Darren Anderton: 'I never thought I'd end up in League Two but they all try to play football'
One of the stars of Euro 96, Darren Anderton was once known as 'Sicknote' because of his injury record but is still playing – for Bournemouth – at the age of 36
Monday 17 November 2008
As England's footballers prepare to take on Germany on Wednesday, thoughts inevitably turn to all the crunch matches between the two nations down the years, not the least momentous of which was the 1996 European Championship semi-final, when a limp Gareth Southgate penalty prolonged, in the words of the song, all those years of hurt. But speaking of hurt, here's a funny thing. Of the 11 men who took the field for England at Wembley that day, only one is still playing league football. And it's the one whose name became synonymous with injury, the one dogged for years by the nickname "Sicknote". He will be 37 in March, yet Darren Anderton, captain of AFC Bournemouth, beaten 3-0 by Accrington Stanley on Saturday, is still going strong.
He welcomes me into his large detached home in stockbroker belt Bournemouth, and turns down the telly, which is tuned to Sky Sports News. Having hit a post in extra time, he has greater cause than most of us to remember the Euro 96 semi-final. "It was," he says, "one of the best England games I played in. We dominated the first half and played well throughout, really. After the [4-1] Holland game the feelgood factor had been immense, and that day there were crowds of people all the way in [to Wembley] from Burnham Beeches. It was unbelievable. We felt like we couldn't do anything wrong."
Then, alas, came the penalty shoot-out. "The boys scored the first five, all great penalties, then unfortunately Gareth missed. I was going to be next." Was there, amid the heartache, perhaps just the slightest twinge of relief that he had been spared the trauma of stepping up? He smiles. "No, no. It was a chance for me to be a hero, that's how I looked at it, even though the pressure was ridiculous. But I wasn't a penalty taker. Penalty takers always know which way they're going to go. I didn't. I probably would just have smashed it down the middle."
The reality of defeat, he adds, took a while to sink in. "Everything was set up for us to be there until the tournament was finished, but suddenly it was all over, no training the next day, our season finished. It was hard, especially as we'd dominated games. I watch international games now and against the good nations I don't think we have as much possession as the other team. We're stuck in the Premier League style, where the turnover from team to team is very quick. But Terry [Venables, England manager in 1996] believed in passing the ball. I played wing-back with Steve McMananan on the other side and it was so enjoyable, such a good team to play in."
Between 1994 and 2001 Anderton won 30 England caps and here's some trivia gold: the last five caps were conferred by five different managers, latterly Sven Goran Eriksson. "It frustrated me watching England under Sven," he adds. "I felt we were far too direct at times, with Michael Owen playing on the defender's shoulder wanting the ball over the top. We had people like Becks and Stevie G who could hit those balls but I felt we overdid it. Capello's different again. He's building a winning team and it doesn't matter too much how they win. Once we get to a tournament I think we'll be hard to beat."
I invite Anderton to play hypotheticals. Which of the current England team does he think would have won a place in the Euro 96 team?
A pause, and a quick peak at the telly, as if looking for inspiration. "That's a tough one. Gerrard would always be in my team, but there aren't many others I'd swap. I'd always have Teddy [Sheringham] and Shearer up front, and in midfield Gazza and Incey were perfect foils for each other. I suppose Terry and Ferdinand might just get in ahead of Adams and Southgate."
On the subject of Gazza, he has doubtless watched the decline and fall with as much sadness as the rest of us? "Yeah, he's a great guy and it's such a shame. I went to Tottenham the same summer that he went off to Lazio, so we never played club football together, but when I got into the England team he was fantastic to me. Before my first game he came up to my room and asked if I had any shaving foam – actually, I don't think I was shaving yet – but it was just an excuse to have a chat. He told me 'enjoy it, don't let it pass you by. Terry brought you in and he knows what he's doing, so you'll be fine'. He didn't have to say that. He was always arsing around but he was great with me. It was a pleasure and an honour to play with him. Fingers crossed he can sort himself out."
Gascoigne's problem, of course, was that he couldn't cope once his monumental talent began to wane. Anderton's own talent was less prodigious but longer lasting: only last year Harry Redknapp asserted that he could still do a job in the Premier League.
He concedes the irony of this longevity: Sicknote fit and reporting for duty long after the others have hung up their boots. But then he never liked all that "Sicknote" stuff. "It came about because I was struggling with injuries for pretty much the whole season before Euro 96, and the same thing happened before the 1998 World Cup, so my problems were highlighted because of the intensity of the media coverage. It was something fans called me, not players, although [Tottenham chairman] Alan Sugar did pick up the phone to the Daily Mirror once and slagged me off. He had the hump because the injuries started just after I'd signed a new deal."
Anderton chuckles, and recalls another encounter with Sugar when he was being wooed by Manchester United. "Alex Ferguson had called and I said I'd see him, but then I went to see the chairman and he wouldn't let me leave the room until I signed a new deal. To be fair, he was passionate about Tottenham. And I didn't want to go anyway. I was only 23. But in hindsight, once I did start picking up injuries, I maybe could have got different care somewhere else. The care could have been better at Tottenham."
