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"I was going in training with the youth team and I just thought: 'What's the point?'"

Gary Twigg tells The42 how he overcame a number of setbacks to become a League of Ireland legend.

Twigg scored 81 Premier Division goals for Shamrock Rovers.
Twigg scored 81 Premier Division goals for Shamrock Rovers.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

INCLUDING LOAN SPELLS, Gary Twigg played for 10 clubs over the course of a 15-year career in senior football, but it is clear where his heart lies.

Five years on from his League of Ireland departure, his current WhatsApp photo is him in Shamrock Rovers gear.

Our League of Ireland legends series has so far been devoted to players who spent all or most of their career at that level. Normally, a footballer who had just four seasons in the Airtricity League would not be considered. However, Twigg made such a seismic impact at Rovers that he is impossible to ignore.

Yet the journey to becoming one of the top strikers in the League of Ireland’s history was a long and arduous one. It began in Glasgow, the football-mad city where Twigg grew up. Football, he remembers, was “the first thing you think about” and “just something I always did”.

A talented teenager, Twigg joined Derby’s academy in 2000, with the Rams a top-flight side at the time. Within two years, aged 17, he was making his Premier League debut in front of 47,989 people at the Stadium of Light, much to the amazement of Twigg and everybody else. He had gone from an unknown youth team player to sharing a dressing room with stars like Fabrizio Ravanelli and Georgi Kinkladze within a couple of months.

With Derby 1-0 down and their opponents not assured of Premier League survival, it was a tense atmosphere on the final day of the season.

On 66 minutes, Twigg replaced Paul Boertien and a minute later, the Rams had equalised, though it was another substitute, Marvin Robinson, who found the back of the net with an assist from Malcolm Christie.

It was a relatively forgettable second half. The BBC’s report at the time describes a period of “few chances, and precious little quality football”. Yet for Twigg, it is an occasion he will always remember.

It was a surreal moment,” he tells The42. “I was in and around the first-team squad at the time. Basically, I was a young boy and the manager just wanted me about because I’d been doing well in the reserves.

“Two days before, we went up to Sunderland, things went well in training and the manager put me on the bench, which was something totally out of the blue.

It was the last game of the season but we had a decent enough squad. We had enough players going up, so I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near (the team). To be travelling was good enough, but to be on the bench and come on was a great feeling and a great moment for myself.”

The game, of course, was virtually meaningless from Derby’s perspective, as the club had already been relegated and finished the season in 19th position. Even still, it was a remarkable showing of faith in the young striker.

Sadly though, that day was about as good as it got for Twigg at Derby, as the club were struggling in the First Division the following season, ultimately finishing 18th.

Soccer - FA Barclaycard Premiership - Middlesbrough v Derby County Twigg played in the same side as Fabrizio Ravanelli at Derby. Source: EMPICS Sport

It was therefore hardly an ideal situation for a teenage striker to flourish, and so Twigg’s game time was limited. He made eight appearances in total during the 2002-03 campaign, with seven of those coming from the bench, while he often featured out of position on the left-wing.

Twigg’s one and only Derby start was a 4-1 loss to Wolves whereby he was replaced by Lee Morris at half-time. Such is the harsh nature of football at that level that he was never trusted to play a game from the beginning again, with then-manager and fellow Scot George Burley ultimately allowing him to leave the club in search of first-team football.

It didn’t end the way I wanted it to,” he admits of his time at Derby. “I was bogged down with injuries and wanted to go home.

“I probably wasn’t going to feature in the first team that much anyway, so at that time, there was no point in hanging about.

The manager told me I’d still be round about the squad, but probably nowhere near playing.

“George Burley was decent because I still had a year left and he could have (lied and) said you’ll be in my plans and playing, but he was upfront about it. I wouldn’t say there were any issues with him at all.”

After failing to fully establish himself in the Derby first team, the inexperienced youngster had two short loan spells in the 2003-04 season, playing four games for Burton Albion and eight for Bristol Rovers in the Conference and Third Division respectively.

Still a teenager when he joined Burton, despite not sticking around too long, Twigg got some invaluable experience of playing men’s football in less than glamorous places like Aldershot and Forest Green, registering his first-ever senior goal against the latter (it would take him nearly two more years to score his second).

Nigel Clough was the manager and I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. I actually learned so much playing under Nigel. I was playing in the Conference as well, it wasn’t easy. It was rough and tumble, a rude awakening coming from (mainly youth football at) Derby. I really enjoyed it, although it was only a month.

“Later on in life and thinking about it now, I wished I played under him longer. If you were doing well, he made you feel king of the world. His motivational skills were really good and it’s something I’ve always remembered even though I was so young.

There must have been (an influence from his father), he was so good at getting the best out of his players.

“Burton was a completely different club to what it is now (in the Championship). I was so impressed with everything.”

