I’ve still got the letter.
I was 13 years old when it arrived, but I kept it as a reminder. And as motivation.
I’d been training as a schoolboy at Southampton for two and a half years when they wrote to me to say I was being released.
At the time, they had lots of good young players. I was in the same year group as people like Alan Shearer and the Wallace brothers, Rodney and Raymond. In the year above, there was Franny Benali and Matt Le Tissier. Their youth system was really strong.
I’d always wanted to be a professional footballer, so of course I was disappointed to be let go. But I was also naive. I didn’t fully realise the importance of that period in my life, in respect to whether I would make it. To me, it just felt like a knockback.
In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. I wasn’t broken by it. I just carried on waiting for my next opportunity.
It came at Crystal Palace. By the time I was 15 I was playing for their under-18s, and a year later they offered me a two-year apprenticeship. Then I had to decide: do I stay at school and take my A-Levels, or do I go and earn £27 a week playing football for Crystal Palace?
It was a no-brainer.
As a schoolboy I was always one of the top performers, but as an apprentice I was straight back down the ladder. At first I struggled with the full-time training, and that affected my confidence.
As a coach, I know now that every player – every person – has big insecurities about whether they’re good enough. That, every Saturday, some players are thinking: "How am I going to be today? Am I going to be good enough?"
At that stage of my career, I didn’t have that belief.
"I remember playing against people like Ossie Ardiles and Charlie Nicholas. You learn from those experiences"
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. I was a bit of a late developer in terms of my size, so at first I struggled physically. It was probably also a bit to do with the fact that I’d been rejected.
For the club, it was a great period. The first team were promoted back to the First Division in 1989, reached the FA Cup final in 1990 and the following year finished third in the league. They had exceptional players like Mark Bright, Ian Wright and England internationals Geoff Thomas and Andy Gray.
As a young player, it wasn’t easy to break into that team.
I spent three or four seasons in the reserves, playing more than 100 games, which I think was a record. At that time, more senior players would get games in the reserves if they were out of the first team.
I remember playing against people like Ossie Ardiles and Charlie Nicholas. Those experiences taught me a lot, because as a young player you don’t only learn from coaches – you also learn from the games you play in, and from playing against and alongside senior players who can talk you through things while you’re playing.
But even those experiences weren’t enough to prepare me for the moment I finally broke into Palace’s first team.
That dressing room was a bear pit.
You had guys who’d come through our youth system, like John Salako and Chris Powell. Guys who’d come from non-league, like Stan Collymore, Ian Wright and Steve Claridge. And guys like Geoff Thomas, Alan Pardew and Chris Coleman, who had come from lower divisions.
So everybody was hungry. Everybody had fought to get here, and everybody had real strength of character.
It was a fight. One you had to survive before you were accepted into the group. Then you could go and play.
Back then I wasn’t particularly streetwise, so it was a good grounding for me. It built in me a toughness, adaptability and resilience that would be so important throughout my career.
"When we got back to the training ground, we had to put our dirty kit back on and start lapping the pitch"
Outside of the dressing room, it didn’t get any easier. Every day we were pushed. Pushed hard. In the modern world, there’s a lot of discussion around coaching and where the lines are. If you go back 25 years, that looks very different.
But I never felt a line was crossed. And I was a more resilient person for going through those experiences.
I remember losing a youth game at Bristol once. We came back on the minibus, and when we got back to the training ground at Mitcham we had to put our dirty kit back on and start lapping the pitch.
In some respects, we were a bit of a throwback. But we had real physical resilience. We could play 90 minutes on Saturday, play again on Tuesday and then again on Saturday. And Monday was never a recovery day - Monday was cross-country.
There were elements of our development that could have been better tactically and technically, but we were given other skills that will probably stay with me forever.
It was Alan Smith who first made me captain. I was 22 years old and we’d just been relegated from the Premier League back into Division One.
We didn’t start the season well. And when we lost one of the more senior players to a long-term injury, Alan called me into his office. He said he was going to make me captain.
I was thinking: "I’ve got some 30-year-olds in the dressing room. How am I going to manage that?"
And what was their view of it going to be?
I understood why Alan had chosen me. He’d been my youth and reserve team coach, and had made me captain both times. He knew he could trust me. That I respected him completely, would fight his corner and get his messages across.
I can’t say it was a comfortable experience, but when I think about it now... well, how do we grow as people? You get put into positions where you're out of your comfort zone and you have to adapt. You have to adjust and give it your best.
"At Palace, we were a team of fighters. Tackles flew in much harder then. You got away with fouls you wouldn't get away with today"
I don’t think you’re born with the capacity to become a captain or leader.
As a young player, you probably become captain of your school or Sunday team because you’re the best player. As you get a bit older, it’s because you’re the most sensible, so you’re less likely to do something ridiculous.
Then, slowly, you start to have some experiences of leading that give you something to draw on. People recognise that, actually, you’re doing this quite well, so we’ll give you a bit more responsibility in another area. And all these experiences move you forward.
So I’m not sure what other qualities I had outside of being a good player and being sensible when I was younger. But bits were added on as I progressed through my career. I came through the highs and the lows. Learned how to react to them in a way that made the most of my personal qualities.
I played for different captains who all had different strengths. Because, in the end, you’ve got to be true to your own personality and authentic in what your beliefs are.
People maybe don’t remember me as much of a shouter, but my teammates might think differently. I was always prepared to give an opinion in the dressing room. And, although I wasn’t an overly aggressive player when I was older, at Palace we were a team of fighters.
At that time I played in midfield. Tackles flew in much harder then. You got away with fouls that you wouldn’t get away with today. And we were a long-ball team that was very physical, so the player I became later in my career - a centre-back who could use the ball okay - wasn’t the player I was at 22.
As a captain, I felt physical responsibility to make the challenges. To lead by example.
I wanted to be on the training ground longer than anyone. If we ever had a night out, I wanted to be the last one out. But then I also wanted to win the running the next day. It was a very old-school mentality, but at that time it was the best way I knew to influence things.
These days, I can look back on all these early experiences and know that they’re a real strength. That they enable me to give some mentorship to the players, and help them on their journey.
There is a balance in my mind in relation to my career as a whole, though.
In some respects, I never thought I’d get to where I got to, having started where I did. Captaining teams, going to major tournaments with England and playing in the semi finals of a major championship - there are only 20 or so people in the last 30 years who have done that.
In other respects, I never achieved quite what I wanted to. I’m sure everybody finishes playing and wishes they’d won more matches, more caps, more medals.
But, in the end, all of it has made me better. Has added to my armoury as a coach. Has given me the resilience to take on the role of England manager.
And, any time I need reminding of how far I’ve come, I just cast my mind back. To the letter. To the captaincy.
To the bear pit.
Author: Tony Hodson