Friday, 12 March 2010

“People think being a footballer is all about driving a Ferrari and going out with a Spice Girl. It’s not. Far from it”

In part two of a three-part exclusive interview, Weaver tells us about his favourite moment in a City shirt (it’s not just about Wembley), how his career has been resurrected by n anonymous dead man and what he thought when he played in goal while David James played upfront at the City of Manchester Stadium.

20 year-old Sheffield-born goalkeeper Nicky Weaver was living his dream. After his 1999 Wembley play-off final heroics helped to send City into Division One, the following 1999/2000 season culminated in City gaining promotion back into the Premier League after a 4-1 victory against Blackburn at Ewood Park.

“I really enjoyed the Blackburn game, possibly on a par with Wembley. Blackburn hit the woodwork about four times in that first half too. I remember Ashley Ward blasting the ball past me and I turned round thinking it was going in the net but it hit the post and came straight back into my hands. At that point I thought it was going to be our day. Then they scored an own goal. I remember the first half I looked out to my left and there was a gap in the stands with a grass bank and it was just blue. City fans were everywhere.

“We had been 1-0 down but came back to lead 4-1 with about 15 minutes to go. We pretty much knew we’d won it and the City fans were just spread right the way around Ewood Park. It was a boiling hot day and the pitch was full at the end of the game. I’ve got some photos, albums of those first couple of seasons. Every now and then when I visit mum and dad we’ll have a look at them, it’s something to show the grandkids.”

Back-to-back promotions from the-then third tier to the elite made Weaver both a Premier League and England under-21 goalkeeper. But City’s return to the top flight didn’t quite go according to plan. The club was relegated at the end of the 2000/01 season and manager Joe Royle was axed.

“We probably went up a year too soon”

“I don’t think the success changed me, I think it changes people around you. Suddenly everybody wants to be your best mate and everybody’s hanging onto your coat tails. I was still only 21 at the time and a lot of the players had never played in the top flight before.

“Looking back, we probably went up too soon. The journey to get there was absolutely fantastic and something you don’t see that often. We probably went up a year too soon. But it was great for me to playing in the Premier League at such an early age, but we struggled and got relegated. That brings you straight back down to earth with a bang. It’s not a nice feeling. People think being a footballer is all about driving a Ferrari and going out with a Spice Girl. It’s not. Far from it. But luckily we got back up again and stayed there since. I think I was at the club for six seasons before City actually stayed in the first season twice on the bounce.

“When Joe Royle got sacked, a lot of people pointed the finger at the supposed drinking culture at the club. I’m not saying the lads didn’t go out and have a good time, but I think if you would have been top of the league, nobody would have said anything. The fact that we got relegated and there was a few ‘incidents’ along the way it obviously gets highlighted when a team is struggling. If it was now, things may have possibly been done different. Football’s changed so much since then. But it’s a learning curve, there were a lot of young lads in the team and looking back we probably shouldn’t have gone out and partied so much, but it’s something that can’t be changed.”

City bounced back again at the first attempt and have remained in the Premier League since. But with City flying high again under the leadership of Kevin Keegan, Weaver’s world was about to be disrupted by an injury that nearly forced him into early retirement.

“I did it away at Birmingham. I think it was March 5th 2002. I just dived and when I landed I felt something weird in my knee. I carried on for a few minutes but eventually had to come off. I had a little cartilage operation which is pretty routine for footballers and was thinking I’d be out for about five or six weeks. I came back, it wasn’t quite right, came back again, wasn’t right again and that’s when I first realised there might be a problem. I had two more operations and again wasn’t right and then I went over to America.”

“I would have been 25. It would have been a tragedy”

“When you’re flying half-way around the world and surgeons in England telling you they don’t know what the problem is, that’s when I realised I had big problems. I went to America, had another two operations, they were unsuccessful and then resorted to the final operation which entailed removing a cartilage from a dead person and putting it in my knee.

