On and off the (metaphorical) bench
Hi, hope you are all well.
As a player, when you get to a certain age you begin to look back on your career and identify key junctions where things could have gone one way or another. In my case there have been about three or four, but one in particular springs to mind.
I was in my second season at Hartlepool United and it was a wet midweek game against a then high-flying Luton Town side destined for the Championship. Unfortunately, that night I had one of those games that all players dread but that we all experience, some more often than others.
I was awful and midway through the second half, I was unsurprisingly substituted to a chorus of boos and ironic cheers. It was at that moment that I fully appreciated one of the negative aspects of playing at a lower level before comparatively small crowds - you can hear the individual comments directed at you and it's fair to say most of the comments about me that night were not complimentary!
I got home about midnight and, as is my usual routine after a game, started replaying it in my head, but this time I was embarrassed by the things I was remembering.
Just then the phone rang and it was assistant manager Martin Scott (who later went on to become Hartlepool manager). If ever I needed a pick me up, this was the time and he told me to keep believing in myself, that the manager had faith in me and I would be starting the next game.
People go on about man management, and for me this is the perfect example of how it should be done. The lift he gave me meant a great deal to me. The next match we were away at Port Vale, we won 1-0 and I was named man of the match.
Following the crowd's reaction to me in the Luton match, I really did fear that my time at the club was up. Usually when a set of fans single out a certain player in that way, they carry on doing so.
Fortunately for me this did not happen and I think there are two reasons for that. One is that it acted as a wake-up call for me and in my mind I was not going to let it happen again, I was going to make sure I came back stronger from the experience.
The second reason was quite simply that the people of Hartlepool are a forgiving bunch and the penny dropped with me that if you give absolutely everything for them, they will accept you and I think, on the whole, that is true for most fans.
At this point I would like to make it clear that I am not advocating fans should "boo" players if they want a positive reaction from them. Everyone is different, some guys come back stronger, others can crumble - let me know if you can think of any examples of either.
The reason I look at this episode as a turning point is that it helped me become a lot tougher mentally. I tend to think if I could deal with a few thousand people booing me and come back from it, I can deal with most things.
As any regular readers of this blog will know, I help out with my little boy's under 8's team. Last weekend we had a new boy playing his first game for us and the manager told him that although initially he would be on the bench, he would get on at some point. Two minutes later the little lad came over to me and said that he had been over to where the manager pointed but there was no bench!
For the rest of the match, I made a point of noting the various football clichés that were being shouted from the sidelines and the reactions of the boys. It was obvious that they had no idea what the adults were on about.
It was particularly amusing when one dad shouted to his son to "get the second ball", you could actually see the little lad looking for it!