The following interview, for Leftlion, took place in mid-December, before the lunacy at Forest that saw Sean O'Driscoll sacked and then Alex McCleish resign after the fiasco of the transfer window.
Let’s start back at the beginning. What was it like as a young Irish kid moving to
Nottingham? Did anyone come with you?
No, I came on my own, moved into the digs, and, to be honest with you, was really lucky. We were so well looked after, in football and outside of football, and the people in the digs and around the club – people still working at the club now – helped a great deal. I was finishing growing up and I needed people around me, people to talk to. I had a good football upbringing with Paul Hart being the youth team manager and outside of people met so many fantastic people who are still really good friends to this day.
Were you ever homesick?
Yeah, I got homesick. I had a daughter over in
Ireland when I was seventeen and she lived over
with her Mum. So there was plenty of times when I wanted to go home, but my
family back home were great. They stressed the importance of staying and giving
it a go and made it known to me what a good life I could have if I could make
it and become a footballer.
I read somewhere that you turned down Arsenal and
United. Is that right? Manchester
Yeah, I went on trial for Arsenal and Man United and if I’m being honest with you I didn’t really like it there. There were that many kids on trial, at both of them, and you kind of felt you were just another number. I came to
Forest and they made us feel welcome,
made us feel special, like we were part of it, and for me there was no decision
to be made. It was pretty straightforward: Forest
was the only place that I wanted to come. When my family came over before I
signed, they were very happy with the set-up here and felt comfortable that I
was going to be looked after.
So, you had five years here to begin with. Did you meet Cloughie during that period?
Yeah, I did. I met him once, and he was typical Brian Clough, really. He came to a game; I think we’d just played
Coventry. I’d played quite well and had won
man of the match, and obviously when he came down to Forest he basically did
whatever he wanted – and rightly so – so he decided he wanted to present the
man of the match award. So, I went in the room and there was probably about a
hundred people there and he stood up talking. I’d missed a couple of chances in
the game even though I’d played quite well, and he said, “Son, you’re a good
player, I was really impressed with you and I’m glad you got man of the match
but you need to stop watching Jonny Wilkinson. He kicks it over the bar; you’re supposed to kick it under the bar”. Everyone fell about laughing, me too, and the only
thing I could think of saying was “Thanks very much, Mr Clough”.
What were the highlights and regrets of that first spell with the club?
The season we got to the playoffs, when Paul Hart was manager, was a fantastic season. We had a great team on and off the pitch. It was a really enjoyable time and we played some great football. It’s just a shame we couldn’t go all the way and get promoted. It was disappointing that we couldn’t capitalise on the good work and bring in some more players. In fact, we ended up losing a few and never really replaced them.
So, you left
Forest for Spurs along with Michael Dawson. Do you think
you got a fair crack of the whip there?
I would have liked to have played more and showed a bit more of what I could do. When I went there, for the first six months I played pretty much most of the games between then and the end of the season. Then, that summer, unfortunately for me, they brought in four or five midfielders. So, yeah, disappointing that I never really got the opportunities there ‘cos it’s a big club, but Charlton came in for me and I moved on. I think I’ve always been the sort of person who’s not afraid of making a big decision.
Is it easy to be philosophical when you’re not being picked, thinking ‘well, only 11 can be picked and I’ve got to bide my time’?
No. Not for me, it’s not. Only eleven can play – well, I want to be one of them eleven. I don’t want to just sit on the bench and think ‘I might get my chance next week…or next week…or next week’. I want to be in the team week in, week out, and I wasn’t so it was time to move on.
You went to
Sunderland next and had three years there. It’s a bit of
a goldfish bowl up there, isn’t it?
The intensity was phenomenal, right from day one. The fans are fantastic and the Sunderland-Newcastle rivalry was something else – hatred is a fair word to use. It’s very emotional, very passionate, and the city revolves around football. And you can feel that coming from the stands. The top teams never fancied coming to play against us up there.
Since you left Sunderland, you’ve had loan spells with Sheffield United and Blackpool before coming home to
Forest. Do you think the gap
between the Championship and Premier League is getting closer?
Yeah, definitely. And I think statistics would show that. The amount of teams over the last three, four, five years who’ve got promoted and stayed up – even if it’s for one or two seasons – where if you take the five or six seasons before that, the statistics would show that now there’s a lot more teams getting up and doing better. So, the gap is getting closer.
Is that because the Championship’s getting better or the Premier League’s getting worse?
I think the Championship is getting better. I think the quality of football, the quality of player in the Championship has massively improved over the last six or seven years.
Steve McClaren re-signed you for
Forest – the best ‘foreign’
manager the club’s ever had. What did the players think of the interview he
gave when he seemed to have acquired a Dutch accent?
Yeah, he took a bit of stick for it.
What with that and the infamous ‘Wally with the Brolly’ episode, is it difficult for a manger to get over that – looking so daft – in the eyes of young players?
