Sport Soccer

Saturday 10 December 2016

Steven Reid: Judge has ability to stake late claim for place in squad

Published 25/03/2016 | 02:30

I am at the halfway point on my journey to the airport and midway between the emotions of dejection and anticipation.

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Up ahead is a holiday of a lifetime. Barbados. Just me and Kathleen, then my girlfriend, now my wife.

Yet something is eating away at me. Even though I knew it was a long shot that I would make it into Mick McCarthy's World Cup squad, the fact I haven't made it is hurting. I'm not bitter, just disappointed.

So, as we arrive at Tolworth Broadway, I'm in a strange type of mood. And that's when I switch my mobile phone on.

Tolworth Broadway. Even now, 14 years on, I remember the exact spot, the garage where I tell my brother Karl, who is driving Kathleen and I to Gatwick Airport, to pull in.

Mick has left a message. "Steven, please give me a call. We need to chat."

One phone call later, I'm looking across at Karl and saying, "Brother, turn the car around. I'm heading to the World Cup."

When I think back to that moment - a career-defining one in so many ways - it gets me thinking about Alan Judge tonight.

Nowhere

Like me in 2002, he could be the bolter from nowhere who makes it onto the plane.

Back then, I wasn't that well known, a Championship midfielder at Millwall. Now Judge is the go-to guy at Brentford, a similar-sized club. How many Irish fans really knew much about me then? About as many who know Judge now, I'd guess.

Yet he's worth learning all about. Earlier this season, when we were conducting our video analysis session at Reading (where I now coach), we spent 20 minutes going over Brentford's various strengths.

Judge was pretty much the only person we talked about because he was their key man. He was central to their set-plays. He was the one who could travel with the ball, who could pick a pass, who was not afraid to shoot. He is the one with 14 goals and 10 assists this season - all from midfield.

You'd wonder why it has taken him so long to get noticed and I'm particularly stunned because I remember him when he was a fresh-faced teenager, just off the plane from Dublin, there at Blackburn at the start of his career and the mid-point of mine.

He had something about him, then, too. Unlike so many of the kids who arrive in academies, he didn't think he had made it.

There was a humility about him - an attitude that saw him stay back after training for some extra work. And there was something nice about the way he spoke to people. 'Please', and 'thank you' aren't words you always hear from footballers. You always heard them from Alan, though.

What you heard from the coaches after our training games was praise. Gushing praise. "He can play, the Irish lad," they'd say.

Yet it makes you wonder why he got to play so rarely for Blackburn. In two spells, he only started 14 games, whereas now we are talking about him stepping up from the Championship to the Euro 2016 squad.

So how do you explain that?

Much of it comes down to size. At 5' 6", Alan's height worked against him, I've no doubt about that. Had he been born Spanish or French, it wouldn't have been an issue. But in England, the physical attributes of a player often seem to be prioritised over technical qualities.

So, sometimes, even very good players just need a break, a manager who believes in them, a team whose tactics are beneficial, rather than detrimental, to you.

He has that at Brentford. They play 4-2-3-1 and base everything around him. Is it a massive step-up from there to international football? Of course it is. Can he make it, though? I certainly think so.

For me, he has been one of the five best players in the Championship this season and after travelling to watch their game against QPR a few weeks ago, a conversation with a high-profile Premier League manager at half-time made it clear that Alan Judge would not be making his living at Brentford next season.

My source told me that there are up to 10 clubs having a look at him, most of them from the Premier League, a few from the top end of the Championship. The figures they are talking about are in the eight million region. So are we, as a nation, in a position to ignore someone of that quality?

What matters, though, is not just what he has done for Brentford this season - but also how he performs in training.

Again, as I reflect on my own rise from the U-21 squad to the senior panel all those years ago, I know in my heart of hearts that my selection for 2002 stemmed from the work I was putting in on the training ground over the course of the previous two years.

Slipped

Back then, the U-21s would frequently play the seniors in behind-closed-doors matches, and the first time I played in one of those matches, I had a little conversation with myself and just said, 'To hell with it, have a go, here'. So I did.

First time I got the ball, I saw Steve Staunton coming in to close me down. So I slipped the ball past him on one side and ran around him on the other.

Afterwards, Kevin Kilbane spoke to Mick about me. That was the day I registered on his radar.

And that is the attitude every player needs to have over the next week. Training has to be intense. Their desire has to be total.

These games, against the Swiss and Slovaks, have to be friendly only in name because if you want to stand out from the crowd, if you want to catch eye of Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane', then you need to deliver the goods.

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