I have never officially retired from professional football. In 2008 I had spent a pretty unhappy season at Luton Town playing under Kevin Blackwell. I was 36 and part of a team full of experience – guys like Paul Peschisolido, Chris Perry, Paul Furlong and Matt Spring, who was a real goalscorer at that level.
We were rightly favourites to win League One but it all went badly wrong and we were relegated to League Two that season. I was released by Luton and headed off on holiday to a friend’s villa in Marbella to get it out of my system.
I waited for the phone to ring that summer, thinking someone would look at my CV and everything I’d done in the game and offer me a chance. Days went into months and months went into the whole summer and I’d not had a single call. Not one.
I was 37 by then but I was still in good nick and had hunger to keep going. But the phone didn’t ring and when the next season started, I knew that I had no chance of getting fixed up with something. I never said anything but the decision was made for me. It was over.
It is a story that springs to mind when I think about my mate and former Sunderland team-mate John Oster, who will be stepping out at Wembley for Gateshead on Sunday. It promises to be a fairytale end to a season that has been very up and down for the North East.
Let me make this clear: at the age of 35 John is still a class act for Gateshead. I have watched a little bit of Gateshead – the club of my birthplace – and he really does stand out for them. He was sensational in those play-offs.
But John had a strange old summer after leaving Barnet, who – like Luton – were relegated last season. I rang him a few times over the summer when he was keeping himself fit and kept asking him who he was signing for next season. The answer came back every week: “No interest yet.” I was amazed that no one was ready to take a punt on John and I think it was because of his age. Managers have a funny attitude when it comes to older players – they think they can get a better player who is 18 or 19 who has the legs to go box to box.
There is another thing with older players. I saw it when I was playing for Alan Pardew at West Ham: he filled his squad full of young players because I think he knew that they were less likely to challenge him or his authority. It takes a special kind of manager to put their trust in older players.
Gary Mills is obviously a coach who doesn’t have the kind of problems that I had with Kevin at Luton. The way he has that team playing suggests to me that he puts trust in his older players and both Gateshead and John are benefiting from that.
With his pedigree, John is the best player in the Conference – and I have no doubt in my mind that if they are promoted on Sunday, he’ll be one of the best in League Two as well. He’s that good. I like what I see from Gateshead and they are proof that if you play decent football and you have a bit of belief and a good manager you can do well whatever division you’re playing in.
I think people probably look at the Conference and think you can only play one way but Gateshead prove that is not the case. I like James Marwood in their midfield and they have some good, established players like Jamie Chandler and the goalkeeper Adam Bartlett. There’s plenty of talent in the lower leagues but it’s a funny one. As you go down the divisions you can sometimes find it hard to play alongside players who have played at that level all their careers. Going back to my time at Luton, Kevin once called me on a Friday and told me I wasn’t going to be playing. I asked him why and he said “You’re too good for this team.” I thought that was a cop-out but what he meant was I was making runs as if I was still playing in a Championship or Premier League team. My team-mates weren’t seeing the things me and a few of the other lads were.
I look at Gateshead and I see a team that works well together. They have an identity and know what they’re about. No offence is meant when I say John might be a level above some of the other guys because he has played at the very top and may be working on that level still. But they trust him, they let it work for him.
They pass the ball well and I fully believe that they can win on Sunday – and I’ll be at Wembley to cheer them on.
My advice to the Gateshead lads is to enjoy the experience of Wembley. I went there four times and saw both sides of the coin but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Stepping out at Wembley is the most amazing thing that you can do as a footballer. I remember doing it with Scotland, being in the coach and seeing thousands upon thousands of our supporters lining the road. To score and win was a feeling like nothing else.
There is no better way to get promoted than winning at Wembley. When I was at West Ham we went up through the play-offs and the next season the team got into the FA Cup final.
There’s no substitute for the momentum that you get when you win those kind of games. If Gateshead go up, they could go through the leagues.