Lee Bowyer's reputation precedes him, as he and I both know it will, into the small room set aside for interviews at the Birmingham City training ground. This is one of the reasons the 33-year-old East Ender gives interviews so infrequently; he feels the media, and consequently the public at large, have long since finalised their judgements of him, based on what is, by any standards, a chequered past.
But could it be that we have misjudged him? Unlike some other perceived football villains, Bowyer has never seemed unpopular with his managers and team-mates - at any rate if we overlook the day five years ago when he and Kieron Dyer, as Newcastle United players, were sent off for fighting each other during a 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa at St James' Park. As for the trial in 2001, which followed an assault on a student outside a Leeds nightclub, Bowyer, then at Leeds United, was cleared of all charges.
True, there have been other incidents. But the Bowyer sitting in front of me, looking eerily like the actor Tim Roth, understandably does not want to talk about any of that. He is a dad now, the father of 11-month-old twins, and he feels a new sense of responsibility. He is playing splendidly for Birmingham and wants to be defined by the present and future, rather than the past, which might be asking a lot, but there is evidence on the field as well as off that he is a reformed character.
Phil Dowd might testify to that. At the end of Birmingham's game at Fulham last weekend, the referee shook Bowyer's hand and said how much he had enjoyed the match. Yet it was Dowd who sent Bowyer off in last season's penultimate game in the Championship, a home match against Preston that Birmingham needed to win to ensure automatic promotion. Instead, they lost 2-1, and Bowyer, then on loan from West Ham, also found himself suspended for the following week's hugely significant game at Reading. That, he decided, was no way to carry on at the grand old age of 32. Maybe it was the newborn twins that made him resolve to behave more maturely. Whatever, he did, and he has.
"I don't know how many red cards I've had in my career," he says, the Canning Town accent no blunter for all his travels. "Maybe four, or five. But I'm trying to get on with referees now. Obviously I'm still a very competitive person, and I'm usually in the middle of things, so the ref tends to be next to me blowing his whistle in my ear. But I used to argue with them and appeal for everything, which gets on their nerves after a while. When he sent me off against Preston last year [for an altercation with Lee Williamson] I felt really bad. It was a stupid incident. We was both going for the ball, ending up rolling around, and the pair of us got sent off. It was 1-1 at the time but we went on to lose the game. If we'd won we would've got promotion. So over the summer I thought 'I can't be doing this any more. I've got to do something to improve.'" A sudden grin. "Better late than never," he says.
It is a sentiment no less admirable for being a cliche. After all, Bowyer might have material wealth unimaginable when he was growing up as the son of a brewery drayman, but it must be hard to shrug off the legacy of a tough East End childhood, when authority figures were habitually challenged.
I ask him about his parents. His mother now works for the social services, he tells me. "But my dad doesn't do nothing. There's always something wrong with him. Bad knees, or something. He'll tell you he was always a hard worker, but he always used to be home before I got home from school."
There was no notable sporting talent in the family, although his mother was a decent runner in her youth, he thinks. But his dad had a passion for West Ham that was passed on; Bowyer was scarcely old enough to walk when he was first taken to Upton Park, and Billy Bonds became his boyhood idol. "He was a proper player, wasn't he," Bowyer says, pale blue eyes shining, even now. I tell him that I once interviewed Bonds and Kevin Beattie together. Beattie, the old Ipswich and England colossus, he has never heard of. But Bonds? He's impressed. "I've never met him. What's he like?"
As a schoolboy Bowyer learnt his combative midfield skills playing for Senrab FC, named after Senrab Street in Stepney. Football people talk lyrically about the famous Glasgow youth team Drumchapel Amateurs, and Wallsend Boys Club in the north-east, but Senrab has a list of alumni every bit as illustrious, including John Terry, Sol Campbell, Jermain Defoe, Ledley King and Bobby Zamora. And Bowyer, who, like his hero Bonds before him, was first taken on not by West Ham but Charlton Athletic.
"It was a good place to start, a nice family club, and it taught me the value of hard work. A proper YTS scheme it was. You don't get that no more. Cleaning boots and all that. I think youngsters need that. They need to earn the right to get to the top. But times have changed."
