Going into the 2000/01 season we were quite optimistic that we were going to do well but it all started to unravel a little bit. It was quite a traumatic campaign, to be honest.
Some of the lads weren’t getting paid and a few of them, who were living in Manchester, weren’t travelling over to train on a daily basis. To be fair to Brian Little, he tried to keep the off-field problems as far away from the players as physically possible and it turned out that people were going round to his house with cash hand-outs so that players like Gary Brabin and David Brown could travel over.
It was all a little bit disappointing because we knew we had the players to challenge for promotion. We ended up doing that to a degree, but it was more in adversity rather than things being in place for us. As players, we all got together and decided that we had to give it our all even though we were stuck in a situation that none of us really wanted to be in.
I didn’t find things too difficult at the time because I was always confident that the situation would get sorted out eventually. The off-field problems disappear for you once you cross the white line. After that, you just had to do your job. Obviously, there was a bit more in it for myself and other players such as Mark Greaves and Mike Edwards because it was our hometown club and we cared – not that the non-local players didn’t though. It was more than just playing for any football club for us, it was our football club and we were desperate for things to get sorted out.
Despite all the problems, we had a fantastic spirit and camaraderie within the squad and that was one of the main reasons why we put up a strong promotion challenge. I’m not saying we would have done any better had we been getting paid but we had strong characters in the dressing room who could deal with the circumstances quite easily. People like Gary Brabin, Jon Whitney and Justin Whittle made us all believe we weren’t going to be defeated by what was happening. Through adversity, we turned a bad situation into a good one for the Club by reaching the play-offs. It was a chance to end what had been a rollercoaster season on a high and – to a man – we were all determined to take it.
I remember confidence was high going into the first leg of the semi-final at Boothferry Park. We had a late surge at the end of the season and were in good form. We were really strong defensively and believed we could go anywhere and get a result. I started to score a few goals and we went to places like Darlington and Scunthorpe and managed to pick up some decent victories against strong opposition.
In the week leading up to the first leg, I had a problem with my back. I was still training but Brian decided to leave me on the bench for the first game, which I’ve never really understood. I didn’t really get an explanation for the decision, which was frustrating. I felt as though I could have contributed to the game from the start. As you would expect, it was a disappointment to be on the bench rather than starting line-up, but coming on and scoring helped me to prove my point that I could have started the game and made a bigger difference.
Still, it was a great feeling to win the first leg – and to score for my hometown club in such a big game was a fantastic feeling. There weren’t quite as many fans at Boothferry Park that day as there was when ‘Deano’ scored the winner at Wembley, but what we had at Boothferry Park was all the diehard fans. The place really was rocking – from the first minute right until the last. I went out to get something to eat after the game tat night and I remember loads of people approach me, telling me how the atmosphere in the city was fantastic. It was great to score such an important goal for the club and it has to go down as one of the biggest highlights of my playing career.
We were never a team that would steamroller opposition sides with our footballing ability. It was just a case of getting the result by whatever means necessary. However, for whatever reason, we just didn’t perform in the away leg at Brisbane Road. Leyton Orient were a really strong side and on the night a lot of our lads didn’t perform to the levels that we were capable of – myself included. In play-off ties, you have to be equally as good in both legs and, unfortunately, we let ourselves down in the second leg, which ultimately cost us our chance of reaching the final and promotion.
Everyone was disappointed at missing out but there was still an air of optimism for the following season. As a group, we felt that we could push on to do something really special. Sadly, it all got ripped apart over the space of a week and those strong characters we had in the group departed for pastures new. For whatever reason, Brian decided to rip the team and squad apart and go down a different route. It was quite a costly period for the club with players being brought in for fees and players leaving with years still left on their contracts. Perhaps the characters were too much for Brian to handle, but I think it was clear to see that it was a mistake for him to change it so much.
The future of the club looked bright with Adam Pearson in control, and there were plans for a move to a new stadium. I would have loved to have been part of it all but Brian decided the right thing to do was completely dismantle the squad. I thought it was a poor decision at the time and I’m sure he would have done better with some of the players he decided should be moved on. Things worked out okay for me personally as I signed for Oldham, who were in a higher division, and I was getting paid more money. However, I would have loved to have stayed at the Club and been part of things going forward. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.