By James Rowe – @JamesRoweNL – Chief Football Writer
You retired from professional football in 2012. How are you enjoying retirement and how is life for you these days away from the pitch?
Although I officially retired in 2012 at Leicester City I knew a long time before after Manchester City that I had mentally retired. I knew after speaking to the surgeon and specialist in London that it would be a high risk if I start playing football again so I retired after Manchester City and I was getting myself ready to think about what I was going to do next.
“Then I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from Sven-Göran Eriksson when he became Leicester City manager and he invited me to their pre-season and he wanted to give me an opportunity to see if I could hit the levels again and focus on my fitness
“I was not too sure, but after speaking and listening to ex-professional players who sometimes say ‘I should have gone,’ or ‘what if,’ so I went and I surprised myself fitness wise and I played most of the pre-season games and I was then offered a contract. It was great news for myself to be playing under Sven again, and Sven knew my body and he told me that if I keep myself fit and ready, my time would come.
“Unfortunately, Sven lost his job and Nigel Pearson came in, and at the time I was still based in Liverpool and traveling down to Leicester. Nigel wanted players who could make an impact straight away, so we shook hands and I moved on.
“I then started to focus on what I wanted to do and I tried my coaching badges and it was not for me. I wanted to spend more time with my family and that is what I did. Then the phone started ringing from ex-players and parents and people in the football industry asking for advice for their sons or themselves to keep themselves into the game. I started consulting and I ended up being an off-the-record agent really, helping people and I have since started my own sporting agency with my business partners to help develop players if they need it and speaking to parents and young professionals.
“I am more on the mentor side of things speaking to clubs, parents, and players, and give the young players a pathway into the game, passing on my experiences to them in terms of what to look out for and to take responsibility for their own careers. I also offer a pathway of guidance to make it as smooth as possible for them so that they can concentrate on the right things.
“I believe sometimes the clubs do not direct too much information to young players these days. They give them the tools and hope that they can find their own pathways, but I always feel that the parents are the players agent, they are the ones that take them to training from six years old, and then all of a sudden a guy in a suit comes and takes control. I have never been a fan of that. I like to work alongside them all and just help and guide them. If I can give the players any benefit, that is what I am looking for.
“I am enjoying it, It is a different side of the business that I never thought I would be involved in. I am learning each and every day how each club works totally differently from the Netherlands to the UK, top clubs in the Premier League, and even clubs lower down the pyramid in all kinds of ways from the academy, the pathway to the first team how the Sporting Directors work. Each club is slightly different and any players that are under my umbrella if there is anything that I can add to their game will hopefully make them successful.”
You played four seasons for Glasgow Rangers. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any highlights or special memories?
“I loved my time at Glasgow Rangers, It was a strange move and one that surprised quite a lot of people. I did not have it in my sights to sign for them. I wanted to stay at Everton because that was my dream, but unfortunately that got taken away from me and I had to move forward.
“During my time at Everton we had many Scottish ex-Glasgow Rangers players who gave me advice and I knew how big they were. Paul Gascgoigne, Richard Gough, John Collins, Duncan Ferguson and Alex Cleland, along with Walter Smith and Archie Knox — everyone praised the club, and I remember Howard Wilkinson telling me he was concerned about my development at Everton because they were playing so defensively. He thought I was losing the attacking side of my game and he felt I needed to go and play for an attacking football club in order to aid my development and hopefully push for the England squad. So Glasgow Rangers ticked all the boxes for me and I would play in the Champions League as well.
“While I was there, their fans were great and I settled down very easily. The training was tough and our manager ‘The Little General’, Dick Advocaat, was a manager that I respected a lot. It was a different type of training session but each session was good and I learned something new every day.
“We also had world-class players so for my personal development it was great, but unfortunately due to a past injury sustained at Everton (where my medical at Rangers could have been longer and more thorough) I broke down after a few games and I missed a large part of my Glasgow Rangers career due to two operations on the same knee. The team were still successful winning the treble, which I was disappointed to miss out on. I was still delighted for my teammates and the back room staff involved, but personally I was sad because my goal at Glasgow Rangers was to be successful and get medals in my trophy cabinet and I had to wait a long time myself through injury to do that and prove my fitness again.
“I really enjoyed my four years at Rangers and I wanted to stay longer, but due to the financial implications it was time to move on. I would have have liked to have played more games for the club, that was taken away from me by injury, but I have happy thoughts of my time at the club. Particularly around the way they treated me when I got injured. They had spent a lot of money on the transfer fee at the time, and it is frustrating when a big transfer comes to the club and they get injured. I believe that if Rangers had never made the decision that they did I would have probably not gone on as long as I did in my career. They did not penny pinch and then sent me to the best surgeon in the world, twice, which was costly for them, but they did it to get be back on the pitch as soon as possible when it was safe to do so.
