Footballers' Lives with Curtis Allen: I felt depressive after Bournemouth exit
In the latest of our Footballers' Lives series, Glentoran striker Curtis Allen opens up about the pain of failing to make it in the full-time game and why he didn't celebrate Irish Cup success with Linfield.
Q. Has football always been a big part of your life and what are your earliest memories of playing?
A. Absolutely, yes. The earliest thing I can think of is scoring nearly 30 goals in six games and the paper did a piece on me, when I had these bleached blonde curtains, to say I would be the next David Beckham. I thought I was brilliant.
Q. Was moving to Bournemouth at 16 a bit of a culture shock?
A. I'd say so. I enjoyed it but it was hard sometimes. I had just left school and Belfast was really all I knew, how we speak to each other, our humour and things. Everyone there was English, they were all from the area and knew each other.
I moved into a landlady's house, the club used to invite people to take in young players, but we didn't see eye to eye. She had a daughter who was a bit older than me, but she was away at university a lot. In the second year I moved to an Italian family, which was a lot nicer, they had a daughter the same age and it was more of a family atmosphere. They owned an Italian restaurant in Belfast so I was well fed a lot of the time too.
Q. So, you landed on your feet eventually! Would you recommend a move to any young player?
A. Personally, I 100 per cent recommend young players to go across the water if they have the chance. We were in training twice a day on a full-time basis. It helped me pick up a deal, when I was 19, signing my first professional contract.
It was a fantastic place to live, waking up in the apartment looking out over the sea, and the weather always seemed to be good.
Signing the deal was massive for me, the family all came over and I signed it on the pitch in front of all the fans, which was nice. Myself and (Portsmouth striker) Brett Pitman were the only players from the youth set-up who were signed that year, so it was a big achievement.
Q. Did you share a pitch with lots of household names?
A. Yeah, I guess I did. We played some good teams, we played Southampton quite a lot in closed-door friendlies, so I was playing against Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and Adam Lallana, who I've stayed quite good friends with. I went to Marbella with him a few years ago and we still speak a bit now.
I look at him now, as an England international and banging them in for Liverpool, rated as one of the best midfielders around, and it shows you - people can make it to that level. He had the same grounding as I did, now obviously he's gone stellar and I've, well, not (laughs).
But it shows you can make it and that's what I always say to people, it's not out of your reach. I used to say he had no idea how lucky he was to have come to training then gone back to his family each night. To be honest, I can't watch him without feeling envious, but he is a great lad and he's worked hard for it.
Q. How difficult was it to handle the blow of being released?
A. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a professional footballer. I still believe I could have made it had things gone more my way to be honest. Having to leave Bournemouth was the lowest I could have felt. I felt as if I had completely failed, everyone knew I was over there so coming back left me feeling as if everyone was judging and saw me as a failure.
I sank into this depressive state, it was truly horrible. You know when you've worked so hard for something, but then it's just gone, it's just disappeared? It took me a long time, at least a year if not longer, to adjust to regular life again.
Q. How did you adjust?
A Slowly. I came back, I signed for Lisburn Distillery purely because I knew Paul Kirk so I just signed for him, I didn't think twice about Linfield or Crusaders or anyone, and got a job. I started working in River Island and then had training sessions in the evening, so I just fell into this cycle of working eight hours, then training at night, coming home, eating and going to sleep, just to start it all over again. It was a shock to me, but it's what Irish League players throughout the country do, that's the cycle.
Q. How did you cope during the first season back in the Irish League?
A. I don't know if I did. I was depressed for a lot of that first season. I remember sitting on the bench, watching Darren Armour and Andy Waterworth playing really well, and asking myself, 'Was I ever good enough?' because I had gone from being a professional footballer to playing reserve team games in Northern Ireland.
The following year, Andy signed for Hamilton, meaning the door was open for me, so I stepped in after a good pre-season. I worked very hard and it paid off, it turned out to be a huge achievement for me to have broken into that squad. Paul said I looked more like a man, I'd gotten stronger and fitter, scored 25 goals that season and was starting to believe again.
