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Birchall battling back to the big time

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Chris Bevan | 11:05 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

The 'magic' of the FA Cup is difficult to define and, supposedly, on the wane, but try telling that to Dover Athletic striker Adam Birchall. His 11 goals in the famous old competition so far this season have not only helped the Blue Square South side win five ties to set up a third-round clash with Huddersfield on Saturday - they might help to fire him back into the Football League too.

You've probably heard a few stories like Birchall's before. A talented young player fails to make the grade at a Premier League club then drifts around the lower leagues for a few seasons showing sporadic glimpses of his potential as his reputation slowly fades, before his professional career peters out - usually long before a footballer's usual retirement age.

The early part of the former Wales Under-21 striker's career certainly followed that script. He was a prolific and highly-rated goalscorer as he rose through the junior ranks during 10 years at Arsenal to make Arsene Wenger's first-team squad but, after leaving the Gunners in 2005 without making a senior appearance, performed far more fitfully during two seasons apiece at Mansfield Town and Barnet. He left the Bees, his last full-time club, in 2009 admitting he was "fed up with football".

What is different, not to mention inspiring, about Birchall is what happened next. He thought about walking away from the game altogether that summer but, on the advice of the then Dover boss, his former Bees team-mate Andy Hessenthaler, decided to sign for him and turn semi-pro instead.

Adam Birchall scored twice in 12 games for the Wales Under-21 team

Birchall tasted international football for Wales Under-21s while at Arsenal - photo: Getty

Moving to a club close to his hometown of Maidstone and dropping two levels down the football pyramid seemed a sensible way to rediscover his love for football and life in general, but a much less obvious way of reviving his career too. It has paid off on both fronts, however, because the 26-year-old has definitely got his mojo back now. He has scored 29 times in total already this campaign, including five in front of the BBC Football Focus team, and an army of League scouts, in Monday's 7-2 league win over Thurrock.

What's changed? "I took a step back from everything when I left Barnet because I was so unhappy," Birchall, who is refreshingly candid for a footballer, told me. "I was miserable every day. I decided it was time to grow up and take responsibility for what was happening to me.

"I said to myself that I had to grow up a little bit and understand why things were not going very well. I started working hard on the mental side of my game to improve my focus and I saw that a lot of top sportsmen in the world use psychology to help them out - I spoke to a few people, went on a few courses and researched a few books and it has definitely worked.

"I like to think I'm a clever guy, and I like to think I learn from situations. That was something I was always taught at Arsenal - to keep thinking about the game, and I always do. My attitude wasn't always right to go along with that back then, but it is something I have matured into.

"I first did some psychology work under Paul Fairclough at Barnet, because he is a big believer in mind-power but I think I was a bit young to make the most of it. Now I have embraced it properly it helps me to focus every time I go out on the pitch, and believe I can do what I always thought I might be capable of. Once you know you can do it, well, that's half the battle isn't it?"

Fairclough, who has just taken over as Bees boss for the third time, says he is not surprised to see his former player flourishing, especially when I explained to him the steps Birchall had taken since leaving Underhill.

"He was always a forward-thinking player, who analysed everything he did. In fact I was always concerned he took it too far," Fairclough told me.

"I see mental training as a massive part of football - I use it as much as normal training - and I could tell Adam was open to that sort of thing so we developed a series of strategies to try to keep him at peak performance.

"Sadly, during part of the time he was at Barnet he was going through a period in his life where he wasn't feeling right. He was in a superstar environment at Arsenal and he was swept away from that to the backstreets of Mansfield away from his friends and family.

"He wasn't wrapped in cotton wool anymore and it was a massive shock to the system for him at Barnet too. There are lots of players like him who forget how good they are and, when you do that, you have to find your way back."

From talking to Birchall, it is clear he has found the resolve to do exactly that. And Fairclough is right, too, because part of the process of reviving his career has been to come to terms with the disappointment of leaving Arsenal, and why the Gunners released him.

If he wanted to kid himself that he was just unlucky not to end up as a Premier League player, he has the perfect excuse. A horrific foot injury sidelined him for 10 months soon after he had been promoted from Arsenal's Under-19s to training with the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry on a daily basis.

It happened when he was chasing a hat-trick late in a cup game for the reserves and ran towards goal instead of following instructions to head for the corner flag and play out time.

He can recall the moment vividly: "Me being me at the time, which is a bit like I am now, I wanted more. I was hungry. I cut across the same defender that I had beaten to score my two goals and he slid in hard to try to stop me. My big toe got caught in the ground and, as I twisted my body round, it tore my ligament in half. I will always regret that I didn't just run into the corner and it is horrible living with that."

But Birchall doesn't delude himself that was the reason he didn't make it in the big time. Instead he admits his attitude was all wrong.

