Being brave enough to be yourself
Updated: Jul 10
I have been asked since I retired from football, if I have any regrets from my career. My answer 2 years ago would have been absolutely none. My answer now may be slightly different.
It’s only since stepping away from the game and reflecting on my career and my life outside of football, that I wish I had been able to be a little bit braver to be myself. On and off the pitch.
I signed as an academy player at Chelsea at the age of 9. That experience for me was a wonderful one and a great education, but was also one filled with fear, nerves and anxiousness which shaped me on and off the pitch. I went in there and wanted the coaches to like me, my team mates to like me and I wanted to do all that I could to progress through that academy. I copied the older lads, did things to please others, desperate for approval and for people to see how badly I wanted it.
From the age of around 11 years old I would get crippling nerves before games, struggle to sleep, constantly dwell on mistakes, do anything to get a ‘well done’ from a coach and I would have done whatever it took to become a professional.
I was a defender and was always told that centre backs were the tough guys and the alpha males, but off the pitch I was this nervous, shy, quiet, skinny lad who hated confrontation. On the pitch I changed and became a different animal, but I was always trying to be something I never really was.
I remember when I was 10 or 11, I completely shaved my head and did this for years trying to create this tough image. I hated it, I remember going into school or looking in the mirror and not liking it at all, but the coaches now said I looked like a proper centre back. I wore old school black Copa Mundial boots and I never even liked them. They were uncomfortable, not very cool and deep down not what I wanted to wear. But I remember getting comments saying that I now looked a proper defender and I craved that approval. I would tuck my shirt in, warm up in a t shirt, never wear gloves (even though I’d spend half the game thinking about how cold my hands were instead of concentrating on the game) and would always get a pat on the back for this. But deep down it wasn’t who I was.
I was in a pressured environment where I was desperate for approval and desperate to progress, so I would do anything. I would then go and play a match for my school team with regular kids from school and I’d be myself, the person I wanted to be. I did all the things I was scared to at Chelsea. I would wear gloves if it was cold, I would wear white boots, I’d have my shirt untucked, I’d have tape around my wrist, I’d try tricks, I’d be expressive, I wouldn’t be scared to get on the ball and I would absolutely love it. Then I’d be back in at Chelsea the next day and be a shadow of myself. Black boots on, freezing cold, hoping the ball wouldn’t come near me.
I really think this shaped me going forward and I would almost play a character when I was at football. I was never fake, but I would do things to please others and to fit in. I would hold back from being my true self at times.
When I was finally released by Chelsea, I almost felt free. I went to Brentford, who were a League 1 centre of excellence and the shackles were off. It was less pressurised, and I became myself. I grew my hair back, got my white boots on and actually started to enjoy football.
I remember another time where I regret not being brave enough to be myself and it’s when I became a captain for the first time. I am an introverted character, I’m quiet, I hate confrontation, I wasn’t a great speaker in the changing room, but I was a leader. I led by example, I drove standards, I demanded on the pitch, I was professional, and I spoke to people with respect. But a coach gave me an armband and I felt that I couldn’t have that leadership style. I felt proper captains acted like Roy Keane. The manager then said to me things like; “you need to start bollocking a few”, “You need to get people up by the throat if they don’t listen”, ”You need to be the alpha male of this dressing room”. This went against everything that I was, but all of a sudden in my head I had to become Roy Keane. I started shouting and swearing at people on the pitch to please the manager, I would kick opposition players off the ball to please him, I would shout things in the tunnel to try to show I was an alpha male (knowing that it was a secure environment, and that no player could punch me in the face), I also remember him once telling me that I needed to make an example of someone. I had to grab someone up by the throat if they did not do what I said. I deliberately went after the smallest player in the team because I feared confrontation, it was an easier target if anything happened, and at that moment I could feel that all my teammates could see straight through me. I was being fake, trying to be something I wasn’t, all because this is what football thinks leadership should be like. I still feel embarrassed of being that young impressionable lad.
Luckily, I learned this lesson very early, but it did come back again later in my career when I signed for Luton Town.
My time at Luton Town is perhaps my biggest regret of all. The biggest club I played for, but from minute one, I went against everything that I believed in. I had been playing part-time football at Welling United for the previous 18 months and had done really well. I had attracted interest from clubs because I was a young centre back that was playing every week, but I was also a little bit different. I wanted to play out from the back, I wanted to dribble out with the ball, the coaches at Welling gave me the confidence and trust that I could play as well as defend, and I flourished there. I was being 100% myself on and off the field. I loved my teammates, but I felt I was slightly different. I would take chicken and broccoli on the coach while others took crates of beers, I would be devastated if training was called off, but others had just finished work and were over the moon. I would be distraught after games when others would be able to shrug it off, but I was me. Yes, I got called “busy” and had the odd joke, but I was always so comfortable being myself on and off the pitch.