Q. Did you start to think your second move across the water could be around the corner?
A. Yes, I did. Sammy McIlroy was in charge of Morecambe at the time and rang me to ask what my plans were for the next season. I fobbed him off by saying I wasn't sure, I was going to weigh up the options…
All these clichés just because I couldn't work out if it was a wind-up or not! I thought someone was doing a really good impersonation. We had lads like Ryan McCann and Peter McCann at the club who loved a good prank, so I had no idea if it was real or not. Eventually, I took a bit of time to consider moving to Morecambe and just decided against it.
Q. Were you scared about making the jump again?
A. I don't know, I don't think so, but there would have been some apprehension there. I just don't think I believed it was the right move for me. I spoke to my dad, who was insistent I should go, but I was too preoccupied with what happened before and I was questioning myself a lot. I'd had two seasons back home, one good one, but didn't think that was enough to hang a professional contract on.
I thought I would stay at home, play for Linfield and then get a really big move to England. Even though I think I had the knowledge to make a more informed decision, having been over there once before, I still don't know to this day if it was the right move to stay here. It probably wasn't, in all honesty.
Q. What did you hope would happen?
A. I don't know. That a move which I felt confident about would come around. I went to Coleraine and really enjoyed my time there, really enjoyed it, but always harboured this desire to go back across the water, and I never made a secret of it. I ended up not renewing my contract after two years at the Showgrounds and I remember it had gotten to July in 2013 or so and I was still without a club. Players were already weeks into pre-season and I was unattached. Then the call from Inverness came.
Q. What did they say?
A. They had watched the game in which Coleraine beat Linfield 3-2 on Sky and I'd scored in that game. They said they'd watched me for the best part of a year and, again, I remember thinking it was a wind-up. But then they emailed a contract over and within a week I was over there arranging somewhere to live. I was 25 and had been playing senior football for years and felt more confident than ever. Terry Butcher was the manager and put me into the first team straight away after a family holiday.
The happiness was short-lived, though, as I got a knee injury on the very first day of training. I missed about three months thereafter, it couldn't have been worse for me. I ended up way behind.
Q. Did they determine what was wrong with your knee?
A. Yes, after countless tests and MRI scans they told me it was my trainers. I had got a new puppy who had chewed the back of my shoe and bitten half of the support out, so it just collapsed like a cake when you touched it. I had been running with half of my foot bent round, a bit like a girl with heels she couldn't walk in! I got special trainers which helped to resolve it, but the club didn't want me to train for another month. It was heartbreaking to watch the lads train, while I was just running around a pitch endlessly. They'd go for a coffee and I would be kept back for a double session of running.
By the time I was fit, I couldn't get into the team. Billy McKay was a lone striker, banging the goals in and playing for Northern Ireland. I sat every week wishing things would change but I didn't have a hope.
I was always the 16th man in every squad, travelling the length of Scotland and sitting in the stands. I may as well have been a fan. By Christmas it all became too much for me, I just told them I couldn't do it any more and asked to be released.
Q. How about life in the Irish League; how would you summarise your time at Linfield, before leaving for Inverness?
A. I got off to a great start, I remember I played a reserve game and scored a hat-trick on the Friday night in the first half, was taken off then was in the senior squad and scored a hat-trick the following day at Newry.
I won the league with them, but in both years was left out of the Irish Cup final squad. The first year we went to the hotel and we were looking at the 'spill the beans' type features in the papers, where the captain shares all the gossip on each player. And I wasn't mentioned. I remember then thinking I'd been left out, even though the squad hadn't been announced. It put a real downer on it. I sat and sulked the whole day when they won. I stood at the back of the showers and refused to touch the Cup, I didn't celebrate at all. One of the coaches told me to get involved as I was part of it, and I thought, 'No, I'm not part of this at all'.