"When I was fit again I was just pleased to be training with people like Henry, I didn't think about going further. There were lads there who weren't as good as me, but they were definitely more determined. When you are focused on something, you are hungrier for it and it shows.

"They went on and played for the first team, even if it was only in a couple of Carling Cup games. I'm not saying I definitely would have gone on and done that, but I could have given myself a better chance by believing in myself."

Birchall scored in the third round against Swindon for Barnet in 2008

Birchall has scored in the third round before, for Barnet against Swindon in 2008 - photo: Getty

That is not a problem for Birchall now. Against Huddersfield, he will be looking to maintain his record of having scored in every round of the Cup since Dover began their campaign in the second qualifying round, with that 11-goal haul including a stunner against Hessenthaler's current team Gillingham and a double strike against Aldershot in rounds one and two.

The competition has meant a lot to him since he made regular trips to Cardiff as a boy to watch Arsenal play in a series of finals at the start of the millennium and, should the Terriers need any further warning, he says he always feels "brilliant" on Cup days, which also produced some of his best performances for the Stags and Barnet. "It's because you grow up watching all the greats playing in it, and then you are a part of it yourself. It's a chance to try and live the dream."

Birchall is such an enthusiastic interviewee, I cannot help but wish him well - especially with what comes next for him when Dover's Cup run eventually comes to an end. Will he get the second chance he craves?

As Fairclough puts it, "Adam is a Football League player and Dover are very lucky to have him" but, even if a move to a bigger stage than the Crabble does not materialise, the important thing is that Birchall has got his life back on track on and off the pitch. He signed a two-year contract extension with the Whites in November, is due to marry his girlfriend of 10 years in 2012, and keeps himself busy running coaching courses and helping out at a friend's restaurant.

"I am in a win-win situation," Birchall added. "I would love to go back and try full-time football again with everything I have learned in my life and I am much better equipped now. A lot of successful players do go back after seeing what it is like outside the League and I think I could be one of them.

"But the other side of it is that I am really happy at Dover so, if I don't get a transfer then I am happy staying here too and trying to get them back into full-time football. I am just on a journey at the moment, and I am up for whatever happens next."


  • Comment number 1.

    very good blog, refreshing to hear a story about a man (footballer or not) dealing with his situation and making the most of it. best of luck to him and the rest of the whites for saturday!

  • Comment number 2.

    That's a brilliant article.

    Although I'm a Spurs fan, I was actually a regular Barnet supporter during Birchalls time there and it was clear that he certainly had something about him.

    Under Fairclough back then, the fact that Birchall was his first choice striker actually determined the attractive style of football we/they played, (in a League dominanted by big sides who hammer the ball up and down the pitch). I'm sure this style of play was born from a youth career spent at Arsenal and directed over by Mr Wenger.

    Birchall, if anything, looked like he was more likely to play at a higher level than a lower one, but as a squad consisting of the likes of, Nickly Bailey, (now at Boro), Jason Puncheon, (loaned to Millwall from Southampton), and Albert Adomah, (now at Bristol City), (not to mention retiring old man Haessanthaler himself), and even his less talented but just as hard-woking strike partner Liam Hatch all gained transfers to clubs at higher levels, he was left in a team that seemed no longer to have the players with the technical ability to play the way that suited him, (ball to feet rather than humped at him from the back).

    I didn't know where he was playing now as I have lost interest in Barnet since they sacked Ian Hendon and replaced him with the bloke that they have just sacked, (no comment), but there seems to be only 1 solitary player left at the club from only a few years ago.

    I'm sure that anyone who saw him play for Barnet during that time will wish him all the best at Dover and it surprises me not at all that he has already scored 29 goals this season.

  • Comment number 3.

    There's little doubt the talent was always there as you don't make the Arsenal first team squad just behind Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry or indeed play for Wales U21's without it. It seems a classic case of perhaps too much too soon in Adam's case? Good to see he's matured into such a good striker now though. It's never too late as Ian Wright showed and I hope he kicks on and gains more success.

  • Comment number 4.

    Good luck to him.. to even have on your CV that you were thought to be good enough to be on the same park as Bergkamp and Henry would be enough for 99% of us football fans..

    Nice to see he runs coaching courses where he might be able to use his experience and impart wisdom on either young or older players about the mental rigours of football

  • Comment number 5.

    Excellent article. As a lifelong Dover fan (albeit living outside the area), I hope Adam stays until at least the end of the season.

    Dover have refound their league form of late, and automatic promotion is still a possibility. Whether Dover as a team are redy for the Conference Premier is perhaps questionable, but Birchall certainly is.

    I've heard all sorts of rumours of other clubs lining him (including Southampton and, my 'other' club, Crystal Palace), but anything more than a step up to a good League 2 side where he'd be a regular starter could be detriment to his talents, and his career.

