Maine Road. One Sunday, when I was playing for my local team, Brian Kidd approached my dad and asked me to go to United. It was a no-brainier, especially with me and my family being such big reds.
What was the youth set up like at United?
Second to none. We would train on Monday evenings and my first two coaches were World Cup winner Nobby Styles, who was a great character for the young lads to learn from and such a bubbly coach which was great for us youngsters, and Brian Kidd who eventually went on to be assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson.
You made a handful of appearances at United – can you summarise them for us…..
Although I only had a handful of games for United’s first team they were all real highlights of my career. I remember my first appearance: Away at Barnsley on the last day of the Premier League season in 1998. I was on the bench but wasn’t expecting to come on. Then with twenty minutes left I got the curly finger to tell me I was going on. My mum and dad were there, which was great, and it was a dream for me to come on. We won 2-0. My next appearance was in the Champions League against Sturm Graz at Old Trafford. United had already qualified for the next round and I came on with about 30 minutes left. To come on at home was an amazing feeling. Then, on that Saturday, I made my full league debut against Leicester in a 2-0 win that is still one of the highlights of my career. I was very fortunate to have been able to have played just a handful of games for such a great club, one that all my family supports.
United had a relationship with Royal Antwerp where you were loaned to. Enjoy it there?
My time in Antwerp was a fantastic learning curve for me, that I believe took me from a child to a man. I was alone in a foreign country for three months, where few spoke English and it was a completely different style of football. I made some great friends there that I am still in touch with. Antwerp is a great city and I enjoyed my football there playing for such a big club as Antwerp.
You left to play regular football and were signed for £2 million by Derby. Did you feel any pressure?
When I left United I was 21, and Derby put a bid in for me. It was a lot of money for someone so young with little Premier League experience, and of course there was pressure. My first six months were a disaster. I was in and out of the team and I was struggling to get used to playing in a team that was constantly on the back foot and defending. But when I got used to this I went from strength to strength. The first season ended up with us winning at Old Trafford which made us safe for another year and that was a great game to be involved in.
My second season there was bittersweet. We had three different managers and got relegated but I got Player of the Year and had a great season personally, but it was really gutting to get relegated. I stayed until Christmas of the next season, then myself and some other younger lads were sold because the club needed to get some money in.
You moved to Southampton. How did it go, and how miffed were you to miss the FA Cup final in 2003?
Yeah, I then moved to Southampton who were on the crest of a wave. My old mate Rory (Delap) was there and it was great team and great team spirit. We finished 8th and got to a Cup Final and qualified for Europe as well. I was on the bench for the FA Cup Final and felt like an imposter because I had only been there a short time.
A good few seasons then followed before we got relegated in what was a shambles of a year: going through too many managers. I had one year in the Championship then my love affair with Stoke began.
Talk to us about your move to the Britannia Stadium in 2006
I had a year left on my contract at Southampton and a few promises that were made to me were never fulfilled. I had had enough and when they offered me what I thought was a disgrace of a contract I knew it was time to move on. I turned down the contract and was then informed by the Press Officer that I was now on the transfer list.
Tony Pulis came calling and sold the club to me, and I couldn’t wait to move and get going at Stoke. The season didn’t start great and there was also talk of a protest before the Preston game. This fortunately didn’t happen and it was the day we signed Lee Hendrie. The following week, when Tony believed he had the players he needed, we went to Elland Road and beat Leeds 4-0 in what was a magnificent performance, and our performances went from strength to strength.
Dubes left in January and I was honoured to be made captain, but unfortunately we just missed out on the Play Offs, but it was a fantastic season to be involved with Stoke, with the club growing all the time.
Put us straight on that ‘transfer request’ in August 2007.
The transfer to Sunderland the following pre-season had a lot of people questioning me. Let me get a few things straight. I have been asked on numerous occasions why I missed a cup game for Stoke against Rochdale. Was it because I didn’t want to get injured, because I was moving, or did I refuse to play?
This is laughable for two reasons: One I have never feigned an injury in my life and secondly, more importantly, I actually did play. Please look through the record books. I came off in the game when I strained some of my ligaments in my ankle after going up for a header. I guess there will always be Chinese whispers but this was laughable, especially considering I played in the game.
