Friday, 25 November 2011

'It's not a job, it's a pisstake.' - An Interview with Steve Soley


Steve Soley is not your average ex-footballer. He wasn’t your average footballer either. This much is patently apparent during the hour long chat I had with him earlier in the month.  The man himself puts it down to his late breakthrough into the professional ranks and his background and apprenticeship as a bricklayer in Lancashire – he has little time for the airs and graces of the modern game. Too many players, he says, ‘treat it like a job. It’s not a job, it’s a pisstake.’ It is a trope that he returns too throughout a plain spoken and, at times, near the knuckle interview.

Recalling his debut at Portsmouth (who he joined from non-league Leek Town in the summer of 1998 having scored 12 goals in ten games for the Derbyshire side) Soley spoke of his joy at joining the fans for a post-match pint being punctured as his colleagues filed through and past supporters his assistant manager Keith Waldon told him to ‘get used to it, they aren’t here to be peoples mates’.

At the other end of his career Soley spent a short spell caretaker-managing a struggling Runcorn side in what is now Blue Square North.  ‘I did alright’ he says ‘They wanted me to stay on and put a three year contract my way but I turned it down and went back to bricklaying – I have my own business now, building conservatories, extensions and the like.’

The reason – ‘The players. I hated their attitude, they were playing in Conference North and they thought they were brilliant – they treat the fans like dicks. I wanted shot of the lot of them.’ It’s the same reason he turned down a coaching role with his pal and ex-Carlisle colleague Billy Barr at Preston; the ‘Premier League attitude’ has filtered down, ‘they all reckon they’re Rio Ferdinand, but really, who would want to be like that idiot?’ he adds.

This isn’t to paint Soley as a throwback to a bygone age when footballers were drinkers and earned their spurs as ‘real men’ on and off the pitch.  He merely understood his role as a community ambassador; saw that he was living the dream of those on the terrace – ‘those players who treat football like a job, right, they’d clearly never dug up a road. I had, and that’s maybe why I gave a shit about the fans, that’s what they did for a living.’

Pompey fans will barely recall the Soley seen at Brunton Park. One asked in preparing this interview recalled him only as the victim of the infamous act of being a ‘subbed sub’ at Fratton Park.  This was, he says, due to personal issues – his family having fled back to the sanctuary of the North after his son was bullied at a local school.

So it was that Soley arrived at Brunton Park in the summer of 1999, initially on loan but with a view to a permanent move which was sealed within a week. ‘It just felt like the right place for me. I knew all about what had gone before, with Jimmy Glass, and the fans took to me right away, and me to them (as they should to a man who scored the winner on debut – Ed.). Within weeks of joining the club, I was one of them – a fan too’.

Lovely Bloke, Crap Manager

Soley’s arrival at Brunton Park coincided with a topsy-turvy summer for the club, which eclipsed anything which the club’s madcap, Walter Mitty of an owner, Michael Knighton, had hitherto produced.  The manager, Martin Wilkinson, was the summer’s third after Leicester’s new (old) manager Nigel Pearson and then Keith Mincher felt the iron fist of the moustachioed alien spotter.

Soley is as candid about Wilkinson, a singularly unpopular figure amongst Carlisle fans, as he is about Knighton.  He liked them both – ‘they were trying’ -  Soley loves a trier.

‘The thing about Wilkinson is just that he was a lovely, lovely bloke who was trying his hardest. Was he a crap manager? Yeah, I think he was. But he went through hell for Carlisle that year.’

The ‘hell’ Soley refers to was serious mental illness and depression. Long serving club physio Neil Dalton told me recently that Wilkinson ‘hardly ever’ looked in on training, leaving that to Neale Cooper (‘the Scottish fella’ a clearly unimpressed Soley dubs him) and Paul Baker. 

‘By the end of the season you’d go and see Martin and he wanted a hug off you, I just gave him them cos he cared about his players. He was asking me and Brights (David Brightwell) to pick the team behind the coaches backs though and that’s when I knew it’d gone horribly wrong.’