“I still feel that if that club had not made that decision, I would have retired a lot earlier.
“My highlight was finally achieving things and winning the Scottish Championship and the Scottish League Cup.”
You also played for two seasons in the Netherlands for PSV Eindhoven. How do you look back on your experience playing abroad, and do you have any special memories of highlights playing for PSV?
“My time at PSV was a similar story really. It was a transfer that came out of the blue and due to my situation at Glasgow Rangers there were many clubs were looking at me, such as Newcastle United and Birmingham City, and all of a sudden out of the blue Guus Hiddink called me.
“PSV had done really well the season before, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League. They had sold their left back to Tottenham Hotspur and they had a gap to fill, and due to the PSV and Rangers connection, with Ronald Waterreus recommended that I could possibly be available and that I was worth looking at. Jan Wouters was assistant at Glasgow Rangers and ex PSV as well.
“Guus Hiddink had watched the Champions League match vs AZ Alkmaar and liked what he saw. When he phoned me he spoke about me potentially getting back into the England squad, and that he could help develop me as a player as I was still young enough to improve. He wanted me to fly over the the Netherlands as soon as possible, and this was on transfer deadline day. I had virtually agreed to sign for Birmingham City on a three year deal and that got put back to a one year deal, so that was disappointing, so when PSV came in for me, I had a chance of playing in a top league, and fighting for Championships was what a wanted. Although in my first season I was cup tied in the Champions League, having played for Rangers in that tournament earlier that season.
“I made the move and I fitted in well very quickly. The training sessions were also similar to what I was used to at Rangers because of Jan Wouters. We had a total mixture of players and I remember at Everton it was difficult when foreigners came into the club and I do not think that Everton or the players knew how to settle the foreign guys in. We had the likes of Olivier Dacourt and Marco Materazzi, but the way that PSV handled the situation was smooth.
“We had a lot of South Americans, many Dutch players, and then the rest of the world, where there was players from Australia and myself on different tables and everybody kept to themselves.
“You then see the magic of Guus Hiddink’s training sessions come into it. The training sessions were longer than in England and also open to the public, so you had to put on a display for the people coming to watch you.
“The tempo of Dutch football is not as intense as the Premier League, so we put good training sessions in. In my opinion the training sessions in the Premier League were more recovery, and in the Dutch training sessions we would do all kinds of tactics and possession based games which I really enjoyed.
“I remember making a tackle in the game and I felt something in my knee and I tried to carry on. We had a thin squad at the time and it turned out to be a meniscus problem and I got sent home to recover. That set me back eight to twelve weeks.
“I was determined to get back in the side and, luckily enough, when I returned I got straight back into the team. I started playing and we went on to win the Eredivisie.
“After winning the Eredivisie quite easily in April, we lost the Dutch Cup final to Ajax 1-0, and it was the way that we lost it which was disappointing. We thought that we were a better team than Ajax that year. We both had a man send off and it felt as if we had gone down to their level and we did not kill Ajax off in that game. Unfortunately a mistake by myself, I could have cleared the ball easier, and it went off Klaas Jan Huntelaar who scored in extra time. But we knew that we had a good side and I was all ready to go the next season to try and kick on and get as many appearances under my belt. It was unfortunate that the manager changed and it just did not work out.
“Ronald Koeman came in and brought some of his own players and the pre-season went ok, but I was left out of the squad for the Dutch Super Cup which was disappointing as I had played every game pre-season, so I knew that there was something not quite right. Funnily enough Jan Wouters had joined Koeman as his assistant manager and I thought that would help me personally as he knew how I trained, my body, and history from our time at Glasgow Rangers together. Ronald Koeman asked me to play a game on an artificial pitch at the Herdgang training ground, to which I replied ‘it is impossible for me having been told by every surgeon that I cannot play on a plastic pitches, and it is a massive risk for me.’
“I also said that I could do it but only training at the weekend and then playing a 90 minute game is going to put my body at risk for the rest of the season and if he (Ronald) wanted me to move I could fail a medical, and If he wanted me to stay I could be injured for a long time but he did not understand and he did not like that answer. I even spoke to Jan as I knew him and he understood and agreed with me, but he also said that ‘Ronald Koeman is the manager and there is nothing I can do.’
“So that was my PSV career over, and unfortunately the timing of that incident transfer deadline was looming and I had to bide my time and wait, and I was very disappointed in Ronald how he handled that situation.
“I turned up every day to training knowing that I was never going to be involved and then after a while he pushed me back in the the PSV reserve side of things and out of the PSV changing room. Phillip Cocu was not happy with that decision, but the manager is the manager and he has got a job to do, but the way he handled it was very disappointing.
“I just had to turn up to training and keep myself fit and wait for an opportunity, because I knew in January if a club comes in for me I need to prove to that new club that I am going to be fit and raring to go. Lucky enough for me Stuart Pearce made the call to come and help Manchester City who were in the Premier League at that time. I jumped at the chance to go back home to the UK and to the North West of England to prove my fitness due to my frustrations of the last six months and to do well for Manchester City.”