Then there was the transfer request. Yes I did hand one in, but that was only because the club told me they had accepted an offer for me from Sunderland, but in order for me to be able to go, I had to hand in a transfer request. I had no problems with this: I know a club will be around long after a player has gone, and I respect that, so I handed one in.
My time at Sunderland was very mixed. Scoring some important goals in both derbies against Newcastle and Middlesbrough, and also against Villa, was great. The goal against Newcastle gave me my greatest buzz there and it was an amazing feeling to have scored against such bitter rivals. I believe I should have done better at Sunderland and I will not try and make excuse for why I didn’t do better -it was simply down to me. No one else was to blame for me under-performing.
I always take responsibility for my good times and bad times in football, and this was no different.
So you returned to SCFC…..
I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to come back to Stoke after they had been promoted and I will be forever grateful for Tony bringing me back. That year was the best year of my career in every way. The way were underdogs and everyone expected us to go down, and how we upset some of the big teams at the Brit…..The atmosphere that season in particular used to make my hair stand on end every time I walked out of the tunnel. It was truly a phenomenal atmosphere to play in.
Left back or centre half? Your favourite position and why?
I would say my preferred position was centre back, but at Stoke playing left back wasn’t a problem because first and foremost, you were expected to be a defender. When I was younger it would annoy me that I would be playing centre back one week and then left back the next, but as I got older it definitely gave me more games, and I was appreciative that I could play in two positions.
Your first goal in the Premier League for us – a penalty after some unknown bloke called Gareth Bale was sent off?
Yes, Bale had been sent off for a foul on Tom Soares. I have never missed a penalty in my career but this one really tested the nerves. The ball kept blowing off the spot in the typical Brit wind. I was determined not to take it until the ball was staying still and it took what felt like a good few minutes until I was comfortable enough that the ball wasn’t going to roll off the spot. Fortunately for me it stayed still, and I scored the penalty.
How hard was it when you lost your place to Danny Collins?
Losing my place to Danny Collins when he came in was hard because I had started the season well and we had just beaten Sunderland at home the previous week 1-0. I got on well with Danny and it was Tony’s decision to drop me. That’s what he gets paid for. I didn’t agree with it one bit, but that’s football though and you just have to get your head down and prove you should be playing.
That goal against West Ham – describe it for us and how you felt after it went in and the days afterwards?
The goal against West Ham was a highlight in my Stoke career, and something that seems like only yesterday. I remember the previous week we played them away but I didn’t travel because my wife had just given birth to our son, and she was still in hospital. So Tony allowed me to miss the game. We got beat, but were determined to rectify it in the cup.
If I remember right, Jermaine took the initial free kick and Scott Parker handled it in the wall, so we were given another one closer in, which was more my range to smash it. I remember Huthy and Ryan in the wall and they were my target because I knew they would move some of their players out of the way. I aimed at Huthy and he did just that, getting a few out of the way, and the ball went through the wall.
Rob Green got his hands to it, but I was convinced that it had gone over the line. My first look before celebrating was over at the linesman. When I saw him run back to the half way line I knew it was in and then the celebration really showed what a close knit group we were, with everyone showing such emotion. It also showed in how we managed to hold on in the last few minutes, when they laid siege to our goal.
Describe the injury against Chelsea, getting the results of your injury and knowing you would miss Wembley….
If West Ham was a high in my career then the 90th minute injury against Chelsea two weeks before the semi final at Wembley was the lowest point in my career.
We were drawing 1-1, and for some unknown reason in the last minute I decided to go up for a corner. Usually Tony would be ordering me back but not this time. How ironic is that? I remember going up with Cech and beating him to the ball and my header being cleared off the line by Ivanovic, and then all I remember was Cech accidentally catching my shin, but only very lightly. But the problem was that my leg was straight at the time.
The initial pain was unbearable to the point I was punching the ground so hard I hurt my fist. Then after a few seconds of this all the pain went. I would later find out this was because my cruciate had snapped. Dave our Physio, who is a good friend, and Doc Dent came on and had a look but I said I was okay to carry on. I remember jogging back to the halfway line and feeling okay. I then challenged Drogba from a goal kick and as I landed my knee was just rocking from side to side. I carried on for a couple of minute and then just sat down and had to come off.
