Photography by Tom Oldham

Jack Collison

Player, West Ham, 2007-2014

I remember the day of the game. I remember it all, very well.

We were 1-0 up at Wigan on a cold, wet night in the northwest. It was a niggly game. But, with just over 10 minutes to go, it looked like we had a happy journey home ahead of us.

Then it happened.

Our goalkeeper, Rob Green, launched a ball down the pitch towards me. I brought the ball down with a great touch off my chest, but as it hit the ground, so did I. Straight away, I knew I’d done something bad. I’d never felt a pain like it.

Scans revealed a dislocated kneecap. I didn’t know it at the time, but after that night I would never feel 100 per cent fit again.

Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

That was March 2009. I’m back on the pitch now, but in a different role. I’m no longer Jack Collison the footballer, but Jack Collison the coach, in charge of West Ham’s Under-16s.

I’m still learning what that means. Finding my way. Trying to build my own philosophies and ideas, and put my own twist on how I intend to go about my coaching.

I think back to when I was a young footballer. Right from the start, I was so driven. I signed for Peterborough United when I was nine and loved being treated like a pro. Even as I got older, and started finding out about girls and other stuff, football was everything. I had tunnel vision.

“The training ground had an old-school feel. The kind of place where you could smell the history through the walls”

When I was 17, West Ham came calling.

Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, Michael Carrick – so many of my heroes had come through the West Ham academy under the guidance of academy director Tony Carr. Now, at the age of 16, I had a chance to follow them.

As soon as I came to the training ground, I was hooked. It had an old-school feel. The kind of place where you could smell the history through the walls. Perhaps that was just the boots piled up in the changing room. Whatever it was, I had a good feeling about the place.

Tony was in charge of the academy and, for a young kid, he was quite scary. The type of coach who didn’t give many compliments. When you did get one, it was always pretty special.

I remember getting the magic words from Tony after scoring against Fulham in my second year: “Well done. Not a bad goal today.”

I was chuffed for days.

Tom Oldham

Compared with players these days, I probably made quick progress into West Ham’s first team. But, in my mind, it seemed to take an age.

Alan Pardew was the manager at the time, and although he was very good at integrating young players into training when he could, he was careful not to give us it all at once. We had to work hard for it.

We’d be with the first team once a week at first, then gradually that became twice a week. Those visits gave me a taste of training with the likes of Teddy Sheringham and, later on, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez and Mark Noble. Quality players. Good professionals. It made me want more.

It wasn’t enough just to train with them. I wanted to be involved on a matchday.

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On New Year’s Day 2008, I got my chance.

Myself and James Tomkins had travelled to away games with the first team on a few occasions, but not yet made it on to the bench. Today was a big one: Arsenal versus West Ham at the Emirates.

As we always did on away days, James and I went to breakfast together. On the way down we got caught in the lift with Alan Curbishley, who had taken over from Pardew as manager. Stuck in a lift with the boss – it’s the last thing you want as a young player.

Then he said the magic words: “You’re on the bench today, both of you. Make sure you’re prepared properly.”

We waited for him to get out, then we celebrated like mad. It was like we’d won the World Cup in the lift. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Half an hour into the game, Freddie Ljungberg picked up an injury and I got the nod. I’ll never forget Curbishley’s last words to me before I ran on:

“Try and get close to (Cesc) Fabregas.”

We lost 2-0 that day, but to get a taste of it in front of a full house at the Emirates was incredible. It made me even hungrier to improve and make my stamp as a first-team player.

“It was probably the most enjoyable time I had playing football. I felt fit. I was playing well and we were doing well as a team”

I travelled with the team for much of the season after the Arsenal game, but only got on the pitch once more. The next season started in much the same way. My feet started to get distinctly itchy.

When the option of a loan move to Peterborough came up, I was pleased. I needed to be playing regularly. But the day before I was due to leave, Mark Noble picked up an injury. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was devastated.

