Simon Cox is ready for his second journey after the thrills and spills of trying to survive as a professional footballer
1 THE END
Simon Cox smiles as he reflects on his long-held desire to keep playing professionally until he was 40, a craving borne from the belief that the ball would always be in his court.
He didn’t envisage the mission ending last weekend, six months after his 34th birthday, following discussions with his wife Samantha and his parents.
“I feel like quit is a horrible word,” he laughs, “I’d like to think of it as stepping away.”
The brutal truth of his business is that players don’t always retire; it’s the game that retires them. In the summer after his return from Australia, and the end of a Covid-curtailed 16-month stay with Western Sydney Wanderers, Cox put the feelers out to contacts.
There was realism in his networking. Cox scored 17 goals at League One level with the Southend in the season and a half before his relocation Down Under and he pursued options in that division and below it in League Two and the Conference.
“You pick up the phone to people you’ve played against, people who are managing now. I must have phoned or met numerous managers across those leagues,” continues Cox, speaking from his home in Essex.
The same answers came back, either to Cox directly or his representatives.
‘We have our targets, he’s not one of them’
‘We’re looking at a younger squad.
A final ring-around once the transfer window closed confirmed that not even his free agent status was tempting enough for a club to bite.
“None of them wanted me,” he says, matter of factly. “It was one of them where you’re (like) . . . oh wow . . . 500 games, nearly 150 goals across all leagues and international level, how are you turning around and saying no? But you have to check your ego and say, you know what, if the phone is not ringing, it’s not ringing. Take it on the chin and say, ‘My time is done.’
“I’ve had 17 years as a pro and feel like I’ve done alright. But I realised when I came back that football really quickly forgets about you.”
2 WHO’S THIS GUY?
How will football remember Simon Cox? The game moves fast and, to some readers, the name may ring a bell without producing a picture.
In Ireland, the snapshot will always be Euro 2012 and that summer in Poland. For the infamous chasing at the hands of Spain, Giovanni Trapattoni’s pre-match curve ball was to drop Kevin Doyle and introduce 25-year-old Cox, Doyle’s one-time Reading understudy, as a second striker.
He’d been around the squad for a year, scoring three times in 16 appearances, but large swathes of the Irish public knew little about a player who had been in West Brom’s Premier League squad for the previous two seasons.
Trapattoni picked the team, yet Cox always felt that assistant Marco Tardelli was his main ally. They bonded in gym discussions before training, the player absorbing tales of World Cup victory. “His English was a lot better than Trap,” he says. “And he liked the way I played. I think my relationship with that management team was more to do with my relationship with Marco than Trap.”
The Spanish brief was beyond him, though, tasked with the impossible job of linking midfield and attack against the best international side of the era. At the interval, he was called ashore but that outing combined with sub appearances against Croatia and Italy meant he got on the pitch in every match in that tournament. Three losses for Ireland, but a personal victory in his eyes.
“Regardless of the results, it was probably the best moment in my career,” says Cox, with his only Premier League goal, a stunner at White Hart Lane a year earlier, the only clear rival for the affections.
“I’ve so many pictures of the Euros, winning the Championship and playing in the Premier League against some of the best players in the world. It’s scary for someone who never expected to make it as high as I did.
“I didn’t have the elite mindset and elite mentality at the time to forget about that sort of stuff and just play. I went there as a fan who had done really well to get to these amazing grounds and to play against these unbelievable players. If I’m being really honest, I probably didn’t worry about what the results were because I was living the dream as it was.”
He was a happy-go-lucky character in those days, far from a deep thinker, and he didn’t always nail the first impressions.
Stephen Hunt has spoken openly about how his old clubmate riled him. Trapattoni’s preference for Cox at the Euros was agony.
“I’m quite a serious person now,” says Cox. “Back then, I felt I was at the top of my game. I’d got into the Ireland set-up and I was ready to attack and nothing and nobody was going to get in my way. You get older, grow up and realise you were a little a**ehole sometimes.”
Entering his first Irish training session, he didn’t recognise the laws of the group. Cox knew a core of the squad from his Reading and West Brom days but his attention was elsewhere.