I knew it was a big problem and my fears were justified by a scan in which the lad doing the scan said to me that my knee looked liked I had just been involved in a skiing accident! Missing Wembley was a huge blow for me, but when you put things in context I have been very fortunate in life and this was just an unfortunate thing to happen. I wasn’t bitter about it and I didn’t want any sympathy from anyone, either.
Many go on about the Bearpit Britannia. Does a great atmosphere really help the players?
The atmosphere at the Brit was without question the greatest atmosphere I have had the pleasure of playing in front of. It helped us so much when we were clinging on to a lead in the last twenty minutes of games and gave us the energy to hang on. It always felt like when we won we all celebrated together, and there was no better feeling than hearing ‘Delilah’. Great memories for me.
What was your relationship like with Tony Pulis?
My relationship with Tony was great, and still is. Yes, we had our fall outs and there were times when I felt unfairly treated, but that is part and parcel of the game. He taught me so much as a player and without doubt he brought the best out of me during my career. It was a pleasure to play for him.
Rory Delap, and the underpants story….
This is an interesting one. Rory had just joined us and he had an awful injury against Sunderland. I remember him being in so much pain as I ran over to him, and it’s safe to say that his leg, rather his shin, wasn’t where it should have been and he did remarkably well to come back and play to the level he did.
Right that’s enough of me being nice to him…..
Our mate John McKeown, known affectionately to us as ‘Scouse’ for obvious reasons, had known me and Rory for years since our Derby days, and was now sports scientist at Stoke. He went to see
Rory in hospital and when he came out I called him and said I was going to see him and did Rory need anything? Scouse said he was fine, but maybe I could take him some boxers because he had no clean ones and was still in his kit.
It was quite late and all the shops were shut, so I decided I would be a good mate and give him some of my better ones, so I went through my boxers and got him five or six of my best pairs and headed off to the hospital. I also got him a big teddy as well to lighten the mood! As I got there I gave him the teddy and the boxers. He looked in the bag where the boxers were, then just put them to the side. I thought “you ungrateful git”, but thought it was just the pain killers making him groggy, so I just forgot about it. We had a chat for a while then I left. It wasn’t till a few days later that Rory decided to ask me why I brought him boxers. I told him because Scouse had told me he needed some, when in reality Helen (his wife) had bought him everything thing he needed. So there was me bringing him my used, but clean, boxers in a bag, and him having no idea why. Needless to say I looked like a right dick!
Tell us about what has happened to you after leaving Stoke…
My career after leaving Stoke was only going downhill and I believe my cruciate injury played a big part in this. I didn’t come back exactly the same player and that can be the case when you have such a big injury at any age, let alone 32. I fell out of love with the game and tried to get it back, but when it’s gone it’s gone. I had some time at Sheffield United, which is a big club, but never really enjoyed it and as good as walked away from the club with a year left.
I went to Chester to try and get something back, thinking that part-time might help because I could do my media work as well, but this only worked for a while. Then I went to Altrincham my home town club, to give it one last go, to get me through till the end of the season. But that didn’t help, and in fact I only played two games for them before I decided enough was enough.
People say you retire when your legs go. My legs haven’t gone but my head had and when that happens you may as well leave, because that 10 yard run feels like a forty yard one, because you don’t have the desire or determination anymore. I have never been the most technically gifted player and it was always my desire and commitment that got me through. I knew when that went, that was me done. I have still got a promise to fulfil, which is to play my final two games for Gibraltar in March against the Faroes and Estonia. I said I would do this to help the younger players out and also the Gibraltar FA, and personally, I think it will be a nice way for me to end my career.
I made my debut against Slovakia in November in an outstanding 0-0 draw that gave me the buzz I had been missing from football for a long time. The manager wants me to play in the qualifiers, starting in September, but I don’t see how that is possible.
And what does the future hold?
I’m really in to my media career now and everything is going great. Sky, Talksport, BT, MUTV, 5Live, and PLP have been great with me. It’s been full-on, but I get a buzz that football was no longer giving me. Don’t get me wrong the match day buzz after a win during my enjoyable times can never be beaten, but I don’t miss it.