“At the time I had to wait for the right donor before the surgery could be done. But once the call came I was straight out to America, operation done, then five weeks recovery out there. I think the surgery lasted five hours, that’s quite a long time. I’ve actually seen the DVD of the operation and it’s really not pretty. It’s really unusual and quite ironic that a dead man’s cartilage has saved my career. I asked the hospital if there was any chance to find out who the donor was so I could write their family a letter. Obviously it would probably offer them no consolation for their loss but I thought it may be nice for them to hear how grateful I am, but they couldn’t give me the information. I’ll always be grateful for it though.

“I think I’m still the only British footballer to ever have that procedure done and I took a big risk- my body could have rejected it. The doctors and surgeons advised that if that would have failed, that would have been the end for me. I would have been 25. It would have been a tragedy. But the knee has been great since then, I’ve played over 100 games since it and hopefully I can play on for many years to come. I was doing rehabilitation in the gym on it for well over three years. But now I think I’m lucky to be back.”
“It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen...but it nearly worked”

The road to recovery was both long and frustrating for Weaver. David Seaman had been filling his boots until the former Arsenal goalkeeper retired. Then David James signed for City. With the competition for the number one spot fierce, it was an unlikely substitution in the final game of the 2004/05 season against Middlesboro that saw Weaver back in front of the adoring City fans. City needed a victory to secure a place in the UEFA Cup. Cometh the hour, cometh the...goalkeeper?

“I didn’t know about it. James knew about it and he referred to it after the game as ‘the plan’. I was just sat on the bench, there was about 15 minutes to go and at that point we were drawing 1-1 but needed the win to get us into Europe. I was sat on the bench next to Jon Macken and Tim Flowers turned round to me and told me to get warmed up. I thought he was talking to Macken!
"I was stunned. But he told me I was going on, I couldn’t believe it. I could understand if it was a nothing game and he just wanted to give me a few minutes or whatever but I couldn’t get my head around it. Then I saw Chappy (Les Chapman, City’s kit man) pull an outfield shirt out with ‘James’ on the back. I just couldn’t really grasp what was going on. But something clicked and I realised that James was going outfield and I was in goal.

“So I ran up and down a couple of times and then I went on. I was still pretty much in shock. Then the fourth official held the board up and showed that Claudio was coming off, and I was going on, and everybody was just baffled really. But Jamo came sprinting over to take his top off and the penny dropped. Once he put the outfield top on, he ran one way and I ran the other. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen...but it nearly worked. James caused havoc upfront, he didn’t know what he was doing but it was something that Boro didn’t expect. He did a couple of bad challenges too. We got a penalty and you would have backed Robbie Fowler to score but Mark Schwarzer pulled off a great save and we didn’t make it.

“It was a tactic that Psycho said wouldn’t happen again but James is a big guy and if we would have got a couple of corners who knows. It just caused panic and uncertainty. If Robbie would have scored the penalty and we would have gone on into Europe it would have been deemed a masterstroke. As it was, everybody just looks at it as a bit of a laugh. I was gutted City didn’t get into Europe but on a personal note was delighted to get on the pitch. I remember making a save off Stewart Downing and the crowd gave me an unbelievable reception. It was the first time I’d featured in two or three years so it was unbelievable. It’s another memory that makes me smile.”

In the final part of a three-part exclusive interview, Weaver tells us about his favourite managers, players, why he left City, what he thinks about the club now and which goalkeepers he would be reserving seats for on the plane to South Africa. Not to mention his thoughts on a potential Andy Morrison-Mike Tyson clash...

Monday, 8 March 2010

One of the most successful football managers ever, Alex Ferguson, will soon be relinquishing his post and retiring from the game. Speculation has been rife for years regarding a potential suitor to the Old Trafford throne. Many rubbish the Jose Mourinho links and suggest that the most appropriate successor would be Martin O’Neill. Why? What is it about the current Aston Villa manager that makes him significantly popular?