You accrued a lot of experience in England, Scotland, and the Netherlands at club level. could you say who were among the best players you played alongside so far in your career?
“I always think about the players that did well when I was playing alongside them and who stood out. I played with Paul Gascoigne who showed flashes of brilliance but he was past his prime.
“Coming through at Everton, Anders Limpar could technically do anything. He was great with the young players. He would pull them to one side and pass the ball and sow young players running and jumping techniques and give little pointers. He had such quality when he played the game.
“I also looked up to players such as Gary Speed who went about the game the right way and was technically very good.
“When I moved to Rangers, even players who had come to the end of their careers like the De Boer brothers and Claudio Caniggia, would just do ideas and tweaks where even as a player you would look and say that is good and it would be something that you would take into your own game.”
I can imagine in your position as a defender that you came up against some very difficult opponents through the years, looking back on your career are there any that stood out for you?
“As a defender I was brought up to win my battles and as a full-back I would often battle against wingers. I remember when I used to play against Arsenal for Everton, Arsenal had great players all over the place. Marc Overmars on the right who ripped me to pieces one day when I played right-back for one of the first times in my career. I put that down to inexperience in that position.
“I used to play against Ray Parlour and he was a real battler, and as a full-back you get close contact at times. We had battles including elbows at times, but it was a fair battle and when I would come off the pitch I knew that I had a good game of football.
“I also played against the likes of Ronaldinho and Ronaldo, and I did well, but at times players like Steve McMananaman caused me problems as he was the first winger to come inside and then he would float on the other side. So for the 90 minutes I would only be up against those players for five to ten minutes maximum.
Even the likes of David Beckham and Ronaldo. Beckham was not a winger that could run at you, but he could hurt you by passing the ball forty yards over your head which would cause the defence real problems.
“I have been grateful to have played against such opponents and pit myself in head-to-head battles against them, and I loved every minute of it.”
Finally, Michael, you have already mentioned Sven-Göran Eriksson, Guus Hiddink, and Jan Wouters. When you look back on your career could you say who were the coaches and managers that meant a lot do you and played a key role in your development as a professional footballer?
“Yes, I have played under a lot of managers and a lot of successful managers who have had a massive input in the game globally.
“In my generation and trying to break into the first team, Joe Royle at Everton, even though I did not make my debut under him, he was there during my time as YTS, and along with Willie Donachie was really good at giving me confidence. They helped to get me ready for the pathway to Everton’s first team. They would get me involved in training sessions with the first team to learn and put me up against Andrei Kanchelskis to train and see how I could cope. I never forget situations like that.
“I go back even further to when I was an academy player at Liverpool (the wrong side of the city) and the coaches they had were fantastic. Steve Heighway and Dave Channon, what they implemented in me as a young lad was technique and working on technique passing and kicking a ball against a wall. It may sound boring, but they really drilled in technique in how to approach and control the ball, and it never left me.
“Howard Kendall was very impressive in how he dealt with different personalities in the changing room and he got the best out his players. He was the master of that. I always thought after playing professional football, if I was to be a coach or a manager that I could take the best bits of every manager that you come across.
“Guus Hiddink surprised me in how simple he made the game. Being an English footballer being brought up through the English system through FA coaches, while that has been great for my career, Guus seemed to strip that all away, concentrate on your own game and trust in your teammates around you, and that is ok when you are part of a good team and you have got good teammates around you and it seemed to work. He was the master of making the right decision at the right time for us to get results, and he put trust in me and my teammates.
“I learned a lot from my time in the Netherlands in terms of how they approach the game and how they trust their players.
“I remember a story at PSV, in England at corners I would be the last man defender and then it would be two vs one against their striker in case the opponent does a counter attack. I tried to do that at PSV and I got shouted at. Guus called me over and asked me what I was doing? to which I replied ‘protecting myself,’ and his reply to that was ‘if the goalkeeper kicks the ball 50 yards to their striker and he controls the ball, turns you, and scores past the goalkeeper who is an extra man, you will not be playing for PSV again. That response blew my mind. I laughed and I thought he is right, but it is the way that I had been brought up was to have that extra man to help you defend. He put that trust in me to think if Ryan Babel receives the ball on the halfway line he has to control, turn take you on, and then score past the goalkeeper.
“It also showed the trust that Guus Hiddink had in his defenders and his players to go out and defend and do it properly, and if you defend properly you are going to be successful.
“Sven-Göran Eriksson was mostly defensive minded and that was great for me especially in terms of training sessions. He put a lot of trust in his attacking players to go out and win us the game on the foundation that the defenders and goalkeeper will keep us in the game, and it was up to the attackers to go and get us a result. All these managers aided my development as a player.”