Thursday 19 October 2017

It's a lonely place when you don't deserve to be there

The decision to persist with Conor Sammon was a bad call all round, says Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

My time as a first-team footballer in England did not begin as I would have liked. It didn't end as I would have liked either, but the early days bore no resemblance to how I imagined they would be as a boy.

I was booed by our fans, patronised by the media and unwanted in the team by the other players. It was only because of the club's financial difficulties that I was even on the manager's radar at the time, but I could not have envisioned a tougher introduction to senior football.

Conor Sammon's experience last week reminded me of that period. Very few people could make sense of his inclusion in the squad to begin with, never mind his selection to play from the start against Austria. He looked clearly out of his depth throughout the game and should not have remained on the pitch for 90 minutes. The manager had better options on the bench and should have used them.

I felt sorry for him because that's exactly what people said about me every week at Millwall.

Within ten days of my debut as a late substitute, the club was placed in administration and a transfer embargo was imposed on the club. No new signings could be made and the entire squad was available for sale (this was before the days of transfer windows). The manager and coaching staff were sacked and the administrators tried (unsuccessfully) to impose a wage-cut on the players.

The morale in the club couldn't have been lower following the sacking of 22 people. The fans feared for the future of the club and it didn't help that the man brought in to take charge of the team played extremely unattractive football. What made him even more unpopular with the crowd was his choice to play me at centre-forward. I was 18 at the time. I would have run all day long but I was lanky and weak. I was enthusiastic and honest but I knew I wasn't good enough. I wasn't developed physically or psychologically to deal with playing in the first team but I was the only striker he had who was over six foot tall. You can't play long-ball football without a targetman so the position was mine. Other than change how we played, which was never going to happen, the manager had no option but to pick me.

I did my best in every game but it wasn't good enough. The other players knew it too, I could tell by their attitude towards me in training. They were encouraging, even sympathetic at times, but they knew I wasn't ready for that level. Everyone knew it.

There was very little to look forward to on matchdays. I would always leave the dressing room with one of the popular players in order to avoid hearing the boos aimed at me when I ran onto the pitch to warm up. I never learned how to drown out the jeers when the team was called out by the PA announcer. It got to the stage when they didn't even wait until I did something wrong. If they heard my name or saw me with the ball, the instinctive reaction was to shout abuse.

The presence of family and friends at games made things worse. It affected me more because I knew they could hear every word of the abuse, and consequently I was happier when they didn't come to support me.

This is far more then Sammon went through on Tuesday, obviously, but I wonder what it was like for him last week. Sammon must have realised there would be a negative reaction to his inclusion in the original squad ahead of Kevin Doyle and he would have been aware of the disbelief when it was confirmed he would start against Austria. There were gasps

of incredulity when Shane Long was substituted ahead of him and he would have known that many people were wondering why Wes Hoolahan didn't replace him at some point. Some players claim they don't read the newspapers but there is no way he could have been unaware of how people felt.

It's a shame that his competitive debut was steeped in negativity but he shouldn't have been involved at all. He should not have been put in the position where his limitations were a central feature in the coverage of such a massive game. He didn't deserve his place in the team, but he did exactly what he was capable of doing and gave the performance he was always going to give.

In the tougher days later in my career someone would always remind me of how things were during that period when I felt like nobody was behind me. Maybe Conor Sammon will have a long international career and look back wryly on his early struggles. But it's more likely that he will be seen as one of the final follies of a bewildering manager.

rsadlier@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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