You’re a club legend at Omonoia but I’ve been a fan of yours since your England U21 days when you played alongside the likes of Theo Walcott and James Milner. But I distinctly remember you making your debut for Blackburn against Fulham and my friends were telling me about you on Championship Manager. You turned out alright.
I have done alright. I have had a good career. I have just signed a 2 year deal at my new club Mcarthur FC in the A League, which I’m really excited about. I can’t wait to get out there and start my new journey.
I have had a lot of Omonoia fans asking why you joined McArthur, why you left Omonoia, is it all about money. In the past you and I have discussed your future – but to avoid any confusion, we never discussed the possibility of you leaving Omonoia. This isn’t a conversation we ever had. We spoke about how you enjoyed playing for the club but we never spoke about you leaving.
When you left, it came as a surprise but at the same time, because we have discussed our personal lives, I understand your decision to leave.
Make no mistake about it, the money you will earn in Australia isn’t astronomical. It isn’t Premier League or Bundesliga wages. I know you didn’t leave for the money.
It isn’t even League 2 money.
I know it wasn’t about the money but I knew your reasons for leaving Omonoia and why Australia was your preferred destination. Are you able to clear this up for everyone?
Absolutely. First of all it was about being with my family. I spent 3 years with my family and a year without them. It was probably the most difficult year I had at the club, although we did come top of the league and qualified for the champions league, it was mentally tough not having my wife and children around me all the time.
Two years ago we went to Australia to visit my brother in law and we never wanted to settle anywhere in England. I told myself Australia is right for me and my wife felt the same, and this was after 2 or 3 days being out there. We spent 2 weeks out there and we absolutely loved it. I asked my agent to look for a club for me out there once my contract expired at Omonoia. He said “I’ll see what I can do” and it was in January of last year, I got a phone call from my ex team mates Brett Emerton and Vince Grella and they said “why don’t you come out here and join this new franchise. It’s going to be ready in the 2020/2021 season”. I said “I’d love that but it’s a little bit early because I have a year left at Omonoia and I’m really enjoying myself there” – but being away from the family that season was very difficult. I was doing so well there. We had a great team, great coaches, a great technical director and the fans were great with me. But the one thing that was missing was my family being here and I wanted to get the kids settled somewhere. We moved around a lot during my career in football and it’s time to get them settled. We want to settle in Australia so we are going out there for a couple of years and see how it goes. Fingers crossed it all goes to plan. My wife is starting a new business out there so it’s something I am excited about. The kids are excited about it. We have found new schools for them out there. It’ll be a long pre season for me but I’ll be ready to play and am really excited about it because it has been a bit too long since I left Omonoia and haven’t kicked a ball.
I know Cillian Sheridan was at Wellington Phoenix so he has experienced the A League. Have you spoken to him about the standard?
Yes, he said it’s a good standard, which has surprised a lot of people – same with the standard of football in Cyprus.
I’m glad we cleared this up because I have been doing interviews with players for 8 years and they have said similar things – family comes first. Being a footballer is a short career. You’ll be lucky to have a 20 year career without injuries. One injury might reduce it by 2 years. A recurrence may reduce it by another 2, so no footballer knows how long they can play for. So when you say you want to play in a different country with your family by your side, that completely changes the dynamics. You have 3 boys?
The twins are 12 and the other is 7
So they are at the age where they fully understand what’s going on. If they were babies then you could move them around without affecting their lives. Your children are at a fragile age. Moving abroad means they will be leaving their friends. Going to Australia is a big move but the language and culture is the same as the UK and the weather is better – it’s a new adventure for the family.
I remember telling you at the end of season 19/20, no one will begrudge you leaving because you’ve done such an incredible career at the club and family comes before football. We (Omonoia fans) owe you so much and no one should be criticising you for making a career decision that benefits your family.
