Footballers' Lives: Glenavon ace James Singleton on silverware high, injury woe with NI U21s, and how memory of late grandparents keeps him motivated
'From Irish Cup final joy to the horror of a broken leg, it's been an emotional journey and now I want a league title'
Glenavon ace James Singleton on silverware high, injury woe with NI U21s, and how memory of late grandparents keeps him motivated.
Q Where did your football career begin?
A I started with Lisburn Youth when I was eight. They were the best team when I was younger and we won the Lisburn league. There was no real competition so it wasn't really enjoyable. Things got more competitive in a national league against teams like Linfield and Glentoran. I started off as a central midfielder but when I got into the first team with Glenavon I played at left-back. It was quite a leap because I skipped reserve team football and went straight from Under-17 and 18 football to the first team. From left-back I went back to central midfield and, after my leg break with the Northern Ireland Under-21s, I went back to left-back and now I've filled in at centre-back too. It's good to play in different positions.
Q How did the move to Glenavon come about?
A From Lisburn Youth, I went to Lisburn Distillery and played one season there before Glenavon got in contact with my dad Alan. Davy Edwards was the manager of the Glenavon Under-16 team and I was encouraged to train with them. I signed for the club along with Rhys Marshall, who came from Linfield, and Jordan Dane, who now plays for Warrenpoint. We won the Northern Ireland Cup and it was a strong team.
Q Was there another option for you at that time?
A Linfield were interested in me when I was at Lisburn Distillery and also after the Milk Cup but I chose Glenavon because Davy Edwards offered me the captain's armband. I heard some players who went to Linfield didn't enjoy it and that also swayed my mind. We played the Blues in the first game of the season and lost 3-0. I thought, 'What have I done here?' but we won the Cup and beat Linfield in the semi-finals so I've no regrets.
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Q Did you find that big leap from youth football to the first team a hard one?
A It was because it came out of nowhere. I was playing for the Under-18s and 19s when Gary Hamilton came in as manager and took an interest in the younger players. I played one or two reserve games but, at the age of 16 or 17, I was brought into first-team training. I established myself at left-back and Gary recognised the need for the young players to develop physically. I can remember doing my GCSEs in school and Gary phoning me at break time to say I was in the squad against Cliftonville on Saturday. I came on for the last half-hour and played left midfield.
Q Who were your favourite players growing up?
A My family were Manchester United and Arsenal fans so I opted for Chelsea and I admired Frank Lampard. I played centre midfield and he was my idol. As I got older and drifted to left-back I started to appreciate Ashley Cole.
Q I'm sure you were delighted to see Bobby Burns get a move to Hearts.
A It's a brilliant move for him. I never had an opportunity to go to England. I was under contract from a young age at Glenavon and I've been focused on them and enjoying it. Mark Sykes is another smashing young player. I can remember myself and Rhys being the oldest players in the team aged 22 when we beat the Premier League side Crystal Palace 4-0. It makes you think how are our players not getting a move or trials at least? They have the potential but you need luck too and a club prepared to take a risk on you. It's certainly not their ability on the pitch stopping them performing at a higher level, but Bobby has shown what can be achieved.
Q In your first full season with the Lurgan Blues, you lifted the Irish Cup. How special was that feeling?
A That was 2014 and we beat Ballymena United in the final. I had just turned 18 and I can remember the quarter-final against Glentoran when everyone was saying it was a massive game for us. But I was young and had no experience in the competition. We beat the Glens and everyone was celebrating but we were thinking we haven't won this yet! The semi-final was at Windsor and we beat Crusaders after extra-time when Mark Patton scored the winner. Winning the final was my best moment in football and the full house at Windsor Park made it more special. I missed the second final in 2016 after my leg break but it was still brilliant to see the boys do it again. It was a bit disheartening not to be involved but I was nowhere near ready to be playing.
Q Were you nervous in the 2014 final?
A I was but I was young and a bit fearless. A more experienced player might feel more expectation but it was still the most nervous I've felt in a game. After the first few minutes you have to forget about the crowd and focus on the match. My mum and dad and wider family were there and it was a great day. Hundreds of fans greeted us off the bus at Mourneview Park and sang songs all night, it was a brilliant day.
Q Can you believe how much progress the club has made?
A The club was a bottom-six team but Gary came in and gave young players an opportunity to progress. If you look at the number of young players in the league now, I think Gary put those wheels in motion. Other managers have followed suit and you can see young players making a breakthrough at Coleraine and elsewhere. Younger players are a bit fitter and will run more yards. The older players will retire and you need the younger ones to keep the league as competitive as possible.
Q How much of a nightmare was your leg break?
