By James Rowe
You retired from professional football in 2013. How is life for you these days and could you elaborate on your current role as agent with the Two Touch agency?
“Retirement is never easy for any professional footballer because you are leaving something that you have adored doing since you were six, seven, eight years old.
“[It can be about] finding the right time to retire, but my body retired me through injuries. I just knew that I could no longer do it at the level I wanted to.
“Fortunately for me, my partner fell pregnant as I was thinking about retiring and we had a little boy, and then eleven months later we had a little girl so the first few years, where players struggle, I was at home wrapped up in family life in terms of being there for my partner and my kids every day.
“I had a three year period like a whirlwind of having kids around me and a different lifestyle that helped me to get over that initial phase where players might be a bit down on themselves having retired, so I look back in hindsight now and say that time really helped me.
“Since then I have gone on to become an agent. First with my old agent, Sky Andrews, who helped me as a mentor and friend. Then, my best friend Paolo Vernazza and I started to setup our own company — Two Touch — and do things the way that we wanted.
“We can never play professional football again, but the biggest thrill we get now is watching our players perform well. Paolo and I started Two Touch Agency, players for players, and our aim now is give back to talent, help to guide career in the best way possible, and help players to make the right footballing decisions.
“We believe when you get the football right, everything else’s falls into place. When I came through the ranks in my career I had gone from a centre-forward to a central defender. My coach at the time, Terry Westley, told me I had to do extra in the gym, do my 100 headers a day, and try to find an athletics coach because I was going to get bigger and stronger the following year and I needed to enhance that.
“So whereas the likes of Scotty Parker and Paul Konchesky were making their debuts at 16 I was still fighting to break into the first team at 18, 19 years of age so I would go to an athletics track to do extra running to get quicker and stronger.
“I was doing that from a young age, and to get into Alan Curbishley’s first team I had to become the opposite to what I was as a young defender, which was flair defender, and Alan wanted somebody that could defend and pass and do the basics.
“I work, talk, and organize, but I forgot about the stuff that originally gave me the X-Factor as a young lad and that made me stand out. I was comfortable on the ball, elegant, and stepping out from the back. I neglected that side of the game and I focused on getting bigger, faster and stronger. Being able to head the ball, being able to be aggressive — things that were not necessarily natural to me, and in the end they become my strengths.
“So I tell my the players that we represent that you always have to bring your weaknesses up to par, and I truly believe that you should never forget what your strengths are and always continue to work on your strengths as well, because that is what separates a player from average players, or another player below you.
“I stopped working on my strengths coming out with the ball, passing, and using my left and right foot. I was so focused on getting into Alan Curbishley’s team and what Alan wanted from me as a defender, in which I succeeded and had a career and I cannot grumble too much, but you should never forget what got you there in the first place.
“So my role now at Two Touch is that really elite performance side, and I look to see if I can get my players an athletics coach, personal trainer, or a nutritionist or a mindset guy, all the little nuances that can help a player to become better.
“We even watch clips with our players about their position and see where they are going right or wrong and give them a holistic approach to approving themselves away from the training ground. For a lot of players football becomes their job, and as much as it is the best job in the world, it becomes a job to players sometimes where they clock in, go training for two hours, and then return home to sit on the couch and watch TV and do the same thing the next day.
“I read that young players become experts at FIFA and their rankings improve in online games, but they do not put as half as much work into their career as they do in terms of getting better on their gadgets.
“Some play FIFA from the afternoon to the early morning. I remember a quote from Chelsea striker Tammy Abraham in which he said, ‘I am not trying to get better at FIFA, I am trying to get on FIFA’ and I thought his mindset was impressive.”
You came through the youth setup and also went on to make many appearances in the first team at Charlton Athletic. How do you look back on your time there and do you have any particular highlights and memories?
“I have a lot of happy memories from my period at Charlton Athletic. It was a fantastic time in terms of staff, players, and characters around the club.
“I was fortunate to come through the youth team with the likes of Scotty Parker, Paul Konchesky, Kevin Lisbie, and we had a real talented bunch of players come through at the same time.
“I went on to make my debut in the first team coming on as a substitute at half-time at home to Everton and I came up against Kevin Campbell and Duncan Ferguson at The Valley under Alan Curbishley. As a young man it was a case of being thrown in at the deep end, but it was tremendous.
“I remember coming in the next day and Graham Stuart, who was one of leaders at the time, was talking to the players and how it is not good enough to lose the first game of the season at home but he then stated: ‘There was one shining light on the pitch for us today and that was Jonathan Fortune, who managed to make his debut,’ and that gave me confidence, that I deserved to be around the first team. I look back on a great time.
