The ex-Sheffield Wednesday winger on his career highs and lows
IT’S now 12 years since Jon-Paul McGovern scored the goal that set Sheffield Wednesday on their way to a legendary 4-2 victory over Hartlepool at the Millennium Stadium.
And, while the days of play-off finals, terrorising Championship full-backs and pep talks from Paul Sturrock are over, the 36-year-old Glaswegian is still ploughing up and down that wing.
“In my head, I’m still 18,” says the former Swindon, MK Dons and Carlisle man, now the interim player-manager of Scottish parttimers Clyde.
“All the little games in training, all the runs, I still want to be involved. That’ll never change, even when I can’t walk!”
Yet one thing McGovern has always been able to do is talk, and here he recalls how he was poached from his own back garden, the day he clattered a Brazilian legend and which unsung full-back is his toughest ever opponent.
It all started at Hillwood Boys Club in Glasgow. I was actually playing football in the garden, just behind where they trained.
The manager had seen me doing my bits and bobs through the fence. He came round, knocked on the front door and said ‘Is there any chance we can get your son to come and play in a tournament for us?’ That was me off and running.
We had a different way of doing things in Scotland. You were free to train with different clubs up to the age of 16, then you signed an Sform with one club.
My options basically boiled down to Aberdeen or Celtic. I wasn’t quite ready to leave Glasgow, so that made the decision.
In terms of education, it was great. It took me a while to grow into my body and they were patient in terms of allowing me to develop at my own speed. But, in terms of getting experience, going on loan to Sheffield United was vital.
I went from playing Motherwell or Kilmarnock Under-21s to Portsmouth away in my first game, under Neil Warnock, alongside guys with mortgages to pay. Living at my mum and dad’s to staying in a hotel and fending for yourself. It was a fair baptism.
At training, people like Phil Jagielka and Michael Tonge were saying ‘So how many games have you played?’ I replied: ‘Well… I’ve been on the bench a couple of times but I haven’t actually played at all for the first team’
“They’d all played 100, 150 games - and they were a year or two younger than me. At 22, I realised I’d stayed at Celtic too long and I was having to play catch-up. For me, the loan system is critical for the development of young players.
Growing up, Kenny McDowall at Celtic was fantastic. If he hadn’t come in at Celtic and taught me the defensive side of the game, I genuinely don’t think I’d have made it as a professional.
He saw I was a bit naive. We hit if off, got on really well and I credit him with giving me the fitness and understanding to play the game.
In terms of advancing my career, probably Paul Sturrock at Wednesday. I remember his first week. He told me and Chris Brunt ‘You two, you’re my wide men. I want you to go home, get some sleep and grow another lung. Because you are going to be up and down, up and down, all day long’.
That was my game, and he let me play to my strengths. He did that with everyone. He was a great man-manager who didn’t over-complicate things.
Big Lee Bullen was a fantastic captain and a fantastic man. On the pitch and off it, you could only admire him.
Glenn Whelan was a young player, just out of Man City.
But, even at that age, he had a bit of everything. He could smash someone, take the ball, then hit a 50-yard diagonal across the pitch.
Kenwyne Jones was another. He came on loan from Southampton and scored seven goals in seven games. Mind you, it was too cold for him.
He’d step out of the changing room on a morning and say ‘Na, this weather’s no good for me’ and run straight back in. Steven MacLean knew my game really well. My MK Dons team was good – Keith Andrews, Izale McLeod, big Clive Platt. I played with some really good players at that level and it’s hard to pick one.
Sheffield Wednesday, 2005. I’d only joined that season, but I started every game, scored in the play-off semis, then the final. I couldn’t have been any more steeped in it.
I remember my mum coming to the Millennium Stadium and saying it was my Roy of the Rovers moment.
She saw what it meant to all those fans.
Do I remember it? Only parts. Sitting in the showers afterwards, having a conversation with some of the older players, Paul Heckingbottom saying ‘Listen, enjoy this, take it in, because it might never happen to you again’.
You try your best to take it in, but days like that are such a blur.
Big Guy Branston’s got to be up there. I remember seeing him pick up Lee Bullen’s dad and physically use him to open the door of a bar. Simon Ferry at Swindon is another. Constant banter, lively in the dressing room, always something to say. He made it very easy to come into training. Billy Paynter was the same. He was my roomie at Swindon and everybody there will have a few stories about him.
I know it’s been said a few times, but nothing will ever beat Hecky’s sprint down the motorway with the play-off trophy in 2005. It’s one of those things that always brings a smile to your face, a complete one off moment. But I’ve got to mention Billy Paynter as well. We went to the races at Cheltenham and he bet the boys he could jump the last fence.
We had a whip-round and off he went. He actually did pretty well, not just to jump the fence but to evade the stewards who were chasing him!
Promotion with Wednesday stands out. My son still lives in the city, and even now people stop me to say thank-you and tell me what a great day it was.
It’s quite embarrassing sometimes. You’ll be in a restaurant
and a guy is there with his wife and kids, saying how you gave him the best day of his life. You’re thinking ‘Thanks but what about these guys?’ On a personal note, lasting so long in the game is something I’m proud of. I started at 16 and I’m still going at 36. It’s easy to forget that thousands of players don’t last that long.
Definitely losing to Millwall in the play-off final at Wembley with Swindon in 2009-10. I didn’t play well enough, or give enough for the team. I felt like I’d let everyone down.
It was a feeling of numbness, the complete opposite of being at the Millennium. Even now, I can’t bring myself to watch the footage. The strip is packed away. It was a very sore one.
TOUGHEST PLACE TO GO
Millwall is a horrible place to go. I don’t mean the people – they do their bit for the team. They make it intense, they let you know how much they hate you.
That ranges from a boy of eight to an 80-year-old man. They’ll all give you their own version of a wave as the team bus goes by. You always knew it would be hostile.
At Swindon, we played a preseason game against Galatasaray and they had Roberto Carlos at left-back. It was a great experience. I went down the line and thought ‘I’m going in hard here’.
When we both stood up, he gave me a little wave of the finger as if to say ‘No more of that’. A few minutes later there was another 50-50 and I could hear him breathing behind me. I thought ‘Maybe I’ll let this one go’.
Jan Vertonghen was incredible. I played against Spurs for Carlisle and I couldn’t get near him. If I went tight, he knocked it round me. If I tried him for pace, he was too quick and strong.
But, in terms of someone I played regularly, I’d say Dean Lewington. He had that knack of always being there, making it tough to get across or beyond him. He was also very good on the ball so you had to worry about him going the other way.
FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO
Obvious I know, but Hillsborough. I’ve always been well received and I’ve got a real affinity with the place. Whenever I go back, it feels like home.
Management just came by chance. Long- term, I’d rather be an agent. I’ve been talent-spotting for an agency called Shooting Stars. I understand agents get a bad press, but, ultimately, it’s a short career. You need someone looking out for you.
Best manager: Paul Sturrock 2005 First promotion: Sheffield Wednesday Best team-mate Lee Bullen
YOU BEAUTY: JonPaul McGovern celebrates after scoring against Hartlepool in the play-off final Toughest place to go: The Den (Millwall)