“They weren’t the ones I was worried about integrating with,” he explains. “It was the higher end, the Robbie Keanes, the Richard Dunnes, the Shay Givens, the Damien Duffs.
“They do little boxes before training and I didn’t realise the younger groups stayed one side and the hierarchy went the other way. I found myself over on the Robbie Keane side. I was thinking, ‘I want to play with you, I want to play with the best players’ and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oof, who’s this guy?’
“I could probably guarantee you that none of those four I mentioned had ever heard of me so I’d imagine it was a little bit like, ‘How dare you get into our box, you’re not deserving to be in this box’ but for me it was like a test.
“They probably thought I was cocky but my thinking was if I’m going to be here for a little while in terms of years and games and appearances, you’re going to have to get used to me. I wanted to impress them.”
There was another angle to fitting in that he was wary of, however, and he says he felt in the same boat as Sean St Ledger and Liam Lawrence on account of their shared background as grandparent-rule converts.
“Ostracised is not the right word,” he says. “But you had to go about things in a different way and be careful of what you were saying in case the backlash is ‘You don’t deserve to be here, you weren’t born in the country, you’re taking someone’s spot because your grandparents were born in Ireland’ and you’re making a way for yourself without earning it.
“That sort of mindset went away as the tournament got closer and, afterwards, it got a lot easier. For me, it was trying to let my football do as much of the talking early on, and then when it got to the stage where it felt like I was accepted and more than just a one-hit wonder, I started to integrate a bit further outside of the squad when there were chances to sit down and have chats with people because, ultimately, if I felt I was going to be there for four or five years, you’ve to get to know the people you are going to be there with.”
3 DEAR JOHN
The time-frame was optimistic. Two years after the Euros, Cox won his last cap in a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Portugal, although he didn’t know it at the time. Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane extended no further invitations, nor did they explain why.
Euro 2012 was the peak, but in another way he feels it was also the beginning of the end. Trapattoni’s last year was fraught and he exited in September 2013. Noel King’s subsequent appointment as caretaker led to Cox’s first exclusion from a squad since his debut. He has his own theories about the reason.
“I think Noel was told not to pick me,” he declares. “That’s me speculating. I don’t know if that was the case.”
This invites elaboration.
“John Delaney was a big issue for me. We had a big incident after the Euros, after the Italy game. Prior to that, I got on really well with him but after this we massively, massively fell out.”
It’s a story he hasn’t shared before and there is a certain reluctance to go there. The scene was the team hotel in Poznan, with players, staff and other members of the official party finishing off the tournament with a few drinks.
Cox was in the corner with a group of players and rose from his seat to go to the bar where he found himself next to Delaney and a sponsor.
“I said, ‘Would you like a drink?’ and they said, ‘We’re good thanks’,” he says. “And then John sort of starts hitting me around the face in a jokey way (Cox does a mini-impersonation of the CEO playfully patting and grabbing at his cheek).
“I let that one slide. I put my order in and was waiting for my drinks and he started doing it again. I was like, ‘Listen, you’re going to have to stop that’ and then he started doing it again. The sponsor told him to stop. I turned around to John and said, ‘Listen, John, if you do that again, I’m going to lay you out here in front of everyone.’”
Immediately, the mood changed.
“All of a sudden, his nose was out of place. I think it was because it was in front of his big contact. Even to the point where we flew home and I was sat next to Shane Long on the plane. John would shake everyone’s hand as he got off the plane and he shook Shane’s hand and moved on from me.”
Later in the year, Cox reported to Dublin where he was beckoned over by Trapattoni in the lobby of the hotel.
“‘You and the CEO, you have a problem?” said the Italian, before giving a version of events that didn’t tally with Cox’s version. “I said to Trap, ‘No, there’s no issue on my part, no problem from me.’
“I’d got on alright with John, I’d seen him out a few times and had a few drinks with him. I do think he sort of wanted to be the hero in it, he wanted to be the main focal point, the nice guy in it all. He went into the fanzones many a time and would buy drinks for supporters and I felt like he was buying support.