You could argue it never went right – ‘He (Knighton) made promises to Martin and he never kept them. I was told when I arrived that I was ‘the first’, that more players of a higher standard were joining, but they never arrived.  Staying up with that side was a miracle, I really do think that. Carlisle fans owe Martin one as I genuinely think the club would have gone to the wall had it been relegated that year. Knighton would have packed it in.’

‘You got me relegated’

Wilkinson departed at the end of the season, replaced by Ian Atkins, whose Chester City side had been relegated to the Conference, thanks in no small part to a late Scott Dobie winner for a 9 man Carlisle at the Deva Stadium. Soley recalls that Atkins wore his wounds heavily.

‘On his first day he came in and his opening sentence to those of us who were left from last year, Dobes (Scott Dobie), (Richard) Prokas, Luke Weaver and Tony Hopper were “Right, you bunch of fucking cunts got me relegated.” I think it’s fair to say that turned a few off him right away.’

When pressed further Soley suggests that Luke Weaver’s declining form lay at Atkins door ‘Luke was a player who constantly needed reassurance.  He couldn’t cope with Atkins at all. He was old school, he tried to grind you own and see if you could cope. Luke couldn’t at all and he hardly ever played football again.’

What about Soley himself?

‘It didn’t bother me. I’m one of those people with an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude. So I just vowed to myself that I’d better be undroppable as he clearly wanted shot of us all.’ He did it in dramatic style.

‘I’d taken penalties in my debut season but when he (Atkins) came in he wanted his man (Carl Heggs) to take them. I ignored him and then missed one against Aberdeen in pre-season and Atkins was absolutely livid and lost it with me in the dressing room.’

The arrival of Atkins’ former Chester charges Heggs and Tony Hemmings had, along with Atkins opening impression of a budget Brian Clough, opened a visible dressing room rift from the start of his tenure. ‘Heggs had been in my face in the tunnel at that Chester game. They’d been sent out there to try and wind us up and it worked cos we had two sent off. It’s fair to say I wasn’t pleased to see him walk through the door, no.’

The opportunity presented itself for Heggs to make a home crowd hero of himself on debut against Halifax.

‘We were two nil down and I took the ball into the box and got tripped from behind, a clear penalty.’ remembers Soley. ‘Heggs came over and asked for the ball, remembering what Atkins had said after Aberdeen, I told him to fuck off. I put it down, stepped up and slammed the ball into the top corner. Get the fuck in! Have that gaffer.’

Soley went on to equalise in the last minute of the game before celebrating in front of the home Paddock, and Atkins – ‘drop me now you cunt, I was thinking.’

It comes as little surprise that Soley was pleased to see the back of Atkins at the end of the season. ‘The players he brought in were all absolute dickheads – they didn’t give a toss about Carlisle and were just coasting for their next paycheque. He tried to get us to intimidate the opposition and I just thought, this is bollocks.’

One player in particular raised Soley’s temperature. Mick Galloway was a journeyman midfielder who joined from Chesterfield and actually settled in the area, going on to play for Gretna and Workington after his spell at Carlisle. But, for Soley at least, he came to represent an unprofessional laissez-faire seam that was present in many Atkins players.

‘That bloke was a good footballer. He was skilful and he could pick a pass. The trouble was that he was a balloon; a total arsehole. I hated him, hated him.’ The words lingered as they left Steve's mouth.

He recalls a particular incident the night before a game – ‘We were all staying in a club owned house in Carlisle. I’d stayed in and gone to bed early but Galloway and a few others had been for a few jars. They came in and most went to bed but he stayed up and put music on and woke me up.  I went down and had a go at him and he pissed off, turned up the next day and played like a dick.  He then tried to blame me for him being crap in training on Monday so I grabbed him round the throat and threw him in the floor.  He called in the next day claiming to be ill. God, I hated that bloke.’

