In this week's edition of our popular series, Ballymena United's James Knowles talks about his Blackburn days, returning to Northern Ireland and his ambition to lift the Irish Cup.
Q. How did your career develop before the move to Blackburn?
A. I was with Lisburn Youth the whole way through from under-8s to under-16s, what a club! From Colin Caswell, Jimmy, Brian Kennedy, Andy Whitt, Davy Edward, Barry Black and his dad, Billy. It was the best set up in the country and their record of producing internationals speaks for itself. I know that the club are still doing very well. When I was around 12 or 13, clubs started showing an interest in me. I had trial offers from Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Newcastle and Everton. Most of them made offers when I was 15 and I had a decision to make. I felt I had a better opportunity to break through at Blackburn, so I went there.
Q. Was that a bold move then, to turn down big clubs?
A. Yes, I wasn't sure what to do as I left it that long. Liam Brady tabled an Arsenal offer but he eventually phoned my dad and said the deal was off because I waited to long and that he'd signed a Brazilian instead! Liverpool had also brought me to the Champions League final in Athens, 2007, as they were interested. I went with Robbie Brady, who then went on to sign for Manchester United. I had to get something sorted, so Blackburn looked the best option. Terry McPhillips, a coach at Everton, moved to Rovers and wanted me to join him there.
Q. Did you play much at Blackburn?
A. I made one first-team appearance, in my last year, away to Morecambe. I played 60 minutes behind the strikers and was a bit disappointed with my performance. It's said you have to take your opportunity and I felt I could have played better. I was training with the first team and felt I was making progress, so when I was called into the office and told I was being let go, it did come as a surprise. In the game, I started I was alongside Steven Nzonzi and Morten Gamst Pedersen. Nikola Kalinic, who is at Roma, was up front with Jason Roberts, while Chris Samba and Míchel Salgado were playing at the back. Junior Hoilett, who is now with Cardiff City, was also at Blackburn. Sam Allardyce was the manager.
Q. Was that your first big setback in football?
A. I didn't expect it and found it hard. I went on trial to a lot of Championship and lower-league clubs and it was difficult. You started to realise how good you got it at a Premier League club with all the facilities they had. Younger players weren't given time to develop at lower league clubs because they needed an already-made player, so I made the decision to come home and look for a club in the Irish League.
Q. How did you feel coming home?
A. My mindset was to go back into full-time football. I signed one-year deals with clubs as I still believed I could go across the water again and George McMullan helped bring me to Cliftonville. He had worked with my dad. Tommy Breslin was a big factor as well, as he wanted to play football the right way. I was told by agents clubs were interested in me and I even went to German club Osnabruck for a week. After winning the league with Cliftonville, I moved to Linfield and got grief for that!
Q. Was that a controversial move at that time?
A. It was as we had just won the league. Linfield offered me a contract and it was a tough decision. It was going to be hard to play regularly for them but I viewed it as an exciting challenge. I signed a one-year deal and it was tough as I got a lot of stick from the Cliftonville fans.
Q. Was it upsetting getting the stick?
A. It's part of the game and the fans shared their thoughts every time I got on the ball at Windsor. I loved my time at Cliftonville and that's the reason why I ended up going back after the year with Linfield. Winning the league with the Reds was a highlight. After missing out in the professional game, playing in that great team with the likes of Joe Gormley, Barry Johnston, George McMullan, Ryan Catney and Liam Boyce brought back the love of the game. I knew George and the chairman, Gerard Lawlor, and it was clear I'd be welcomed back with open arms. George loves Cliftonville, he bleeds the club.
Q. I'm sure like everyone else, you were heartbroken at the news of Tommy Breslin's passing?
A. I was at the Premiership launch when I heard the news and couldn't get over it. He was a gentleman and a father figure to everyone, especially to me. You couldn't meet a nicer man.
Q. Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
A. The only thing you think about is turning down a club and just how would things have turned out. But I've no regrets over the Blackburn move, which was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Could I have worked harder? Maybe, but I was young and learning. Coming home was very hard and a massive reality check. My partner, Camille, helped bring me down to earth. All I ever knew from a very young age was football, and in a way I got everything handed to me, I was very lucky to get that head start and to be honest, I took it all for granted! You realise all this whenever a year goes by and you start to think, 'Flip I think I need to get a proper job'. Myself and Camille now own a beauty salon called Beauty Boulevard in Lisburn square, which we set up back in November, 2017. I also run Lisburn Blinds while Camille, who is from Moira, manages the salon.