Well, it’s not difficult. Look at what FC Twente [McClaren’s current club] are doing in the Dutch league, and he’s already won it before. I think an
manager can’t win, unless he wins the World Cup. If he doesn’t, no matter what
he does, he’s going to be perceived as a failure. I think they make English
managers scapegoats and I think that’s what happened with Steve McClaren. He
was made a scapegoat for the players not performing well enough.
Do you think that the manager’s influence is overstated?
No, I don’t think it’s overstated but I do think players have to take a bit more responsibility. Steve McClaren’s a good coach and a good manager. There’s no doubt about that. I know it didn’t work out for him here, but I saw enough to know that he would have set his teams up right. Sometimes things just don’t quite work out. That was our problem when he was manager here. We didn’t perform well enough when he was manager, and that was our fault. It wasn’t his fault. And we’ve got to take responsibility for that.
So, Steve Cotterill last year – that didn’t work out too well but Sean O’Driscoll seems to have revived you a little.
Well, when Steve Cotterill came in he didn’t play me. I was working really hard in training, waiting for my chance, but never really got a chance. Sean O’Driscoll came in and was able to look at things with a fresh pair of eyes. I’m training well, why aren’t I getting a chance? And he think he fought my corner. And once I did get a chance and got in the team, I wasn’t out of the team till the end of the season, so my argument would have been that they should have put me in the team earlier.
Do you ever feel like you’d be more appreciated in a culture such as
, say, where small, technical
players are the norm? Spain
Yeah, I think so, but I think it’s coming around now over here. I feel there’s more of an emphasis being placed on playing good football. It’s maybe six or seven years too late, because
are that far ahead of the English game, technically. I know there’s plenty of
managers who’ve looked at me and thought, ‘Well, I don’t really fancy him. He’s
not for me, not for my style of play’. But that never really bothered me.
There’s plenty of managers I looked at and thought, ‘I don’t really fancy you. I
don’t think you’re very good’. That’s the way life works. The only thing I
would have asked from a manager I’ve played under is just for them to be
straight with me. If they come to me and say ‘I understand you’ve got your
qualities, you’ve got your flaws, but you’re not for me,’ that’s fine, I’ll
move on and I’ll go where somebody does want me.
Forest you came back to much different to the one you
Yeah, definitely. Clubs are always moving on. Players come and go, but the club remains and progresses the whole time. You look at this building we’re in [the
it wasn’t here when I was here before. The training pitches are fantastic. The
new owners coming in – it’s in a good financial state. But I definitely still
feel it has retained the core values: the family feel to it, the people looking
out for each other, having good people working here. As I say, players come and
go, but there are people still here from 15 years ago when I first came and
they’re the bedrock of the club. They’re what make the club tick; not us,
really. We just go out and play on the pitch, but they keep the club running. Nigel
What are your thoughts for after your playing days are over?
I’m going to do my coaching badges and if the opportunity to go into coaching or management comes up – and football’s a lot about timing, and if the timing is right then maybe it’s something I would look at. But I think the important thing when you finish as a footballer is to give yourself options. If I can give myself three or four options, that’ll give me a better chance of being successful. I don’t want to sit around and do nothing. Whatever I try and do, I want to be successful at it.
I’ve heard you’re quite a talented guitarist. Is that right?
I can play. I enjoy playing and it’s a great pastime for me. I’ve been playing for about 10 or 11 years. It’s not something I’d ever seek to go into as a profession because I like the fun element of it.
Do you get out to many gigs in Notts? Any favourite local bands?
A good mate of mine called John Burns [ex-Forest] plays in The Establishment, and I go and support them when I can. They’re a good local band. I used to go and see Roy de Wired quite a bit before he sadly passed away and he was a really good bloke and a very talented musician. When I was down in
London I used
to go to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club quite regular. I was a member there. I
remember seeing Van Morrison there – it’s a small enough venue and there was
probably only 250 people there. That was fantastic. And I remember seeing a
jazz musician there called Avishai Cohen who was absolutely amazing. And I love
Irish music as well, so when I can get to a gig, I do.
So, if you were curating the main stage at
which would be the three headline acts? Glastonbury
This is a tricky one. I’ve been listening to Mumford and Sons quite a bit. I love the sound; I think it’s a real big sound. U2 were fantastic when they played there a few years ago, so they’d be up there too. The thing is, just because I pick it doesn’t mean everybody else is going to like it too! I mean, I love Van Morrison but it’s not a
Glastonbury kind of thing – maybe one of the
small stages… I love The Smiths, Morrissey – his songwriting, and Johnny Marr:
what a guitarist he is, by the way. Johnny Marr’s one of my favourites –
sometimes I listen to The Smiths and I want to take out everything else and
just listen to the guitar.
