Neil talks about his time at Wolves and Norwich, life in New Zealnad, and of course, the Super Saddlers!
Zidane: Hi Neil, thanks ever so much for taking time out to speak with Walsall Web-Fans. Your first league club was Millwall, being from Bromley were they the team you grew up supporting as a boy?
Neil: I supported Brighton and Hove Albion as a boy as my Auntie and uncle were from Hove and i remember the 1st game i watched was the 1980 cup final v Man Utd. Spurs in the early 80′s were also a team i liked as a boy, they had a great side with Glenn Hoddle being my favourite player at that stage.
Of course in 1994 you made a move to Wolverhampton Wanderers, your first of two spells. Wasn’t it Graham Taylor who signed you? How was it playing under a former England manager? On reflection was the 1994-5 campaign where Wolves reached the play-offs, can that be regarded as a successful season?
I can’t speak highly enough of Graham, he was a superb man manager and a top man. He was superb at making you feel special and he made my transition between Non League nobody to Established championship player feel easy. I remember the 94-95 season really well as it was my first full season as a professional, i scored 7 or 8 goals in 20 odd games which was my best ever return as a pro. I missed the nail biting conclusion to the season through injury where we lost out to Bolton in the play off semi final.Gutted Because we finished 3rd an had we achieved that a year earlier we would have been promoted automatically.
With the money from Jack Hayward then becoming more evident, was the weight of fan expectation at Wolves then a heavy weight on the shoulders? In came Mark McGhee and Wolves finished 20th, how did his management style (as a new manager in the game) compare to the outgoing Graham Taylor (who was a ‘veteran’)?
There will always be a greater expectency on a team when they are buying in players but i always enjoyed the pressure of playing infront of the wolves fans,yes they are demanding but so are all fans who pay hard earned money to go and watch the games. Mark McGhee was good to work for also, his sides always try and play nice football and has proved over the years that he is a superb manager.
After your season at Crystal Palace, you returned to Wolves, making the attacking midfield position your own, would it be fair to say that spell in your career was where you enjoyed your best spell in football?
I actually enjoyed my 94-97 spell more than my 98-2001 spell but not by a big margin. Playing 235 games for a team these days is decent going so im proud to have given something back to a club that treated me so well.
Following your move to Norwich you suffered serious knee injury problems. Fans don’t see this side of football, how does it feel as a footballer when you have such troubles? Unfortunately at Walsall we have seen two defenders (Allan Picken and Stephen Roberts) have to retire from the game having had 18 months of injury trouble over the last few seasons. When a player has a really bad injury is the threat of retirement always at the back of your mind or is it something you block all thought of?
I had a nightmare at Norwich and i will always feel like i let that club down .15 games played in 2 years for a player that cost 500,000 pound and was made captain will always be on my mind. Of course injuries are part of the game but i was out 14 months with a tendon rupture in my right Hamstring and had to have 2 operations with the 2nd one being last chance saloon. Thankfully i was ok and have probably managed nearly another 250 games since. Norwich was a lovely place 2 live for the 2 years which was some consolation for the frustrating time i had football wise.
Colin Lee brought you to Walsall, where originally you saw out the remaining months of your Norwich contract, before signing permanently. We were a Championship side back then, how did you rate the club’s set up back then compared to the other clubs you had been at?
I think Walsall is a great club, obviously the fan base and stadium was smaller than Wolves ,Palace and Norwich but the way things were run on a daily basis were exactly the same. The players were well looked after on and off the field and i feel that if we were just 1 or 2 players short of being a real force in the Championship in the 2003-04 season when we got relegated(on bloody goal difference!!!!).
Obviously you were a former Wolves player, Walsall fans don’t really like Wolves! Did you ever notice anything as a former Wolves player at Walsall following your links with them? There was quite a contingent back then – Steve Corica and Darren Bazeley.
I feel that every ex Wolves player has to do that little bit extra to win over the Bescot faithfull and rightly so. As you can see in this interview i talked highly of my time at Wolves and they are a club close to my heart but i really enjoyed the chance that Colin and Walsall gave me to get my career back on track after my Norwich experience. The Ovation i got when i left Walsall for New Zealand was amazing, something i never expected and i will never forget!!!
Obviously I have to ask, you played in that amazing 4-1 season opening win over West Brom, where did that come from!? What a game, it was Paul Merson’s debut, the sun was shining, and after the game Merson told the press that performance was better than any of Portsmouth’s the previous season when they won promotion to the Premiership. What are your memories from the game?