He comes across as the type of man you could go to the local pub with for a pint and put the football world to rights with. His passion and desire are hugely endearing, making him a big hit with fans in general. As a person he seems relatively unassuming with a hint of eccentricity. These mixed character traits combine to make quite an unusual personality: an explosion of touch-line animation mixed with calm judgement and intensity. It’s a potent combination that has proved to bring success both during his playing career and throughout his managerial career so far.

O’Neill was born and raised in Northern Ireland into a family with Gaelic football roots. He was naturally indoctrinated into this way of life and it was during playing for Irish League side Distillery where his talent was spotted by a scout from Nottingham Forest.

He moved to Forest in 1971 and won an array of trophies at the City Ground, namely the League in 1978 and League Cup in both 1978 and 1979 and the European Cup in 1980. During this time O’Neill was also playing for Northern Ireland and was captain for his country at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. He also had flirtations with Norwich City, Manchester City and Notts County before retiring and moving into the role we all recognise him for now- football management.

The Irishman’s first managerial role was at Wycombe Wanderers back in 1990. He was an instant success: he narrowly missed out on promotion in his first season, but then celebrated back-to back promotions, taking the Wanderers from the Conference to the then-Division Two. He then moved to Norwich City but left the club months later after a dispute with their chairman over signings. But O’Neill wasted no time and became the manager of Leicester City. Once again, winning ways came to Filbert Street, winning the League Cup twice in 1997 and 2000 and subsequently qualifying for the UEFA Cup. The fans adored him, fellow managers and critics applauded him, it seemed like O’Neill really had the Midas touch.

Despite pleas from the Foxes fans not to leave, O’Neill was progressing in his career and moved up to Scotland to become the Celtic manager in 2000. It was in this role where he made his name: he amassed an incredible haul of accolades at Celtic Park, completing the domestic treble in his first season and took the Bhoys into the Champions League three times. During his time he won three League titles, three Scottish Cups and a League Cup. But in 2005 he sensationally resigned to care for his ill wife Geraldine. It was a move that stunned the football world- at the time O’Neill was being linked with a plethora of jobs in England.

But just over a year later, in August 2006, O’Neill was back in football as manager of Aston Villa. He has remained the Villans’ manager ever since and recently took his team to the League Cup final, where they were beaten controversially by Manchester United 2-1. His Villa side combines flair and grit, youth with experience and is currently embroiled in the race to break into the Premier League top four. He admittedly makes mistakes: last season O’Neill fielded a weakened side in a UEFA Cup game in an effort to challenge for the top four instead. But his side were knocked out of Europe and faded away, finishing 6th instead.

But it’s a learning curve and O’Neill’s record in football speaks volumes. His intellectual management style, impressive tactics and heart on his sleeve personality combine to make him one of football’s most valued managers. Aston Villa would do well to live by their motto and be prepared- an away day at Old Trafford may become a permanent home fixture for O’Neill someday soon.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

“I waved the lads over pulling that stupid face, hopped over the advertising boards and just ran round. I didn’t want anybody to catch me. It felt amazing”

Back in 1998 he was the fresh-faced teenage goalkeeper who won an army of fans through his superb shot-stopping and Wembley heroics. In the first part of an exclusive three-part interview, Nicky Weaver reminisces over his debut season and that moment at Wembley. Intrigued? I was...

Manchester City’s relegation in May 1998 was undoubtedly the darkest hour the football club has faced. A traditional club steeped in history sliding down to the third tier of English football, its devoted fans horrified and heartbroken. But when the reality sunk in and the club played the first game of the 1998/99 season at Maine Road against Blackpool in the sunshine, a young hopeful was realising his dream by making his debut for City.

Nicky Weaver signed from Mansfield Town and was immediately thrust into the first team, replacing Martyn Margetson. The 19 year-olds first 90 minutes of football resulted in a 3-0 victory for City, Weaver keeping a clean sheet and the start of a childhood dream being realised.