To be honest, no one has ever said anything bad. It has all been positive. But let’s go back to the start of my third season at the club. A big decision of mine was made in January that I wanted to leave. I had 2 fantastic seasons by then. Was top goal score in both seasons. But in the third season, two new coaches came in and I didn’t really play much. Didn’t get on with the second coach because he wasn’t playing the type of football the first coach wanted. When I was left out of a few games, my decision was to leave the club. It was nothing to do with the club. I wanted to play football. Anyone who knows me or saw me play at Omonoia would know I’d be upset with being substituted even in the 90th minute. It’s a short career mate and I wanted to play as much as I can. I didn’t spit my dummy out, but I felt I’d be appreciated by a different coach elsewhere. But at the end of the season my wife said “there is no way on earth you can leave the club after a season like that” and thank God she did because I am very rash in these decisions sometimes, which I have been in the past. Thankfully I gave it another shot. I spoke to Larkou and he believed in me enough to give me another opportunity because that season was a disaster through different things I would never mention. I would never blame anyone in particular. So I decided to stay another year and thank God I did because we had a fantastic year.
Last season feels like it only happened yesterday. It was a rollercoaster season which was cut short by COVID. We were awarded the title but I think we would have won the double had the season continued. David (Akintola) came in from Midtjyland and he gave the team more speed in attack. Kakoullis broke into the first team from the academy. I was a little disappointed the season didn’t resume. However, given the standard of refereeing in Cyprus, something could have gone wrong for Omonoia.
I will never say anything bad about Cypriot football because I had such a fantastic time out there, regardless of what has happened against other clubs in Nicosia. It was very enjoyable. I learned so much from my experiences in Cyprus and they will help me in my future, for example, if I come back and become a coach. I played in Greece but I was on the other side of it so I wasn’t aware of it until I went to play in Cyprus
You were 23 when you joined Olympiakos so when you came to Omonoia, I assume you knew what to expect as the culture is very similar.
I knew what to expect. The biggest thing for me was I knew that the experience in Cyprus was going to be amazing. The atmospheres at stadiums are unbelievable. They are fantastic and when you’re doing well, there’s no better feeling.
I’ve spoken to numerous people about last season and they say how incredible you played and the goals you scored. You were the main man. You went on a great run of form and, all of a sudden, you were on the bench. At that point, I was wondering if there was something wrong. I was thinking you may have had an injury or the system was changed which didn’t suit your playing style.
I don’t know what happened. Maybe the coach was trying to look after me. It was a big squad so maybe he thought I was tired. I knew I was a big part of the club. I was feeling great. The best shape of my life. We were on a great run. I think in the back of my mind, I knew I was leaving but I didn’t tell anyone because it wasn’t fair on the players. The only people that knew were a couple of people at the club. I knew it wouldn’t be fair for me to take someone’s place when I knew I was leaving. Also, if I missed chances people would ask why I am playing since I’m leaving. They’d say I missed on purpose because I’m leaving and that I don’t care – but people who know me will know I take every game and training session serious. Football is a short career. I treat every training session like it’s my last.
I remember one of your last games. You came off the bench and scored a penalty in the last minute. I could tell by the intensity of your celebration that perhaps you had a point to prove.
I don’t think I had a point to prove because the number of goals I scored at Omonoia says it all. Every member of staff and player believed in me, which is the most important thing because if they didn’t then there’s something wrong. Any player that is put on the bench, they want to do well – especially strikers. When I scored, it was more of a relief. The coach was very happy with me.
We can talk about Omonoia again later. Let’s talk about your early career. You started at Darwen before moving to Great Harwood Town.
I started at Darwen and they changed to a women’s team so I moved to Great Harwood Town.
And John Hughes was your manager?
I was with Andy Mcnally first and John Hughes, who was the first team manage, took me under his wing
I read somewhere you scored 18 goals in your last 8 games which included a hat trick against Blackpool. People were saying you were going to make it at a high level. You had talks with Manchester United, Everton, Liverpool but you ended up at Blackburn Rovers, the team you support.
