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Footballers' Lives with Warren Feeney: Some young players think the world owes them a living now but I'm glad I was brought up in era of hard work

 

Warren with wife Katy
Warren with wife Katy

By Graham Luney

In the latest installment of our popular series, Ards boss Warren Feeney dicsusses the changes in football, a well-travelled full-time career, his high point with Northern Ireland and this season's tight relegation battle.

Q. With your father Warren senior playing for Glentoran and Linfield, and grandfather Jim featuring for Linfield, Swansea and Ipswich, were you destined to be a footballer?

A. I can remember when my dad and granddad owned the Farmer's Rest bar in east Belfast. It was packed every Saturday night. My dad never put pressure on me. He would advise me but always told me when I wasn't good enough. He probably brought me up the hard way. I can remember travelling over to Chelsea as a 12-year-old kid at the weekend and for a while I got homesick. My mum said, 'He doesn't have to go if he doesn't want to' and my dad's response was, 'If you don't get on that plane, I'll put my boot where it hurts'. I haven't forgotten that so I'll say to any kid not to throw away the chance to play across the water. For six months it was a nightmare as you were going into environments where they didn't care about the Irish kids. I was called 'Paddy' and it was tough going up against physically strong players but I had that willpower and desire. I wasn't going to let anyone walk over me. If I did that, I'd be finished. I was playing well for St Andrews under Joe Kincaid. We had probably the best kids in the country. Stephen Carson and Andy Hunter were in my team.

Q. People talk about the 'snowflake generation' of young players in today's game. Was your experience different?

A. I just thought, 'Get me on a football pitch, I'll get my head down and work hard'. Leeds United showed an interest and at that stage they were getting to a Champions League semi-final and there was a great buzz there. I went into digs with Wesley Boyle and Simon Watson was there too. We had to wear studs and we were doing jobs like cleaning boots, cleaning showers and cleaning the manager's car. Beds were inspected at 9am every morning. It's a very different game now with some players thinking the world owes them a living. The lower the leagues you go down, the worse attitudes can be. And yet if you had told me to run to Glasgow I would have done it twice. The youth coaches were hard and looking back I am glad I was brought up in that era compared to now. You can't shout at kids now, some of them can't take it. I like to see a little arrogance from players on the pitch, like Paul Smyth when at Linfield. He took hits, got up and had that desire to succeed.

Q. Has it ever been harder for Irish players to progress in the professional game?

A. When I was manager at Newport County we needed a goalkeeper because ours was unavailable for personal reasons. We brought in this kid from Chelsea and he was their ninth choice keeper. He hadn't played any league games and yet he was on over £300,000 a year. That was five years ago. That's what you're up against. Manchester City could have 40 kids all over Europe but how many of them will set foot on City's training ground? Football is a business and it's fiercely competitive.

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Q. Should our boys give the Irish League a go before moving across the water?

A. It's hard to say no to an opportunity and, like I said, I am glad I was brought up in that era. Today I'm not sure I'd want to go across. Players get upset if they are shouted at. When I was coming through I had to have that desire to be better than my mates. Now kids have the best cars and wash bags but are they being coached right? I'm all for kids playing men's football before going over. There's an admiration for the Irish League because of the physical nature of it. No disrespect to the coaches at certain clubs, but some of them haven't kicked a ball in their lives. Surely the experience you've gained all those years as a player has got to count for something. You always worry about young lads going across and being swept aside and forgotten about. The Irish League can certainly help toughen them up.

Q. You went across to Leeds United and then on loan to Bournemouth. How did you adapt?

A. I was flying at Leeds but was playing with a hernia for three months and needed an operation. Robbie Fowler and Robbie Keane came in, knocking me down the pecking order. I knew I needed to get out and play. A friend alerted me to a trial game at Bournemouth and I scored two against Fulham. A loan deal followed and I hit five goals in about eight games alongside Jermain Defoe. I loved playing first-team football and signed a permanent deal. The money was okay but there was an arrangement that if I played for the Northern Ireland Under-21s or senior team I would get more money. I played for the senior team before the Under-21s so that bonus I received got me a flat. I loved my time with Bournemouth and I admire what Eddie Howe has done. My brother-in-law Richard Hughes is still a first-team coach there. Sammy McIlroy came in for me and I went to Stockport.