A I was with the Northern Ireland Under-21s at Mourneview and it was disappointing because I was in Jim Magilton's team on merit. I performed well in the training camps and was given my chance against Macedonia in midfield. It was a proud moment as I had been told I was starting that morning, it was my second start after the Iceland game and when it happened I felt it was a bad knock. I tried to stand up and just fell over, the pain shot in and I knew something was wrong but I had never before broken a bone in my body. I went to hospital and remember opening my eyes in the hospital bed. Every time I moved I got a shock and terrible pain up my leg and back. I had surgery the next morning which was a huge relief. It was tough to take and come back from.
Q What was the toughest period during that time?
A Probably when I was told to start running. When I tried for the first time and realised how bad my technique was it was a real shock. I basically had to learn how to run again with the help of our physio Lyn Carpenter. That was the worst time but I never thought my career could be on the line. It was important to stay positive. I was warned that operations can go wrong and I didn't really want to hear that but it went well. When I made my first appearance back against Ballymena United and took a few tackles, I felt it was healed. But it's always in the back of your mind. I watched Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey say in a documentary it took him two years before he could forget about a leg break and play without fear. I'm glad I'm back to myself. The boys won the Irish Cup and qualified for Europe but you're still on a bit of a downer because you don't feel part of it.
Q How upset were you when your old team-mate Mark Farren passed away?
A That was a real tragedy, I was a young player coming through but Mark was one of the best finishers I have seen. Off the pitch he was a quiet guy who kept himself to himself. You could talk to him and the word I would use is professional as I looked up to him. It was a shocking illness but he was a brave man. We went to the Brandywell to play in a fundraiser and it was an emotional occasion. I think we all take life for granted and something like that can be around the corner. Paul Millar lost his son Philip too and Gary wanted us to beat Portadown in the Irish Cup for Windy. We put in a brilliant performance and beat the Ports 5-0. Paul is a strong character but we are a good family club and everyone sticks together in bad times. It's good to be part of a dressing room like that.
Q Have you personally had to deal with bereavement?
A I lost my grandmother and grandfather, my dad's parents, in a short space of time and it was hard to take. I was a teenager and my granda Jackie had cancer and passed away. My nanny Lena took ill after that. I was close to them and they paid for my boots when I was with Lisburn Youth. Nanny developed dementia and when she passed away as well it was a tough year. I tried to get on with things and remember the good times. After family members leave you, you want to do it for them and their memory keeps me motivated to this day. The last people you want to disappoint other than yourself and your club is your family.
Q Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A Best player I would say Sammy Clingan because of his professionalism. When he first came to the club I felt he could be a bit arrogant but he fitted in easily and is one of the nicest people I have met in football. If training is not going well he's the first one to say we must do better. Gavin Whyte was a hard player to stop purely because of his speed but I enjoyed those battles. We know each other through the Under-21s and he liked to run at me with the ball. I'm thrilled he got his move to Oxford and he's flying over there.
Q Where do you work?
A I'm working as a classroom assistant at Laurelhill College in Lisburn, mainly in the PE department. I went to the school and now it's a bit weird calling the teachers by their first name! I really enjoy it and help out with the football teams. It's good experience as I want to be a PE teacher. A few of the kids will go on to play Irish League football and follow in the footsteps of Gareth Deane, Alex Moore, Mark Patton, Andy McGrory and David Armstrong. Our head of PE, Mark Watson, is really into his football. I enjoy working with kids. I take the Year 10 football team and we are doing pretty well. We have a few Linfield fans and they will give me stick win or lose. I have done some coaching with the Irish FA in the summer and we have a good coach at Glenavon, Kris Lindsay, who is a reason why we are doing so well, the sessions are top class.
Q Where do you live?
A I've always lived in Lisburn and my family are from there. My mum and dad are Debbie and Alan. I've a wee brother Christopher who is 17 and two sisters Laura (26) and Alana (8). Chris plays for Ballymacash Rangers after being at Glenavon. My sisters aren't into sport as much but they would watch me play. I've a girlfriend, Jodi (below), and she's from Lisburn too. We met in school and we've been together nearly eight years. She's the first one to lift me when my head's down and she has a real interest in football. When I suffered the broken leg I took out a bit of anger on Jodi but she was brilliant supporting me through that. She put up with my moods and still encourages me all the time. My family are always supportive and my dad still always says, 'If you don't shoot, you won't score'. My dad is my biggest critic and it probably makes me a better player.
Q Do you see yourself staying with Glenavon for the rest of your career?
A I signed a new deal at the start of last season and I'm certainly enjoying being part of a successful team. I've never thought of moving on to another team in this league. I feel we will push on and I want to win a league title. We are going in the right direction and you need to aim for the biggest achievement. We've won Irish Cups, now I want a league title in the near future.
Date of birth: August 22, 1995
Place of birth: Lisburn
Previous clubs: Lisburn Youth, Lisburn Distillery.
Glenavon record: 18 goals in 141 appearances