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Sporting Lives with Michael Ingham: 'I was a Cliftonville man but Windsor gave me the best reception I ever had'

Michael Ingham on unforgettable NI debut, his move across water and why he still loves playing

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Michael Ingham

Michael Ingham

DARREN KIDD/PRESS EYE

Michael Ingham of Northern Ireland in action against Bulgaria in the Under 21 European Qualifing Match at Windsor Park. Photo: Michael Cooper

Michael Ingham of Northern Ireland in action against Bulgaria in the Under 21 European Qualifing Match at Windsor Park. Photo: Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper

Michael Ingham in action for Wrexham Fc against Newry City in the friendly at The Showgrounds, Newry.

Michael Ingham in action for Wrexham Fc against Newry City in the friendly at The Showgrounds, Newry.

Northern Ireland's Michael Ingham in training at New Forge. Picture By Rick Hewitt. 26/2/06.

Northern Ireland's Michael Ingham in training at New Forge. Picture By Rick Hewitt. 26/2/06.

Michael Ingham

It was 2005. Northern Ireland were playing Germany at Windsor Park in a friendly to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Irish FA. Most of us in attendance have long forgotten the fixture. Not Michael Ingham. He remembers it like it was yesterday.

For the Belfast man, it was an evening to savour. After a few false starts due to unfortunate injuries, the then 24-year-old finally made his international debut when he came on as a second-half substitute for Maik Taylor.

The ovation from the Kop was something to behold and almost brought the former Cliftonville goalkeeper to tears.

"It is a night I will never forget," says Ingham.

"When I came on, the welcome I received from the Northern Ireland fans blew me away. I was a Cliftonville man but the Kop gave me the best reception I have ever had in my career.

"When I think back to it, I had to fight back a few tears and had to get my head in the game. All of a sudden I was playing international football and the speed of it was something I had never experienced.

"It was a huge relief to win that first cap after a few disappointments with injury. There was also a great sense of pride."

All told, Ingham was part of the Northern Ireland squad for six years. After his debut, he would play only twice more at senior international level. With that ratio, others wouldn't have bothered turning up. Loyal and determined to better himself, Ingham always did.

"It made me better because I was training with Premier League players when I was in League One or League Two," says one of the most genuine footballers around.

"I raised my game and wanted to show I deserved to be part of it. People have a go at Lawrie Sanchez, who was the manager, but I loved him because there was an unbelievable team spirit and it was an enjoyable experience to be at that level."

That's the thing about the 39-year-old, now living in York, where he is such a popular figure thanks to his exploits with the football club in the city.

The guy just loves his football. He has done since he started on his goalkeeping journey as a teenager, he still does today as he coaches youngsters. He continues to play for Northern Premier League side Tadcaster Albion. He is captain and a highly respected figure at the club.

It all began for Ingham as a kid with Crumlin Star at 14. Within a few years, top Irish League clubs wanted him. Michael's uncle Gerard intervened.

"One of the most defining moments in my career was when Linfield, Glentoran, Cliftonville and Crusaders were after me as a 17-year-old," says Ingham.

"I never grew up with my dad, it was just my mum. My uncle Gerard played a big part for me at that time. He said I was going to play for Malachians for a year rather than jump into the Irish League.

"Initially I was thinking, 'What is he doing?' but it was great for me because at 17 I played men's football for a season and it toughened me up.

"Cliftonville won the league that year in 1998 for the first time in ages. I watched them on their parade around north Belfast and the manager Marty Quinn spotted me and shouted down, 'You should have been on this bus!'

"It wasn't long after that I signed for Cliftonville. It was amazing going into that dressing room. You had Paul Reece in goal and legends like Marty Tabb, Mickey Donnelly, Stephen Small, Gerry Flynn, Jody Tolan and Tim McCann. The Scannell brothers, Chris and Ronan, were around then as well.

"Marty said to me I would come in as No.2 but I was still young enough to play in the youth team so I was playing for them, the reserves and then the first team as well. I was playing four or five games a week and my only day off football was on Sunday and I played Gaelic then! I just loved playing.

"I say to young goalkeepers now that's where you get your development, by playing games."

One match Ingham didn't play in was the 1999 Irish Cup final. Cliftonville were due to face Portadown but the Solitude side were chucked out of the competition for fielding the ineligible Simon Gribben in the semi-final.

"I got into the team at Christmas that season and rumours started around March about clubs in England being keen," he says.

"I was buzzing for the Irish Cup final because with all the interest I thought that would be my swansong and I really wanted to win it for the club. Then we got kicked out and it was a desperate low. I was so gutted by that experience."

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Michael Ingham

Michael Ingham

WILLIAM CHERRY/PRESSEYE

Michael Ingham

The 19-year-old Ingham, viewed as one of the most promising goalkeepers in the UK, chose to join Sunderland rather than Newcastle or Middlesbrough.

"I flew over with my mum and uncle and walked into the treatment room for my medical and the manager Peter Reid walked in and slapped me three times on the arm and said, 'You will do for me big man' because he loved the size of me!"

Ingham was at Sunderland from 1999 to 2005. He played first-team football for the north east outfit but in his time there he had a succession of loan spells, including a short period with Cliftonville and with York and Wrexham, both of whom were impressed enough to sign him later in his career.

He says: "I went to Sunderland as a skinny 12 and a half stone raw goalkeeper and they saw potential in me. I trained hard and was learning from internationals but I wanted to play. All the loan moves were more about me than Sunderland. I was knocking on Peter Reid's door all the time asking to go out on loan to get games.

"There was a time when we had lost a few matches and Reidy had a team meeting and I was there. He was effing and blinding at all the first teamers and he was saying, 'All you guys are sitting here with all this money and there is only one person here who wants to play' and he pointed at me. He said, 'He is the only one that raps my door and wants to play football'. That was just bred into me. I loved playing.

"I thought if I wasn't playing at Sunderland I should play elsewhere even if it was lower down the divisions. Long-term, that got me the career I had."

Some outstanding players never play at Wembley. Ingham has performed there four times with York and was part of the 2012 team that holds a unique record.

"We lost the first two but created history in the next two when we won two finals in eight days in 2012. We won the Trophy final and then the Conference final, taking us back to the Football League. Those were two wonderful days," says Ingham, only one of two keepers to keep over 100 clean sheets for York.

Moving to Tadcaster in 2016, Ingham now combines playing with coaching. The company i2i Sports, who own the club, also run the i2i International Soccer Academy which sees the Belfast native make several trips to the USA every year and offer his experience and wisdom at home.

Daughter Indie (4) is the apple of his eye. Mum Mary is forever his inspiration.

"It wasn't high-level stuff but I have played over 600 games now. Since 1998 I have been paid to play football every single week so I feel very lucky. I turn 40 in July and am still playing. I have no regrets," states Ingham, whose cousin Stephen Donaldson is an Irish League linesman.

"What has always drove me on is my mum. This is no disrespect to the Irish League but I wanted to make her proud and I felt that if I had to come home I would have failed. That desire to do well was for my mum to make her proud."

Michael Ingham achieved that and a whole lot more.

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