I have that game on DVD and myself Danny Hay and Darren Bazeley who are all here in NZ regularly talk about that game. That reminds me i think that bloody Hay has still got it after i lent it to him!!! We played amazing as a team that day and although we rode our luck on a couple of occasions we deserved the plaudits for that one.
My memories of the season was we had a real strong first half of the season despite the West Brom win being the only win in the first 8 league matches. Then the Preston game (which I think you scored in?) we went on an amazing run and in fact some of the games rate some of the best I’ve seen during my time as a Walsall fan. We’d used the loan market well, Chris Baird, Jamie Vincent (whose now back at Walsall) and Gary O’Neill. Then second half the season results just disappeared. On reflection was there anything you could pin-point this to which contributed to the change of fortune?
As i said earlier in the interview i believe we were just 1 or 2 players short that season. I think we wer sitting in 7th position on Boxing day after a win against Cardiff away and i believe Colin wanted to get a couple of players in but this didnt materialise because of funds and player demands. Our form dropped badly after Xmas and as we all know were eventually relegated.
Colin Lee was of course sacked, what was the players view on this? We went down that season by a single goal that season, could it have been different had the board kept the faith with Colin?
I think Colin was very unlucky, as you have said we were playing some superb football and he had bought some big name players to the club. Colin was another manager i had a great time playing for ,he seems laid back and quiet but he had a fiery streak in him too. I believe most of the players were sad to see him go.
That was your first relegation, can you summarize the feelings you felt when the whistle went Vs Rotherham?
Absolutely gutted. I had never been involved in a relegated team before and after the start against West Brom you would never have called it.
You were quite a Utility man at Walsall playing in at the back, midfield, forward. Does that bother a player, or would you rather be settled in a certain position? You often hear some players have suffered through being so versatile?
I just love playing football i would prefer to be settled in one position but as long as im playing im happy. I even put on Waccas shirt v Millwall away for last 5 mins after he was sent off,that gave me the “full set” of playing as a pro in every position on the pitch. I must say Waccas shirt was a touch tight!!!!
The next season Walsall survived the threat of another relegation, under the stewardship of Paul Merson. Merson often has a laugh on Sky Sports News about his spell as manager. As a player did you notice anything much different in his regime than some of the other more experienced manager you’d played under? We’re you surprised to see us face the drop the year after you left?
Paul was a great character he was also good in giving me a 1 year contract extention when he took over as i was out of contract after that relegation game with Rotherham. Im sure Paul learnt a lot from his Walsall experience and i am in exactly the same position as he was then with my club now being player/manager. It’s a tough job but im really enjoying it.
How did your move to New Zealand come about? They recruited quite a few ex-Saddlers! When you moved to New Zealand Knights, how did you settle on a personal and footballing point of view? Did you take time to ajust to the style of play or was it as you were used to?
Danny Hay is a very big name over here and he enjoyed playing with me at Walsall and he had involvement in a new team over here so i got the invite from him and i talked it over with my family and the rest is history….. As you say Darren Bazeley is here too and our families are very close so it made it an easy move.
You are now at Waitakere United (with ex-Saddler Danny Hay?). Do you have plans to stay in the game in management/coaching after your playing days are over?
I have been appointed Player/Head coach and i have Darren as my asst coach, he has retired from playing as has Danny who is now working as a sports writer and school teacher in Auckland. I work full time for the club not only running the 1st team but am in charge of the youth academy structure and grassroots training so that keeps me busy.
New Zealand as a country, it looks beautiful, always a place I have wanted to visit, have you had much time to travel around? If so what are the must see places?
New Zealand is fantastic. We travel the country when we play so we fly to games etc so i have seen a lot of it. Queenstown is amazing in the South Island and Mt Maunganui, the bay of Islands and the corromandel peninsula are beautiful spots on the North Island. We live in a spot called Murrays Bay which is also as nice as it sounds. Recommend a visit to anybody if they can handle the flight.
Do you still follow the progress of Walsall from New Zealand? Do you still keep in contact with many of the players you played alongside?
I always have a look at the results, its part of my Sunday morning routine(time difference) to get up and check the internet. I speak to a few of the boys from time to time. Wacca, Wracky, Ozzy and Bimbi are the ones i keep in touch with the most.
Once more, many thanks for taking the time out to spreak to us, we really appreciate it. We wish you well for the future. Always enjoyed watching you at Walsall, I even had your name and number on the back of my shirt!! Players who visibly give 100% at Walsall are always well liked.
No problem Andy .My pleasure as it was also playing for Walsall !!!!!
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