Randolph looking after number one
Ireland goalkeeper was eager to leave West Ham and join Middlesbrough
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
Darren Randolph: the sights and sounds of Euro 2016 are a powerful motivation to get to the World Cup in Russia next year.