Onward Christian Soldier

West Brom centre-back Darren Moore tells Phil Shaw how he combines faith with football, and why he believes the Baggies can survive in the Premiership after being bottom at Christmas
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The Independent Online

Conventional wisdom and Alan Hansen are already insisting that, when it comes to avoiding relegation, West Bromwich Albion do not have a prayer. In fact, Darren Moore enjoys a "daily relationship with God" and while recognising that the Premiership's bottom club must play rather than pray their way out of trouble, the muscular centre-back and born-again Christian is adamant Albion can be reborn as survivors over Christmas.

Conventional wisdom and Alan Hansen are already insisting that, when it comes to avoiding relegation, West Bromwich Albion do not have a prayer. In fact, Darren Moore enjoys a "daily relationship with God" and while recognising that the Premiership's bottom club must play rather than pray their way out of trouble, the muscular centre-back and born-again Christian is adamant Albion can be reborn as survivors over Christmas.

Moore, a 30-year-old Brummie of Jamaican descent, is a defender of the faith in more ways than one. Gentle, genial and well-read off the pitch - he quotes from the Bible to illustrate one point - he is also, as those forwards who have encountered his 6ft 2in, 15st 7lb frame would testify, aggressively committed to Albion's cause once he enters the fray.

Life for Moore is a balancing act between the spiritual and the sporting, the personal and the professional. Ask him about the true meaning of Christmas and he will talk with what proves to be trademark passion about "a wonderful time, symbolising love and peace, when the world can come together and celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ".

When he goes on to say how much he looks forward to the hour-long Christmas Day service at the Free Methodist church he attends, the Renewal Christian Centre in Solihull, only a hardened cynic could doubt his sincerity. "It's a very joyful occasion. The children bring their toys and there's gospel singing. Worship should never be a dour thing. It says in Nehemiah 8:10: 'The joy of the Lord is your strength'. That's God's word and you take that into your daily life."

But, after 14 years in football, he confesses he always has "an eye on Boxing Day". When Bryan Robson's predecessor as Albion's manager, Gary Megson, brought his squad in for 90 minutes' training on the evening of Christmas Day, Moore found he relished the opportunity to snap out of "relaxed mode".

This year, mindful that no team entering Christmas in last place have beaten the drop in 12 seasons of the Premiership, he insists Albion must look upon the festive schedule as a chance to reinvent themselves. "The future of this club could be decided over the next 10 days. If we can just stay up, we could kick on to a new level, closer to where we were when Bryan Robson played here and we were up there with the best."

Hatred does not feature prominently in Moore's vocabulary, except when applied to racial intolerance, drug abuse and other blights of modern life (born and bred in the inner-city suburb of Handsworth, he now visits schools to urge pupils to fulfil their potential by working hard). Yet he "hates" propping up the division. "If ever I was going to use that word," he says, "it would be to define our league position."

Moore will sit out Sunday's home match with Liverpool because his recovery from a knee injury is not quite complete, but he is confident that he will be fit to return at Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers before Newcastle United arrive at The Hawthorns on 3 January. That hectic nine-day sequence holds the key, he maintains, to whether Robson's team can rewrite history.

"What a block of games to get this club back on track - and what a challenge to be the team to break that 12-year statistic," he says with the fervour of a man who really does believe in miracles. "One of these seasons it's going to happen. Why shouldn't it be us? Back-to-back victories can transform things. Look at Birmingham City - by winning the derbies with Aston Villa and us, they went into mid-table. They would have been down with us if they had lost them."

Listening to Moore reflect on his job, and witnessing the intensity with which he sets about it, it is hard to credit that his only concern when discussing his faith is that Albion fans might assume he does not hurt when they lose. After all, he has been accustomed to dealing with people's assumptions - from the idea that he must have been brainwashed to the simplistic equation of spirituality with weakness - since committing his life to Christ five years ago.

"When I was about 10, my parents used to send me and my brothers and sisters to church and Sunday school. But when I got older, it clashed with my football. I remember telling them I couldn't go to church because I wanted to become a footballer and needed to play on Sundays. They helped me and my career gradually took off."

After five years at Torquay United and a £62,500 transfer to Doncaster Rovers that made him their record signing, he was part of the Bradford City side that won promotion to the Premiership. His hopes of playing in it foundered on a falling-out with the chairman, Geoffrey Richmond. However, on the road from West Yorkshire to West Bromwich (via Portsmouth) came a Road-to-Damascus moment.