I’ve had my time. I consider myself very fortunate, so hopefully media is the way forward for me, but only time will tell!
We’re a bit fond of getting Stoke City heroes interviewed in DUCK. And I think it’s fair to say that Thomas Løvendahl Sørensen is a modern day Potters legend.
If you ever doubt that, just consider the following: ‘Tommy’ was a goalkeeper who did as much as anyone to keep us in The Premier League, stabilise our position in The Premier League, get us to an FA Cup Final (and keep us in that game!), and into Europe. A man who played through the pain barrier for the red and white stripes, and someone who played for us with real pride, dedication, and enormous talent.
Tommy started his career with his local side Odense BK and then had spells with Vejle, Svendborg, Sunderland, and Aston Villa, before joining us in 2008, and during his career won over a century of caps for Denmark!
Tommy and his family now reside in Australia, where he plays for A-League club Melbourne City. We caught up with him recently……
Tell us a bit about growing up in Denmark. What kind of lad were you?
I grew up in a very secure enviroment with my parents and my younger brother. My father was a very good handball and football player and I think that inspired me from an early age. I remember always wanting to be the best at everything I did…..in school or sports.
You were born in Fredericia. Can you describe it to us please.
It’s a very historic and commercial town. Old fortifications go back to the war of 1850 and the big modern harbour is the central hub of the area. I grew up in the suburbs and only have good memories from that time.
Were you always a goalkeeper as a kid or did you play out of goal?
I tried my hand at all positions at an early age, but settled on goalkeeping at Under 14 level. I think I had a good feeling about my ability and really enjoyed the challenge of being the last line of defense.
How did you get spotted by Odense BK?
I went through trials for the regional team and eventually got selected for the final squad. Not long after that I was contacted by Odense and offered an opportunity to join their youth team. It was one of the best youth setups in the country.
After impressing on loan in the Danish League you went to Sunderland. How did that happen?
I had been involved with the Danish Under 21 squad for a few years and had drawn a bit of interest from Ajax and Udinese. In my mind it was really a choice between those two clubs, until I had a late invitation to visit Sunderland. I was blown away by the club, the passion and this amazing opportunity. Everything else is history.
Were you ever homesick after leaving your home country?
It is always difficult to leave your friends and family behind but I felt ready for the change. The club, players and my girlfriend, now my wife, also made the transition a lot easier than it could have been. The huge success we had on the pitch in the first year also played a huge part in settling in.
You kept 29 clean sheets in a season at Sunderland; a record, and you won promotion. They loved you up there, didn’t they?
I had an amazing time at Sunderland and will forever be grateful for the opportunity Peter Reid gave me, and the support of the fans. It is always a pleasure going back to the Stadium of Light and get the sense of appreciation for what I did at the club.
The Shearer penalty save – what do you remember of it? Sunderland fans will always remember it, won’t they?
It is really funny how certain moments can define your career. At the time I did not totally grasp the significance of the Shearer save, but that has certainly been reminded to me a lot since! I guess it’s not going to be forgotten anytime soon.
Why did you leave Sunderland to go to Villa? And weren’t Man United interested?
I never really wanted to leave Sunderland but their relegation and financial problems forced a lot of players out, including me. A few clubs were interested in me, but Villa offered the right package for me at the time. Throughout my career it has always been important for me to play, and it weighed highly in my decision.
Villa chose Scott Carson over you. That must have hurt?
After four really good years at Villa I got injured in preseason and ran into a brick wall with manager. The last ten months ended up being the worst of my career.
How did Tony Pulis/Peter Coates sell Stoke City to you?
I have never shied away from a challenge and that was exactly what Tony Pulis and Stoke City offered me. They needed players with experience and leadership to try to establish a foothold in the Premier League. I, among others, fitted the bill – and we truly succeeded.
Were you at your fittest and best whilst at Stoke?
As a goalkeeper you tend to peak in your early 30’s and those were the years I was at Stoke. So maybe I was at my best, but it is so hard to judge. The only thing I know for sure, is that I did my best.
Who were your best mates in the dressing room and why?
