When you’ve just lost the Scottish Cup final to Rangers, the last thing you want is to get called in for a drugs test.
But it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.
People talk to me now and say wow, how unlucky were you? Because I had cancer twice. But I look at it and think the complete opposite: I’m the luckiest man alive. If I hadn’t been chosen for a drugs test that day, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here, writing these words now.
As a footballer you sometimes feel superhuman. Untouchable. You think that because you’re fit you’ll never get ill. It’s part of the unrealistic bubble you live in.
When I got diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1999, it drove home to me that none of those things are true.
But the mentality of being a footballer did help me through it. Maybe it was me being naive or not wanting to address it for what it was but, to me, cancer was just another striker I had to beat. Another challenge. And I’d never been the type to shirk one of those.
Be hard to beat. Fight for everything that you earn.
That has always been my mentality. When you come from a working-class household and grow up seeing your parents working two jobs to provide for the family, it gives you that mindset.
Being a youth player at Bolton Wanderers in the early 1990s did that, too. Every day we’d be on our hands and knees scrubbing tiles in the changing rooms. If any of the first-team players found any markings left on the bath the following day... well, I probably can’t write here what would be done to us.
But I was desperate to earn a professional contract. If that was what I had to do to get there, I was more than prepared to do it.
It was the start of my pathway. One that led to a move to Celtic in 1996, when they paid Bolton what was then a club record £4m for me. At the time I didn’t know an awful lot about Celtic, apart from that they were a big club in Scotland.
I didn’t appreciate just how big until I got there.
"He said he was having a few problems at Arsenal and maybe I’d be better off signing for Celtic"
I almost didn’t make it to Glasgow at all, though. On the drive up, my phone rang and it was Bruce Rioch, my old manager at Bolton. He was now the Arsenal manager and wanted me to sign for them instead.
“Wages won’t be a problem. Neither will the fee. I just need to get it passed by the board.”
The journey to Glasgow ended up taking us almost two hours longer than it should have, with Bruce constantly on the phone saying: “Slow down. Don’t get to Glasgow just yet. This could be happening.”
I lost count of how many service stations we stopped at before I decided enough was enough. A fee had been agreed with Celtic and I didn’t want to be disrespectful to the club. One way or the other, we needed to know what was happening.
My agent rang Bruce to press him for an answer. At that point he said he was having a few problems at Arsenal and maybe I’d be better off signing for Celtic.
Two weeks later, Bruce got the sack.
By then I’d been blown away by everything about Celtic. Celtic Park. The fans. The manager Tommy Burns.
And my new teammates.
I walked into a dressing room that was full of big characters. But it was one where the sense of team spirit was really strong.
I’d experienced a similar feeling at Bolton, where I saw how building a real camaraderie can influence what happens on the pitch. Everything doesn’t fall apart just because you go a goal behind or have a man sent off, because you look around at your teammates and you know you can get back in the game.
I’m a really big believer in the power of team spirit. At Celtic, I think that was one of the biggest reasons we were able to stop Rangers from winning 10 titles in a row.
Games against that Rangers team were like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
I remember my first one as if it was yesterday, it’s that vivid. I’d been told about the rivalry - what it meant to the fans and what to expect. But it was on another level to anything I’d pictured.
"Will I play again? That was my first question to the doctor. Now, I look at it and it seems really selfish"
One minute I was walking out of the tunnel for the warm-up at Ibrox and the next I was getting spat at. Called every name under the sun. And I’m thinking, oh my god. I didn’t expect it to be this fierce, you know?
But once I got my head around it, I must admit, I loved those occasions.
I played in more than 20 Old Firm games and I loved the rivalry. I loved how tense they were. I loved the pressure that built up before the game. The onus on individuals and the team to deliver.
You wanted to win those games so much it was almost overwhelming. Such a powerful thing to be a part of.
I suppose it was just me. It was what I liked, you know?
Three years after that unforgettable first experience, my relationship with the fixture changed forever.
After I was diagnosed, the doctors wanted to do a biopsy as quickly as possible, to make sure the cancer hadn’t spread anywhere else in my body. After that, I was determined to play football again as soon as possible.
Within six weeks I was back on the pitch. But every three months I was back at the doctors for regular checks and scans.
It was after one of those scans that the doctors discovered another tumour, 18 months after my first diagnosis. This one was the size of a pea and was at the very base of my spine, right next to a main artery.
This time, the plan was four courses of chemotherapy followed by an operation.
Will I play again?
That was my first question to the doctor. Now, I look at it and it seems really selfish. You forget the impact it can have on your family. Your teammates. Your friends. But, as a footballer, it’s all you want to do.
"John Barnes’ time in charge at Celtic showed me that making that transition too quickly can be tricky"
I was in the operating theatre for nine hours. They cut me open down the front, moved everything over to get to the tumour, and cut it out. Nine hours later I was awake and in the most excruciating pain you could ever experience in your life.
I should have been in hospital for a few weeks, but six days later I was back home. Desperate to start rehab as soon as possible.
Desperate to get back playing.
My first game came against Hibs – the club that, 13 years later, would give me my first job as a manager. It’s a bit weird when I think about it. Sometimes I wonder if life is planned out for you a little bit.
I was lucky to have another seven years as a player before I retired in 2008. Most of them at Everton - the club I’d supported since I was a kid.
And it was there that I got my coaching baptism. David Moyes gave me the opportunity to work with the under-21s almost straight after I finished playing. It was the perfect place for me to put in the groundwork that it takes to go from player to coach.
John Barnes’ time in charge at Celtic had shown me that making that transition too quickly can be tricky. He’d still had a player's mindset rather than a coach's one, and I don’t think it helped him in terms of dealing with the players.
I’d learned from that. I wanted to put in the hours. Understand how I would be as a coach.
As a player, I was very intense. I didn’t like anybody who didn’t give 100 per cent. Couldn’t accept it, because I hated seeing people waste a talent.
I have mellowed a bit as a coach. I want to help players any way I can. Whether that’s spending an extra hour on the training pitch with a player, or watching through the video with them. I enjoy the psychological side, too. Finding out what makes certain individuals tick, on and off the pitch.
After six years learning my way at Everton, I felt ready to dip my toes into full-time management.
The opportunity at Hibs might not have seemed like the best one to a lot of people. The club had just been relegated from the Scottish Premiership. It was fragmented inside and out, with no connection between the fans and the club. It was broken.
I saw it as the perfect opportunity. I could go in and really put my stamp on what I wanted the club to look like. Implement a structure that would take the club forward. Make sure the fundamentals were right. Put the club back where they should have been.
I went into it with a real sense of belief. I was at home on the touchline. Knew exactly what attitude I wanted to pass on to the players.
Be hard to beat. Fight for everything that you earn.
It was just another challenge.
Author: Tony Hodson