FA Cup Countdown: Life at the bottom stirs memories for Henman's former housemate

The travails of a rookie tennis professional has left the former Aston Villa striker Mick Boulding well prepared for the hardship of Mansfield's existence, writes Jon Culley
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The Independent Football

There are common bonds in football that transcend the widest of gulfs and when Mansfield's Billy Dearden extends a comradely manager's handshake to Gareth Southgate of Middlesbrough at lunchtime tomorrow the FA Cup will have rejoined another long broken connection. When these clubs last met, 21 years ago, they were rivals in the old Third Division. Nowadays, with 78 league places between them, they exist in all but the literal sense in different worlds.

After 46 years in football, and with retirement beckoning, 64-year-old Dearden has seen hard times but none tougher, perhaps, than now. Mansfield are next to bottom of League Two, not in serious debt but somewhat shackled financially as owner Keith Haslam attempts to sell the club. Lately, they have been training at a local school after their own facilities were flooded. Middlesbrough used to do something similar until Steve Gibson built them a £7m training complex.

"The modern breed of manager – I don't think they could handle this," Dearden says. "Gareth's gone straight from playing into management in the Premiership and that's the name of the game now. I don't begrudge that. If you are a top player and your chairman says, 'come and be manager', you are not going to say 'no'.

"But I don't think they could handle it lower down, some of them. We used to come here every morning and never know where we would be training. The supporters' club paid £5,000 to get us our own place.

"It's not all laid on for the players – they pay the lady who cooks out of their own pockets. But we try to do things right. It has been under water for the last couple of weeks, mind, but you can't do anything about the weather."

Life at Mansfield is a challenge, even for the £200-a-week junior professionals who have known nothing better, let alone a player who has been to the Premiership and can speak of it from first-hand experience. Yet for top-scorer Mick Boulding, once of Aston Villa and, as it happens, once nearly of Middlesbrough, it is an existence for which an earlier incarnation prepared him strangely well.

Given that this previous life, before his hankering for football finally won him over, was as a tennis professional, such a statement might seem hard to justify. But, as Boulding explained, there is more than one planet in the tennis universe, too. While his one-time housemate, Tim Henman, was getting to know Paris and New York – and, of course, SW19 – Boulding's habitats were more likely to be Uzbekistan, Central Africa and Eastern Europe.

"I played on the satellite circuit for four years," he says. "Everyone had to do it, even Tim. You were stretched financially, but you would go anywhere and put up with anything for ranking points.

"People talk about staying in hotels where the water in the taps is brown but I've been to places where they had no water at all, like Romania, where it would be turned off for two or three days at a time.

"It was not long after the fall of Ceaucescu and the place was in turmoil. Yet there we were trying to play tennis, being driven six hours across country in a van, having to wash in bottled water and with so little food that we lived mostly on a soup made from hot water and marrow bone.

"I remember going on to Luxembourg from there, talking endlessly about the first proper meal we would eat, but then finding our stomachs had shrunk so much we were full after a few mouthfuls.

"In a way, there are similarities in that life with playing football at the bottom of the league. The difference with tennis is that no one else cares. You'll be sitting in your hotel room on your own asking yourself what you could have done differently, whereas at football there are a few thousand people telling you what they think as you walk off the pitch. That is the great thing about football is that so many people care."

He and Henman were close enough for a while to have shared youthful scrapes, once falling through a glass door together while grappling in a larky fight at their London digs and being obliged to calm a furious landlady by paying for the damage.

Contact now is largely in the past – "I think the last time I spoke to him was to ask for tickets for Wimbledon and, funnily enough, he has never asked me for Mansfield tickets" – but Boulding does not begrudge Henman's success. Indeed, he had his own taste of the top, albeit briefly.

"I really only drifted into tennis," he says. "I met Tony Pickard, who was coaching the world No 1 Stefan Edberg, but actually lived not far from my family's home in Sheffield, and he persuaded me I had the talent to give it a go.

"But whereas I didn't take up tennis until I was 12, I'd played football since I could walk and that was always what I wanted to do. I knew I'd regret it if I got to the age where it was too late, so after talking with my father I gave up tennis in 1999."

It did not take long for his ability to be spotted, by Doncaster Rovers, with whom he trained, and then, as it happens, Mansfield. More success soon followed. Transferred to Grimsby, then in the second tier, in 2001, he played only a season at Blundell Park, including a memorable victory over Liverpool in the Carling Cup, before a trio of Premiership clubs began competing for his signature.

"I was offered a trial at Middlesbrough and Everton were interested too, but I joined Aston Villa," he says. "Graham Taylor was very persuasive and when I went there for a meeting they put a contract in front of me on the day, so it was difficult for me to walk away. Looking back it all happened so quickly, it was too much, too soon. It was a chance I could not turn down but I hadn't really had my apprenticeship in football and I was suddenly in the Premier League. I got a bit lost.

"We played pre-season at Villa, including two InterToto Cup games, with three up front – Peter Crouch in the middle, Darius Vassell on the right and me on the left. But when the season started we ended up playing 4-4-2, with Gareth Barry on the left and I didn't get a look in.

"I ended up going to Sheffield United on loan, injured my ankle and went back to Villa. By the time I got fit again I just wanted to play and with knowing everyone at Grimsby it seemed the logical thing to do to go back."

From there, via an unhappy spell at Barnsley, where he was so disillusioned that he effectively quit the game, he has come full circle to Field Mill and another flirtation with the big time, if an appearance on Match of the Day Live can be so described.

And unlike, perhaps, some among the opposition, his appreciation of the FA Cup is undimmed.

"For the smaller teams it is still a massive opportunity. When you are at the bottom of the league like we are, to play against a Premier League side... it does not get any better. It's like a player from the satellite circuit taking on Roger Federer."

Boulding has other, glamorous connections – his sister Helen's success as a singer-songwriter has enabled him to share the company of Bryan Adams, Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow and Take That's Gary Barlow among others – yet does not bemoan that football as seen from his current outpost is hardly rock 'n' roll.

"Not at Mansfield, it isn't," he says. "But I don't really think about what it might have been like in the Premiership. It was a big disappointment to leave Villa but you have to be positive.

"Last season it was a matter of getting back my feel for the game. This time I started off fit and I'm just trying to do as well as I can and see what happens."

Lights go out on full-back's rule-bending route to Anfield

Havant & Waterlooville's hopes of playing the suspended full-back Justin Gregory in their FA Cup tie at Liverpool tomorrow are over after the lights went out at Thurrock on Wednesday night.

Gregory had been ruled out of the fourth-round tie at Anfield after accruing five yellow cards, but a rearranged Blue Square South game at Thurrock looked like giving him an early chance to serve the one-match ban. However, the Football Association, deeming the moving of the Thurrock game a deliberate attempt to manipulate the fixture list, ruled that the suspension must stand for the Liverpool match.

Havant & Waterlooville consulted a QC to examine whether that ruling contravened regulation, but their efforts became academic after floodlight failure forced the abandonment of the Thurrock match.

A light went out after 19 minutes at Thurrock's Ship Lane ground and, although play restarted, a second failure forced the referee to call off the match.

"I'm so disappointed, I'm devastated," Gregory said. "I believe in fate and it was obviously fate that I wasn't going to play at Anfield. The dream has ended there.

"It seems to be very convenient and it seems to have got the FA out of a big hole, as it were. A floodlight failure is a floodlight failure.

"I was pleading with the referee at half-time to get the game on."