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.