BITTNER’S BIG DAY JUST NEEDED A CLEAN SHEET!
JAMES Bittner’s 13-year wait for a Football League start is over, but Plymouth’s goalkeeping coach revealed there is a good chance it may not be repeated.
The 33-year-old has spent an entire career either warming the bench or plying his trade outside the top four tiers and, when he found himself in a coaching role at Salisbury City two seasons ago, Bittner was ready to give up.
That was until he spoke to Warren Feeney, the former Northern Ireland striker, who was also on the coaching staff at Salisbury when the Wiltshire club were kicked out of the Conference for a second time.
Feeney put the veteran stopper in touch with Plymouth – his former club – in the summer of 2014 and things were back on track.
After a full season playing second fiddle to Luke McCormick, Bittner was finally handed a start last weekend – 4,991 days after he first sat on a Football League bench – with the first-choice man injured.
A 2-1 victory at York came at the small cost of Bittner losing a clean sheet nine minutes into injury time, but that was not enough to diminish a momentous occasion.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know,” he said.
“I was at Newport a couple of years ago on a short-term contract and, when I left midseason, it was hard to get a club.
“I was a coach at Salisbury and that summer I thought ‘that’s the end of the playing career and I’ll go into coaching’. That’s when Warren Feeney had a word with the manager.
“This summer, I had one or two opportunities to go higher in the leagues as a goalkeeping coach, but Plymouth wanted to keep me here as a player-coach. The other options were very nice but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.
“It was good to get the three points last weekend. It would have been nice to have a clean sheet but there were ten minutes of injury time – I’m not sure why. It took the shine off it a bit.
“It’s been presented as if I have been sat on the bench for my whole career! I have played a couple of hundred games, albeit outside the Football League.”
Those are just a couple of twists and turns in what has been a tumultuous career for Bittner, who signed for Swindon Town, Fulham, Bournemouth and QPR before making a senior appearance.
A stint at Exeter City followed but, after two promising seasons, the goalkeeper joined Torquay while nursing a shoulder problem.
“I had full shoulder reconstruction that summer and I was out of contract as well, so that meant nine months of unemployment,” he recalled.
“Once you have been out of football for a long time, everyone has short-term memories. I had two good years at Exeter but it was back to square one.
“I had a good first spell at Salisbury but they went into liquidation and got relegated three leagues in 2010. I have been in the wrong place at the wrong time more than once.”
However, it was the end of a two-year spell with Fulham back in 2002 that Bittner looks back on with mos regret.
“When I left, I had a chance to sign for a League One club, playing games, and I stupidly turned it down,” he added.
“It was naivety and my advice to every young player now is ‘go and play games’.
“Back then it was rare that lower league teams signed young players on loan.
“A lot of clubs now have a first choice and will bring in a teenager and those boys are getting match experience at a young age. It is frustrating to think I was that keeper once.”
OFF THE BENCH: James Bittner, seen here with Forest Green, finally got his League chance on Saturday