Michael Gault: 'I'm proud of what I achieved with the Blues and it was payback to my parents for their support - but how it all ended left a sour taste in my mouth'
From winning the clean sweep and Setanta Cup at Linfield to the day he was told he no longer had a future at his only club, Michael Gault talks us through his own story.
Q. What was your earliest football memory?
A. Playing for Lisburn Youth from about eight years old. I can remember playing on a Saturday morning, we had a great team with great coaches. My dad, Jim, used to give me lifts to the games. Future internationals David Healy, Damien Johnson, Grant McCann and Aaron Hughes all played for the club and now Lisburn Distillery are taking some players. Linfield and other clubs are also taking players at a young age which is unfortunate for those teams at that level.
Q. Were you ever close to playing across the water?
A. There was talk of it in 2008 when I got into the Northern Ireland squad and my Linfield contract was running out. I was playing well with other internationals like Peter Thompson and Alan Mannus but I broke my ankle and came back too early and my form suffered. I could have gone down south with Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers offering good money. I was supposed to meet Michael O'Neill at Sprucefield but I decided to stay here and get my teaching degree. Alan Mannus went to Shamrock Rovers and look at how well he did, but I was happy to stay at Linfield and enjoyed plenty of success with them. I always seemed to be the smallest in the team and I was lucky to break into the Linfield under-18 team as there was a shortage of players. If I was breaking through now I might not have made it. I was lucky. I can remember coming home from Midgley Park as a 17-year-old thinking 'I'm not enjoying this, I'm not going back'. I was a shy boy and didn't join in with the craic but they were struggling for players, unlike today. I could have ended up at Lisburn Distillery and I didn't know much about the Irish League really. But Les King, a Linfield scout, who was my Lisburn Youth manager, saw something in me. Dennis Shields then took a shine to me and I progressed to the Swifts and didn't look back.
Q. Who has been the biggest influence in your career?
A. My dad Jim. He played for Distillery and Crusaders until he had a bad leg break, gave up football in his late 20s and worked in the insurance business. My parents go to all the matches and they love it... if I'm playing. My dad will be honest with me if I'm good or poor. I took his support for granted as he brought me everywhere and stood in the freezing cold to watch me. Even if I wasn't playing he was there supporting me. My dad is football mad, a big Manchester United fan and Sir Bobby Charlton was his idol. He's always been my number one supporter and willing to give me advice and encouragement. Any big decisions I'd ask him for an honest opinion. I see some parents today challenging managers asking why their sons aren't playing but my dad never interfered even if he thought I should have been playing! I've always appreciated him leaving me to sort out my career. All my success was a bit of payback. At Linfield my mum, Nuala, and dad were always involved. I've an older brother, Ronan, and younger sister, Lauren. They enjoyed all the Cup finals and Ronan's sons, James and Ethan, made it onto the pitch, they love it. My success at Linfield was my family's success too. I'll never forget those times. My dad is a financial adviser and I do a bit of work for him while my mum is a retired nurse.
Q. What do you do outside football?
A. I did a teaching degree when I was at Linfield and I've been a PE teacher, working in the Bangor and Lisburn SERC doing BTEC sports, delivering PE modules and units. I'm doing part-time hours and it's great, plus I do a bit of coaching for Hillsborough Boys.
Q. What were your best moments at Linfield?
A. Winning the clean sweep when we beat Glentoran in the Irish Cup Final and when we won the Setanta Cup, beating Shamrock Rovers in Dublin. No-one gave us a chance, ourselves included. I joked with Glenn Ferguson on the bus on the way down we were about 7-1 to win, expecting us to lose badly. They had Irish internationals and we knew we had to be 100% and them 50%. We gave it everything and deserved it. I loved that competition and we had some great trips. The southern teams were very strong but we raised our game. I know people talk about summer football here but I'm old school and I'm used to leaving holidays for the summer. I don't think there are any guarantees the game would improve.
Q. Can you compare Linfield's clean sweep team to the current squad?
A. I think each team is great in their own era and it would be disrespectful to say otherwise. Look at how Linfield won the title last season and they beat a good Crusaders team a few times. I think it's wrong to judge teams that way or say one team could beat another.