I was playing for Great Harwood Town and that was a big level for me because I was playing against grown men. Because it was semi professional I was getting paid £20 per game and when I signed my second contract I was on £40 a game, which was big money for a kid who was only getting paid £50 a week with a regular job. I spoke to Radcliffe Borough and that was a big deal for me because they were in the conference, which would have been a step towards moving to a bigger club. They offered me a deal there and then but John Hughes said we should wait a bit longer and thank God we did because they made a ridiculous offer. Within 2-3 weeks a handful of big clubs showed an interest in me. I met David Moyes at Everton and he showed me around the club and met pros. I then met Burnley and many people were asking me why as I am a Blackburn fan, but they were one of the first teams to show an interest. Blackburn hadn’t made an offer for me yet but I met with Burnley for the experience. I was advised to go there because it would do me good. They wanted to sign me. I then went to Manchester United. They showed me round the training ground, which was unbelievable because they were the biggest club in the world. Then Blackburn made me an offer and I made my mind up straight away. I went on trial with them first and I played against Manchester United at Blackburn’s training ground. Rob Kelly called me into the office a couple of days later and said they wanted to sign me. I was made so many offers but when Blackburn asked me to sign for them, it was an unbelievable feeling. I think I broke down crying. I supported them and even coached kids in the community for the club, so they knew who I was. I went from asking players to sign footballs to playing alongside them.
You were young when Blackburn won the title in 1995. I remember when Alan Shearer joined from Southampton for a fee that broke the British transfer record. He scored twice on his debut against Crystal Palace. I presume he was your boyhood hero.
Oh yes. I’ve got his Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle shirts. I definitely looked up to him when I was growing up and tried to learn from him.
Did you meet him when you were working for the club?
No, but I played against him which is how I got his Newcastle shirt.
I remember when Newcastle paid a world record fee for him in 1996. People were asking “why would he want to go to Newcastle when he can join Manchester United and win trophies?” but that was the team he supported. I think when you’re in a position to join the club you supported as a kid, you’ll make the emotional decision.
I did but his decision was different to mine because he would have gone straight into Manchester United’s first team. I was going into academy level football which is much different. I obviously chose Blackburn because it’s the club I support, it would make my family proud and playing for my home town club would be amazing.
You signed on the 20th December 2004 and made your debut against Fulham. Your first goal came against Wigan in 2007. I can’t remember if Jordy Gomez was at Wigan at the time.
He could have been, yes. I remember coming off the bench against Fulham and I got 15-20 minutes. I was running down the left and Zat Knight kneed me in the side of my thigh. He gave me the biggest dead leg but there was no way was I was coming off. I was determined to play the last 10 minutes.
Was that at Craven Cottage?
It was at Ewood Park.
Was van Der Sar in goal for Fulham?
I think he was. I can’t remember.
Who gave you your senior debut? Mark Hughes?
It was, yes. He was amazing. Someone like Mark Hughes to give you your debut and work with him week in and week out was unbelievable. He and Eddie Niedzwiecki would help improve my ability. Hughes’ technique was incredible. He told me to practice my technique every day and I did this religiously which has helped me to this day.
Speaking of Mark Hughes, he has played for Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and has won many trophies. You said he helped improve your technique. How many other coaches have helped improve your ability?
There’s quite a few. Even those who didn’t help improve my ability, helped in other ways. You learn something from the good and bad which is important. Valverde was amazing at Olympiakos. I was never his type of player. He wouldn’t have signed me if the Technical Director wasn’t there but he really helped me learn about moving into different areas of the pitch. Even John Carver at Omonoia in a different way. We would work in training on scoring goals but it was more of a confidence building exercise. He would talk to you like he was your dad but he also knew when you were having good and bad days. Sometimes I would walk into training and he would know immediately of there was something wrong. He would pull me into the office and have a chat. Then I’d be fine. Some people don’t need this type of treatment. I do.
