Suckling's shifting goalposts

ENDSLEIGH LEAGUE COUNTDOWN: Life for a professional footballer in the Third Division is a very different ball game indeed, as a former Manchester City goalkeeper tells Guy Hodgson
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The difference between the Premiership and the Third Division was brought home to Perry Suckling a fortnight ago. He saw an old team- mate, Mark Bright, and amid the memories and the handshakes a simple request was made: "You haven't got any boots for me, have you?"

The notion that football is all glamour, flash clothes and exorbitant wages does not sit easily at the poorer end of the Endsleigh League. A 20-year-old Premiership player with hardly any first-team experience recently held back from signing a new contract because it did not include a car. In the Third Division the company vehicle is the coach that takes you to away games.

Wages rose 19 per cent between the seasons 1992/93 and 1993/94 but at the bottom of the pile that still meant an average of little more than pounds 20,000. To someone on the dole that might seem a fortune but Jurgen Klinsmann was reported to be earning that for a week's work at Tottenham. Then there is the risk of an abrupt halt to the cash flow because of serious injury or simple inadequacy.

Suckling, 29, has travelled first and economy class in football. At Manchester City and Crystal Palace he was supping from the cup of relative plenty; at Doncaster Rovers he is still among the highest paid players in the Third Division but operating at around half his previous wages. His children no longer go to private school and he has been using his wife's car for five months since his own was stolen and then torched. He is waiting for the insurance money to come through.

In many ways Suckling is a prime example of the precarious nature of a footballer's existence. An Under-21 international, he was once ranked ahead of England's current keepers, David Seaman and Tim Flowers, but a sickening punch to his psyche in the shape of a 9-0 rout by Liverpool when he was at Palace and an equally distressing run of injuries find him at Doncaster.

"When I was at Manchester City I had a sponsored car, a five-year deal with Hummel and a glove company. These are the trappings I'm missing out on now. I've been a professional for 13 years and for the first time I'm having to buy my own gloves and my own boots. Of course, some people have been doing that all their lives."

Hence the request to Bright, who played with Suckling at Palace and who handed over the boots as much as anything as a return of favours past.

"I used to have bundles of gloves. Forty pairs in my wardrobe, all top makes and costing between pounds 40 to pounds 50 these days. I'd play with them five or six times and then give them away. Brighty would want a pair and I'd sign them and he'd send them off to charity auctions.

"Boots, too. I had dozens. If YTS boys hadn't got a decent pair I'd give them away. My missus said to me: 'If you'd kept all the gear, the tracksuits, pads etc, you'd have had enough for your career'. But you think you're never going to need them. You think those rewards will always be there."

A visit to Belle Vue instantly reveals that football's perceived Easy Street has its residences in need of a lick of paint. Doncaster are an ambitious club who had hopes of promotion last season, but the club offices are situated in a Portakabin and the training facilities are at a local RAF camp. Last season the players had to train at a place without showers, travelling back in muddy, wet gear to wash at Belle Vue. Except the showers did not work there either, so a communal bath had to suffice.

It is a different world from Manchester United's The Cliff or Everton's Bellfield where multi-million pound players are pampered as they work. The emphasis in the Endsleigh League is on watching the pennies and setting lower horizons. The fires of glory are still there, they just burn a little dimmer.

"When you are in the Premier League you go on tour and they look after you," Suckling said. "They take your passports off you, you get them as you go through the check-in and they take them away from you. It's 'dinner's at 7.30pm, give us your kit and we'll wash it for you'.

"It's another world now. You wash your own kit and you don't need a passport because you never leave the country to go on tour. At least the kids are happy. They get to see daddy now.

"The biggest thing I miss is the adrenalin before games: Manchester derbies with 56,000 at Old Trafford, defending the North Bank at Highbury, going to Anfield or Tottenham. The noise is deafening. A corner comes in, Tony Adams heads it, you make a save and the applause echoes in your ears. In the Third Division there's no roar, it's just the individual voices, 'Good pass,' or 'good save'.

"The thing is about footballers is that they all want to go as far as they can. Not just for the financial side of it - not every player is only geared towards money - but it's a professional thing. You want to look back when you finish and say 'I did this; I did that.' But if you play well you know the rewards will come."

Suckling - properly fit for the first time in four years: "I'm sharp, eager, on my way back" - needs only to think of the country's most expensive player as he refocuses his attention on returning to the Premiership.

"When I was at Palace, Stan Collymore was on the bench for the reserves. He was 19 and although he always had something about him, you'd never have thought in four years' time he'd be a pounds 8.5m player on pounds 15,000 a week. He's taken his chance. He deserves everything he gets."

So do most players. In the wet and the cold it is the scent of renown that makes them put a head or foot where they know they will be kicked. Money is an afterthought.