We had a really strong goalkeeping group during my time at the club and some of my best friends have come out of there. I speak regularly to Asmir, Jack and Andy Quy. The respect I have for those guys and the great moments we have shared will never be forgotten.
You’ve had your fair share of injuries due to being a brave and totally committed last line of defence. You almost lost your eyesight when playing for us – tell us what happened?
Part of goalkeeping is sometimes going into situations head first. Call it brave or stupid, but that’s the job. In a game against Tottenham at the Britannia I slid out to a through ball but got caught by Alan Hutton’s outstretched leg. Luckily it ended up with only 18 stitches and not lost eyes!
You also dislocated your elbow at Chelsea. As someone who has dislocated their shoulder and cried like a big baby – just how much pain were you in that day?
I have dislocated my elbow twice during my career and both times have been very painful. Without the gas and air I got on the pitch and on the way to the hospital, I probably would have cried like a baby, too!
What do you remember about the crowd that first season at Stoke in the Premier League?
The crowd at the Brit had a massive part in the team’s success in that first year in the Premier League. I especially remember the game against Manchester City, where we, one man down, battled to a 1-0 win. The atmosphere that day is probably the best I have ever experienced.
We got a lot of criticism for how we played at Stoke in our first few seasons – was this unfair?
At the end of the day it was all about staying in the Premier League. We had a clear game plan that everyone bought into, and that was designed around our strengths. It certainly annoyed some within the football establishment, but none of us really cared. If anything, it only made us work harder.
How does it feel to join a long list of goalkeeping greats that have played for Stoke?
The club has really been blessed with a long line of good keepers. To be counted among them is a huge honour.
Did you ever get the chance to have a chat with Gordon Banks?
I have had the pleasure of talking Gordon a few times and he has always been very supportive. Whenever a true great opens his mouth, you listen.
The FA Cup run…..culminating in THAT day in the semi final. What are your memories of the day?
It was an amazing day for everyone connected with the club. With 35,000 Stokies behind us we totally outclassed at tough Bolton side 5-0. It was a very proud moment for myself and the team. Very surreal in a way, as none of us had ever imagined that scenario.
The Cup Final was two weeks earlier than usual due to the Champions League final being played at Wembley – did those two weeks (and our injuries) stop us from winning the FA Cup?
It’s always easy to find reasons to why you did not win. In my mind were very close with that late Kenwyne Jones chance just before Man City scored. We tried everything but it was just not to be.
That save off Ballotelli in the Final – was that your best/favourite one?
I took a lot of pride out of my performance in the final. The Ballotelli save is a nice memory but it will never make up for losing.
The Europa League was a brilliant experience for us – what do you remember of it?
It was a great experience for all of us. Playing against European giants like Dynamo Kiev, Besiktas and Valencia and reaching the latter stages. The final night in Spain symbolised the whole journey and the spirit of the fans. To see so many travelling Stokies singing loud and proud is something I will never forget
Summer 2016, you completed a marathon bike ride with your wife and others across America…..
For the last 10 years I have been involved in a kid’s charity in Denmark helping sick and disadvantaged children. On top of that I have always loved a challenge and a bit of adventure. All that ended up in a 5900km bike ride across America last summer. An amazing experience which raised £80.000.
You have now started a new life in Australia – will you go back to live in Denmark one day?
Where we go after Australia is still an unknown. It depends on the opportunities and what the family wants I guess. Denmark is certainly an option.
What does the future hold for you?
I don’t have my future after football nailed yet. I have a lot of things I want to do, but I know that football will always be a part of my life. In what capacity I don’t know, but I am starting off with my coaching badges. Then I will see where I go from there. I also want to devote some time to my painting.
What 3 things do you miss about Denmark?
Family/friends, food and culture
I hope that you felt loved and hugely appreciated by the fans whilst at Stoke: do you have a message for the fans who worshipped you?
I had seven great years at Stoke and YOU fans played a big part in that. The songs and appreciation means more than you know, and for that, I am forever one of you.
Huge thanks to Paul Stretford and Triple S Sports and Entertainment Group for making this interview happen. We really appreciated the chance to put our questions to a Stoke City legend!