    Dover are lucky to have him, and our cup run has put him in the shop window (even if the telly companies haven't shown us live yet!), but the league clubs looking shouldn't think that a grand or two a week will necessarily mean as much to him as the success he's currently enjoying at Crabble.

    See you Jolly Boys in Hudderfield, COYW!

  • Comment number 6.

    I reckon he will follow Hessy to gillingham in the transfer window. Hessy has always said he rates him highly

  • Comment number 7.

    Ironic how they play Huddersfield where another highly rated Arsenal youngster in Benik Afobe is. A timely reminder to Afobe that if he doesn't keep plugging away, where he might end up.

  • Comment number 8.

    This story just goes to show that mere talent alone will not make a player good enough for professional football, that it takes a lot of hard work and dedication, as well as needing the right frame of mind. Several talented young individuals fall out of the professional game every year, simply because they become disillusioned with everything and are not in the right mindset. The case of Shane Supple shows this, retiring at 22 despite playing for Ipswich in the Championship and being a Rep of Ire U21 international because he no longer had the desire to play.

    Sometimes it takes a spell out of the game or in the lower leagues to make a player realise his potential and to enjoy football once more, such as Michael Kightly, DJ Campbell and Jermaine Beckford, all plying their trade with Premier League clubs now.

    It seems that Birchall has taken a lot from his spell with Dover, and is in a much better place, as a footballer as well as a human being. Its nice to see he's giving something back with coaching courses as well.

    I wish him all the best if he gets a move back to league football, and with his up coming wedding next year. It sounds as though he thoroughly deserves whatever good may come his way in the future, and i hope his story is an inspiration to others in a similar situation

  • Comment number 9.

    It's a reassuring story that things can be turned around with the right attitude.

    That said, as a Huddersfield fan I hope he has a shocker on Saturday ;-)

    At 26, if he went full time he can still have ten years playing and earning well, and he sounds the sort who may acheive that...good luck to him from Sunday onwards

  • Comment number 10.

    Do Dover have any famous fans I heard Jimmy Kranky was a fan can anyone confirm?

  • Comment number 11.

    Forgot to mention......

    The idea which Barnet launched a few seasons ago, where only the Captain is allowed to discuss decisions with the ref, (as part of the respect campaign), actually came from Birchall.

    The idea is obviously not being used by all Football League clubs, (or even some of them 100% of the time), but the idea is a good one if managed well.

  • Comment number 12.

    A very good article Chris. I didn't know too much about Adam Birchall's story, but was wondering why he hadn't made it in the league really to date.

    As a football fan and one that sporadically attends the Crabble to watch Dover, I have been very impressed with Birchall's all round game. Watching the last round of the FA cup against Aldershot, he didn't once get knock off the ball (which is a feat for a man his size), and when he recieved it, it seemed to be almost glued to his feet. He used the ball intelligently, knowing the right time to hold the ball up, win a foul, or turn on a sixpence and have a 'pop' himself.

    His talent certainly deserves recognition, and a move into the dizzy heights of the football league. I would have to disagree with Jimsthename however, as I think by the way he has played against league opposition so far he has the ability to warrant a starting place in League One or possibly even the Championship. Where I would have to strongly agree is that this move should wait until the summer, as he would be able to carry on the momentum he has gained, whilst building his confidence further (hopefully resulting in the Whites gaining promotion (and winning the FA cup?!!!)), and being able to get fully up to speed with the league he is to move on to during a full pre-season programme.

    Whatever happens, I would like to wish him the best for the future.

  • Comment number 13.

    Excewllent article,have enjoyed reading it.
    Adam Birchall is an excellent player and being a Dover fan feel priviliged to see him perform so well week in and week out for us.
    I am confident he will score against Huddersfield and I will be there to witness it,just wish the tv cameras would be there to hear the Crabble roar when he does.
    ITV do not compare with the Beeb when it comes to the FA Cup.
    After the World Cup I wondered if I would ever want to watch another game and have still not watched another England match. Adam with the rest of the team have rekindled my interest in the game along with Manager Martin Hayes who loves his team to play attractive football.
    I go gome after the match having enjoyed the game because we try to win every match and our after match discussions reflect the entertainment we have enjoyed.

  • Comment number 14.

    Really enjoyed the article and the subsequent comments which were very mature and positive about the young lad, he really seems to have pulled himself together and I wish him every success. Born and schooled in Dover, and a sometime fan of Dover Athletic, I wish them all well for the coming game -v- Huddersfield. Was very saddenned when Dover were refused promotion having won the Conference (Years ago!) and lost interest from then on. Come on you Whites!

  • Comment number 15.

    great interview - have watched him play at Barnet and Dover and its great to see him playing so well and enjoying the game. He is the Dover goal machine but he can also control the whole game, seen that many times this seaaon - he had the Gills on the run and Aldershot. Great attitude on and off the pitch - hope he does well on Saturday if they let him near the bsll he will score!!