For it to have happened a second year, it felt like such a kick. I knew then I would be leaving a long time before I actually left. That's why winning it with the Glens was so special for me.
Q. Do you feel as if the glory days for Glentoran are distant memories at the moment?
A. There's been plenty of criticism lately. There were predictions in the papers to say we would finish ninth again. I've played for both Linfield and the Glens, two massive teams who should always be at the top of the league, but the pressure the players are under at both of those clubs, it's just madness for part-time football. It's pure madness. We're all human, and I value having an elite mentality, but the pressure is crazy.
Things have happened at our club too, players weren't paid for a long time, we had financial problems and the team had to be dismantled, but the pressure is still there.
Q. Is it still just as tough to hold onto a permanent place in the squad, even when the team's under-performing?
A. It's harder, you look at Stephen McAlorum, our club captain, or Jay Magee, who is Glentoran through and through and was loved by the fans. If you're not meeting the level they want you to, you can't expect to be given the contract you want. You have to have 30 good games a season, plus perform in the cup competitions, or you're out, it's as simple as that.
There's a lot more positivity in the team, I think there's a positive spin on things now. But equally, that could mean expectation levels rise all over again. There were a few boos as we came off 1-0 down at half-time to Glenavon. That turned out to be a really great game of football. That's what I think could affect younger lads and I think Gaz (manager Gary Haveron) sees that too.
Q. You don't hear many players call their manager by a nickname, at least not while they're still at the club…
A. He doesn't like Gary, though! You can't call him Gary, whenever you hear anyone call him that you can tell he doesn't like it! He does have a good relationship with the players, though. I think that's partly because he's played Irish League. I played against him, he's young too, but a fantastic manager. I think he's done really, really well at the club and takes our views on board. He gets a lot of undue criticism which I think is harsh on him.
He's a nice guy, who wants to do a good job for everyone.
Q. What's he done for you?
A. He made me stay at the club, he was a factor at least. I could have walked away at the end of the year when my contract was up and other clubs were showing an interest, but he talked with me about what he wanted for the club, his vision and the commitment he wanted to show, and my mind was made up. That was before money or anything was discussed.
Q. Which athlete do you admire the most?
A. Thierry Henry, in his prime, I think. I always used to try and mimic his style.
Q. Who has been your toughest opponent and the best player you played alongside?
A. I remember playing England on one occasion and being up against Micah Richards. He was just enormous and terrifying. I thought, 'If this boy gets near me I won't come off this pitch alive!' Gareth Bale was another, his pace and athleticism meant I just couldn't keep up with him. I think Lallana was the best player I've ever been in a team with, he just kind of strolls past people and was always so good with both feet.
Q. What do you do outside football?
A. I'm a teaching assistant, which is quite a female-dominated environment. I'm the only fella working in the school, which has helped to make me almost a male role model in a lot of these children's lives. Some of the young boys in the class don't have fathers, so I think it's important for me in work, and us as players, to be men they can look up to.
I also help out with a homework club in East Belfast and a couple of lads who come are Glentoran supporters, who have my name on their shirts, which I love. They give me stick though too, I would come in to help them with their homework and I'd hear, 'How'd you miss that?!'
Q. Do you have any hobbies?
A. I love playing golf, I know it's really common among footballers but I think that's because it's completely different to football. I love playing tennis too, but it's a bit more energy-depleting. I'm getting married next year and I'd love a golf-based stag!
Q. How did you meet your fiancée?
A. Cheryl and I met through friends and we've been going out just over three years. We started messaging through Facebook, then I managed to persuade her to come out. She is a great girl, she picks me up when I'm down and knows when to leave me alone - which anyone involved with a footballer will say is essential!
Q. What are your hopes for the future?
A. I'm really looking forward to being a married man, I am one of the last of my friends to get married. Maybe we'll have a family in the future too, I think we'd both like that. On the pitch, I just want to keep playing at as high a level as I possibly can, for as long as possible.