“My fondest memory was when we played West Ham United away at Upton Park. I am an East London boy, my Dad is a big supporter of the club, and my primary school was in West Ham’s car park, so every day I would see the stadium and the players and it was my dream to play there one day.
“The game at West Ham was on my birthday weekend, and when we arrived at the stadium, Alan Curbishley, who is also from East London, called me down the front of the bus to try and find some short cuts because the traffic was so bad.
“The surreal moment was that West Ham’s car park later become my old playground so the coach pulled into my old playground. I got off the bus with my teammates in the Premier League, and I was walking through my old playground at the corridors of my old school to the back exit of Upton Park.
“I was trying to explain to Claus Jensen and Radostin Kishishev and my foreign teammates, that where we are right now was my playground and we went on to play that game we won 2-1 I happened to score the winning goal with all my friends and family in the stadium, so that was a real special moment for me personally.”
You also played one season for Sheffield United. How do you look back on your time at the club and do you have any special highlights or memories?
“Sheffield United was a tough one for me to be honest with you, because I had a great opportunity but I had snapped my Achilles prior to that move and had been our for nine months.
“After I came back, Charlton Athletic had been relegated from the Championship and I felt I needed a new challenge. Having played at a high level Charlton Athletic were now playing in League One and I knew I had to move on.
“After playing 45 minutes in my first game back I got a phone call that Sheffield United would be interested in me, and they wanted me to come up to Sheffield. I jumped on a train and the season before Sheffield United had lost in the Championship play-off final so I knew they had a great squad and that they were capable of getting back into the Premier League.
“At the time Gary Speed and Kevin Blackwell were the coaches, and they told me that Ugo Ehiogu had suffered the same injury so they knew how bad the injury was but the wanted to set eyes on me to see where I was in my development. They called me up to play a game and I did well, after 45 minutes they pulled me off and told me to rest and to come in on Monday and we will get in sorted.
“I was over the moon. I went in on the Monday and played in a training game and in that training game I pulled my hamstring so it was a case of being so close to getting a deal to now being injured again and they said to me: ‘stay in Sheffield, we really like you and you can get yourself fit and going,’ but it was just a constant battle of trying to get myself fit. After signing a six month contract I got back to playing and I nicked a couple of goals and had a good run, but then I would break down again so it was like a year of trying to get myself healthy again.
“I was living in a hotel in Sheffield and we had a great squad and we ended up finishing just outside the play-offs. We had the likes of Darius Henderson, Kyle Waker was a young kid who was magnificent at the time, Ched Evans had also just signed for the club for £3m. The club was really going for it but I could not get myself to the level to show that I was worth being there and that was frustrating at the time.”
Having accrued a lot of experience at different levels of English football, when you look back on your career could you say who were among the best players you played alongside?
“Yes, from my Charlton Athletic days I would say that the outstanding player for us was Scotty Parker at the time. I played with him in the youth team and I knew how good he was, but it got to a stage in his career for us where he had become two players in one. He was our attacker and defender, and even in training you knew if Scotty was on your team that you was going to win because he took himself to a great level.
“The season he left we were fourth in the Premier League and doing really well. We were beating the likes of Chelsea and other teams and then Chelsea came in and bid £10m for him. At the time we were ahead of them in the league and it was at the start of the Roman Abramovich money and Scott put his hands up and said: ‘This is a too good an opportunity to turn down, I have to take it for my family,’
“We all knew that once he left he was irreplaceable for us in that team at that particular time, and we ended up falling down the league to tenth. I truly believe that if he would have stayed with us for that season we would have had a chance of getting a European spot for sure.
“Scotty Parker was the outstanding player for me, but we also have Claus Jensen who was sheer and utter class for us and ahead of his time in terms of what he could do on the ball.
“I would also put a young Jerome Thomas in there as well. He was having to play in a rigid 4-4-2 in those days and he was also ahead of his time as he was an inverted winger and if he would have played nowadays where everyone is playing three upfront he would have been able to cut in and go and express himself.
“Jason Euell was also an excellent layer for us having come over from Wimbledon. He scored lots of goals from midfield. When I first broke into the Charlton Athletic team I was fortunate to play with a guy called Jorge Costa, and another player who does not get the credit he deserves was Richard Rufus who on his day was a thoroughbred of a defender who get could up and down the pitch and could also tackle and he lead by example.