Q. Have you had good support from your family?
A. Definitely. I have a big family circle and in the middle would be my granny, Frances, and Granda Robert, who never missed a game from my Lisburn Youth days. My dad, John, and uncle William came to watch me play the whole way through and even the Northern Ireland games. I made a fortune of them all by getting £2 a goal (laughs). I would always look to my dad for guidance when making decisions as I have always looked up to him. Him and his partner, Laura, and wee Jay and Elle are season ticket holders at Ballymena and have followed every club I've been part of. My mum, Karen, and her partner, Mark, also make the games when they can. My parents separated when I was around 11. That was difficult at the time but I tried to take it in my stride and I was too young to understand everything. I have a good relationship with both of them. When I turned 16, I went to England for three years, so it didn't affect me too much. Lastly Camille, my biggest fan. I never give her enough credit for what she's had to stick up with (laughs). I'm just thinking back to both my knee injuries that I've had in the last four years. I was basically bed bound and couldn't do anything for myself for the first eight to 12 weeks. Looking back, I just remember it being painful, frustrating, both mentally and physically, and I won't lie, there would be times when I just sat and cried. I can't thank Camille and my family enough!
Q. How's it going for you at Ballymena United?
A. I love it there, I had first signed for Linfield when David (Jeffrey) was the manager. It didn't work out because I was still young and needed to work on my game. When David called again, I knew what to expect and I admired how him and Bryan (McLaughlin) worked and knew what standards they would expect. So I didn't have to think much about signing. We came second in the league, achieving Europe and it was the first time I had signed a two-year deal to leave me more settled. My contract runs out in the summer. In February last year, I injured my knee in the League Cup final and it was a slight dislocation of the knee cap. I needed an operation and it was nine months before I could play again. I'm feeling better now but the Shield Final defeat was heartbreaking, especially after we played so well. It was a feeling like the League Cup final defeat. I couldn't influence that one after the injury but on both occasions, it wasn't our day. Cliftonville have been flying and we gave them a fright. Injuries hit us hard this season and it would have been nice to lift silverware. The league campaign has been disappointing but it's a tough league. If football resumes, we now have a chance of making an Irish Cup Final and it's very important we do everything we can to take it but I have huge respect for Coleraine, they are a very good side but as I've said many times before with the quality we have in our side, on our day we can beat anyone!
Q. Are you surprised at Cliftonville's progress?
A. Not really because they have quality players who are showing how good they are. The forward line is scary and Paddy McLaughlin has great options. We shut them out at Windsor but just not long enough.
Q. What's David Jeffrey like as a manager?
A. His professionalism and man management stands out and he loves his players. You can see that in the changing room. He doesn't expect anything less than 100% and gets the best out of each player, personally that's why I signed for Ballymena. Bryan is the same and they are a great match. Their record speaks for itself. I was so impatient after being out for nine months injured and was slightly to eager to get back out again but with their advice I've been patient for the right moment to return.
Q. Given the financial resources available to the top clubs, can a league championship be a realistic target for a club like United?
A. Why not? You have to believe or you're playing for the wrong reasons. As long as David and Bryan are there, we will believe we have a chance. A few wins can make a big difference. I'm still only 26, I want to win more medals again.
Q. Was it difficult playing for the Big Two, was there more pressure?
A. There was but I was used to it at Cliftonville. Success raises expectation levels and that was still there when I returned to Cliftonville, though the Glens were going through a rough patch when I was there. We underperformed during a rebuilding process but you are still expected to win at the top clubs. Ballymena aren't a 'Big Two' club but I knew Davy (Jeffrey) would instil that attitude. I enjoy that pressure and wouldn't have it any other way, we would love to finish what has been a frustrating season with Irish Cup success.
Date of birth: April 6, 1993.
Place of birth: Lisburn.
Previous clubs: Blackburn Rovers, Linfield, Cliftonville, Ards, Glentoran.
Ballymena record: 44 appearances, 6 goals.