“I suppose it’s every kid’s dream to be footballer. All I ever wanted to do was play for Sheffield Wednesday: growing up I had a season ticket for them and my dad used to take me to Hillsborough. I never really had any other plans and I’ve no idea what I would have done if I hadn’t had made it. I wasn’t any good at school so I was one of the lucky ones.

“I had a couple of heroes growing up. From a goalkeeping point of view it has got to be Peter Shilton. He was the England goalkeeper when I was a little kid and the first I can remember. The World Cup in 1990 was a big memory for me and he played well in that tournament. Closer to home it was a guy called David Hirst; he was centre forward for Sheffield Wednesday at the time.”
"It was City getting relegated that gave me a chance"

For a club like City to be playing football in Division Two was pretty incredible. The always-loyal fan base at Maine Road remained ever-present, sustaining regular attendances averaging 28,000. For Weaver it was a peculiar scenario, but one he benefitted greatly from.

“It was definitely strange. One week you’d play at home in front of 28,000 and the next you’d go to Lincoln or Colchester and there would be 4,000 there so it was really different every week. I think for me at the age of 19 to be playing at that standard in the third tier of English football but to be playing on that stage, at Maine Road, was great for my development. I was lucky really that it was City getting relegated to that division that gave me a chance. That season really put me on the map.”

As the season continued, so did Weaver’s clean sheets. The Sheffield-born starlet was enthusiastic yet endearingly naive, learning more about his trade and developing along the way. He was young and incredibly determined. Despite not being in a top-flight team, Weaver was attracting attention for his shot-stopping abilities. He admits his record-breaking clean-sheets tally is something he
values and confesses he thinks it may never be broken.

“I wasn’t really aware of it until I reached about 18 clean sheets and then somebody mentioned that I could break Alex Williams’ record. You just play every game, you love it and you can’t wait for the next game. I remember equalling it at Gillingham and beating it on the last day of the season, it was York at home. It was fantastic. I’ve still got a decanter souvenir that Alex presented me with. That record now will probably not get broken so it’s something that I cherish and look back on with fondness.”
"Michael Brown asked me to save a couple"

The end of Weaver’s debut season, 1998/99, coincided with the event that most City fans remember him for- the 1999 Division Two play-off final. The game itself was pretty uneventful- neither team had scored until the last five minutes. Gillingham scored twice, then Kevin Horlock pulled one back for City before Paul Dickov levelled it with the last kick of the game- taking the Blues into extra time and penalties. The penalty shoot-out creates heroes and villains and for Weaver was the culmination of an incredible first season at City. What was going through his mind as he orchestrated the City fans behind the goal before the shoot-out?

“I always felt that once it got to a shoot-out it was a massive advantage to be taking the penalties in front of the City end. I wouldn’t have really fancied doing it down the other end. I remember it all quite well: Michael Brown put his arms round me and asked me to try and save a couple. As a ‘keeper going into that situation you’ve got nothing to lose because the players are expected to score and the penalties I saved weren’t great penalties, so I was a bit fortunate there.

(Laughs) “I remember asking the lineman before the penalty if I saved it, did it mean City were definitely up. He nodded and I asked him again just to be sure. I remember saving it and (pauses and smiles) just...I waved the lads over pulling that stupid face, hopped over the advertising boards and just ran round. I didn’t want anybody to catch me. It felt amazing.

“Looking back now, that was the end of my first season and I probably thought it would be like that every season. It was just the most unbelievable feeling and it’s probably the highlight of my career. I’d just turned 20 and it was a lot to take it. It probably took me about two or three weeks to get my feet back on the ground, to settle down and realise what a massive achievement it was.

"Even now, people approach me talking about Wembley. Everybody’s got their own individual story: whether they was up the M1, at the tube station, had left the ground but heard the cheer and ran back in, everybody has their own special account of that day. It was just such a unique day. It’s something I’ll live with forever, it was just fantastic.”

In part two, Weaver tells me about his favourite moments in a City shirt (it’s not just about Wembley), how his career has been resurrected by an anonymous dead man and what he thought when he played in goal while David James played upfront at the City of Manchester Stadium.