In 1996, impressed with Bowyer's performances at Charlton, Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson made him the most expensive teenager in British football history, paying a whopping £2.8m to take him to Elland Road. I ask whether that price tag dangled heavily, but what was harder, he says, was leaving home for the first time. "My mum and dad had done everything for me. I couldn't cook, clean, iron, do anything. I was on the phone to my mum every five minutes. I'm a big family person, so it was difficult. Also, I had an eye injury in my fifth game. A ball hit me in the face, and I ended up with a detached retina. We were hammered as well in that game – 4-0 by Man United I think it was – and then Howard Wilkinson resigned. So I come round after the operation thinking 'this is good, I'm 19, blind in one eye, and the manager who signed me has left...'"
Wilkinson was replaced by George Graham, under whom Bowyer thrived, adding defensive qualities to his repertoire. Then Graham left too, and David O'Leary arrived. "I got on with him fine, him and Eddie Gray. I've never not got on with any manager. They want you to give your all, and I do that. Graeme Souness was on telly only the other week saying he never had a problem with me [at Newcastle]."
Certainly, Bowyer's commitment on the field has never wavered, whatever the club, and indeed whatever his off-field circumstances. His performances for Leeds were never better than during the trial. And so to that reputation. Does it trouble him? He looks evenly at me. "No offence but that's the press," he says. "They write what they want and people believe what they read." But he can't, I venture, blame it all on the press. "No," he says, "there have been incidents where I've overstepped the mark, and I've always held my hands up. Like the thing with Kieron. But we were friends again afterwards and we still are."
Maybe it is true that Bowyer, in some respects, is more sinned against than sinning. His international career was stymied by the Football Association's ruling that no player involved in a court case should be picked for England, but that rule, he says, seems to apply to him alone. "There are people still playing for England who've been to court. I'm the only person punished in that way, and looking back, I think I should have had more caps."
He has only one, awarded by Sven Goran Eriksson in a friendly against Portugal at Villa Park in September 2002. Eriksson, of course, used to confuse caps with confetti. But Bowyer played well in that game, setting up England's goal in a 1-1 draw. Even so, he was never picked again. He shrugs. "It's a long time ago now," he mutters.
His other enduring regrets are that injuries stopped him shining in two spells at his beloved West Ham, and also that he did not join Liverpool in 2002 when he had the chance. Gérard Houllier offered £9m, but halfway through the medical, Bowyer decided Anfield wasn't for him. Had he gone, he might have a medal or two to show for his long career. He still might, if Birmingham progress in the FA Cup against Portsmouth next weekend. "But it will be disappointing," he says, "if I don't end up with any medals. How we never won nothing at Leeds I'll never know, because that was a good side. We reached three or four semi-finals in different competitions, but maybe we never had that killer thing, you know."
When he does hang up those well-travelled boots, he intends to coach youth players. "I'll get my badges. But I won't ever become a manager. No chance. I've seen their stress, and I've had enough stress in my career. Managers now are hung out to dry, like Alan Curbishley was at West Ham. But coaching kids would be good. Because I've worked with some exceptional managers and players, and you don't just learn from managers, you learn from players as well."
Such as? "Such as [Alan] Shearer. He used to be able to score when defenders were right in front of him. He'd pause for a second and push it through their legs when they went to block it. I learnt that off him. I used to do it in training at West Ham, and at first they think you're lucky, but then you do it time after time. Matty Upson couldn't believe it. And Patrick Kluivert. His awareness, his lay-offs into my path, were unbelievable."
Bowyer smiles, manifestly delighted to be talking football skills at last. But it is time for him to start training. So one last question: can he, as a footballer who knows what it feels like to be splashed across the front pages for reasons other than football, sympathise with John Terry and Ashley Cole? He leans forward and clears his throat. "You know what? I'd rather not talk about that. I know the pair of them and I went to school with Ashley, played football in the playground with him. I can't comment on their personal lives."
And with that, out walks Lee Bowyer, reformed character and improbable diplomat.
Lee Bowyer in numbers
£2.8m Amount that Leeds United paid Charlton Athletic for Bowyer in July 1996, a record for a British teenager at the time.
1 England cap won by Bowyer, against Portugal in a 1-1 draw at Villa Park in September 2002.
6 Goals in 30 appearances for Birmingham this season, making him the top scorer for the St Andrew's side.
92 Yellow cards awarded to Bowyer in the Premier League, a record amount. He has also been dismissed five times, three behind joint leaders Richard Dunne, Duncan Ferguson and Patrick Vieria.
15 Champions League appearances during Leeds' run to the semi-finals in 2000/01. Bowyer scored six in that campaign.
12 Bowyer started every game during City's run of 12 consecutive unchanged line-ups earlier this season, a run in which they only lost onceReuse content