Q. What has been your lowest moment in football?
A. I regret the way I left Linfield. People thought I left to get more money at another club but that couldn't be further from the truth. I was offered a contract and I just asked for a little time to consider it. I was going to sign it but the chance was taken away from me within two days. I loved my time at Linfield so it was a shame the way things were taken out of my hands. I was captain and I felt devastated. There was a five-minute meeting at the Park Avenue Hotel with manager Warren Feeney and his assistant, Andy Todd. They explained they were looking to freshen things up and that was my last contact with Linfield. After 13 years of service and more than 500 games as well as captain, the way it ended was not nice. Other players didn't sign their contract offers immediately. I also played through the pain barrier for the club and I put off an operation until the end of the season. Linfield released me and said they wouldn't pay for it but the damage was done playing for them for so long. It left a sour taste in my mouth but the club then agreed to pay for it. I rejected contract offers from Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers and even Glentoran came in for me with a good offer but I knocked them back. It is annoying when people say things that aren't true. It was just a sad ending to my time there.
Q. Did you have a favourite footballer growing up?
A. I'm a big Aston Villa fan so you are looking at Dalian Atkinson, Tony Daley and Dwight Yorke in the early 90s. Those boys were class. At Manchester United Roy Keane was as hard as nails, a superb midfielder. My dad loved Bryan Robson too. They never complained, just played on with injuries.
Q. Portadown have slipped into the Championship. Are you saddened by their plight?
A. It is sad to see... the Ports were always up there challenging when I was at Linfield. It was great for Ronnie McFall to show an interest in me and I would never be disrespectful to them. We got to the Irish Cup Final and should have won it against Glentoran but decisions went against us. That is a massive regret. That result had huge ramifications for Portadown, the knock-on effect was scary. At times players were not paid money and it was a very frustrating time. Portadown were good to me and hopefully they can come straight back up.
Q. You turned 34 in April. How long are you going to play on for?
A. (laughs) I don't know... ask big Davy (Jeffrey, now his manager at Ballymena). I change my mind all the time. I'll see how I feel at the end of the season. I would never go into anything half-hearted for myself or for someone like David. I've still got the appetite to play but I don't think I would continue my career outside the Premiership. I don't think my legs could cope! My game was getting up and down the pitch like a yo-yo, getting in players' faces. I'm not a teenager anymore and I look at the game differently. It's not easy chasing boys like Gavin Whyte and Mark Sykes around but David Jeffrey knows how to get the best out of me and where to play me.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with David Jeffrey?
A. It's been brilliant. We have always had a professional relationship but we became very good friends too. He's like a father figure. I'd play for him and my dad, they are the two people I want to please most. If I don't play well I feel I have let myself, my dad and David down. That drives me on to play better. David has always treated me well and after he left Linfield him and his partner Rose have been very good to me, along with Bryan McLoughlin. They know me very well and can tell if I'm in a good mood! David knew how to treat me since I was very young. It still means a lot to me if he tells me I've had a good game.
Q. Can you tell us an amusing story from your time at Linfield?
A. I've played with William Murphy and Steven Douglas for a long time so there's been a few! One time the three of us were fined for messing up a squad photograph at Windsor. Everyone was sitting out, including the board, and we crossed our arms. The photographer checked the images and it was the same over about 700 frames! Those pictures were to go out all over the world and three boys ruined it. Davy had a go at Dougie who then rang me and told me to apologise. Davy was so angry he said we wouldn't captain the club but he calmed down and we all did! The pictures were retaken.
Q. Who has been your toughest opponent and best player played with?
A. Toughest, in the early days would be Darren Lockhart at Glentoran. He was very under-rated and dished it out while taking it. Mickey Collins was another fierce opponent but I always seemed to play well against him because I knew I had to! Later on, Barry Johnston and Declan Caddell became great players. My best team-mates would be Noel Bailie and Glenn Ferguson. I've played in defence and I can't remember Noel making a mistake that led to a goal. Paul McAreavey, Tim Mouncey and Oran Kearney were a joy to play with too.
Q. Are you worried about retirement?
A. No, I'll keep myself busy. I've still a huge interest in the game but retirement isn't on my mind at the moment. I'd love to win something with Ballymena United. It would mean so much.
Date of birth: April 15, 1983
Place of birth: Lisburn
Previous clubs: Linfield, Portadown
Ballymena Utd record: 14 appearances 0 goals
International honours: One cap (v Georgia)