  • Comment number 16.

    Have been a barbet fan nearly all my life and birchall is one of my favourite players from any Barnet side. Always hard-working, never gives up... When he's played in the right team in the right way (not the long balls we were using towards the end of his time at the bees) he's a very useful little player. I remember in one pre-season friendly when he had Danny Shittu marking him, Adam had no chance! Wish him all the best, would take him back at Barnet in a heartbeat.

  • Comment number 17.

    Good luck to Adam, seems a really pleasant and grounded lad. There are excellent footballers in the non league set up for whom playing, working and socialising normally provide for a greater quality of life than scrabbling around in the lower levels of the league and conference. Hope whatever the outcome that it works out for him

  • Comment number 18.

    Surely after reading this and other similar stories, the FA should be encouraging clubs to invest more in mental training for all players. Not only with the aim of improving and extending their football careers, but to prepare them for life after football.

    All the best for Dover on Saturday.

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for all the comments so far. I bet a few Barnet fans wouldn't mind seeing Adam back at Underhill now!?!

    2/ & 16/ Yep, Birchall puts a lot of his success down to how Dover play, and his position too. It's something else he is very happy about right now (see quote below). Was he asked to play out wide, as well as centrally, for the Bees occasionally?

    Here's Birchall on his Dover team-mates and boss Martin Hayes: "There is a lot of talent in that team that is a pleasure to play with and the gaffer, with the advice he gives me, is terrific to work with. He's taught me so many different things about my game and he is probably the first manager to have used me correctly and played me in the way I want to play."

    4/ That's something he touched on actually. I wonder if players like Adam should speak to youth-team footballers at big clubs where there is a slim chance of making it into the first team, and talk to them about their attitude now, and what the future might be like when they leave.

    11/ I didn't ask Adam about whether he was behind that idea, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me.

    8/ 9/ 17/ etc I'm not surprised that it was Andy Hessenthaler who advised Adam to drop out of the Football League. There's a man who knows that non-league can be the springboard to a successful professional career.

    Here's a bit more from Birchall about it: "Everything Hessy said to me made sense about taking a step back. Sometimes it does you a lot good to speak to experienced people, in any job. And that's what I did. Not all advice is good but this bit of advice from him, which was probably the first bit of advice he had given me, was spot on."

  • Comment number 20.

    Good Luck Adam after 5pm saturdayGood to see a good player with the guts to bounce back Just dont think you are better than your teamates 11 players make the team Some of the league players should remember that.Welcome to the daver fans hope you enjoy the day and are not too dissappointed at 5pm

  • Comment number 21.

    Great article!

    @8, Kightly & DJ Campbell are excellent examples of hard working players (i'm a huge fan of DJ Campbell and his rise through the ranks, he might not score as regular as some players, but his work rate and passion for the game is obvious, and that's just from watching Live Games or MotD), who also have quality to go with. Can't say I agree with Beckford, great in League 1, abysmal in the Premier League, time may prove the difference maker, but so far, absolutely nothing worth writing home about.

  • Comment number 22.

    It used to happen a lot more than it does now; getting players once on the books at top clubs back into the league via the non-league route. Adam sounds like a sensible lad with some talent. Interesting read, and one which means that I'll be looking out for the result tomorrow. Best of luck to Adam and his team mates!

  • Comment number 23.

    Great article and great to see Birchy and Dover getting some much deserved coverage. Birchy is a quality player, always works hard and when he's got the ball at his feet you know Dover have got a chance. Not only a quality player but a nice guy and a super role model for the young lads he coaches at Soccer Elite in his hometown of Maidstone each week. COYW (Come On You Whites!!)

  • Comment number 24.

    As a life long Dover supporter, all I want to say is...come on you Lillywhites! Especially Adam B....

  • Comment number 25.

    Thanks for the article, Chris. As an embattled Bees fan I'd have Birchall back like a shot. He always worked very hard for us; the only problem his goal touch dried up for us (2 goals from 39 league appearances in his last season for us, 2008/9). Yes, Chris, he quite often played wide for us. I remember when Paul Fairclough acquired him from Mansfield he described him as his "fox in the box" and he certainly was for a while. Remember him scoring on debut in a cup game against Northampton in Nov 2006 and playing a key role in the good cup run that season. What he lacks in height he makes up for in speed and tactical nous. I'd much rather have him than some of the prima donnas we've had in the past 2 years. Good luck, Adam, wherever it takes you.

  • Comment number 26.

    #10 - Nick "Topper" Headon from the Clash currently lives in Dover and also attends matches as far as I recall. It's been a while since I made a game though as now living halfway around the world. (i.e. if you believe that you may as well also add Joss Stone who was also born in Dover and might just recall Dover's glory years!)


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