When I started training with West Brom as a youngster, my family did not have enough money for a car. We lived in Coventry and training was in Tipton, near Birmingham. Mobile phones were only just starting to become popular and my mum bought me one.
Every day I would get two buses from school to the railway station and then get on the train; my mum would ring to speak to the conductor, making sure I would stick right with him and not be travelling on my own. It would be the same on the way back, at 9.30pm. We had very little but she always found ways to ensure I could make the most of myself.
Stories like this come to mind on the weekend of Mother’s Day, which is an occasion that should be marked properly in football. This job is tough on families: those who make such incredible sacrifices when you are making your way in the game, and the loved ones who deal with the frantic schedule and unsociable hours when you become a player or a manager.
In my role as Hereford manager I drive about 1,000 miles a week between Grimsby, Hereford and Birmingham, where we train. We often have two games and it means time at home with my partner, Becky, and our two young children can be limited. When you get that space with them and can just switch off, immersing yourself in everything they are doing, it’s vital to make the most of it. Becky is an incredible mum: she runs two businesses alongside doing most of the childcare, and I can’t speak enough about how supportive she is. I can get stressed sometimes but she is positive, calm, composed and sees the best in people.
Partnerships like ours are sometimes hard to find when you work in this industry. I did not meet Becky until I was 32 and, until then, found it hard to sustain relationships: I was constantly on the move and everything came second behind football to me. I’ve lived in about 18 different places since I left home at 16, and you cannot take for granted that someone will want to move around with you, potentially foregoing elements of their life for your career. I did not want to put that upon someone: I wanted to wait until I felt I could lay down some roots and think a little bit more about the family side of life, while being in a position to help another person achieve their own aspirations and goals. If we had met 10 years ago, we probably would not be together.
As a manager, I always ask what drives a player: whether it is career progression, money, family, or anything else. You have to know when to give players with families more opportunities to be with them. This Saturday we travel to Blyth, in the north-east, and I know very well that it’s a long away trip. Family has to be everything so they’ll get some proper time off afterwards. Sometimes you can perhaps push the lads who do not have families a bit harder; on the other hand, when players have a stable home environment you know what you are getting and it makes a good balance in the dressing room.
Football is definitely more of a family sport now than it was when I started: higher up the divisions there are liaison officers who help players get set up and ensure their families have what they need. But I still think there could be a little more support for spouses. Everything tends to be geared towards the players, and there needs to be a bit more help and understanding of the sacrifices their partners make. Perhaps, when they arrive in a new place, someone could be on hand to speak to them about what they can expect.
I want to say a bit more about the support my mum has given me. In 2003 I was released by West Brom and it was probably the worst period of my life. I rang her in tears but she said: “Look, it’s happened. What are we going to do now? Let’s go!” She immediately made me write letters to clubs and, within a week, I was in Denmark to sign for Herfølge. My mum paid for the plane ticket there and really pushed me to do it.
All the time she was working in two jobs, and studied for a law degree. She could be tough with me, especially when I messed around at school, but she kept me on the straight and narrow. My dad was not around; she gave up so much and showed me the grit, selflessness and determination you need to succeed in life. I cannot thank her enough. When she was at Wembley to see me win in the National League play-off final with Grimsby in 2016, it meant everything to me.
On Sunday I’ll make sure my mum and Becky both get flowers while my kids will also make them cards, just as I used to do when I was a child. Football owes a big thanks to all the mothers and partners out there, because without them the sport would simply not be able to function as it does.