x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

This time it really is all over

The former Manchester United striker explains how difficult it is for top players to eke out their careers in the lower divisions.

I grew up in inner city Nottingham. Dad was a miner, the miners were on strike and life was tough. The city had two football clubs, Forest and County. Despite living close to both grounds, which face each other over the River Trent, I never went to watch either. Football had big problems with racism and black kids didn't go to football grounds for fear of abuse. My mates loved football, but we never watched it. Never. Instead, we played football on the park, jumpers for goal posts and all that.

Nottingham's not a big city, perhaps the 10th biggest in England, so it was a major achievement when Nottingham Forest won the European Cup twice in succession when I was a kid. I remember the players coming past where we lived on a bus with the trophy. I followed them and ended up lost in an area I didn't know. When I watched them on the bus, I never ever thought that I'd win that trophy which players like Trevor Francis, Tony Woodcock and Peter Shilton held up.

I knew lots of Forest fans but Notts County were not even on the radar. I didn't know one County supporter and I paid little attention to the news that they had been taken over by a wealthy consortium in the summer. I listened harder when Sven-Goran Eriksson was appointed as director of football and even more when he saw me at an England game and asked me if I was interested in playing. You never know with Sven whether he's joking or not.

Sol Campbell joined County on a five-year contract and I spoke to him about it. At first I thought he was joking, but he told me of the club's plans and it all sounded promising. He must have thought that to sign a five-year contract. Then he quit the club after just one game, saying that things were not as promised. I could sympathise with Sol. It's not easy dropping down the divisions for many reasons. This time last year I was a Nottingham Forest player. Last summer I was asked if I'd be interested in joining them. I'd just left Burnley and as Forest were my hometown club and my grandfather was a big Forest fan, I thought, "Why not?"

I realised straight away that it was a mistake. Nigel Doughty, the guy who ran the club, interviewed me before I signed. He explained that he'd done due diligence on me, before asking why I was joining Forest. I thought they wanted me, not the other way round. Doughty backed down, put a kid's rucksack on and left the meeting! I was alone in the room with the manager. Forest were selling season tickets off the back of me signing, but by August I wanted to retire. It was so hard to play in that team because they were all kids. Kids who play 20 games think they've made it. I told the manager in October that I wanted to retire. I wasn't playing and felt like I was stealing money. I had to give them three months' notice. Two weeks later they said I could go - implying that I hadn't done it for them. They then put the story out that I walked out of Forest. I nailed all of them.

The manager Colin Calderwood was a lovely bloke, but he found it hard to make difficult decisions and I wasn't dealt with in the right way. He pondered over dropping me for one game so much that I could see him circling round me like a shark for ages as he thought about how to break the news. Lower division managers often feel threatened and intimidated by former Premiership players and they don't know how to deal with them.

I retired soon after. I wasn't big time. I knew that Forest weren't Manchester United, but I never regretted retiring. I miss the dressing room banter, but I coach the strikers at Huddersfield Town two days a week when I can. They are managed by my former Newcastle team mate Lee Clark, so I get the banter and mental stimulation there. Huddersfield asked me in all seriousness if I'd consider making a comeback but I've retired now and, in my brief experience in the lower league with Forest, I found it so frustrating that I won't return.

There have been many plus sides. I don't miss the travel and staying in hotels. I've been fortunate to make a good living in my career so I don't have financial issues. I go to the gym three times a week so I'm fit. I enjoy watching my son play and whatever games I like on television. The only time I really miss it is when I hear that Champions League music before a big game. Now they were great nights to be involved with.

sports@thenational.ae