At Blackburn you had many experienced players like; Lorenzo Amoruso, Tugay, Roque Santa Cruz, Robbie Savage. Same applies for Olympiakos and other clubs you’ve played for. Which senior players were helpful and gave you advice?
There were many, especially in my Blackburn days as a youngster. Dwight Yorke was one of them. He could see where my game needed improving. He would talk to me about what I should work on. I will never forget this advice. As I got older, the likes of Benny McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz were big influences on me because they were quality players. People don’t realise how good they were. Tugay, McCarthy, Santa Cruz – fantastic technique. Roque was good in the air, quick, strong. I can’t praise them enough.
When you heard about Olympiakos’ interest, was your primary aim to play in the Champions League or build your confidence?
The loan move wasn’t a surprise. Paul Ince was my coach at Blackburn. I played 5 goals in the last 6 games of the season then Sam Allardyce came in. I went from playing as a strike partner with Benny or Roque to being 4th or 5th choice. I understood the manager’s decision and respected it. Sam Allardyce likes a big, strong striker and I wasn’t one of them so I knew I had to leave. Playing football was the most important thing for me. I spoke to Sam and asked if I could leave and he said he was happy for me to leave on loan. We had played Olympiakos in a friendly and they beat us 5-0. They were much better prepared as their season began before ours. When they came in, I knew they were a massive club. Rivaldo played for them in that friendly so I knew they were a massive club.
When you joined Olympiakos, did you see yourself having a long term career there?
I didn’t. I thought to myself that I would get some experience playing in Europe. I went for 4 months and did really well. I took to the club so quickly. The fans were great with me, obviously because of the cup final, so it helped. I lived in a great area. My wife and kids were happy.
You mentioned that famous goal in the cup final. Is that one of the biggest moments in your career?
Playing in the cup final was amazing but getting a couple of goals was unbelievable. Most Greek football fans still talk about that cup final. I don’t think there will be another one like it. We were losing 0-2 and to come back and win on penalties was incredible.
What was the atmosphere like?
It was incredible. I think there were 60-70,000 fans there. You can imagine what the fans are like there and to score in the 93rd minute to equalise and take it to extra time is something I’ll never forget.
Let’s move on to Omonoia. First season the club finished 5th. Your first goal was against Ermis. You scored a dramatic hat trick against Ethnikos. Season 17-18, 6th, 18-19, 5th and last season we won the title. Why do you think there was such a huge change in the club’s fortunes in a year?
Recruitment. Larkou joined the club in my third season and was slowly laying the foundations for the future. The following summer, we brought in the right people that were hungry for success and had the right mentality. That’s vital for any club that has ambition. If the players didn’t have the right attitude, they wouldn’t have been signed, irrespective of their ability. When you have a squad with players that are hungry for success and are united, you cannot be beaten.
I find the transition immense because the club was quite dysfunctional when you signed. Fans became frustrated due to APOEL’s success. Omonoia had fallen behind and a lot of bad decisions were made. What was it like for you?
I went to Omonoia to get more European football. I didn’t know much about the club but I knew they were in the European qualifiers so I decided to join to get more experience. It was very dysfunctional at the time and everybody knew it. I ignored it because I was enjoying my football so much.
Didn’t any of your team mates tell you about the issues at the club?
Let me put it to you this way. If I was a player at the club and I knew Matt Derbyshire was signing, do you think the first thing I’d say is “this club is f****d mate”. As a player, you try to ignore the politics. You train Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Saturday you play and you start again. You obviously know there’s a problem at the club when you’re not getting paid, along with other things, but you try to concentrate on your football. I was at Omonoia for 4 years and I knew after the first 6 months how hungry for success these fans were. If you could be that player to do well and help win them something – they will love you forever. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do it for that. I did it for the club, not for my recognition. Obviously, if I did my job, everything would work in tandem, so I was just concentrating on doing my job, scoring goals, being one of the leaders in the dressing room and more. Obviously there were many things behind the scenes that weren’t great – and that’s behind us now. That’s way behind us. The President came in and the amount of money he has put in is astronomical.