It’s funny how football works.

Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

The next day I found out I’d be on the bench for the next game: Manchester United at Old Trafford. At half time, we were 2-0 down and the manager – now Gianfranco Zola – decided to change things. I was going on for the second half.

United took their foot off the gas a little bit, which was perfect. As a central midfield player I could get on the ball, play some passes and really enjoy the night under the lights.

In the changing room after the game, Craig Bellamy put his arm around me: “You done really well tonight.”

That was a big thing for me. He was always one to speak his mind and tell you the truth.

“Football moves on quickly. You miss two or three games and you’re soon forgotten about. It’s the darker side of the game”

The next few months were probably the most enjoyable time I had playing football. I felt fit. I was playing well and we were doing well as a team.

Then it happened. The night that changed the course of my career.

So many things go through your mind when you’re injured. Will you ever get back to the same level? Will there still be a place for you when you do? Worse than that is the feeling that you’re not a part of it any more. You’re cut off from your teammates and from the club that’s become like family to you.

Everyone tries to keep you involved as much as possible. But you’re not involved. You’re part of a special club but you’re on your own, cast aside. It can be very lonely.

Tom Oldham

Football moves on quickly. You miss two or three games and you’re soon forgotten about. It’s a harsh part of the game. The so-called darker side.

I did everything I could to come back fast. Two months after dislocating my kneecap, I was back in the matchday squad in time for the last four games of the season. Somewhere down the line I would probably need a big operation, but I’d think about that later. For now, I’d manage the knee as best I could.

Two games into the following season, I lost my dad. He was involved in a motorbike accident on his way to watch me play against Tottenham on a Sunday afternoon. He never made it to the game.

As the eldest son, I was now the man of the house.

“That night it felt like the fans carried me through the toughest 120 minutes of football I’ve ever had to play”

Football became my release. When I wasn’t playing, my mind was constantly on other things. Making sure my little brother was getting by with what had just happened and that everyone else was okay.

Out on the pitch I could let loose and enjoy doing what I loved the most. And the players were great with me. They kept things as normal as possible. Still took the mickey out of me. Still ripped me if I made a bad pass in training. It helped me to get away from the reality of what was going on at home.

Three days after the accident, we had a cup game against Millwall. I spoke to the manager and told him I wanted to be in the team. I wanted to play.

As I walked on to the team bus, I nearly burst into tears. I couldn’t control what was going on. Felt like I wanted to cry.

Maybe this was a mistake.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Once the build-up to the game got under way, things started to feel a bit more normal. It was only when we walked out of the tunnel for kick-off that it really hit me.

Deep breath. Okay, here we go.

Half an hour into the game, we were losing 1-0. Shit. We can’t lose tonight. Not to Millwall. Not with everything that’s going on. And knowing what my dad was like, he’d have been in the crowd that night, shouting with everyone else.

We equalised with three minutes to go, sending the game to extra time. We scored twice more to win 3-1. People probably remember that match for the crowd trouble before kick-off and pitch invasions during the game. I’ll always remember it for how incredible the fans were to me.

I know a lot of people say it, but my relationship with the West Ham fanbase is really special. That night it felt like they carried me through the toughest 120 minutes of football I’ve ever had to play. It’s a feeling I’ll remember forever.

“It was a strange feeling. I was over the moon that I’d played but devastated we’d been relegated”

Six months later, I was facing another spell away from those fans. That big operation on my knee that I’d been putting off? The time had finally come.

Afterwards, I couldn’t walk for three months. The docs told me to spend eight hours a day on a CPM (continuous passive motion) machine, to get some mobility back in my knee joint. I’d do 12 hours. Whatever it took to get back playing again.

For the rest of the day I was attached to an ice machine or breathing through an altitude mask to try and cling on to any shred of cardiovascular fitness that I could. I’d spend 15 or 16 hours a day hooked up to machines or focusing on my rehab in some other way. I kept a diary, ticking off what I’d done every hour. At least that way I felt I was making some progress.