In more ways than one, apparently. In 2004 his career at White Hart Lane came to an abrupt end. "I'd had a verbal offer of a new contract, but I'd been out for a couple of months struggling with my Achilles and I was in America seeing a specialist when I got a fax from the secretary. One line. 'We won't be renewing your contract.' Perfect. I spoke to the chairman [which by then was Daniel Levy] and told him what I thought of that. It turned out that they'd decided to choose between me and Jamie Redknapp. The chairman's excuse was that Jamie and [his wife] Louise were settled in the area. I said 'I've been at the club for 12 years. I think I'm pretty settled'. But that was it. I went to Birmingham, which I enjoyed, and later to Wolves, which I didn't."
If he'd wanted loyalty in the big-money world of sport, I venture, he should have bought a dog. He smiles, ruefully. "Yeah. Fans get the hump with players for walking out, but sometimes the clubs are no better. I'm not a big fan [of Levy's]. I was told a couple of years ago that I could have a testimonial, but then I found out the team would be on an end-of-season tour to Malaysia, so I could play but Tottenham wouldn't have a team there. That was basically them saying they didn't want to do it."
Looking around at the Anderton residence, I reflect that he can't have needed a testimonial for the money. He clearly reads my mind, because he says: "It wasn't for the pay-day. I just would have liked to say goodbye to the fans after 12 years. I've never had the chance to go back with any other team, either. I'd like nothing more than to get there with Bournemouth in the third round of the FA Cup."
To get into the third-round draw, Bournemouth must first overcome mighty Blyth Spartans, all of which is a far cry from England v Germany. It is pleasing, I tell him, to see a man who reached football's summit playing out his career in the foothills.
"Yeah, I never thought I'd end up in League Two, which I used to think was all about muddy pitches and players kicking each other to death. But it's not like that. Apart from maybe a couple of teams, everyone in this division tries to play football. And all the boys are English here, which I like, because the banter's good. At the highest level the banter's not what it used to be because the foreign players don't have that English mentality."
He has had to change his game, he adds; no more careering down the wing on those long legs. "I play central midfield now, in front of the back four, and my fitness level is still pretty good." What did he think of Harry Redknapp's observation that he could still cut it at the top? "Well, in terms of passing the ball, why not? But the game's got a lot more physical. In the Premier League you've almost got to be an athlete ahead of being a good footballer now. To be honest a lot of Premier League games turn me off. At the very top the quality's improved no end. But otherwise it's crash, bang, wallop, pace and power and giants heading the balls on."
He plainly has a firm idea of how the game should be played; does management appeal? "No, I'll do something else when I retire. I'm into property, and I'm involved with a company that's designed a solar-powered sleeve for mobile phones. We just got the prototype yesterday."
Without prying into the details of his bank account, I say, trying to do just that, just how handsomely off has football left him? After all, he didn't quite make it into the £100,000-a-week era. But could he afford to spend the rest of his life on the golf course, if he chose to?
"I could have a pretty good go at it, yeah. I went to Tottenham at the start of the Premier League, when it all began to change, and I've been well advised financially. I'm definitely not playing football now for the money, put it that way. And I don't sit here and think what I could have earned if I'd hit my prime five years later. Because it could have been five years earlier."
For a man often said to be falling to bits, Anderton plainly has his head screwed on. And apart from the odd gripe about Daniel Levy, he radiates contentment, which makes him engaging company. "I'm proud of the career I've had," he says. "I'm proud of my 30 England caps, because the first 28 were all starts, which means that I was first choice for all that time. People get caps for coming on for five minutes, but I preferred to get them my way."
Could this be a little dig at his old team-mate David Beckham, I wonder? Seemingly not. "No, fair play to Becks. He's a top player and he works his nuts off, which I like." OK, but who, finally, were the men he played with or against whose talent was in a different league to his own? I invite him to select his top five. "Zidane, who I played against a couple of times. He was unbelievable. Gazza. Klinsmann. Scholes. And Teddy. He was so clever, and he made other players look good with his movement. As centre-forward he played quite deep but he still scored 30-odd a year, and he could score any sort of goal." England still miss Sheringham, I say. "Yeah," he says. "But Capello will work it out."
Where are they now?
Darren Anderton played in England's Euro 96 semi-final loss to Germany. But what happened to the rest of that night's starting line-up?
Retired in 2004 after joining Manchester City. Made his last England appearance in a 2-2 draw with Macedonia in 2002.
Steered England Under-21s to next year's European Championships.
Succeeded Harry Redknapp as Portsmouth manager last month.
Went on to make 57 appearances. Now manager of Middlesbrough.
First black manager in the top flight after taking reins at Blackburn.
Managed Sampdoria, Nottingham Forest and the England Under-21s. Now works in the media.
Brief spell in charge of Kettering before off-field problems escalated.
Left Liverpool for Real Madrid before moving to Manchester City. Now working as a TV pundit.
Scored 30 goals for England. Retired in 2006 to further media career.
Finally called it a day last May at the age of 42 – when he was playing for Colchester – after making almost 900 career appearances.
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