Stephen Bywater: 'I like playing with the anger inside. Critics don't hurt, they drive me on'

Stephen Bywater thrives on the sort of abuse that would make lesser players crumble. Which is just as well, since he is Derby's goalkeeper. He explained himself to Jason Burt
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So, Stephen Bywater what's it like to be the goalkeeper for what is, probably, the worst team the Premier League has seen? To have conceded 31 goals in 13 games and – by your own admission – to have had the "mickey" taken out of you by your former club, West Ham United (and a second string at that), in a 5-0 rout at Pride Park just two weekends ago?

"People who say things like that, who say we are not going to survive, drive me on," Bywater replies. "I actually like to play with a bit of anger inside of me. It gets me aggressive when people say, 'Oh, you are going to go down, the bookies have stopped taking bets and you are the worst team in this league'. It's a lack of respect. It makes me angry. It doesn't hurt. It just makes me angry.

"We go to work every day, try our hardest and people try to knock us down. They did it last year and said, 'Derby are not this or that', and we got promotion. We got to the top of the league, dropped down but still went up. And people are saying that about us now – that we can't win, can't score an away goal, no chance of an away win. But we will be laughing at them at the end of the season.

"I've always been angry. Since I was a kid. I remember people saying, 'Oh Stephen, he's not good enough, he's not a footballer, he won't do this.' Inside it got me angry but outside I just smiled and thought, 'We'll see what happens.' Even now, when I play, I go on the pitch and think, 'I'll prove them wrong, I'm going to save every shot and keep a clean sheet.' I want to prove them all wrong. I like to play with that aggression. To catch balls, come for balls, go through people, sprint out, shout. Yeah, as a kid I was put down. People said, a lot of people said, that I wasn't good enough. I know a lot of players went through that kind of thing but I'm mentally tough. I can deal with it and prove them wrong."

Bywater's blood is stirring. He's sitting in a classroom at Roe Farm Primary School in Chaddesden, Derby, having just taken part in a coaching session for the eight and nine-year-olds, run by the Derwent Hat-Trick Project, as part of the Premier League's Creating Chances initiative.

The children – and the odd teacher – are star-struck at the sight of the imposing, 6ft 2in goalkeeper with the shaven head, broad shoulders and equally broad smile. A brief Q&A with the kids is almost heartbreaking in its earnestness. A forest of hands pleads to ask questions – when all they really want to say is: get us a win, any win.

Bywater knows how much it means to them. There's 100 per cent attendance at Roe Farm on the bitterly cold afternoon when the 26-year-old turns up and he recalls, as teenager at the Blue Coat School, Oldham, the sight of Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe coming to talk to him and his classmates, in a similar fashion. "And they are big stars," he says. "I don't see myself like that."

But he always saw himself as someone. He was always going to make it. If not in football, then something else; something that mattered. "My dad, David, used to do a bit of everything," Bywater says. "He's retired now but he was a goalie coach, a coach driver, a policeman. My mum, Sheila, was a schoolteacher. I remember she said to me: 'You can be anything you want to be, Stephen.' I thought about going into the army, the marines. Or becoming a doctor. Why not? My parents taught me to be confident."

The Bywaters lived in Manchester. Above Stephen's bed there were two sayings, stuck there by Sheila. "One was: 'Form is fickle, class is constant'," Bywater instantly recalls. "And the other was: 'The greatest motivator of all is the desire and success to be No 1.' And that's what I've always believed in. My mum just got them and pinned them up on the headboard. I was just a kid, nine or 10. They were written on pieces of paper and I remember my mates used to come round and laugh at them. But she had belief in me. I didn't get into Lilleshall (the now defunct national training academy). I got a reserve place and I always knew I was better than the goalkeepers that got in there. But I was glad I didn't make it."

The rejection acted as a spur. "I knew I was good enough to go there and I know now that I am good enough to be in the Premier League. I am as good as the other goalkeepers," Bywater states. But how does he know? He's been hit for six, five, four goals this season. How can he be so sure? "I just believe it," he says. "This is where I should be and where I want to be. If it happens that we go down, then we'll come back up again. If it happens that we stay in the Premier League, then we'll have done enough.

"It's the confidence that goes through me. It borders on arrogance, but it's not cockiness. It's confidence. It's the belief in my ability and the ability of my team-mates. I keep saying to the lads, 'We've got half an hour left – let's give it a go.' The score is immaterial. If you've lost three points, then that's what matters. To my mind losing 5-0 in this league is no different from losing 2-0 as long as you give it a go. I wouldn't even look at the scoreline. Just the result. We have to move on and have the confidence to say, 'We can beat them.' "

Nevertheless, given the results and criticism so far this season, it probably helps that Bywater doesn't watch football on television. "I've not got Sky," he says. "We've got channels one, two, three and four and even then the reception isn't great. I don't read the papers either and don't see what's happening in the football world. If you do, then you get consumed by it."

