I’ve had a whine or two in the past about how players coming to the end of their careers and dropping down the leagues failed to add value to the Forest Green project back in my day. Recently I highlighted the story of Stuart Slater who didn’t spend a great deal of time at the club but was a superb player on whatever stage he graced.
Another with a similar pedigree who did brilliantly for Rovers when I was there was Jason Drysdale. Jason is known to all in the game as “Milky’ because of his distinctive round frame glasses that make him eligible as a Milky Bar Kid doppelgänger. A former England Under21 international he left Watford to join Newcastle’s ‘entertainers’ under Kevin Keegan for £500,000. Milky was battling against John Beresford for the left-back slot at St James’s Park but hit a brick wall when Keegan fell out with the powers that be in the reserve league. The Newcastle manager pulled his reserve team out of the league when the league insisted that reserve matches were to be played at the club’s stadium.
Keegan wanted the surface at St James’s to be in superb condition for his entertainers and wanted it used as little as possible. Consequently, Milky found himself without football and had to settle for training in front of 4,000 fans. He got frustrated and ended up getting a move to Swindon Town for £340,000 and in his first season he was part of the Swindon side that won promotion to the Championship and reached the FACup 5th round before going out to Southampton after a replay.
We signed him a couple of years later at the age of 28 and despite having dropped from the Premier League to the Conference in the space of four years his application and professionalism never wavered. He was dedicated in training and never the “Big Time Charlie’ carrying out instructions to the letter. We were one-nil down at halftime away to Stalybridge and I decided something drastic needed to happen if we were going to get back into the game.
We changed from a back four to a back three and put Milky (our left-back) into the hole behind the front two. The look on his face when I announced the change was priceless but he was such a good footballer and such a willing team player I was confident he could adapt and play anywhere we needed him to. Yeah, you guessed it, he scored to earn us a precious away point in a 1-1 draw.
I had so much faith in him that I made him our penalty taker much to the dismay of our regular goal scorers. My favourite memory of a Milky spot-kick was in the FA Trophy semi-final first leg against St Albans. There was only just over 2,000 supporters in the ground but the kick-off was delayed by twenty minutes in order to let the fans in. I was convinced it was gamesmanship on behalf of St Albans and they were trying to knock us out of our pre-match routine.
It backfired. It was our opponents who made a sloppy start with a defensive back header falling short after only thirteen seconds and Marc McGregor nipping in-between defender and ‘keeper and ending up in a heap as the ‘keeper swept his legs from under him. Penalty.
There was a long delay before the kick was taken. I was remonstrating with the referee and the fourth official that it had to be a red card. A more definite case of denying a goalscoring opportunity could not have been staged. McGregor was past the keeper, eight yards out with the goal at his mercy. The referee thought differently, which is often the case so early in a game and showed the ‘keeper a yellow card.
Milky was stood by the penalty spot in front of the St Albans supporters with the ball in his hands for a minute and a half whilst the situation was sorted before he could take the kick. Of course, the fans subjected him to some serious abuse. That’s par for the course but the St Albans players joined in and were sledging him throughout. “Need the toilet?” “How’s the sphincter?” “Seen pens scuffed all season from that spot” and my favourite, “bet you’ve never had to take a penalty in front of this many.”
One of my favourite sayings to my players in the past was “there’s a thin defining line between confidence and arrogance” and Milky found the gap perfectly as he turned around before stepping up to take the penalty and address the St Albans players.
“I’ve trained in front of twice as many fans as this.”
Thank goodness he scored!