For three months, this was my job.

Tom Oldham

I was hit and miss when it came to watching football. The World Cup in South Africa was on at the time. I’d either watch three games a day and play FIFA for a few hours while the machines were on, or I’d want to focus on something else entirely.

I started learning Spanish and the guitar. I wasn’t very successful at either, but whenever I needed to get away from football or rehab I tried to do as much learning as I could. Keep my mind as active as possible.

Some 14 months after the operation, I made my comeback in a relegation scrap against Wigan.

I was so excited to be out on the pitch. But by the final whistle my emotions were all over the place. We lost. Relegation confirmed. Manager sacked before the stadium had emptied.

It was a strange feeling. I was over the moon that I’d played, but devastated we’d been relegated.

“Over the next 12 months it started to dawn on me. This could be it. I could be done”

We only spent one season in the Championship. It turned out to be a great time at the club. Sam Allardyce was in charge, we had a really tight-knit group of players and I got 36 games out of my knee that year, which was massive for me.

Occasionally I’d even play pain-free. Mobility was always an issue, though. I struggled to change direction quickly and my knee would swell up after every game.

I learned to manage it really carefully. Train on a Friday, play on a Saturday and then wrap myself up for the rest of the week. Instead of being out on the pitch improving my game, most of my days were spent in the gym or the pool.

It was a real battle. One that, over the next two seasons, I started to lose.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

My time at West Ham came to an end in May 2014. After nine years of extreme highs and painful lows, I was out of contract.

For the first time as a professional, I was without a club.

I dealt with it the best way I knew how. I wrote. All through my career, I’ve found that writing stuff down helps to clear my mind. If I can see it on paper, it helps me to process it. To see it for what it is.

So one night, I sat down and started writing a letter to the West Ham fans. At 2am, I finished it. Almost 3,000 words had poured out of me. It felt like a good way to close the book.

Over the next 12 months, it started to dawn on me. This could be it. I could be done here.

I’m going to have to find something else that I’m passionate about.

I chucked myself into a few things. I set up my own soccer school and started a degree in professional sports writing and broadcasting. I wanted to do things that might take me out of my comfort zone.

“One day I was in the changing room with the first-team boys at Peterborough. The next I’m trembling in front of the club’s Under-18s”

I had to give playing one more go, though.

Actually, I gave it two. First, I went to Ipswich. After three months there I left without playing a single game.

I tried again. This time at Peterborough, where I gave it a really good go. It was important I did that. If I hadn’t, I might have had regrets. But my body still wasn’t right. I wasn’t doing myself any justice on the pitch.

In February 2016, I retired from playing football. I was 27.

Tom Oldham

My whole life had been dedicated to becoming a footballer – and, once I became one, to becoming the best one I possibly could.

To realise I wouldn’t be one any more was scary. Really scary. But it’s one of them: do you sit there and think, what if? Or do you get your head down and focus on a new career?

I did the latter. And I did it quickly.

One day I was in the changing room with the first-team boys at Peterborough, worrying about the game on Saturday. The next I’m trembling in front of the club’s Under-18s, looking at me thinking: “Come on then. Impress me.”

The greatest thing about being thrown in the deep end is: sink or swim? During those first few weeks, I had to find a way to get on with it. To get better quick. Work out what I was doing. Not only to help the players, but also to help myself.

In the summer of 2017, West Ham came calling again. And, once more, I couldn’t turn them down.

I have a lot to learn as a coach, but everything I went through as a player has left me in a good position to pass on some valuable lessons. Some of the lads might know my story. Others might not realise I kicked a ball at that level. Football is quick to forget.

But I’ll always be thankful for my experiences – the good and the bad. They are the reason I know I’m in the right job. I can still smell the history through the walls. This is where I’m meant to be.

Jack Collison

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