The Pint Test

The orthodoxy amongst Carlisle fans heralds Atkins as a ‘good’ manager and holds little time for the talents of the maverick Irishman, Roddy Collins.  Seemingly never one to sidestep controversy, Soley again disagrees.

‘Think of the players Roddy brought in. Richie Foran has played over 300 times in the SPL, Peter Murphy’s still at Carlisle and Brendan McGill played at a good level too.  We finished comfortably mid table in his first season (17th).  It went wrong when he came back and tried to build a team from the League of Ireland.’

It’s a fair observation. Collins second season, his second spell, with his friend John Courtney in charge of the club was when the collective horrors of Trevor Molloy, Darren Kelly, Des Byrne and co descended on Brunton Park – it’s this, and Collins colourful persona, that sticks in most fans minds.

‘He was great was Roddy. The likes of (Lee) Maddison and Galloway couldn’t be on with his methods – the boxing training and everything (Collins brother Steve was a world champion middleweight at the time). It was them who were the clique; not the Irish lads like people think.’

What about the famous drinking sessions? The card schools?

‘Everything was a test with Roddy. He’d make you go to the Beehive the night before a match and get the pints in. After a couple I’d head off and it’d be “Soles, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” but I knew I had to be ready to play. Some of the younger lads weren’t so smart. Roddy’d say before the game that they were supposed to follow me out and that they’d learn a lesson. Shame we normally lost on those days!’

Soley’s departure at the end of the 2001/02 season (he joined non-league Southport) remains a mystery to most fans, who assumed the returning Collins had binned him. Not so.

‘The truth is that my knee was gone. Billy (Barr, by then caretaker manager) really wanted me to stay and the word was that Roddy did too, but I knew I couldn’t train every day.  There was a three year deal on the table but the club was skint (Courtney’s sale not yet completed). It felt like I’d be robbing them.  I went to Southport, training three times a week, and had virtually retired by Christmas.’

Loneliness of Long Distance Soley Fan

What is Soley’s enduring memory of Brunton Park?

‘The fans. And being one of them – I still love Carlisle and the club.’

One particular Soley fan was the lost and much loved Radio Cumbria commentator Derek Lacey; Soley recalls doing commentary with ‘Deggsy’ whilst injured and ‘having to keep one eye on him as he kept drifting off. You had to fill in for him!’ It’s this shared time on lower league gantries, not his performances, that a modest Soley suggests endeared him to Derek.

‘There was one bloke though, a big Paddock whinger, who hated me when I joined. Gave me dog’s abuse he did.  Then, when I moved to Southport, he shouted over cos I was on the bench saying he’d come down to see how I was.  He’d come all the way on a bike, on his own.  It’s the stuff like that which I loved about Carlisle; it’s why I ended up a fan myself.’

Soley’s passion for the club is clearly undiminished.  He was upset that a recent trip to Brunton Park with his son was spoiled by the poor attitude of club staff – it led to him passing up the chance of a pre-match salute to fans.  ‘The club needs to reach out better to the community, it was flat that day’ he adds.

In the time since our initial talk the club has been cosying up to fans in order to sell their grand, stadium moving plans. One hopes this will continue beyond the obvious efficacies of this ‘big sell’.  A first step may be to employ someone who understands the fans properly. For that, they needn’t look to far into their past; if they ask nicely Soley might even bring his trowel and repoint Brunton Park while he’s at it.

You can follow Steve on Twitter at @soles08. Expect plenty of chat about Marouane Fellaini's poor attitude - he is a self professed 'huge' Evertonian.

3 comments:

  1. Just goes to show how much some mouthy Carlisle fans know. I must admit I always thought that Wilkinson was a decent guy and it was the Scottish bloke who messed things up at the time.

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  2. Excellent read John. Steve sounds a really down to earth guy.

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  3. I was a fan of Steve Soley, a real grafter on the pitch, it took years to find a near replacement, i'm pleased he's now sorted with his own business, and would very much like the lad to be made welcome at Brunton Park with open arms, he deserves it, he's earned it.

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