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Life as a Professional

Signing pro didn’t exactly go to my head. I was far from over-confident and I realised that I still had, and have, a lot of things to learn and hopefully many things to achieve. But that contract reflected the realisation that I’d stepped one rung higher up the ladder. I was training more with Deano and on one occasion travelled with the first team to a game at Bradford. The match was televised and later that night I saw myself on ‘Match of the Day’ – it was frightening, and it made me realise how far I’d travelled.

Don’t get me wrong, I was, and still am on a learning curve. However after the progress I’d made, life was to remind me how cruel it can be. Charlton took us to an army camp for training and the usual team building exercises, however, not all the boys returned. Pierre Belangy, a good friend of mine, drowned during one of the exercises.

There was an inquest into his death, and evidence was presented to the Coroners Court. All I’m sure about is that a true friend is no longer with us.

Half way through my third year at the club I asked Alan Curbishley about my future. He pointed out that there were a number of keeper’s in front of me and that he felt I wouldn’t develop if I stayed at Charlton. Although this wasn’t exactly good news, I remember feeling not particularly disappointed – probably because it wasn’t unexpected. Curbs made it obvious that even reserve team football experience would be limited.
Although I knew I had the ability to make it, I felt I had to plan for the possibility of leaving full-time football. I’m not the type of person to sit on my backside and feel sorry for myself, I also wasn’t prepared to rely on my mum – she’d done her bit and it was my responsibility to continue to stand on my own two feet. Curbs had told me that Charlton would do all they could to find me a new club, but I also thought it sensible to prepare for a life away from football. I looked at the job vacancies, and saw a position for Adshell – cleaning bus shelters. I even filled in the application form! However Deano helped me out again – I’ve got to say a lot of thank you’s to that man – he’d contacted Kevin Blackwell at Sheffield United and a result, Neil Warnock asked me up for a trial. I played at Bramall Lane against Wolves, and even though I thought I’d done ok, they didn’t take me on – saying they were looking for a more experienced back-up for Simon Tracey – then their first choice keeper.

This time I certainly did feel disappointed, but as one door closes, another opens. Just as I was getting on the train at Sheffield my mobile went, it was Bernie (Dillon), the Chief Scout at Gillingham. He told me they were looking for a young No.2 and asked me down for a trial. All told, I played eight games in a month during the trial – seven youth games and one reserve team fixture. My Grandad had been ill, but he was pleased to hear that I’d been given a chance by Gillingham, I remember him asking me to save a ticket for him. Half way through the month he died. We had a game coming up against Bournemouth and I didn’t know if it was right to take part. I asked my mum for advice and she told me to play – so that game was for my Grandad – and he’d be glad to know that that game probably contributed to the decision to offer me a two and a half year contract.

U21European Championship Qualifier

It was a great feeling to be part of the first team set-up, although I spent the first ten games as a sub and then the gaffer decided that he didn’t need a replacement keeper on the bench! It was disappointing, but I’d learnt to channel disappointment into determination to work even harder. My confidence was also boosted with selection for the Welsh under 21’s. I qualify for Wales as my Nan is Welsh and I’m very proud to pull on the shirt.

My debut came at home to Grimsby on the 5th March 2002 when I conceded one goal but we ran out 2-1 winners. The next game was away to Sheffield Wednesday – a massive ground packed with history (if not fans). I kept a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw and got a good write up in the press, including being selected in the Division One ‘team of the week’. I felt that this was a big deal, it was probably at this point that I realised I was well on my way to my dream, and for all the hard work, it seemed to have happened so fast. It wasn’t all plain sailing, and in my next game I conceded a weak goal when I tripped over the ball against Forest – it was one of those occasions when you wish the ground would open up and swallow you. After I picked the ball out of the net I thought back to the difficult times at Charlton and knew that if I was going to succeed I’d have to put the mistake behind me. Luckily I made some good saves later in the game and we ran out 3-1 winners. I wasn’t sure what the gaffer was going to say but I needn’t have worried, he told me that I’d reacted well to the mistake and that was all that mattered – but put it this way, I was glad we got the result! I finished the season making a further nine appearances.

With one of the great Premiership strikers - Mark Viduka at Elland February 2003

I felt that I established myself during the 2002/03 season – and also made my full debut for Wales U21’s. I started the season as first choice and in total made 44 appearances. However contact negotiations with Gillingham were drawn out, and it wasn’t until December that I finally signed a three and half year deal with the club.
Shortly after I’d signed we were drawn with Leeds United in the FA Cup. After holding them to a 1-1 draw at home, we were beaten 2-1 at Elland Road. Playing at such a ground against Premiership opposition was a great experience and I’m hungry to play against these teams in the future.

The biggest event of the year occurred in April when I married Amera. She’s been very good for me and gives me a perspective on life that’s important. It’s far too easy to get so wrapped up in football and Amera gives me that balance. If things aren’t going too well she’s the one that gets me through it.

A great season for me was capped by being awarded the supporter’s ‘Player of the Year’, and I’ll take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to everyone of you who voted – it was a genuine honour and meant a lot to me!

Feeling at home at ‘The Priestfield’.

I feel I’m progressing and although I haven’t found my football career to be particularly easy, I appreciate the good times and I don’t take my progression for granted. As I look towards season 2003/04 I’ve set myself two general targets; to keep my place at Gillingham and to push for inclusion in the full Welsh squad.