It’s been over two years since I last kicked a ball in anger. Through those final years of my career, I knew the end was inevitable, but you push those kinds of thoughts to the back of your mind and pile them up on your mental “to-do” list.
There’ll be a time when you eventually have to deal those thoughts, the emotions that the finality of it all brings,
What. An. Idiot.David Preece
“Just not now, though.”, you think to yourself.
For me, the curtain came down over two years ago, at the less than salubrious surroundings of Welling United’s Park View Road.
It was hardly the fanfare occasion I could have hoped for, a 1-0 defeat to a team I couldn’t place on a map previous to that day. I’d been winding down my playing career for 18 months, still training every day but growing more accustomed to teaching than doing.
As low-key as the occasion was, it had been a long time since I’d enjoyed a game as much I did that day. We didn’t know the full extent of the injury to our blossoming first-choice keeper Paul Farman, so the manager asked if I wanted to play.
You might think that would be an easy decision to make but I had to split myself in two; as a coach I had to weigh-up what was best for the team, not selfishly for myself.
I decided that if it was a one-off game, I’d play. If it turned out Paul’s injury would take longer to heal, then we’d look to bring someone in on loan.
I was grateful of the chance, to be honest. My last game previous to this one was a 3-2 defeat at Hereford which cost then manager David Holdsworth his job. That loss sat heavily with me for some time as it was my mistake late in that game which had been a deciding factor in the result and the resulting consequences.
It’s at times like that, results become tangible. You can say a loss can cost you three points but it doesn’t really.
You can’t lose something you’ve never had, you’ve just lost the chance of those three points.
Defeats that costs managers their jobs are different, especially when you’re involved.
During my time in Denmark, my manager at Silkeborg, Viggo Jensen, lost his job after we lost 1-0 at home to Viborg. Even though the goal came from a freakish long-range effort that wouldn’t look out of place on any collection of great goals, I tortured myself over my positioning, almost taking sole responsibility for the subsequent decision to fire Viggo, a manager who I held great affection for and linked up again with later at Odense.
A rational thinker would have reasoned that both of those sackings weren’t simply just down to those two goals but football and the emotions it arouses often means rationality goes out the window, especially when you have an over-analytical nature.
There have been times when I wished I didn’t think so deeply as I do but I’ve found it difficult. As a coach it’s an invaluable quality, and to a certain extent it is as a player, but it can also be a curse.
I’ve allowed football to spoil many a weekend and in turn, I know I’ve spoiled the weekends of those around me.
I remember coming home one Saturday night after a 5-0 defeat away to Rochdale while I was with Darlington. Not that I was at fault for any of the goals but I can hardly turn around and say I had a great game either. On my return home, my mood was less than cordial.
The last thing I wanted to do was go an Italian restaurant but despite my reluctance, I went along with my then girlfriend’s plans.
After an hour of near silence, she attempted to bring me out of my reflective train of thought by asking: “what’s the matter with you?”.
I’ll censor my answer for purposes of this family publication but I jumped to my feet and shouted ‘what do you think is wrong with me?’, referring to the five goals I’d conceded only hours earlier.
As I rose from my seat, my thigh caught the edge of our table and turned it over. Food, plates, cutlery, drinks and glasses everywhere.
What. An. Idiot.
Not only had I made a fool of myself on the pitch, I’d now embarrassed myself in front of a packed restaurant too. If only I could say it was an isolated incident.
Since that last game at Welling, my reaction to results has improved with the added perspective maturity and responsibility gives. As a coach, you’re removed from the eye of the storm somewhat.
The distance between the pitch and the dugout may only be a matter of feet in distance but it’s far still enough away to allow you to stay measured and think more clearly than you did as a player. Yet some things never change.
Last weekend, we let a two-goal lead slip to draw with Barrow at Sincil Bank and for the first time since I stopped playing, the old feelings returned. Sitting in the coaches’ office, I could feel the disappointment rising inside. It builds up from the pit of your stomach, almost as if you’re going to physically throw up.
You feel your focus pointing within you, internally churning it all over, replaying moments in the game, thinking what you could have done to change the outcome.
Then you go home. The silence only broken by your own thoughts. You go upstairs to take a shower, thinking the hot water will wash the malaise that covers your skin like a film of dirt but no matter how hard you scrub, it’s still there.
It’s 18 years later but the questions are still the same: ‘What’s wrong? Are you all right? Can we just forget about football and enjoy tonight?’.
Luckily for me, I’ve have always had, and still do have, people around me that understand how football can make me feel.
Saturday nights like these are less frequent than they used to be and you’ll be happy to know I eventually snapped out of my sulking stupor and I didn’t spoil everyone’s night this time.
In the clear light of Monday morning and a 90-minute DVD of the Barrow game later, consolation comes in the fact that although we should have won the game comfortably, at least we didn’t lose and the more I think about it now, the more I’m glad the old me returns now and again.
I’d hate to ever think that I’d ever lose the bitter disappointment of defeat or a bad performance. Who would want to settle for that?