Michael Bridges: Two million reasons to be cheerful

He could have accepted a £2m pay-out after being told - at the age of 22 - that he would never play again. Now former Leeds striker Michael Bridges is spearheading Carlisle's promotion campaign. Richard Rae talked to him

The goldfish found in the flood waters that covered the pitch in January last year, and now swimming happily in a tank in the rebuilt reception area. Jimmy Glass, the goalkeeper whose memorable last-minute goal kept them in the Football League in 1999. Myfanwy, the inflatable sheep kidnapped during a game against Shewsbury. The tortuous struggles to drag the club out of the ownership of Michael "UFO" Knighton, out of administration, and back up out of the Conference into which it finally fell in 2004.

Against that sort of background, the reviving of a single player's career might appear relatively insignificant. Giving Michael Bridges the chance to prove how much he still has to offer, however, is taking on more importance with every game he plays. Ten goals in 14 starts starts since the manager, Paul Simpson, decided that the former Sunderland and Leeds United striker had done enough on a month's loan from Bristol City to deserve a contract means that victory at Bristol Rovers today and against Notts County at Brunton Park on Monday could secure automatic promotion for the table-topping Cumbrians.

It has been, Bridges agrees with a smile that is never too far away, a long time since people have talked about him in terms of his contribution on the field, rather than to medical science. Bought by Leeds United from Sunderland for £5m in 1999, Bridges scored 21 Premiership goals in his first season as David O'Leary's "Babes" won a place in the Champions' League. Only Kevin Phillips, Dwight Yorke and Alan Shearer scored more than the boy from Whitley Bay, and a glittering domestic and international career seemed assured.

And then he got injured. "Besiktas, Champions' League, October 2000," he recites. "Body went one way, leg the other, shattered my ankle. Strange what you remember. The pain, obviously. Thinking I was seeing stars when actually it was coins being thrown at the stretcher. Laughing when a plastic bottle hit the physio."

There are other memories of course, such as the surgeon back in Leeds telling him he would never play again. "That physio, a lad called Dave Hancock, was with me in the room at the time, and I looked at the floor and then at him," Bridges recalls. "Dave was shaking his head. He said; 'No, you're wrong, he'll play all right.' And in that moment any doubt I had just went."

He never considered taking the insurance payment on offer, around £2m. "Hell of a lot of money, looking back. Maybe if I'd had my own family I'd have thought different, but at 22 all I wanted was to play again."

Nor would it have been different, he insists, had he known what was to come. Having spent over a year working his way back to fitness, he was only a couple of games into his comeback when he snapped the Achilles tendon in his other ankle, playing against Malaga. Again, he recalls finding unexpected humour in the situation.

"I got to the hospital and still had my kit on, and the TV in the room was showing the last few minutes of the game. The doctor came in and thinking I was a supporter, said 'I bet you wish you played for them'."

It meant another 12 months out of action, by which time Leeds had begun to go into financial meltdown. As one of the high earners Bridges had to be shipped out, first to Newcastle on loan, then to Bolton on a free before - without playing a game - he found himself back at Sunderland, where the manager, Mick McCarthy, reminded him of his first boss, Peter Reid.

"They both had strong ideas of what they wanted, but while Peter Reid was prepared to give me a chance - usually off the bench - McCarthy wasn't convinced. I had a couple of starts, but I desperately needed a series of games to get my sharpness back. Not reserve games either - it's just not the same.

"By that time I had the reputation of someone who couldn't get fit and people were wary of that."

Luck seemed to desert him in other ways, too. Brian Tinnion offered him a fresh start at Bristol City, but was quickly replaced by Gary Johnson. A month on loan at Carlisle, Bridges thought, would be a chance to score a few goals and persuade Johnson to give him a run. Three days after his arrival at Brunton Park however, he knew he wanted to stay. "I could travel across from my home in Hexham, and I liked the way they played, but it was the atmosphere really. I knew there'd be those who'd ask what I was doing in Division Two, and OK, the football may not be as technically good as in the Premiership, but, believe me, from a physical point of view it's harder at this level. There's no time to think and you get kicked, hard. The key to doing well is organisation."

His only disappointment has been sitting out Carlisle's run to the League Trophy final in Cardiff because he was cup-tied after a fleeting appearance in the competition for Bristol City.

"But even that taught me something about these lads, because I've never been around a group which wants to do well as much as this. Even at Leeds... These boys are simply striving to get to a higher level. If I can help them do that, I'll be helping myself get back to the Premiership as well."

For Simpson, Bridges has brought a touch of Premiership quality to his close-knit squad. "He's very skilful and he's got a great touch, which is what you'd expect, but he's brave too and he works for the team, never himself. He's come in and been part of the group from day one, and a nicer lad I've never known."

For Bridges, it is also a matter of making up for lost time. "It's been doubly frustrating, because - and I know this'll make some people smile - I've always been a fit lad. I've never had a problem with stamina. What people forget is that I'm only 27, and I feel as though I've been cheated out of the last few years of my career. It's a fresh start, and am I up for it."

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