So if you were going to put a band together from
Forest lads, who’d
feature? Obviously yourself on guitar…
I don’t think I know if anyone plays an instrument. Trying to think of a good frontman… Probably, if we were into metal or something, probably Henry Lansbury as he’s a bit of a headcase. He’d be jumping around, banging his head off walls and breaking stuff, so he’d be good. As a drummer…I would probably pick…Billy Sharp. He’d be a decent drummer. He’s always active and a little bit hyper and I think he’d be good: a bit like a baby banging stuff and trying to make lots of noise.
So what’s your karaoke tune?
God, the last time I did it was probably about five years ago and I sang Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’.
Quite a tough song.
Yeah, but I’d had quite a few pints before…
I guess to the general public, the footballer’s lifestyle more and more seems like a rock star’s – minus the drugs, obviously. Is it really such a different world?
Well, we’re not like rock stars at all. Don’t get me wrong, I know they work hard and travel a lot but we’ve got to be very disciplined. We can’t go out drinking whenever we want. We can’t eat whenever we want. So I don’t think the lifestyle is close. Listen, we work hard when we’re here training but we have a got a good lifestyle.
The top players – Rooney, Gerrard, Terry – are on astronomical wages and there seems to be a growing divide between players and fans–
Well, I kind of don’t agree with that really. What I see happening is, say, over the course of a year, if you get fifteen, twenty stories on a footballer doing something ridiculous and showing himself up and being embarrassing and then you look at the amount of footballers that there actually are – if you put that into proportion there are a hell of a lot more who are very grounded, do a lot of work for charity, look after their families. So I think the criticism and the generalization of footballers is totally wrong.
I know footballers have to look after themselves nowadays, but once upon a time players used to socialise with fans after the game. Times change, but do you not feel there’s a sort of disconnect there, that tension and resentment is growing, as you see with incidents of fans coming n the field and man-handling players?
The point you’ve just made is a good one, but there’s arguments for both sides. You say footballers used to go in the pubs and sit with the fans but if we did that now and tried to build bridges, we’d be abused. It would be on Twitter, on Facebook. People would be writing in to the club, saying ‘How dare they go out for a few pints?’ So, it’s a chicken and egg. We can’t win, really.
So it’s easier to withdraw?
I don’t know, really. Listen, I don’t agree with what some of the footballers do, but that’s the whole point: it’s only some of the footballers.
Like that Liam Ridgwell photo [he was seen wiping his arse on £20 notes]?
Yeah, it’s ridiculous and you can’t defend that. What I will say is that there are lots of other people who have lots of money who do very similar things. But because how they’ve made their money or what they do is not as high profile as footballers, people don’t know who they are so it never comes out.
Is Twitter the cause of some of the bad blood, or just a symptom?
I can’t stand Twitter. I’m not on it, never will be on it. I think it’s invasive and I think it’s just asking for trouble for a footballer to be on there, really.
There have been a few instances of racist tweets to footballers and other people in the game, and that goes back to what I said about the general tension that seems to be in the air. The country’s going through tough economic times, after all, and football seems to be a way for people to express their anger and frustration…
It does and it’s a shame that it’s like that because people love coming to watch football, and if people didn’t come and watch it there’d be no money in football. I know you say there’s a lot of anger but we give a lot of joy to a lot of people and when their team scores a goal or wins a game, they’re not angry then. So it works both ways: we try and keep the fans happy, we try and win for their club, try and give everything we can.
What about the handshakes before the game – is that not a good way to take the sting out of things?
I just prefer to do it after the game, the way the rugby lads do it: applaud each other off the pitch, shake their hands then. I don’t want to shake his hand before the game because I want to beat him. I want to win, every game that I go out and play.
Going back to the fans, do you get grief out in town?
I don’t go into town very often. There’s been plenty of nights when I’ve gone out and I haven’t had grief but there’s obviously been times when I have, so I tend to just keep my head down. In general I find people are quite respectful. Sometimes you get people who’ve had a few drinks and they’re just rude, which I don’t like because I’m always polite to people, y’know, if they come and ask me for an autograph or whatever, and if they ask in a nice way I’ll always say yes.
What was the last thing that made you laugh?
The manager [Sean O’Driscoll] hurt his knee in training a few weeks ago and had to crutch his way off the pitch, which kinda gave everyone a chuckle. Then when Billy Sharp scored against Wolves the next day he got down and did an impression of the gaffer getting injured. That was pretty funny.
And the last thing that made you cry?
When my baby was born, my second one. He’s nearly ten months now. We named him Oscar, after Oscar Wilde.
Oh, you like your literature?
Yeah I do. I like James Joyce, being from
Dublin, and Brendan Behan. I’m actually reading
Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and
Sunday Morning at the moment. I’m really enjoying it. I like books that I
can use to relate to places, and I can relate to Nottingham
So what was the last thing you bought in Broadmarsh Shopping Centre?
The last thing I bought was last year, just before Christmas. I bought two Christmas stockings with both my dogs’ names on them.