Chelsea, Leicester... Colwyn Bay: Passion drives Frank Sinclair to play on
As two of his old clubs meet, the defender tells Sam Wallace about still going at 40
Come tomorrow afternoon, Frank Sinclair will settle down to watch two of his former clubs, Chelsea and Leicester City, face one another in the FA Cup quarter-final, a competition he knows only too well. First, however, there is the small matter of turning out today for Colwyn Bay against Hinckley United at the Red Lion Foods stadium in Conference North.
At the age of 40, Sinclair is still playing the game 22 years since he turned professional at Chelsea, the club he supported from childhood. North Wales is the latest stop for him in a journey down the leagues that has seen him play for seven clubs since leaving Leicester in 2004. He started this season at Hendon in the Isthmian Premier as a favour for the manager, his old friend Junior Lewis. He plays, he says, because he loves the game.
At Chelsea, Sinclair won the FA Cup in 1997 and was on the losing side against Manchester United in the 1994 final and 1996 semi-final. He was part of Chelsea's League Cup winning team in 1998, his last season there, and then won the same competition at Leicester under Martin O'Neill two years later. Leaving Chelsea was, he said, a "wrench" but by then the club had changed considerably under Gianluca Vialli's management.
Sinclair grew up in Clapham but went to Pimlico School in west London, which also counted Alan Hudson among its old boys. It was on a school trip to Stamford Bridge as a nine-year-old that he fell in love with the club. He was scouted playing for the West London district team and offered trials at Chelsea, Arsenal and Wimbledon. "I went to all three because my teachers said I had to go," he says, "but in my mind there was only ever one club that I was going to sign for."
Being young and black at Stamford Bridge in the 1980s was not easy. Sinclair already had a good idea that there was significant racist element among the club's support from standing on the terraces, although that never diminished his passion for Chelsea. He regards Paul Canoville, the club's first black player, as the first of the "pioneers" who broke down the old racist attitudes at the club.
"When I was a kid at the club there was still an atmosphere where black players took a lot of stick and the racism side was a problem," Sinclair says. "I saw it first as a young schoolboy who would go to every home game as a Chelsea fan. At that time the first black players were coming through, like Paul Canoville, Keith Jones and Keith Dublin.
"Those guys were the ones who had to break the mould and get the acceptance from the fans. At the time the club was renowned for the racist chants and it could be an intimidating place for a black person.
"As young players we had really good people around us at the club who built us up. They made sure that they developed our personalities as well as developing us as footballers. By the time we were ready to go up into the first team we were mentally very strong. I was well prepared by the time I got into the Chelsea first team. I think I helped to take that [racist element] out of Chelsea, to an extent. I certainly became a favourite of the fans.
"At that time you had to be very thick-skinned. Sometimes there were moments when you heard what was said and just had to bite your lip. Nowadays things are a lot better. Especially with the way racist incidents are dealt with because in the past it was swept under the carpet. The way it is now is better for the game and better for society. When I was growing up certain things happened that you just didn't speak about or tell anybody. You just didn't."
Sinclair is a long-standing patron of the anti-racism campaign Kick it Out and speaks to children in schools. He also appears as a pundit on Chelsea TV, the club's in-house television station, but playing football is still at the centre of his working week. He has not had a bad injury since a bout of shin splints in 1995 and estimates that he has played more than 800 games in his career.
He joined Leicester when O'Neill made it clear how much he was wanted there. He always suspected that his sale was agreed in order that Ken Bates, then chairman of Chelsea, could recoup some of the money he had spent on signing some of the big foreign stars bought by the club. "He [Vialli] said that he didn't want me to go but that it was my choice. What you want to hear from a manager is 'You are not for sale'. I wasn't told that."
He played with Roberto Di Matteo, the latest incumbent in the manager's chair at Chelsea, for two years but it is Eddie Newton, Di Matteo's assistant, whom Sinclair knows best. Their friendship goes back to their days playing together in the West London district team when Newton was in the Fulham youth system. Sinclair convinced his friend to join him at Chelsea and they rose through the ranks.
As for the current situation at Chelsea, Sinclair says that even from a distance he could see that "the hands-on management of the players has been misguided" under Andre Villas-Boas. "With [Fernando] Torres you don't need someone to tell him how to score goals. What he needs is a cuddle and some confidence. Eddie Newton and Roberto Di Matteo are the perfect team to do that."
Although he now lives in Bolton, Sinclair is still a regular visitor to Stamford Bridge. He can remember the times when the likes of Peter Osgood would come into the dressing room to wish the team well before games. "The one thing about Chelsea fans is that they never forget their former players," Sinclair says. "I am reminded every time I walk through the gates. Someone wants to shake my hand or take a picture and it makes me feel good about what I did at the club even though my last game was 14 years ago."
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