BIT­TNER’S BIG DAY JUST NEEDED A CLEAN SHEET!

The Football League Paper - - LEAGUE ONE - By Paddy von Behr

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

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