Player, Chelsea, 2003-2010
That was me. I was almost 11 years old and playing in a football team for the first time. That’s when I realised I was different to the other kids. I had attributes that they didn’t, because until then I’d had nobody in my ear telling me how to play football. I’d just been playing. Trying to create something.
I’d always been more into playing the game than watching it. My dad wasn’t a football fan, so as a kid I went to Chelsea with a friend and his dad. But I was still more interested in what I could make a ball do than watching others knock it around. I always have been. Ever since one of my first days at infant school, when I stood in the playground and watched this kid kick a ball up in the air, let it bounce and then sort of spin it on his head.
I spent the rest of that day trying to do the same thing. After that, I was never separated from a football. Bounce it against this wall. Keep it up. Volley it against that wall. That’s what interested me.
Until Italia ’90. That World Cup was the first time we sat down to watch football as a family, and it changed everything for me. I saw how football could bring people together. Not just my family, but the whole nation. I sat as close as I could to the TV watching Gazza play and thinking, I want to play for England.
More than that. I want to be at a World Cup playing for England.
English football then was different to how it is now, though. Nobody played with number 10s. Football wasn’t played between the lines. Possession wasn’t something that was admired. Neither was the ability to hold the ball in tight situations. English football was: get it forward, get it wide, cross it, head it in.
The game is better now. I’m proud of what I’ve done, but if I could give back all the medals, all the money, all the memories and start my career again, I would.
As I said, I was an anomaly. For a long time in my career, people were concentrating on what I couldn’t do, rather than what I could do.
That’s all part of my journey, though. And now I’m coming towards the end of my playing career, I can use all those experiences to help me with what’s next. Becoming a coach.
"The truth didn’t matter, my whole world had changed. All of a sudden, I was a marked man"
As a young player, the first challenge I faced was choosing a club. Within six months of joining a team, I had every team in London knocking on my door. A whole new world had opened up to me, and it was amazing. I’d go up to play for Manchester United for a few days, and then to Everton. I was having a great time, playing four or five games a week.
But there was one club that felt right for me. West Ham’s academy had a buzz to it. The best players were there – and the best coaches, too. Even as a young lad, you have to trust your intuition. I wasn’t to know that Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick would all come through there, too. I just went with my gut.
Learning how to deal with the spotlight was something else entirely. I was 15 when a tabloid newspaper ran a front-page story saying I was earning five grand a week more than the Prime Minister. It was completely fabricated. I was earning my expenses like every other young West Ham player, for getting on the train.
But the truth didn’t matter. My whole world had changed. All of a sudden, I was a marked man.
I was good at putting the pressure to one side, though, so I don’t feel like it ever affected me on the pitch. In fact, when I made my Premier League debut against Manchester United two years later, I remember thinking: "I’m ready. I’m a professional now. This is just another game of football."
Old Trafford held no fear for me.
The first thing I did was give Jaap Stam a kick. Yeah, it felt like a step up in standards, but I wasn’t in awe of it. It was just: it’s all starting now. Let’s go.
Three years later, I was at my first World Cup. Playing for England. Okay, I didn’t play that much, but just being there had a big impact on me. I was around players like Rio, who was about to move to Manchester United, and all the other United boys who were playing in the Champions League. It got me thinking.
I wanted that next step.
And I wanted to do it with West Ham. We’d finished seventh the previous season, so we weren’t miles away. Bring in another four players over the summer, I thought, and we stood a good chance.
But we sold more than we signed, started the season undercooked and ended up playing Ian Pearce - who was a fantastic defender - up front for six weeks. We didn’t have enough strength in depth. At 21 years old, I was captain of a West Ham side that was trying desperately to drag itself out of danger.
"From the moment he came in, you could sense this guy was going to take the club on to that next level"
We got to 42 points, but it wasn’t enough. We were going down.
I knew then it was time to move on. I wanted to be a regular for England. To play in the Champions League. To win things. I wanted that next step, and it wasn’t going to come at West Ham.
I met Claudio Ranieri and liked what he was about. Liked how he saw football. So I took the plunge. As I sat in a cafe on the King’s Road, my dad and agent negotiated the deal for me to move to Chelsea. It all got done in a few hours. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
It was a crazy time at the club. Roman Abramovich had just come in, and they’d signed a load of world-class players. I was just an afterthought, really. But I didn’t care. Pig-headedness. Stubbornness. Call it what you like. My attitude was: "I’m coming here, and I’m gonna play."
It was a mad season. We finished second in the league. Reached the semi finals of the Champions League. But at the end of it, Claudio was gone.
I’d watched Jose Mourinho’s Porto side win the UEFA Cup the previous summer, and been so impressed. As a manager, the man himself was even more impressive. From the moment he came in, you could sense this guy was going to take the club on to that next level.
Straight away, he got me. I mean, he cracked the whip with me a lot. That’s public, you know? And looking back, there were times when I was really mad with him, but he knew what he was doing. He knew how to wind me up and get a performance out of me. He knew that if he dropped me, when he brought me on for 20 minutes in the next game, he was going to get 20 minutes of the best I could give.
He didn’t just criticise. I remember him telling the press that Frank Lampard was the best player in the world. At the time, Frank didn’t realise how good he was, but as soon as Mourinho said that, Frank’s shoulders went back. It got 10 per cent more out of him that even I didn’t know was there. He knew what to say to get the best out of different people.
"It’s hard to admit to yourself at the time, but so much of my game relied on quick feet and sharpness, and I’d lost a bit of that"
People talk about him changing me as a player, and he did. But I was only looking for improvements, you know? My natural inclination is to be a creative player. To get the most joy out of my football. But we were living in an environment where that doesn’t win you three points on a Saturday. That doesn’t keep your manager in a job. So you need to change.
I mean, it’ll always come out in my game eventually. You revert to type, don’t you? So, no matter how many times he told me, sometimes I’d try something and have to put my hand up: “Sorry gaffer, I shouldn’t have done that.”
You are what you are.
But Mourinho made me into an all-around better player. I was the best possible version of myself I could have been for Chelsea at that time.
Everything changed when I ruptured my cruciate ligament in 2009. I was never quite the same player after that. It’s hard to admit to yourself at the time, because you’re always trying to get back up that mountain. But so much of my game relied on quick feet and sharpness, and I’d lost a bit of that.
I still had good times - playing for Liverpool and scoring in front of the Kop, playing in the Champions League for Lille – but, for the next six years, injuries were never far away. It felt like my body was giving up on me.
I was 33 by the time I was able to play consistently again. It felt like I'd cracked the code, but it was mostly about learning how to manage my body.
That’s when I fell in love with football for the second time.
Proper football, you know? Horrible pitches. Tuesday nights. A few thousand people watching. Getting kicked around all over the gaff. Coventry City was a long way from Champions League nights at Stamford Bridge. But I was a long way from being the same player. I loved it.
Now I’m playing in the USA for Tampa Bay and learning even more about the game, both on and off the pitch.
Soon, I’ll go from being an old player to being a young coach. But I’m ready for that. I’m ready to listen, learn and take everything in. I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll address them and come back. I’ll use all my experiences of dealing with pressure and injuries, but I won’t rely on just those. You have to look to the future, and what football is going to be like, rather than live in the past and what worked for you as a player.
It’s a great thing to live your life by doing your passion. Now, that means another step for me. The next step.
Author: Tony Hodson