You signed for Ballymena United in 2011. How are you enjoying your time at the club through the years and how would you describe a club such as Ballymena United?
Ballymena Uniyed have been brilliant to me. I am in to my 9th season at the club where I have made over 340 appearances. My journey at the club started when I returned to Northern Ireland from England and I did not really want to play football any more as I was disheartened and disjointed and felt at times down and depressed.
I got invited in the summer to play in games and get the feel of playing again. I scored a free kick and Roy Walker offered me a two year deal and I have been there ever since. Ballymena United and the setup here at the club are one of the best facilities in Northern Ireland.
The people that run the club are fantastic and I would never have imagined on day one that I would still be at the club coming up to my 33rd birthday. I hope to go on to play ten years at the club and get a testimonial for Ballymena United.
You had two loan spells at Stockport County. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any special memories or highlights?
I remember receiving a call from Jim Gannon and his assistant Peter Ward. They had been watching me when I played for Blackburn Rovers reserves and the then manager of Blackburn Rovers Mark Hughes called ,me into his office as I was training with the first team at the time. He told me ‘There is a chance to go on loan to Stockport County in League Two for a couple of months. How do you feel about it?’
I jumped at the chance because I had then been playing reserve team football for two years and in such an environment some players come down from the first team just to get game time. It is competitive but there is no real meaning to it. Going on loan meant playing with men who were playing for their livelihood and to pay their mortgages. Jim Gannon also being from Ireland and Peter Ward was from Newcastle.
At the time I had not taken any driving lessons and I lived in Blackburn and Peter Ward would come to pick me up and drive from Blackburn to Cheadle near Manchester.. He would bring me back and forth each day and it was brilliant. I remember making my debut in a home game against Lincoln City at Edgeley Park. We won the match 3-0. There were only 6,500 fans in attendance but to me it seemed like 60,000 fans. It was a great day.
I remember it fondly because Jeff Hughes was playing for Lincoln City. He is also from Northern Ireland and now he is back in the country playing for Larne FC who are in the same league as Ballymena United. It is quiet funny how I made my football league debut against him and now ten years later we are facing each other in the same league back home I got recalled from my loan to Blackburn Rovers just cover which was a bit disheartening because I really enjoyed my time at Stockport County.
You played abroad in Belgium on loan at Cercle Brugge. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any highlights or special memories?
Yes, I would say that my time at Cercle Brugge was the best time in my career so far in football terms. I remember being called into Mark Hughes’s office and him asking me if I wanted to get to Belgium for six months and I thought this is crazy and I was only 18 at time so I thought why not and the opportunity of playing against teams such as Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Genk.
I remember playing one reserve team game just after Christmas and I was taken off at half time which I thought was encouraging and made my debut for the club the following Sunday against Zulte Waregem and then had just played Newcastle in the UEFA Cup the previous Thursday. I was thrown in at right back , played a great game and got man of the match. We won 2-0.
There were also 14,000 fans in attendance and Cercle Brugge share the same stadium as their city rivals Club Brugge. The stadium is fantastic and the facilities are very good. I had a tough time with the language barrier but my time at Cercle Brugge was brilliant. I had a great run of games and I played against some great players such as Marouane Fellaini and Sérgio Conceição. Looking back I played against some great opponents if you was to get some of the team sheets of those matches there would be some amazing players in those teams.
You have accrued experience of playing in England, Belgium and Northern Ireland. Could you say who are among the best players you have played alongside so far in your career?
For me personally here in Northern Ireland there was a Scottish guy called Gary McCutcheon and at the very start of my career at Ballymena United we were not challenging for anything and one season he scored 30 plus goals and if he had not scored them goals we would have been relegated. So that just showed how good he was. He was just so calm and collected on the ball and he knew where the goal was.
Looking back on my time abroad Darko Pivaljević was a very good player and from my time at Blackburn Rovers Tugay Kerimoğlu. He was just out of this world. People did not appreciate how good he was. I remember I was in the squad for a League Cup match against Manchester United and Alex Ferguson came out after the game and said that if Tugay Kerimoğlu was six years younger he would sign him. He was a superb player.
You mentioned opponents such as Marouane Fellaini and Sérgio Conceição. Could you say who are the opponents you have faced that have stood out in terms of talent and ability?
Last season Ballymena finished second in the league and we pushed a team called Linfield all the way and we ended up qualifying for the preliminary rounds of the Europa League we beat NSÍ Runavík and that set us up for the second qualifying rounds against Malmö FF of Sweden and they were absolutely unbelievable. They had Markus Rosenberg playing up front along with some great players. I remember the away leg it was 0-0 after 38 minutes and after 45 minutes it was 4-0. They were excellent and in the return leg they beat up 4-0. We just could not live with them over the two legs.
Finally Tony, Could you say who are the coaches and managers who have meant a lot to you and who have played a key role in your development as a professional footballer?
At Blackburn Rovers we had a coach in Glyn Hodges. He would always remind us of the time that he chipped Peter Schmeichel at Old Trafford whilst playing for Sheffield United during his career. He was a great coach. Mark Hughes at Blackburn Rovers because he gave me a couple of contracts although he was never really hands on with me but he showed faith in me and I was always in and around the first team during my time at the club. I have been fortunate to learn off a lot of managers and coaches and everyone has played their part in me becoming the player I am today.
In Northern Ireland goal scoring legend Glenn Ferguson who scored more than 300 goals in his career. A real Linfield legend. David Jeffrey at Ballymena United, Jim Gannon gave me my football league debut. At Carlisle Unied we reached the LDV Trophy final and faced Southampton FC who had at the time the likes of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana playing for them and were managed by Alan Pardew. It was great to appear in from of 70,000 at Wembley. I have been fortunate to work with a host of coached and managers I would not like to pinpoint one James or miss anybody out even the coaches during my youth development for example in the youth academy at Blackburn Rovers such as Gary Bowyer , Sean Kimberley and Ian Miler.