I had a number of teams that activated a release clause in my contract and was given permission to speak to them all. I had spoken to a few clubs but got a gut feeling to sign for Forest Green Rovers. They were the smallest club that bid for me. But they made me feel loved. They wanted me to do exactly what I’d been doing, offered me a place to live, a car, a good wage and the manager Ady Pennock made me feel like I was the best player in the world. I always tend to listen to my gut. I was certain I’d sign for them, but on the way home I got a call from Welling United saying that they had accepted a bid from Luton Town. Luton were getting 10,000 fans week in week out, they were a big club, top of the league, paying big money, had some really good players and I went for the meeting. I walked through the car park and into the manager’s office and the first comment from a coach was “I thought you were bigger than that”. I stood there feeling 2 foot tall instead of 6’2. Luton had a massive squad, but I was told I’d be playing every week. I was offered a very good wage, a 3-year deal and the opportunity to play in front of a big crowd and climb the leagues with a big club. I had verbally agreed to sign. Just as I was leaving to sign the papers at the stadium, the manager said one thing. “By the way, I want my defenders to defend. It goes into row Z if it needs to and we don’t mess about”. I left that training ground knowing deep down that I was making the wrong decision.
I signed for Luton and we won promotion in my first season. I played every week, but I was a shadow of myself. I kicked everything out of play. I defended ok but went back to that nervous kid on the ball. I wasn’t being authentic. I wasn’t being myself.
Off the pitch I wasn’t being myself even more so. At Welling I didn’t mind being called “busy” or people having a joke. At Luton it was different. Someone took the p*** out of my car. A little polo that I had since I was 17. The next day I went and got a Mercedes. I lived in a block with Andre Gray and Alex Wall (2 great lads who I loved) but they were both into their cars and designer gear. I was never interested in that, but when we went shopping I felt I had to keep up. I’d buy things to keep up appearances, turn up in my Mercedes that I didn’t even enjoy driving. I’d be embarrassed to bring my food on the coach because I’d be a target, so I’d leave it at home. I remember a stage of doing laughing gas balloons because a few others were doing it. Something I wouldn’t have even dreamed of doing the year before, but because good players were doing it, I went along with the crowd. I was going on nights out when I wanted to be at home, I was being a ‘Lad’ in the changing room or when we’d go on nights out and speak to girls. I was listening to music that I thought made me look cool and not what I actually liked. I completely lost myself on and off the pitch.
I look back at that time at Luton with so much regret. Fans that saw a shadow of who I really was. Teammates that didn’t see my real personality. I wish I would have been braver. Brave enough to reject the move to the big club in favour of the smaller club where they wanted me to be me. Or brave enough to be myself amongst bigger egos and personalities, and brave enough to go against a manager’s orders and just play my own game, the game that made me who I was.
I left the club, after 18 months and in my second season, having lost my form and my place in the team. I wonder if things would have been different if I had been myself.
I’m still discovering who I am now. I’m desperate to be myself 100% and to not care what anyone else thinks. In a football environment I wanted to be brave enough not to have to talk like everyone else did, to not worry about being called “busy”, to grow a man bun like I’ve always wanted to, to wear white boots, to wear gloves if I’m bloody cold, to tell a manager that I don’t agree with what he has said, to challenge and educate team mates, to not be embarrassed of looking soft because I love my wife and that I’ve done something romantic, not to worry about the ‘banter’ I was going to get the next day because of a soppy social media post that I’d done, to be ok with telling a manager that I’m a bit nervous, I’m struggling with something, I need help, to not worry about what others think.
I say all of this because I work with and know of a lot of players who are just not being themselves. Players that are wearing clothes that all the other footballers buy, listening to music they don’t really like, talking to girls in a way to impress the lads, being afraid of being called “busy”, being afraid to have a certain haircut, being afraid to challenge coaches, being afraid to buy a cheap car, being afraid of being the only one without a pair of Balenciagas, being afraid of what they post on social media because of what others might think, and the list goes on.
A lot of the time it takes experiences, mistakes and lessons like this to grow up and find out who you really are. But the earlier you can do it the better. You’ll have less regrets when you get to the end of a career. Be respectful but be you. State your opinion, wear what you want, post what you want, do not let an industry or other people stop you from being authentic. It’s difficult, sometimes - you make yourself a target, you go against the grain and make yourself vulnerable. But when you look back I don’t think you’d ever regret a thing. If that’s you and you’ve been exactly who you are, there are no room for regrets.