Footballers' Lives with Sammy Clingan: 'I used to get homesick, begging my family to take me back to Belfast'
In the latest of our series of interviews delving into the lives of Irish League stars, former Northern Ireland international Sammy Clingan opens up about the struggles he faced as a young player.
Q What would you say is the key to enjoying such a long and varied career as yours has been?
A Hard work. I always want to leave a mark where I've been and you can only do that if you work hard. A lot of people go across the water but only a few are kept on. I worked very hard for it when I was younger and I saw how many were going to academies and then falling off the radar, and I didn't want to be one of those people. I worked hard, I wanted to make something of myself. I wanted it to always be a career I'll look back on and think 'I've done well', but you'll always wonder if you could have done more.
Q What's been your motivation over the years?
A Any time I go out on the pitch, I always want to be the best. I don't want to be the guy who sits around and watches other people get on with it. I want to better myself and to make the most of the opportunities I have now, and that's at every level I've played at. I hate losing and I've always had that, even as a child I just wanted to win all the time. I can moan a lot, those who know me will say that, but I just want to improve every day.
Q Was there a trigger which prompted you to give everything you could to bettering yourself?
A I grew up in west Belfast when the Troubles were still going on. The Peace Process has changed the lives of all of us. We used to come home from school and hear someone had been shot dead or injured every day. I would never have changed my childhood for anything, I had the most amazing time growing up with my friends, but it was a difficult time for anyone in Northern Ireland.
Q And shortly after moving away, tragedy struck. Can you tell us what happened?
A I had a cousin, Adrian, who was a couple of months older than me, who I was exceptionally close to. We spent hours together playing football or joking around, we were very close. I got a call while I was in Wolverhampton in the early hours to say he had died, and it left me totally bereft. It was so, so hard to deal with, it absolutely killed me. I was only about 18, but I wanted to better myself for him as much as for myself. The following summer, our uncle, my mum's brother, died and the following year my cousin's younger brother passed away too. It was a truly devastating time.
Q Experiencing such tremendous loss in a short period must have been terrible for a young man to deal with. How did you cope?
A I hadn't a clue how to deal with it. When my cousin died I wanted to come back home, I hated being away and just wanted to grieve. I took a week off, I think, then came back to take my mind off things with football. You sort of learn to deal with it but it never really goes away. It teaches you how short life is.
Q What's your earliest football memory?
A I got football boots one Christmas and I used to wear them out in the street even though they had proper studs. This was long before moulded boots were around, I must have been about four years of age. My first memory of playing was around age seven when I played in a side with older boys. I went up to get a trophy at a presentation evening and was sent up in my Communion suit, so at least that was recycled.
Q What have been your biggest highlights and disappointments?
A Playing in the Crossgar Youth League. I can remember scoring three goals, including one into my own net when I hadn't realised the teams had switched sides at half-time and I dribbled the ball forward. I've had a few highlights, and downers. Making my first team debut was probably up there as it was always what I wanted to do. Moving across to England was an achievement, but I had to go out on loan to get that first team appearance. I was loaned to Chesterfield and we played Hull City at the KC Stadium, which was huge for me. My international debut at the Giants Stadium was also massive. I've had bad injuries which have set me back considerably at different times.
Q Do you think you've been unlucky with injuries or do you take it in your stride?
A I've had one injury every season, which would have kept me out for six weeks or more, and they were always contact injuries. I never had repeated trouble with hamstrings, for instance, they were almost always knee problems, or something like that. I would say I've been quite unlucky as far as injuries are concerned but found ways to deal with it. But I've seen some of the world I never thought I would see thanks to football, especially as an international player. I am very lucky overall, I think.
Q Can injuries mean difficult times?
A Yes, absolutely. It can be a horrible and quite lonely time having to come back. I've been relegated before too, and that is a really terrible experience. Relegation is something you don't want on your CV. I had been promoted the season before with Nottingham Forest from League One to the Championship, which was great. Forest offered me a new contract but I knew Norwich were interested so I thought 'I'll just try something different' so I decided to join Norwich. The season we were relegated I'd had a good year, personally, it just didn't work out for the team. It was my first season in the Championship and I wanted to stay in that division, so had Norwich stayed up, I'd definitely have stayed on, but I went to Coventry.
Q You wouldn't be the first or the last player to admit to that!
A No, as a player you always want to be playing at the highest level you can. To be fair to Norwich, after that they went on and got back to back promotions and ended up in the Premier League. With the money they got from my sale they were able to sign Grant Holt, who basically got them promoted two years straight. So who's to say where they would be had I stayed on!
Q Were you given any advice as a teenager when making the step across the water?
A I don't think anyone could have prepared me for moving. I was incredibly homesick, I was constantly on the phone to whoever would be first to pick up back at the house. I got chicken-pox too… I was 16, yet there I was, off training for a week and laid up in these digs the club had given me with sores all over me feeling very sorry for myself. My family came over and I remember begging them to take me home when they left. I was in floods of tears. My mum, Pauline, told me just to take each day at a time, because she knew I would regret throwing the towel in. It was a lot easier said than done at that age, but she saw the bigger picture and I'm so glad she did.