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Good friends: Warren Feeney with Robbie Fowler

Q. You played for a number of clubs. Looking back, do you wish you had settled better at one club and not moved around so much?

A. It was tough. My career just resembled a roller-coaster. At times an agent wanted me to go somewhere and I wanted to go somewhere else. At times you're banging the goals in and then at other times you need to move on. I just wanted to play at as high a level I could and sometimes that meant making sacrifices. I made loan moves but I didn't want to sit on the bench. My international career was taking off and I needed to play. I moved on to Swansea City under Roberto Martinez and loved it. He was absolutely phenomenal, one of the best managers I have played for. I liked Mike Newell and John Sheridan as managers but Roberto was more into you and the intensity of your training than the opposition. One time I scored two goals at Yeovil and we won 3-0. Then on the Tuesday night he named his team and left me out. There was steam coming out of my ears and I went to tell him what I thought. I said, 'I've just scored two and you've left me out, what's going on?' Some managers will say, 'Keep working hard' and I hated that because I know I'm working hard and you're still not picking me. Roberto said, 'Yes, you've scored two, that's your job, you're paid to score goals, but I'm looking at the bigger picture. I'm thinking about this football club, not just one individual'. I thought to myself, 'He's right'. Could I say that to a player now? I'm not sure. It comes down to your character and the way you are brought up. I accepted what Roberto said. I stormed into his office worried about Warren Feeney while he was worried about Swansea City Football Club. I loved him for that honesty. Then I got injured again and that's football.

Q. Was there one move in particular that didn't work out for you?

A. I just couldn't get going at Oldham. My head wasn't right and I knew I needed to get out. I was playing through pain, I think from the age of 23 I was never 100% fit. I had groin pains and needed pain killers but the desire to play was so strong. I failed a medical at Leeds and that was a hard time, particularly for someone who took his fitness seriously and loved the gym. I had done my coaching badges at 26 and an opportunity at 33 came up to be Mikey Harris' assistant at Salisbury City. From there I went on to Linfield.

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Warren was best man at Harry Kewell’s wedding

Q. Is there anything you would have done differently?

A. You're always learning and in today's game you need the right man management skills. Players will sometimes let you down and you have to guide them in the right way. I'm a big believer in players win games, not formations. How can you coach Lionel Messi… are you going to tell him to track the runner and lose 75% of what he can do? But players need to be guided of course.

Q. Was the move from Cardiff City to Swansea City a contentious one?

A. There's probably more hatred there than Rangers and Celtic. My father was born in Swansea and my kids were born in Wales. In Cardiff, the fans gave me a hot reception but my two kids went to a private school where I met a guy called Annis Abraham. I didn't know him when he came up to me as I was sitting in the car. He was the head of the Cardiff Soul Crew in the 1990s, a multi-millionaire who owned nightclubs and he said to me, 'Don't worry about it, it's just football'. He was great. I took Annis to a Rangers-Celtic game. He's in Santa Ponsa now and we're still in contact.

Q. Has your father been a big, positive influence?

A. He can be more excitable than me so he needs to step back at times. My mum Helen and my dad took me everywhere. I have only seen my dad play football on DVD but I'm told he was a fantastic player. That's credit to my mum who still looks after him and they bounce off each other well. He's got a fantastic record for Glentoran, he's their fifth all-time leading scorer on 192 in something like 213 games and that's superb, no matter what level you're at. Mike Newell was asking about my dad the other day, everyone tells me what a player he was. Unfortunately I didn't get to see him play but he got his Northern Ireland cap against Israel in 1976. He tells me, 'I replaced George Best, one of the world's greatest footballers, in the team and who did you replace? No one!' That's his claim to fame. The late Belfast Telegraph sports editor Malcolm Brodie, bless him, gave the goal in that game as an own goal when my dad got a touch. My life has involved a lot of travelling and I couldn't have done it all without Katy too. She backed me all the way and was always very supportive. She's from a football family too, her sister is married to a player I played with at Bournemouth and is now first-team coach. We met at Bournemouth. Katy is from Northampton originally and she has witnessed everything that goes on with contracts. My sister Lynsey is a lawyer, a partner in Arthur Cox, and she looks after my contracts. Lynsey played hockey for Civil Service, Ards and Ulster when she was younger. She's the brains of the family, I'd throw the schoolbag down and let her do my homework! My kids are Lucy (14), Darcy (12), George (11) and Holly (9). George is at the Exeter Academy in Lisburn with Wayne Carlisle and he loves it.

