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David Preece: How Sunderland legend Jimmy Montgomery made me feel like a million dollars

Two Sunderland legends, Ian Porterfield and Jimmy Montgomery, with the FA Cup after the 1-0 win over Leeds United at Wembley in 1973.
Two Sunderland legends, Ian Porterfield and Jimmy Montgomery, with the FA Cup after the 1-0 win over Leeds United at Wembley in 1973.
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Club legends don’t come any bigger than Jimmy Montgomery, a man who this week turned 75 years old.

However, he still looks exactly the same as he did 25 years ago when he returned to the club to become my youth team and goalkeeper coach.

I mean he didn’t come back to Roker Park specifically just to mentor me, but that’s what happened and at that moment in my career it was like he’d been sent from God. Or at least that’s how it felt.

My first year at the club had passed without any one-to-one specialist goalkeeper coaching and seeing as the biggest seismic shift in the position had just occurred with the introduction of the back pass rule, it became a year of some consternation for me.

Then in he came, lighting up the dressing room with his bubbly persona. If you didn’t already know you were one of the luckiest people in the world for getting the chance to play football for a living, you did after Monty had breezed past you.

Training at that time came with some pressure. Every day was a test. An examination of how good you were and at 16, whether you were up to the job mentally. As soon as Monty arrived, the pressure was still there, but the accent was shifted slightly.

His standards were sky high, but if your attitude was right, he was never too hard on you. More encouraging than castigating. He had a great knack for picking up on your mood and reacting off it, almost like the perfect dance partner who guides their partner through unfamiliar moves, to get the best out of you.

He made you feel a million dollars after you’d worked with him and because of that, your work became better. I’ve taken so much from that side of his coaching and used it myself that I should pay him for copyright infringement.

He had this great technique where if you made a brilliant save at number 8 or 9 of a 12-set training drill, he’d shout “Stop there! Brilliant! No need to do any more” and reward your save by letting you off doing the last few - giving you the double whammy of confidence and being immediately rewarded for your good work.

It might not sound much, but to a young kid whose beard was only a 15-year dream away, it meant everything.

Having said that, I learned quickly that if I needed my confidence building I shouldn’t play table tennis with him.

If you’ve ever seen the scene in Forrest Gump where he’s playing ping pong against himself with a bat in each hand, you get the picture.

Even at 50, he would quite often play in goal when we were one short and again, my confidence would be crushed as I’d regularly be watching a masterclass being put on by the 50-year-old with white hair at the other end. It was sickening.

But as well as being able to turn back the clock, he was also ahead of the game in many ways too.

Footballing goalkeepers and playing out from the back may be very topical at the moment, but back in the mid-90s Monty would regularly philosophise on the Utopian scenario of us joining in the build-up play and taking up positions beyond our defenders, just like we did in possession exercises in training. Of course, talking about it is one thing.

Getting managers and defenders to buy into that kind of thinking back then wasn’t so easy. Especially when you’re playing on pitches that were only suitable for growing vegetables on after November.

Without that kind of thinking and influence, there’s no doubt I wouldn’t be doing what I am today and wouldn’t have had a career at all.

I haven’t got you a card, Monty, so consider this my happy birthday to you. I bet you could still beat me at table tennis.