Ran­dolph look­ing af­ter num­ber one

Ire­land goal­keeper was ea­ger to leave West Ham and join Mid­dles­brough

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker:

As soon as he said Joe Hart was com­ing in, I said I wanted to go. I can’t be ex­pected to stay and sit on the bench when there’s a World Cup at the end of the year I can’t re­ally re­mem­ber. I didn’t take any no­tice back then so I’m not go­ing to re­mem­ber now. I’m pretty self­ish. All I re­mem­ber is that I played. All I re­mem­ber is me

Dar­ren Ran­dolph is sit­ting in the north­ern sun­shine laugh­ing at him­self. Thurs­day is a scorcher on Teesside and we are out­side over­look­ing the ex­quis­ite pitches at Mid­dles­brough’s lush train­ing ground. This is Ran­dolph’s new of­fice, not a bad work­place on a day like this, es­pe­cially when liv­ing next door in a pala­tial ho­tel.

Must be a nice walk in the morn­ing?

“Yeah, it’s dif­fer­ent to Lon­don, it’s a change, but a good change,” Ran­dolph be­gins, ca­su­ally. “I’m stay­ing over there in the ho­tel. It’s nice, a one-minute walk to train­ing, even though I take my car.” Par­don? Ran­dolph is now chuck­ling. “Yeah, I did that this morn­ing, I drove across. Be­cause. I’m. Lazy.”

What? But it’s only about 30 yards away?

“I did! Of course! It’s cold up here. Some morn­ings it’s been rain­ing. And I don’t like the cold.”

Ran­dolph knows the pic­ture he is paint­ing of him­self, he does a line in self-dep­re­ca­tion. You can see why Boro’s new man­ager Garry Monk says an hour later: “We’re de­lighted to have him. He fit­ted the pro­file, on and off the pitch. We say it a lot, we try to sign good peo­ple. It makes the en­vi­ron­ment, the cul­ture, a lot bet­ter.”

Ran­dolph seems at ease, which is a com­ment on him and Mid­dles­brough, be­cause it is less than a month since Ire­land’s goal­keeper was a West Ham United em­ployee about to em­bark on the sec­ond sea­son of a four-year con­tract. Hav­ing played in 22 of West Ham’s Premier League games last sea­son, he was again ex­pect­ing to fight for the No 1 spot with Adrian. In pre-sea­son, Ran­dolph says man­ager Slaven Bilic told them as much.

One month ago, West Ham’s pre-sea­son was a train­ing camp in Aus­tria. Those Premier League ap­pear­ances, plus oth­ers in the Europa League and League Cup, meant Ran­dolph had trig­gered a clause in his con­tract which, even though it was signed in 2016, would mean it re­quired re­newal. He and Bilic had dis­cussed this.

Sur­prise

Then, around 48 hours later, Ran­dolph heard two words that would change his work­place, his ca­reer and dra­matic as it sounds, his life: Joe Hart.

“It came as a sur­prise,” Ran­dolph says. “I’d bro­ken into the team and signed a new four-year con­tract at the start of last sea­son. The man­ager said to me nu­mer­ous times that he was happy with me and Adrian. And it wasn’t go­ing to change, it wasn’t some­thing he was look­ing at.

“So you come back for pre-sea­son ready to go. I had spo­ken to him about the clause in the con­tract and he said: ‘No prob­lem, I’ll speak to the chair­man.’ Prob­a­bly two days later I heard about Joe Hart. Af­ter one of the train­ing ses­sions the man­ager pulled me aside and said Joe was com­ing in and he was go­ing to play.

“When I heard that I thought: ‘I can’t trust what you say.’ It’s in my best in­ter­ests that I push on. They were look­ing af­ter them­selves in their busi­ness, I’d to look af­ter my­self. When you’re told one thing and some­thing else hap­pens, it be­comes clear you’ve to look af­ter your­self.

“I’d a great time at West Ham, the fans were bril­liant with me. But this hap­pens in foot­ball. You need to think about your­self.

“It wasn’t a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion. As soon as he said Joe Hart was com­ing in, I said I wanted to go. He said he wanted me to sign a new con­tract but I can’t be ex­pected to stay and sit on the bench when there’s a World Cup at the end of the year. He was fine, he’s been a player him­self, prob­a­bly been in this po­si­tion.”

Pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tion

Does he feel let down?

“No, not let down, but I’m dis­ap­pointed. You feel like you’ve done well for the club, but that’s it, that’s foot­ball. I’ve been the keeper com­ing in be­fore. It can be bru­tal and I’ve been in foot­ball long enough to know it can change in a week – or in a day.”

In Ran­dolph’s case things changed in less than a day. Ar­riv­ing back in Lon­don from Aus­tria on Fri­day evening, he was on Satur­day’s 7.30am train from King’s Cross to Dar­ling­ton. A few hours later he was a Mid­dles­brough player on a dif­fer­ent four-year con­tract.

“Eager­ness to leave,” Ran­dolph says, “and eager­ness to be here – it was both. It was a bit of a race against time. Mid­dles­brough’s sea­son was start­ing in two weeks and I wanted to get in as soon as I could.

