As I looked around the room for support, not one of my team-mates would even look me in the eye. Not one.
I couldn’t believe it. The meeting, called to discuss a possible wage deferral to help Leeds United out of a financial mess, had been a tense one from the start and I’d been in the firing line. But I still expected a few of the squad to listen to my explanation and understand where I was coming from. Instead, all I got was abuse.
The reason for me being sent to Coventry by my team-mates was an interview I’d done with the Press a couple of days earlier, where I’d said I would be willing to defer part of my wages to help Leeds United.
The club had been put up for sale in December but no buyers had been found by the middle of January. The debt had by then shot past £80m and showed no signs of slowing down, something that must have been a factor in putting off any potential bidders.
The lack of a buyer meant the threat of Leeds becoming the first Premier League club to go into administration – or worse – was a very real one. I knew this because Trevor Birch, by now the club’s chairman, had done his best to keep me, as captain, in the loop.
I liked Trevor and, as an ex-player who had started at Liverpool before moving to Chester and Shrewsbury Town, I respected what he had to say.
We met one afternoon in the Living Room bar in the city centre and he outlined the situation. It was bad. The one positive was that Trevor had managed to buy the club a bit of time by agreeing a standstill agreement with the major creditors, whereby repayments could be put on hold. The problem was that the agreement was due to run out on January 19, 2004.
Hence the request for a wage deferral, the money saved to be then used to keep Leeds United going. No percentage was put forward, it seemed more a case of the club floating the idea to see what the feeling among the lads was. Personally, I was in favour and I said that to the Press a few days later when they asked me the question.
I just replied honestly. I made it plain that I wasn’t speaking on behalf of anyone else at the club, just myself.
The consequences of that interview became evident as soon as the meeting to discuss a possible deferral began. By now, the club had said they wanted us to defer 40 per cent of our wages, which would then be paid at a later date – probably the end of the season.
Trevor Birch had gone on record before the meeting to say the club needed £5m to keep trading until the end of the season so a 40 per cent cut would have been more than enough to help out.
I felt it was the right thing to do, and I still do. Unfortunately, that thinking was not shared by my team-mates.
‘What right have you got to say things like that?’ was one point forcibly made to me at the meeting. As was how I had been ‘out of order’.
I tried to explain, saying that I’d made it clear during the interview that I wasn’t talking on behalf of the team and how I couldn’t speak for anyone else. And never would.
But no-one wanted to listen and, instead, I had to just stand there as a few had a real go at me. As the tirade continued, I looked around the room for just one person to back me up but no-one did.
A few did privately later. But, by then, it was too late. They’d not had the bottle to speak up when I was copping all the abuse so what use was their ‘support’ now?
I am not going to name which of my team-mates were involved. But they were senior players, not kids trying to make a cheap point. They didn’t like what I had done and made that clear, which is fair enough.
But it was no excuse for the way they had a go at me. Even as I tried to explain for about the fifth time that I had never said anything along the lines of, ‘We will defer as a team’, they wouldn’t listen. I realised nothing I could say was going to appease them so I just sat back down in my seat and thought, ‘If that’s how it is, that’s how it is’. That day, I lost a lot of friends.
The club’s request for a deferral was rejected. Understandably, the fans were not happy – especially when, a few days later, it was revealed the club had been forced to make around 75 of the club’s office staff redundant over the previous few months in an attempt to cut costs. We looked mercenary.
A couple of weeks later, a buyer had still not been found so a second meeting was called and we were asked to take a 25 per cent deferral rather than 40. This time, agreement was reached.
I left glad that we had done the right thing but still disillusioned over the whole saga.
The wage deferral may have been agreed by the end of January, which at least meant Leeds United could continue in business and, hopefully, find a buyer. But, to me, in terms of the Premier League we were as good as down. We had been in a mess on the field before, but now any semblance of team spirit had gone for good.
Things got so bad on a couple of occasions that I seriously considered stepping down from the captaincy. My thinking was, ‘Give it to one of the local lads’.
The only thing that stopped me was that it would probably have rocked the boat even more. It would also have given my critics more ammunition, as well. I hated those last few months. They were horrible.
Our results didn’t help, either. In fact, they were so poor that I became too embarrassed to go out in the city centre. If I did, people would be asking, ‘What the hell is going on?’ But I just didn’t have an answer.
I couldn’t let on what was really going on in the squad, it would have caused all sorts of problems had my views somehow got out.
The people asking were loyal supporters who absolutely loved Leeds United and it would have broken their hearts to know the truth. They didn’t want to hear that training was a mess, that team spirit had evaporated and that our standards had not just slipped but collapsed.
There was no pride and rows were taking place on the training pitch. There was one day when Mark Viduka pulled a couple of the lads and said, ‘Get your ******* act together’.
It shocked a few players. But instead of the target of Mark’s frustration taking some responsibility, their reaction was, ‘Oh, so it is just me playing bad is it?’ Too few were prepared to look at themselves and ask, ‘What can I do to get Leeds out of this mess?’
Part of the problem was members of the squad were taking their lead from the strong characters. And because they were messing about, the others followed. That was the point Vidukes had been trying to get across. The place was out of control. Everything was a mess. And I was certain Leeds were heading in only one direction – out of the Premier League.
Singing with fans in San Siro stands out as a highlight
As bad as the final year or so became at Leeds United, I still look back on my time at Elland Road with happy memories.
We had some wonderful times as a team, particularly during the first 18 months after I had signed from Liverpool in August, 2000.