That must have given you and the rest of the squad a lift, knowing the owner is willing to change the whole structure of the club, spend money on redeveloping the training ground and possibly building a new stadium?
It depends who you are. Some people are happy just to be there, play, take their wage and go. Some people think different. When there’s a new man coming in with a lot of money, it means an increase in the wage budget and signing better players. So, for me, that’s amazing. I’m thinking we are going to win something. For other players it’s a scary time because it means they might have to step to one side – but I knew it was a good thing for the club regardless if I was going to play or not.
You mentioned players that are hungry. The players we signed last summer clicked immediately. Normally it takes a few months to bed in. Thiago was on fire from the start. Players like Ortega came and went. Even Uzoho started well before getting injured which led to Fabiano coming in. I was looking at the squad in amazement with the unity and cohesion – yet you’d only been together a short period of time. It’s a testament to all the players, their attitudes and the coaching staff.
Absolutely. Whenever a signing was made, the squad welcomed them with open arms. As long as they were hungry and prepared to work hard, we supported them. Win, lose or draw, we stayed together, had a drink after the games and it went like that throughout the season. We had some fantastic people in the dressing room. Fabiano didn’t speak much English at the time but we made him feel special straight away. Anyone that comes into a work environment and gets on with their colleagues straight away will always help.
Would you say the attitude in the squad during your last season at the club was better than the previous 3?
Yeah, I had some amazing friends in all the years at the club and there has been great camaraderie in all of them, but when you do well, everybody is happy for you – regardless who it is; from the young kids, to score a goal, make an appearance – everyone was happy. And on the other hand, when the younger players stepped out of line – and I was one of the biggest ones for it – I was on them, because one little thing can change the atmosphere very quickly. Anyone who stepped out of line would get a bollocking and we’d be back to normal again.
In terms of the players coming through the academy system, we have seen the likes of Loizou, Tzionis and more break into the first team and play like they have been in the main squad for a long time. For me, that’s unheard of in Cyprus. Most teams have starting 11’s made up solely of non Cypriots. Against AEK, Omonoia had 6 academy graduates in the starting 11 and 5 on the subs bench.
I think it goes back to the mentality in the squad. We treated them like they were older professionals and we demanded them to be like that because training was intense. If they weren’t up to scratch, or doing the wrong things in training or off the pitch, we’d tell them. They would then work hard and came in with a better attitude. It only helped them. They might not have thought it back then when we were bollocking them but look at where they are now. I’m not saying it’s just down to the captains or older players but every little thing helps them out; what the staff do before and after training, what the younger players do to help themselves; eating, drinking, sleeping, whatever they have to do – and it’s coming to the forefront now. I’m very happy for the boys.
I think a lot of credit goes to Henning Berg and the backroom staff. With no fans in the stadium I often hear the manager shouting instructions to his players. Only Ketsbaia is more animated on the touchline but he absolutely lambasts his players, which makes me wonder how he motivates them. Berg seems to have a calmer presence but he’s more methodical. How would you compare Henning Berg to other managers you had and what does he do different to them?
He’s a thinker. He sets his stall out and he know what he wants and what he wants to achieve. Sometimes that isn’t possible but he tried his hardest to get that. On the other hand, and you mentioned Ketsbaia, I had him as head coach at Olympiakos and I know about his management style. Henning Berg was great with me. He is a Blackburn legend as well, so that was great for me. We had a great relationship. I was the captain, he was the manager and we had a very good understanding – even until I told him I was leaving and down to my last second at the club. We had a fantastic relationship. He didn’t treat me any different when he knew I was leaving. I appreciate him letting me finish my career at Omonoia as I did.