Q Was homesickness a common problem while you were away?
A Football was a great distraction for me, but I always wanted to be back home. I felt like I was missing out on things, and even when I matured, moved around elsewhere, I never really felt totally settled. I just wasn't cut out for living anywhere unfamiliar. I wouldn't have taken a taxi down the Falls Road alone when I was a kid, and that was where I grew up. All of a sudden I had to get on buses with people I had never seen in my life! I was a total mummy's boy, but the culture shock made me a better person, as Belfast was really sheltered. It's good to be back in Belfast now, I think it will always be home for me.
Q What do you remember about growing up in west Belfast?
A I was the youngest, and the only boy. My older sisters used to take me down to Dublin to go shopping and they would have bought me everything, it's hilarious when I think about it.
Q Have your family always been big supporters of you?
A Absolutely, really big supporters. They used to fly over and see me play whenever they could, which was lovely. I've had my fair share of injuries and they've always been there to support me through those tougher times.
Q Have you a favourite family holiday destination?
A To be honest, going abroad for a family break was never what I wanted to do. I'm sure it's what they'd hoped I would do more of, but all I wanted to do was get back for a fortnight in summer, or a few days at Christmas. By the end of the season I remember, as a youth player, those two weeks we would get over Christmas would fly in, they'd feel like two days.
Q Are you really serious? Belfast was your favourite holiday destination?
A It would have been then, it definitely isn't now! I've really got into golf, and I've been out with a group of lads to La Manga. Joel Taggart (BBC Sport NI commentator) organises the trips and they're a lot of fun.
Q You were good enough to star in the Irish Open Pro-Am, you must practise a lot?
A That was just unbelievable, I played with Joel, Darren Clarke and his son Tyrone in a four-ball and it was amazing. Hitting a good shot in golf actually feels better than scoring a goal. We had a great crowd cheering us on and when it's your second sport, it's a greater sense of achievement I think.
Q Can you often be found on the course?
A Always have. Footballers have a lot of time on their hands. When I was living in digs at clubs, you just go to your room and stare at the walls. I took up golf because it got me out of the flat, and it was outdoors, competitive, a sport - but it wasn't football, so I could switch off. I know lads my age who would have spent all their free time standing in a bookies losing money all afternoon. You can get frustrated with golf fairly easily, but I just try to enjoy it.
Q What's your favourite film, or is your nose in a book?
A People will laugh at this, but my favourite film is actually Home Alone. Christmas is my favourite time of the year and that movie always makes me feel like it's just around the corner. I've read a few autobiographies, and I love getting newspapers, but I'm not a big reader. My fiancée, Corrine, enjoys reading, she has plenty of books she tries to get me into, but it's not for me.
Q How did you and Corrine meet?
A I met her on a night out in Glasgow when I was at Kilmarnock. We got to know one another over a few weeks or so, and I realised she was a very special person. She used to come and see me when I lived in the West End, and we'd go out for dinner regularly. We just clicked, she's an amazing person to be fair. She's been there for me through the year I spent injured and ended up back in Belfast, living in my mum's spare room and training on my own in Falls Park. I left Kilmarnock and was supposed to sign for Gillingham, but I trained with Donegal Celtic here and made my knee worse, so the operation kept me out for a year and I missed the contract with Gillingham. It was a very tough time, and she was great for me.
Q What changes do you think could make the Irish League a better product? Are you in favour of summer football?
A I can see where they're coming from whenever this point is raised, as the pitches would be a lot better. Come winter time the pitches can be dangerous and they're so difficult to maintain, just because clubs and councils don't have the money for drainage or undersoil heating. But for me, it's a no. Players need time with their families, especially those with children, to take holidays and relax. Many of us have second jobs and playing in the Irish League might be hugely rewarding, but it is a big commitment.
Q Which sporting event would you love to attend?
A The Masters, definitely. There's something about the colours, to be honest, it always looks so vibrant on television.
Q Who was your football hero growing up?
A Perhaps a bit of an odd one, but it was Peter Schmeichel. I just loved how authoritative he was, and he was an amazing goalkeeper, but he also looked really easy-going. I also hated having to go in nets but he always made it seem pretty cool.
Q Who are the best players you've come up against and played alongside?
A Steven Davis is the best player I've ever been on a team with. He is a hugely underrated midfielder, and captain. He's small, but he's so strong, he holds his ground and is so talented but really modest. If he was an England player he would be raved about. Against, has to be Iniesta. I played against him at senior level, but also at Brandywell in an under-15 side or something. He was always incredible.
Q What are your hopes for the future, on and off the pitch?
A I want to keep playing for as long as possible, and I'm looking forward to giving my all at Glenavon. I hope I'll be able to have something to offer for many years yet, if my body lets me. My legs feel good, it's my knees which give me trouble. I'd also like to coach a lot more, I've been down at Jordanstown coaching girls from 10 years of age with Alfie Wylie and really enjoy it. Off the pitch, I'm getting married in June next year, which I just can't wait for, and maybe we'll plan a family in the future.