“I remember being on the way back from one of the games and we were talking on the plane and he was like, ‘Trap’s a big score for Irish football’ and I was saying, ‘You’re not wrong’. I had good chats with him, but then all of a sudden, he thought he was a bit braver than he probably was and I think it put his nose out of place a little bit by someone sort of stepping up to him.
“I do think that was probably how my Ireland career tailed off a little bit as well. Even when I was selected under Roy and Martin, John would say hello to everyone as they got on the plane and he would miss me out altogether. I’d thought to myself that with Roy’s history with John Delaney, I’m going to have someone here in my corner. But after 2014 I was never picked again.”
When Eamonn Dolan – a massive influence in Cox’s life during his formative days at Reading – passed away in 2016, Delaney was present at the funeral with Dolan’s brother Pat. “He didn’t say anything to me that day either,” Cox recalls. “He never let it go.”
Delaney did not respond to a request for comment.
4 THE NEXT STEP
That was the summer when Cox ended a second stint with Reading and joined Southend, a drop to the third tier. Ireland’s Euro 2016 experience was watched from afar.
He can trace the club descent back to 2012 too.
New West Brom gaffer Steve Clarke called him on the eve of the Spain fixture to introduce himself in a chat that left Cox feeling good about his prospects. Upon his return, he went to the training ground to pick up his car and bumped into the Scot who explained that he was looking to bring in Romelu Lukaku and let a forward go so he should consider his options. From his biggest high, it was a shuddering comedown.
So the bags were packed for Nottingham Forest where there was chopping and changing of managers and Cox’s refusal to be a make-weight in a deal to bring in Michail Antonio spelling the end.
“I’d started pre-season well but Stuart Pearce pulled me in and says I don’t want you here anymore,” he sighs. Nigel Adkins brought him back to Reading but his exit and the arrival of Clarke was an unwelcome twist. There was a reprieve when Cox struck up a rapport with loanee Glenn Murray, imploring Clarke and the club to pursue a permanent deal which never materialised. He lost his place and had an unhappy loan at Bristol City before a handful of appearances under Clarke’s replacement Brian McDermott brought down the curtain on his Championship stay.
“I’m not someone to blame people,” he stresses. “I felt over the course of three clubs – West Brom, Forest and Reading again – I was let down. I was never ever seen as the main guy. Or every time I was doing well, I was always knocked back. I never got a chance to build on 2012.”
During his four years at Southend, he started thinking about the future and the quirks of his transient profession.
“It’s a big discussion in dressing-rooms as you get older. You start talking to people and ask them, ‘How many friends are you going to come out of football with?’”
In his case, the answer is four or five. That’s out of around 400 or 500 workmates by his reckoning.
“I had some really good friendships,” he says. “And you can keep in touch on social media and that but in terms of people I talk to every day or every week, you’re talking five people. It’s not many.”
Life takes over. Relocating to Australia was about changing scenery, but the pandemic severely complicated his stay, especially when Samantha informed him that she was pregnant.
Joy was followed by stress around logistics, the restart of football and quarantine rules. The long story short is that he was in Australia in February while his daughter Ella-Rae was born in England. Beginning fatherhood on Zoom was difficult, and Cox made the decision to come home before the A League season ended.
“The money doesn’t really matter,” he explains. “I wanted to be part of the family and get to know my daughter.”
Retirement was an unexpected consequence. The fact that Samantha has a good job in wealth management means there isn’t a bill-paying urgency about his situation; it’s more about the desire for the sense of involvement again. At different intervals, he describes the uncertainty as both daunting and exciting.
“I’ve never had to fill out a CV or write a cover letter or go for an interview,” muses the A Licence holder. “My experience is 17 years of playing. People ask, ‘What’s your coaching experience?’, and it’s, ‘Not a lot’.” By his own admission, he’s a novice in this territory and is therefore prepared to start at a lower rung and work his way up. There are countless others in the same boat.
“It’s tough to get interviews unless you’ve been a top, top player,” he admits. “You’re not going to have a knock on the door saying, ‘We want you as manager.’ I’m not the biggest name in the world so you’ve got to get a start and build from there.”
After scaling the ladder as a player, his second journey starts here.