“I was fortunate enough to play with Paolo Di Canio at the back of his career , he came to us for a year and he was phenomenal player and a character.
“The biggest one for me was when John Barnes came to us for six months and as a kid he was my hero. I had his posters on my wall and I would try to emulate him as a kid and to spend six months training with him, picking his brain, and learning from him… Scott Parker and I would pester him everyday and for six months we did not leave the guy alone.
“Also, from my time at Sheffield United I knew right away from seeing Kyle Walker in the building and being around him everyday you knew that he had a great chance. He was up and down that right wing and winning games for us at right-back.
“Another player in the season where I was trying to get myself fit I spent a year in the reserves playing with Harry Maguire and to go on and see that he has become the record signing as an English centre half is unbelievable. It was two different stories you knew with Kyle Walker was going to get there and as much as you knew that Harry Maguire had the quality there was still question marks due to his frame and size and the way he looked, but is unbelievable to see now what Harry Maguire has gone on to achieve.”
I can imagine in your position as a defender that you came up against many difficult opponents through the years, could you say which opponents stood out for you in terms of talent and ability?
“I was fortunate in the era that I played, I played against all of the top strikers in the Premier Leaague. The standout one without a shadow of a doubt is Thierry Henry, and I have his famous back heel goal against me.
“He was by far the best player in the Premier League at the time in my opinion, and what separated him from anybody else’s is that he was also on the best team. That Invincibles team was tremendous, and he was the X Factor in that.
“The likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Robbie Fowler, Emile Heskey and Michael Owen at Liverpool, Ruud van Nistelrooy… every team had great strikers.
“Even when you thought you played well against Ruud van Nistelrooy he would always score two goals and I believe that the hardest two strikers to defend against at that time were Thierry Henry and Ruud van Nistelrooy, for sure, in that they caused defenders the most problems by scoring goals.
“The best partnership that I every played against was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eiður Guðjohnsen. Also, Alan Smith and Mark Viduka in tandem at Leeds United were special players.”
Finally, you have already mentioned Alan Curbishley, but when you look back on your career could you say who are the coaches and managers who meant a lot to you and played a key role in your development as a professional footballer?
“Yes, the first coach I would like to mention is my old youth team manager Terry Westley, who up until last year was at West Ham United. He turned me from a centre-forward in the youth team into a centre-half. So up until the age of 17 I was playing up front and he saw something in me and asked me to play at the back in my last year in the youth team, and from when he made that decision my career just took off.
“Funnily my first game at centre-half was against Craig Bellamy and a very good Norwich City youth team, and once I passed that test of playing there for the first time it gave me the confidence to go on.
“Terry Westley was fundamental in terms of me growing as an individual as a young man.
“Alan Curbishley gave me my chance in the first team and I look back now and I truly understand the value of what he offered us then as young men trying to break through. It was a real shame once we lost him, and none of us knew what that was going to mean at the time.
“He ran the club from top to bottom and as soon as he left we got relegated the next season and Charlton Athletic has never been the same since. What Alan Curbishley did to keep that club where it was, was an unbelievable achievement, and he helped to raise the expectations of the club.
“The fans got used to the good times and we were probably how Burnley FC are now as an established Premier League club, and I believed he deserved a lot more respect for what he was doing for us at that particular time and how we were punching above our weight. We were fighting against top clubs, managers and players.
“After that Alan Pardew came in and I could tell that he was a good coach and good man manager, but he just came at a difficult time where Charlton Athletic were going through a tough period with relegation, and it never quite worked out for him but I knew from working with him that he had talent to be a top manager which he has done at certain points in his career.
“I also really enjoyed playing under Tony Pulis at Stoke City, and I wish I had made the decision to stay with him. I went to Stoke City on loan when Charlton Athletic were relegated from the Premier League. I had a phenomenal time under Tony and he really put his arm around me and he gave me the boost that I needed at the time.
“I was meant to, and I was going to, sign for Stoke City but Charlton Athletic had just been relegated and I went on the pre-season tour and we were flying. We had a great squad and I thought that clubs that are normally relegated from the Premier League are favourites to go back up. I still had two years left at Charlton Athletic and I thought what would hurt me more, if I went to Stoke City and we did not get promoted and Charlton Athletic did, and that would have hurt me and I believed that to be the case.
“In hindsight it was a terrible that season. Stoke City got promoted and Charlton Athletic finished eighth but that is what I believed at the time and I knew deep down that I should have stayed with Tony because he was really good for me defensively.”