'Playing football as a kid were the best times of my life'
Happiness. That is what I feel when I think back to playing football as a kid.
My earliest proper memories of playing football would be when I used to play for a team called Rainford Rangers in St Helens when I was younger. I was there from the age of around six and played with the ages above and different things like that. So my first real impressions of football would be my dad taking me there to train and to the games.
Ever since I can remember I have always played football though and it has always been a big part of my life. My mum and dad were always big on pushing me. I would always be playing in the garden with my dad and then when my brother came along he would play as well. It would be all day, every day.
The age gap between me and my brother is pretty big – it is about seven years – but we are massively close and he still comes to all my games now. As soon as he was old enough, we would be kicking a ball together in the garden.
As for my Sunday team, it is really nice because I am still in touch with them now and go back to do presentations and things like that. It was a fantastic time because from a young age I would be constantly playing football and it wasn’t so much about the structured coaching, it was more playing games. I definitely benefitted from playing with lads who were older than me and then I was picked up by Liverpool around the age of seven and then you sign on about eight or nine into the academy system and you can no longer play for other teams.
I carried on playing for my school teams though. First it was Bleak Hill Primary School and then Rainford High School, both in St Helens. Liverpool never knew – well they probably did know because they always knew everything – but I loved every minute playing for my school with my mates. It was great to play against other schools where you had mates and against people you knew. I played all the time to be honest even though I shouldn’t have.
It was totally different to when I was at Liverpool and receiving proper coaching. This was just enjoying school football with my mates. Playing for my school I would always get myself up front and that was the freedom of playing for the school – I would score loads! But at Liverpool I was always a defensive-minded midfielder and it really helped me now as a centre half in terms of getting it down and playing.
I was then at Liverpool all the way through. There was a period around the age of 14 when I really grew and my legs and arms became all gangly and I had problems with my knees as well. Around that time I remember the club gave me a period where I was told I had to prove myself and at a young age that is hard that – I couldn’t imagine how my kids would feel if they had news like that. Luckily I came through it and I must have played well enough in those few months to really prove myself. That was the only time it looked like I might not have stayed at Liverpool.
When you talk about people who have influenced your career, you always talk about the obvious ones, so your dad, your mum, your brother and then my wife, because I met Amie when I was young.
At Liverpool, the academy manager Frank McParland helped me massively when he came to the club, which I think was when I was around 16 or 17. I always had coaches who really helped me growing up and it is hard to mention them all because there were so many people who helped me. But when Frank McParland came to the club, he pushed me and helped me as much as he possibly could and was someone I could speak to about a lot of different things. He made sure I pushed myself to the limit to make sure I got the best out of myself so he was a massive influence.
Those grassroots coaches and family members are hugely important in football. Not only because of the commitment and everything they bring like taking you to games and things like that, but it is the way they make you enjoy football. They help bring a freedom to football and they let you play. They put you on the pitch and tell you to go and enjoy yourself. That is the best thing you can do in terms of learning how to play. Have the freedom to play.
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I think I got that love of the game at an early age. My dad was a massive influence on that and so was my grassroots coach before I went into the academy system. They gave me that love for the game.
When you get into the academy system as a young kid you don’t really know but I’m a parent now and I now know that when I was a kid you always had coaches who were naturally judging you and it naturally happens because you were at a big club, probably every single time I played.
But my overriding emotion when I think back to playing football as a kid is just happiness. I loved every moment of playing football as a kid: those school games, playing for teams growing up, they were the best times of my life. They were incredible.