“It was all a bit of a rush, a panic. But I’ve walked into a mas­sive club here, great fa­cil­i­ties, great staff, every­one around the place has been bril­liant. We’ve two home wins, two clean sheets and we haven’t hit our max­i­mum po­ten­tial.”

Boro have made some eye-catch­ing splashes in the mar­ket – £15 mil­lion Britt As­som­ba­longa re­turns to Not­ting­ham For­est to­day – and they have shed many of the play­ers as­sem­bled for last year’s dull at­tempt to stay in the Premier League, Vic­tor Valdes among them.

Valdes was Boro’s No 1, even though he wore No 26, and Ran­dolph has taken a sim­i­lar ap­proach. He has No 25 and says: “Num­bers are num­bers. It’s just a jer­sey.”

But when it comes to be­ing Mar­tin O’Neill’s No 1, Ran­dolph is not phleg­matic. It is less than two years since the Bray man stepped on to Lans­downe Road to re­place the in­jured Shay Given against Ger­many in that Euro 2016 qual­i­fier. Ran­dolph was hardly estab­lished at in­ter­na­tional level, he ap­peared to be be­hind David Forde as O’Neill’s sec­ond-choice, yet from that mo­ment for­ward he has been Ire­land’s num­ber one. Is that how he views him­self? “Of course I think that. While I’m play­ing week in, week out for my club, I’ll still think that. I’ve played for the last two years. That’s how I see it. If I didn’t see it that way, I’d have stayed at West Ham, on the bench, picked up the money. But there’s a World Cup to play for.”

The sights and sounds of Euro 2016 are a pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tion to get to Rus­sia next year. Ran­dolph speaks of bus jour­neys to games, see­ing fans in the streets. And then en­ter­ing the sta­dium: “When you see green ev­ery­where, or it’s half green and half yel­low like it was against Swe­den, that’s when you think it’s mad to be there. That colour. And we could have that again. We’d love that.”

Ran­dolph was 28 against Ger­many, 30 now, and that night in Dublin is an­other ex­am­ple of how swift change can be. But, to use the old joke, it took Ran­dolph a long time to be­come an overnight sen­sa­tion.

He talks of play­ing bas­ket­ball as a boy, like his father, and Gaelic with Bray Em­mets, and also of go­ing to the Milk Cup in Bal­ly­mena with Ard­more Rovers. Ard­more faced Ever­ton.

Any­one we know? “Ever­ton?” he asks, “I can’t re­ally re­mem­ber. I didn’t take any no­tice back then so I’m not go­ing to re­mem­ber now. I’m pretty self­ish. All I re­mem­ber is that I played. All I re­mem­ber is me.”

Ran­dolph laughs again at him­self, and then again at mem­o­ries of join­ing Charl­ton at 16, go­ing into digs with five oth­ers. “No par­ents around.” He had been to Leeds, Celtic – “pretty much ev­ery club you can think of” – but he liked Charl­ton and did well.

Then the loans came – to Welling, Ac­cring­ton, Gilling­ham, Bury and Here­ford. There was a re­call for a Charl­ton de­but at An­field the day af­ter his 20th birth­day. It was Rob­bie Fowler’s last Liver­pool match, Charl­ton got a 2-2 draw. His ex­tended fam­ily raced across for the match.

Charl­ton were a Premier League club that day in 2007 but by 2010 Charl­ton were in League One. Ran­dolph was in goal when they lost to Swin­don in the play-offs. He fan­cied some­thing dif­fer­ent af­ter that and found it at Mother­well in an SPL soon to lose Rangers.

Big oc­ca­sions

“I’d a plan with my agent. He said: ‘Go to Scot­land, get your head down, we’ll get you a move to the Cham­pi­onship, then a move to the Premier League. That’s your plan over the next five years.’

“Be­ing me I thought: ‘I’ll do it in three.’ I went to Scot­land and stayed three years.”

But he ex­pe­ri­enced the Cham­pi­ons League with Mother­well, the Europa League and the Scot­tish Cup fi­nal. In two suc­ces­sive sea­sons, he was named in the SPL team of the year.

The move to the Cham­pi­onship came with Birm­ing­ham City, then on to West Ham. It was the Dmitri Payet sea­son, the last at Up­ton Park. Ran­dolph played in that chaotic, de­layed Bo­leyn farewell against Manch­ester United.

It’s one of a num­ber of big oc­ca­sions he men­tions – when pushed. The Charl­ton de­but at Liver­pool, Ger­many, the Bos­nia play-offs, Italy in Lille, West Ham win­ning at An­field for the first time since 1963. It has him think­ing. And the next five-year plan? “Mmm, I’ll still be play­ing, I hope to get to 40. I think I could do that. I don’t know. My five-year plan?” To walk to work? “That’s weather de­pen­dent. If it’s sunny to­mor­row I’ll walk, if it’s not I’ll be back in my car driv­ing for 30 sec­onds. Lis­ten, I work hard when I get to train­ing, I need to con­serve my en­ergy.”

He laughs, gets up and strolls away. Pos­si­bly to­wards the car park.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOMMY DICKSON/INPHO

Dar­ren Ran­dolph: the sights and sounds of Euro 2016 are a pow­er­ful mo­ti­va­tion to get to the World Cup in Rus­sia next year.

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