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!