After school, Bywater joined Rochdale. He could have gone to a bigger club but reasoned that he would get more first-team opportunities at Spotland, which was, incidentally, where his grandfather had spent his career. In the event Bywater featured only once – and conceded six goals as a 16-year-old away to Carlisle United in the Auto Windscreen Shield – before he was offered a trial by West Ham. Within a week, the club's goalkeeping coach Les Sealey had persuaded Harry Redknapp to sign Bywater up in a £300,000 deal.

Sealey, the former Manchester United, Coventry City and West Ham goalkeeper, proved a major influence. "You either liked him or hated him really," Bywater says of someone who was the ultimate combustible custodian. "But he was like a second dad to me. He taught me about life. He told me, '1-0 you concede a goal, 2-0 OK, three goals and you have to start looking at yourself and four goals you are not doing your job.' But I am looking at myself now and I'm thinking, 'I'm doing an all right job'."

He doesn't go in for too much analysis, video reviewing or mental imaging – things that goalkeepers such as his former West Ham team-mate David James ("a nice bloke off the field but he's very different about his profession") go in for. "You end up getting consumed by that kind of thing," Bywater says. "You start thinking 'I should have done this, I should have done that'. But the fact is if you didn't do it on the day then you wouldn't have done it."

Sealey helped to teach Bywater to be more spontaneous, to go with his emotions. "He was mental. He was like that off the pitch as well. Maybe that's why I get aggressive but, to be honest, I've always been like that," Bywater recalls. "Les Sealey was a winner and I think winners have that fire in their belly. Man U have got that. Ryan Giggs has got that. He's won everything and wants more. It's just his nature. A gift. A passion. I don't want to get mugged off every week 5-0, 6-0. It does hurt but it doesn't in that I move on."

In 2001 Sealey, aged just 43, died of a heart attack. As a tribute Bywater chooses to wear the No 43 shirt. "I had to just get on with it," he says of his friend's death, "I had to get on with life. That's the way I am, the way I believe. If someone close to me passes away the time doesn't stop. If he were still alive he would probably be coming to watch me every week and he'd be saying, 'Flippin' heck, is there any chance of you saving a few of them or what?' He was self-motivated and self-determined and he said to me, 'Don't do it for your mum or dad, don't do it for anyone, do it for yourself.' And that's what I tried to do... but it's hard."

It's a little chink of vulnerability within Bywater but he quickly moves on – as has his career since he finally left West Ham, where he had a stop-start time. It began brilliantly, winning the FA Youth Cup in 1999 alongside Joe Cole and Michael Carrick but his first-team appearances were rationed, and interspersed with loan spells at Wycombe Wanderers, Hull City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, plus two seasons written off with two broken wrists. He eventually had a run following James's departure.

That was in 2004. West Ham reached the play-offs and lost but went up the following season, with Bywater usurped as the No 1 goalkeeper by Jimmy Walker and then Shaka Hislop. By then he'd won caps for England up to Under-21 level and craved regular first-team football. That came abruptly, in August last year, when a two-week emergency loan spell at Derby was quickly converted into a permanent deal. Bywater has been ever-present since. Last season he made, uncannily, 43 appearances.

It was Billy Davies who signed him up and Bywater sees similarities between himself and the Derby manager. "He's someone who's got a bit of anger," he says. "He wants to win and he wants to prove a few people wrong. It's what we need. He keeps everyone on their toes, he tells you how it is and he's honest with you. It's good to work with someone who's not going to hide. He said it was men against boys against West Ham and he was right."

Given his years at West Ham, that result hurt. "But I still enjoyed it," Bywater maintains. "No disrespect to Scunthorpe or whoever but, even if we are in the Premier League for just a season, then it's a season to pit your wits against the best. That's what we are doing even if we are falling short at the moment."

Next up it's Chelsea, at Pride Park, today. "A lot of people will think we will lose heavily," Bywater says. But he also recalls the reaction of the Derby supporters during the West Ham defeat. "They were singing, 'bring on Chelsea' and it's quite good to hear that," he says. "I was talking to a lady in hospital and she was saying that just one win would make a difference and she's right. She was a genuine fan and she was behind us."

Of course, he expected a difficult season. "I expected it from the day we got promoted," Bywater admits. "You look at the likes of Watford the year before and they went up and came back down and found it tough. It is very tough, we all know it's tough. Last year the lads worked really hard. We had ambition and we've still got that. And we are now in a league in which a lot of people think we can't stay up, but we believe we can do."

It's a message Davies, too, has driven home. Not that Bywater says he needs any support or encouragement from the manager or the other players. Nor does he offer any pep talks himself. "I don't talk to anyone. That's the gaffer's job," Bywater says. "He doesn't talk to me that often really. I don't need to be molly-coddled or have an arm around my shoulder. He knows I'm mentally strong. And the Premier League is all mental. It's just a mental game. It's not about physical fitness – it's about being mentally tough."

And not losing belief, even if you are losing games.

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