A mentally fragile Michael Bridges arrived at Bolton Wanderers in the summer of 2004 after an initially electric career at Leeds United culminated in a downbeat departure.
The £5million boy from North Shields, who had led the line for title-chasing Leeds in the Champions League and seemed destined to be an England regular, had become a free agent after two cruel career-threatening injuries led to him being released at Elland Road.
Sam was streets-ahead of his timeMichael Bridges
Without a club after a brief loan spell at Newcastle had failed to materialise into a permanent switch at the end of the 2003-04 season, Bridges joined ‘unfashionable’ Bolton Wanderers.
Then Bolton boss Sam Allardyce was building a reputation for giving players an Indian summer at the tail end of their careers – Gary Speed and Les Ferdinand both penning deals at the Reebok Stadium alongside Bridges.
Bridges proved to be an exception to that pattern; failing to make an appearance for the Trotters before rejoining Sunderland for a second spell, where he helped Mick McCarthy’s side to promotion.
But the three months under Allardyce proved to be meteoric in rebuilding the confidence of a player who had been left mentally scarred by ankle and Achilles injuries taking three years out of his career.
Bridges said: “After being at Leeds United for so long and playing in Europe, people could have seen it as a step-down to go to Bolton, but it was actually a step-up in the educational side of it and how football had developed to a new scientific level.
“He opened my eyes to a whole different side of football – the nutrition, the analysis, the way he monitored the players.
“Sam was streets-ahead of his time.
“We’d have studies on the opposition players, we’d have seminars on nutrition, we’d sit down with psychologists to set goals, realistic targets, not dreams, which I thought was brilliant.
“I had a few psychological issues going into tackles, because the injuries were still in the back of my mind.
“But they got that out of me and it was great.
“I went on to play for another 10 years. It did me the world of good psychologically.
“I knew I was never going to play at the top level again. I’d lost my pace due to the injuries.
“But I still had a footballing brain. We focused on that and they really made me feel a million dollars.
“It all comes down to management.
“Coaches coach, managers manage. Some don’t know the difference, don’t know their roles.
“But Sam is a manager. He manages players and that’s what I loved about him.”
When Bridges returned to Sunderland in the September 2004, he clearly wasn’t the same player who appeared to have the world at his feet when he had left the Stadium of Light following a contract dispute five years earlier.
But he was able to make a contribution to that promotion campaign under McCarthy – memorably grabbing a late winner in a 1-0 victory at Stoke - before leaving Sunderland again, prior to the dismal 14-point season in the top flight.
“I got the chance to come back to Sunderland under Mick and we had a fantastic season to get back to the Premier League,” said Bridges, now 37.
“I obviously didn’t play the amount of games I wanted to back then, but just to be back in the squad again, I got my love for the game back which was something special.
“I could have quite happily stayed there, but Mick pulled me in and said I wasn’t going to play much, although he was happy to have me around.
“At the time, I just wanted to play. I had no argument with him, he was very good to me.
“For me, that was good management. Some managers you go knocking on the door looking for answers and you don’t get them, which sends you crazy.”
Spells at Carlisle, MK Dons, Hull and eventually Australia followed for Bridges, before he hung up his boots two years ago.
Strangely though, for a career which had promised so much, there are no ‘what might have been?’ regrets from Bridges as he reflects on his playing days during a festive trip to his native North East.
He said: “I never look back. I’m a believer in fate; things happen for a reason.
“I met my missus when I came home during my injury and I’ve got two fantastic kids.
“She was there to support me and get me through those times.
“Would I have got England caps and played at the highest level for many years?
“Yes, but at the end of the day, I had a great time as a player and you make your own destiny.”
Bridges has spent the past year developing a media career Down Under with the Australian coverage of the Premier League.
But his ambition is to occupy a place in the dug-out.
After a spell as an assistant manager at Australian outfit Newcastle Jets, he has just completed his coaching A Licence and recently applied for the position at League Two outfit York City.
“I want to be a manager one day and I know I’m ready to do something on that side of it now,” he added.
“I applied for the York City job when that was up not long ago, but I didn’t get in the mix.
“But it’s about putting yourself out there and I’m ready to come back if I feel the job is right for me.”
H Bridges was speaking at the launch of former Sunderland team-mate Martin Scott’s new Improtech footballing academy at Monkseaton High School, in Whitley Bay.
It is the second school to offer Scott’s training after Kepier Elite Academy, in Houghton, has delivered several players to North East clubs, including Sunderland, over the last four years.