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Warren Feeney with his wife Katy in Belfast.

Q. Is George the next member of the Feeney family to show their sporting prowess?

A. I won't put pressure on him, he can play for Wales, England or Northern Ireland and he wants to play for Northern Ireland.

Q. So he won't switch allegiance?

A. If he's good enough he can do what he wants but the kid loves Northern Ireland. I can totally understand why Declan Rice went to England from the Republic. Players want to play with the best teams. James McClean was complaining about Declan Rice when he played for Northern Ireland Under-21s. Why did he get involved? You can't knock the player, if he's good enough to play for England it's his choice. But I do feel for Michael O'Neill and Andy Cousins on the recruitment side because players can jump ship, despite all the time and money invested in them.

Q. Were you envious of Michael O'Neill's squad reaching a major tournament?

A. I was delighted for them. Every player wants to test themselves against the best. We had good players in our teams like David Healy and Keith Gillespie. I've had a great career and pulling on the Northern Ireland shirt gave me huge pride. Not everyone can say they've done that. Had I got one cap like my father I'd be over the moon and I would not swap my international career for many things. When I was injured, I worked harder. I had the willpower to dig deep when times were tough. Sometimes my family was far away from me but I always believed I was representing them too. There's a mural of me at Inverary in east Belfast and I don't forget my roots, that's how I was brought up. That East Belfast club is brilliant and George loved playing there two summers ago.

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Warren's children Lucy, Holly, Darcy and George visiting the east Belfast mural of their dad.

Q. Managers need to be alert to the mental health of players. Have you found that?

A. I understand players can go through hard times but they've got to want to help themselves too. Managers must be psychologists now but players are well looked after. I've played with players who've had addictions, Keith (Gillespie) had his gambling addiction, Michael Chopra as well, and they've kept playing. I just wanted to play football. That was a release for me. The game has given me good friends like Harry Kewell, Robbie Fowler and Andy McMorran, who picked me in a Youth Cup final for Linfield Rangers at the age of 15. I got a winner's medal and brought him to Linfield when I was manager. Big Gareth McAuley is another good friend.

Q. What was your best memory with Northern Ireland?

A. The goal against Denmark in 2007 was probably the best, the header when we were 1-0 down on a rainy night. David Healy scored the winner at Windsor and we had some great memories. I got on well with all the managers, I kept my head down and got on with it. Lawrie Sanchez went to Fulham and it was an opportunity to manage in the Premier League so I can understand why he took it. I'm surprised Northern Ireland have kept hold of Michael because he deserves a crack at anything. I'm surprised a club hasn't snapped him up but you have to respect what Michael wants to do.

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Warren celebrates scoring against Denmark.

Q. Have you learned a lot in management?

A. I always wanted to be a manager. I left Linfield when they were top of the league and I've no regrets. A good offer to go to Newport came up but the Blues didn't offer me a contract until my mind was made up. I've lost jobs and that's the nature of the game now. Managers are six to eight games from the sack. Brendan Rodgers was one slip from Steven Gerrard away from winning the league, that's how mad football is. Steven has done a great job at Rangers, he's put a bit of fight into them and yet he's getting stick. It was always going to take time to catch Celtic.

Q. Now you are manager of Ards in a relegation fight going into the last day of the season. What are your emotions?

A I've enjoyed the challenge and the players have responded well but we've got to do everything we can to stay in this league. It's important our attitude is right and I'm relaxed and confident heading into the final league game because the boys are in good form. With regard to the future, I'd like to stay in management. There will be setbacks but I want to take those in my stride and not look too far ahead.

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Survival fight: Ards boss Warren Feeney and his assistant, cousin Lee, hope to steer the north Down men to safety

Snapshot

Date of birth: January 17, 1981

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: Leeds United, Bournemouth, Stockport County, Luton Town, Cardiff City, Swansea City, Dundee United, Sheffield Wednesday, Oldham Athletic, Plymouth Argyle, Salisbury City, Linfield, Callington Town

Current position: Ards manager

Northern Ireland record: 46 appearances, five goals

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