I have some great memories of great games, probably none more so than the night we went to the San Siro and held AC Milan to a 1-1 draw, a result that meant we went through to the second group stage of the Champions League at the expense of Barcelona.
I was fortunate enough to score our goal in Italy but what really stands out from such a memorable night is the celebrations that followed the final whistle.
About 7,000 Leeds fans had made the trip to Italy and were being held in the ground by the police so the streets outside could be cleared. After showering and changing, we were then asked to go out and wave to the fans.
The lads didn’t need asking twice as we all wanted the celebrations to go on all night – which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened!
By the time I wandered out, quite a few of the boys were already out there and having a great time.
Suddenly, a chant of ‘Leeds team, give us a song’ began. Everyone looked at each other, wondering who was going to step forward.
Unsurprisingly, Gary Kelly was the one.
After being cheered by the fans, he then gestured for everyone to be quiet.
Suddenly, the San Siro fell silent and I was thinking, ‘What is he going to do now?’ Quick as a flash, Kells started singing, ‘Let’s go ******* mental’ while bouncing up and down on the spot.
The fans didn’t need a second invitation and, within a couple of seconds, all 7,000 of them were copying Kells. It was an amazing sight.
All the lads joined in and everyone was loving it.
As the noise died down, Kells again asked for quiet before putting his tracksuit top down on the pitch and sitting on it.
Again, I was wondering what Kells was up to but then he started singing, ‘Sit down if you hate Man U’.
Again, every single fan followed his lead. By now, quite a few of the lads wanted to have a go.
Smithy joined in, as did chairman Peter Ridsdale.
It was brilliant and something that I can’t imagine would have happened with any other team and any other set of supporters. I later found out that BBC Radio Five Live commentator Alan Green had described the scenes as the greatest example of fan-player bonding he had ever seen and I have to agree.
The party continued back at our hotel as we all headed straight for the bar.
The boys, the chairman, the staff…everyone was there celebrating. I didn’t want the night to end, so even after the rest had sloped off to bed, I decided to get myself a couple of bottles of wine.
It was about 6am by now. Unfortunately for me, as I walked towards the lift, who should be coming the other way but Peter Ridsdale.
We were all staying another night as a reward for getting through to the next stage but the chairman had an early flight to catch so was on his way to the airport.
He just looked at me, laughed and walked on without saying a word.
Mind, Peter was so happy at Leeds qualifying for the next group stage that he probably wanted to high-five me – but couldn’t as my hands were full. It was a funny end to an unforgettable night.
£90,000 down in an hour – I knew it had to stop
Footballers get paid very, very well, there is no denying that. And when the money starts rolling in, a player usually goes down a well-worn path that has been taken by generations before him.
House, car, drinking and women are the four standard stop-off points for most young lads making their way in the game, me included.
The fifth stage, however, is one that not everyone reaches. Gambling.
It is probably the one vice that is still going strong in football. I know this because I have been there.
Don’t get me wrong, gambling didn’t grab me as badly as it has some. For me, it was a social pursuit and something to while away my spare time.
But it did prove to be a costly pastime with my losses down the years probably standing at about £1m.
That may be a figure that shocks some, especially as I wasn’t someone who ever felt addicted to gambling or anything like that. My friends and family will have probably seen me as someone who just enjoyed going to the races, having a few drinks and then watching his horses in action.
But for a couple of years after joining Blackburn in 2004, I did gamble stupid amounts of money.
Once, I put £100,000 on a horse priced at evens only for it to lose. I was gutted. But, instead of doing what any sensible human being would do and deciding to cut my losses, I put another £100,000 on the evens-priced favourite in the next race to try and get the money back.
Luckily, the bet came in and I ended up level with the bookie. But it was still crazy behaviour.
Before moving to Blackburn in 2004, gambling had never really been an issue in my life.
Neither the Liverpool lads nor the Leeds lads were into it that much.
The arrival of phone accounts and then text betting changed all that, because placing a bet had suddenly become very, very easy.
Where before you would have had to physically walk into a bookies, now it could be done from the comfort of your own home. So, instead of everyone in the city knowing if you had a big bet on, now no-one had a clue what you were up to.
I put my own decision to open a ‘phone account down to the boredom of my drive to the training ground during my first season at Ewood Park. I was still based in Yorkshire and, no matter how many routes my driver Mick tried, there simply wasn’t a decent route to the training ground.
So, the journey took forever. I needed something to keep me amused, so I opened that fateful first ‘phone account.
To place a bet, all I had to do was text the words ‘£10g at 9-2, Alfie Flits to win’. Then, when the bookie’s text came back saying, ‘Bet’ that was it. The bet was placed.
It became so easy that I was soon betting £10,000, £20,000, £30,000 on a race. The amount just kept going up until I placed the two £100,000 bets in an attempt to break even.
It was the birth of my first daughter, Luisa, that snapped me out of it. By now, I’d moved into a house in Manchester, and was sitting in the bedroom with the racing on television. My team-mate Garry Flitcroft was at his house in Bolton and we were texting which horses we fancied in the afternoon’s racing. Within an hour or so, we were both £90,000 down.
We weren’t even at the races, just sitting in the house and yet we’d blown all that money. I thought, ‘This is ridiculous and can’t go on’. So, I wrote a cheque for the amount I owed to the bookie and decided, there and then, that the madness had to stop.
I realised, there and then, that I was gambling with Lu’s future, her inheritance. I want her to have a nice house when she is old enough.
I want her to get a good education and be set up in life. Luisa was the best thing that had happened to my life so I knew the big-time gambling had to stop. And, thankfully, it did.