GOOD, BAD AND UGLY
Defender Darren Purse on being bashed up by John Hartson
DARREN PURSE may have turned down Arsenal and Tottenham as a youngster but the centre-back says it was the best decision he ever made.
And it’s hard to argue with him. Purse decided on his local side Leyton Orient and made his debut for the O’s as a fresh-faced 17-yearold before moving on to play for the likes of Birmingham City and West Brom in the Premier League.
A League Cup final scorer and England U21 international, Purse looks back fondly on a successful career – although he still has nightmares about his first encounter with big striker John Hartson!
I was lucky enough as a kid at the age of 16 to be offered a YTS at a few different clubs. Tottenham and Arsenal were two of the sides but Leyton Orient basically told me they would offer me a pro contract as soon as I turned 17.
I was going to stay on at school, that was the plan, but when you get offered a deal like I did, you can’t turn it down.
I signed the professional deal in February when I turned 17 and three days later I made my debut away at Brighton so it was definitely the right decision!
Leyton Orient was my local club as I was brought up in Bethnal Green and it was a great place to start my career.
I played for quite a few decent managers. Trevor Francis and Steve Bruce at Birmingham were both very good managers but I’m going to go for one who some people might not know in Denis Smith.
What he did at Oxford was incredible. When I signed, we were in the old Division One, which is the Championship now.
He was an exceptional manager and always did the right thing with the players. He knew when to have a pop at people but also knew when he needed to put an arm around you and give you some space.
I thoroughly enjoyed playing under him for 18 months at Oxford and when he moved on to West Brom he tried to sign me, but Birmingham offered the club more money and thankfully that move turned out well, too!
Martin Grainger at Birmingham was a brilliant player and a really good mate as well but later on in my career I played with Riccardo
Best manager: Scimeca at West Brom. Denis Smith
We had a good relationship while we were there and then we both moved on to play for Cardiff. We both travelled from Stratfordupon-Avon down to Cardiff every day so we hit it off and were very close. He was also a very good player.
We still keep in touch on a regular basis and I would consider him one of my best mates in football.
I was always the ranter and raver but he is a very calm guy so we balanced each other well. We’ve had some great times over the years.
My first promotion was with Birmingham to the Premier League in 2002 so not a bad first one to experience!
We had been knocking on the door for a few years but losing out in the play-offs which was very frustrating.
Steve Bruce replaced Trevor Francis in the December and we managed to get that bit of luck and finally get over the hurdle.
We had to go through the play-offs again and played Norwich in the final at Cardiff. It was a really tight game and it went to penalties. Darren Carter scored the winner – he was a local lad and Blues fan so it was brilliant to watch him do it.
I’ve been promoted since but obviously the first one always sticks in your mind and it was great to do it the way we did.
When I was at Leyton Orient as a youngster, Trevor Putney was brilliant at impressions and used to have us all in stitches.
I think the funniest and craziest has to go to Ian Bennett, though, who was our goalkeeper at Birmingham.
They always say that you’ve got to be a bit of a nutcase to be a goalkeeper and that was definitely the case when it came to Benno! Every day you went to training, you knew he’d be up to something new on the training ground. Some of the things he used to do were hilarious.
You’d be in the dressing room getting ready for a big game and he’d be there making everybody laugh – he was the life and soul of the team.
He retired in the summer but I bet he’s still signed on as a player somewhere getting his appearance money for sitting on the bench!
There are a few that can’t be printed! One of the funniest was one pre-season when we were away in Scotland with Birmingham. I was with Jeff Kenna who had just signed for us after previously winning the Premier League with Blackburn.
We had been out for a drink in the afternoon and were on our way back in a cab when Jeff turns to me and says ‘Pursey, I don’t know you from Adam but do you fancy going out for another beer?’.
We went back out for a quiet couple – and then it gets to 3am! We had a curfew for 11pm so we got back to the hotel absolutely legless and Brucey is standing in the corridor waiting for us so we knew we were in trouble.
We finally got into bed after Jeff had fallen over and cut his eye. We went to training the next day with stinking hangovers and Brucey pulls us aside and says we’ve been fined two weeks’ wages. We’ve started doing our running amongst a big group of us and there were some younger lads knocking the ball around nearby.
One of them booted the ball into the group and who did it hit right in the face? Jeff Kenna!
He fell right to the floor and there he was with his cut eye, hangover and probably didn’t have a clue where he was!
Promotion to the Premier League has to be up there and I was very proud not to be relegated from the top-flight either after playing for two sides in Birmingham and West Brom that were always favourites to go down.
The proudest has to be representing my country. I played twice for the England U21 side in 1998 against France and South Africa.
I think my biggest achievement was scoring in a cup final, though. I scored in the League Cup final for Birmingham against Liverpool back in 2001 and it’s a childhood dream to score in a cup final. It was a last minute penalty, too!
I can honestly say that I never really experienced any low moments, I have been very lucky. I just feel really privileged to have been a professional footballer.
Being a footballer is most youngsters’ dream so to go and have a career in the game is something I’m very proud of.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
I always used to hate playing against Wolves so I would go with Molineux as the toughest place to go. I played against them a few times for Birmingham and West Brom so there was the added local rivalry, too, which made the game mean a bit more.
I can’t remember ever getting a good result at Wolves with either so it wasn’t a favourite of mine! They’ve had some good strikers over the years, too, the likes of Steve Bull and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake always gave you a game.
In terms of quality, it’s hard to look past Gianfranco Zola or Dennis Bergkamp, those two weren’t too bad!
Toughest, however, has to go to John Hartson. I remember playing against him for Birmingham at St Andrew’s in a cup game. We were on the halfway line and he absolutely smashed me with an elbow that busted my nose open.
I was still quite young then and he just turned around, looked at me and said a few things to me that can’t be printed while I was on the floor!
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
I’ve played at pretty much all of the Premier League grounds and my favourite is White Hart Lane.
The crowd are quite close to the pitch so the atmosphere was always incredible there and it was a fantastic place to play. I got a few good results there, too. I remember draw- ing there 2-2 in the FA Cup and when we were on our way to the League Cup final, we beat them 3-1.
These new stadiums just don’t have the same soul so I’ve always preferred the older grounds.
I’m still playing for Welling United in the Conference and I still love that buzz you get on a Saturday morning but coaching is where my future lies. My day job is manager of the AFC Rushden & Diamonds U18 team.
We currently play in the college leagues.
There is a good set-up down there and it feels like I’m doing my apprenticeship which will hopefully lead to me getting a job in the Football League in the future.
Nouha Dicko explains why he’s so happy at Wolves – Pages 24-25
Best team-mate: Riccardo Scimeca, right Toughest opponent: John Hartson Toughest place to go: Molineux
Biggest achievement: Scoring against Liverpool in the League Cup final in 2001 Favourite place to go: White Hart Lane Funniest player: Ian Bennett