A Bradford team-mate, Wayne Jacobs, had been out of the game for 18 months with a career-threatening knee injury. In Moore's words, Jacobs felt he was "in danger of losing everything". He adds: "Wayne was really down, trying to drink his way out of the problem. Then he met a fella from a church in Nuneaton who wanted to pray for him. He'd tried everything else so felt he had nothing to lose. The guy laid hands on him and prayed to Jesus.

"Wayne said: 'Daz, I'm telling you: things happened in my knee there and then'. He was able to resume training and playing, and he's still with Bradford. He invited me to meetings of Christians in Sport which seven or eight players attended. Our careers were at different stages; one in the reserves, another injured and another at the top of his game. Yet when we shared our experiences and faith, we were as one. I just wanted to know more and more."

Moore realised his football and his faith were not mutually exclusive, as he had thought in his teens. "My life now is a walk with God every day. I feel very blessed because I have a relationship with Him on a daily basis and I'm playing the game I love at the highest level. I believe that the Lord is there with me all the time, whether I'm out on the pitch or in the community."

That has not stopped him from straying from the path of righteousness in the heat of the moment. "There have been times when I've lost my rag because of a referee's decision or whatever. I'm not a saint. I'm not perfect. I'm human and we all face temptations. I make mistakes, but I try to learn by them and keep moving forward in life."

"If I went out thinking: 'First challenge that comes up, I'll throw an elbow', that would be sinful. I can honestly say I haven't done that. I believe a majority of players, if not all of them, wouldn't intentionally do that."

After a year in which terms like "dogging" and "roasting" have entered the football vernacular, it goes without saying that not all his contemporaries live by his moral code. Remarkably, given his physique and fearlessness, colleagues and opponents have occasionally argued that Christian players, so-called "God-squadders", are somehow soft. "We get mocked for that, but I see my faith as a strength rather than a weakness."

In one recent match, at Portsmouth, Moore tangled with another believer, his close friend Linvoy Primus. There was no malice, but no holding back either, and afterwards the pair "got earache from the wives for beating each other up!"

Moore has formed a bond with Zoltan Gera, a fellow born-again Christian, inviting Albion's Hungarian midfielder to his church. "If I get the opportunity to share my faith, like with Zoltan, I do so gladly. But I don't go banging on doors or stopping people in the street. And I'm certainly not saying that you have to be a Christian to live properly."

"The Lord's My Shepherd" will reverberate around The Hawthorns for the visit of Liverpool. It is an oddly appropriate anthem, for as the highest ground in the country, it could be said to be nearest to God.

Darren Moore strives to achieve that closeness each day, but if he has a Christmas wish, it is that Albion emerge from the holiday programme with renewed reason to keep the faith.

FOOTBALL'S GOD SQUAD DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH

GLENN HODDLE

Hoddle's visit to the Wailing Wall when England played Israel, and a faith-healing experience at the hands of Eileen Drewery, prompted his conversion to born-again Christianity. The comedian Jasper Carrott greeted the news with the comment: "I hear Hoddle's found God, that must have been one heck of a pass."

LINVOY PRIMUS

The Portsmouth defender (right) credits his steady improvement as a footballer to the stability his faith has given him, after he had previously encountered "distractions". "When I worry about things I can read the Bible and find answers for me there. Football is only a small part of my life and I have the rest of my life to live," he said.

PETER KNOWLES

Brother of Tottenham's Cyril. An inside-forward with Wolverhampton Wanderers, and an England Under-23 international, Peter was tipped for full honours when he retired, at 24, to dedicate himself to the service of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Like "Nice one" Cyril, he had a song written about him, in his case Billy Bragg's "God's Footballer".

ALAN COMFORT

A tricky winger with Cambridge United, Leyton Orient and Middlesbrough, Comfort took the cloth when, at 25, he was forced to retire through injury. He had become a committed Christian at 20. He is now the vicar at St Mary's Church, Loughton, in Essex, and has been Orient's club chaplain for 10 years.

TARIBO WEST

The Nigerian defender (left) once said God had asked him to save Derby from relegation, which he promptly did. West has set up his own ministry, Shelter in the Storm, and once left Kaiserslautern because they insisted he train on a Sunday. "I said, 'Let me face my maker', but they wouldn't because Germans are selfish and stupid."

Glenn Moore

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