Soccer - Friendly - Burton Albion v Derby County - Pirelli Stadium Twigg was highly impressed by Nigel Clough during their brief time together at Burton Albion. Source: EMPICS Sport

This positive experience turned sour after a month, however, as an injury cut short Twigg’s loan spell prematurely.

Following his recovery, he joined Bristol Rovers later in the season, though this stint was to prove less fruitful, as the young striker was invariably employed as a makeshift full-back or winger rather than in his preferred position up front.

Twigg had just turned 20, but he knew his time at Derby was coming to an end. Did homesickness play a part in the decision to subsequently move back to Scotland?

The Irish boys (at Derby) found it more of a problem. I wasn’t homesick. I wasn’t pining to go home, I just wanted to go home because I knew there were some teams interested in signing me.

“I probably could have stayed in England and signed with teams in League One or League Two, but I just decided the best option was to go home.

It wasn’t really to do with the football, because if I really had to stay in England, I would have.

“I just decided it was time to go. I’d been in England for years, so I just thought: ‘Let’s go home and play football in Scotland.’”

Nevertheless, the next chapter in his life didn’t work out exactly as planned. Twigg went on trial at a number of clubs, even considering a move to the US at one point. In one of these trials, at Motherwell, the young striker picked up a serious injury, forcing him out of action for a year and causing him to contemplate his future in the sport.

(Quitting was) something that went through my mind. I didn’t know how I was going to react to the injury. I had to rest for six or seven months without doing any exercise. You basically have to wait and see if it clears up.

“It was a tough time and I did think about not playing again. If it wasn’t for my friend that got me up to Airdrie, then I probably wouldn’t have gone there.

(The motivation) was just to get back playing. I had a year out. I was 21 at the time, I wasn’t working or doing anything. I was basically living on the money I’d got from Derby.

“I got offered a year’s contract and signed. It wasn’t: ‘I want to get back into this because I want to try myself at the highest level.’ It was just to get back into football and try to play again without getting injured.”

Indeed, it was only really by chance that he ended up signing for Airdrie, who played in the Scottish First Division at the time.

One of my friends knew the boys at Airdrie and said: ‘I’ve got a player here, do you want to have a look at him?’

“I signed based on a trial match. I was nowhere near fit, I was out of shape, I didn’t even know whether I wanted to be back playing football.

I went up out of courtesy to my friend. He had said it to the boys so I thought ‘I have to play’ basically and I ended up playing there for two years.”

It was at Airdrie that Twigg enjoyed his first sustained run of games and as he became fitter, he gradually got better. A debut campaign saw him claim seven goals in 27 appearances, as he finally added to the sole effort he had scored previously in senior football.

Moreover, that encouraging debut season was followed by a second year that yielded an improved tally of 11 goals in 38 games. In December of 2006, he hit a particularly hot streak and was rewarded with the SFL Player of the Month award after registering six goals in six appearances.

Soccer - Blue Square Premier League - Oxford United v York City - Kassam Stadium Twigg says his brief spell at Oxford was a nightmare. Source: EMPICS Sport

A regular run of games and a manager in Kenny Black who had faith in Twigg was clearly paying dividends.

The first year it never went as well as it could have, because I got injured again. I was out for months with an ankle injury.

“The second season was a bit more enjoyable. Personally I was okay, but the team never did great.

The two years at Airdrie was just about enjoying it and getting back playing and trying to put football back first (in my life).”

Twigg’s time at the club ultimately ended in heartbreak. A ninth-place finish saw them enter the play-offs and a subsequent loss to Stirling Albion meant relegation to Division 2.

The striker, having enjoyed his first two seasons as a regular starter in senior football, would experience what he describes as a “nightmare” in the following campaign.

Twigg joined Oxford from Airdrie, with the English club playing in the Blue Square Premier at the time. Life began extremely promisingly there, with three goals in his first three league matches. However, in just his fifth game for the club, he picked up an ankle injury that sidelined the luckless player for a considerable period.

By the time he returned to first-team action, his enthusiasm for the experience had waned, and he would go on to play just six more times for Oxford, failing to score once.

I’d just been down there for four months with my wife. My wife fell pregnant and basically, I wanted to go back to Scotland for the baby to be born… That was the reason we went back to Scotland.”

Amid the turn of the New Year, he returned to the Scottish First Division, signing for Hamilton.

I knew someone who was assistant manager of Hamilton at the time and I knew they wanted to sign me.

“I spoke to the manager of Oxford (Darren Patterson) and he was happy enough. He said: ‘If you don’t want to be here, there’s no point.’ We just went our separate ways, there was no animosity.

I would have loved something to have happened at Oxford, because it’s a huge club and I did enjoy my time there, although I didn’t play much, which was disappointing.

“Hamilton was just a mess. It was probably the darkest, worst time I had in football — not in terms of the football side.”

The source of much of Twigg’s frustration emanated from one particular incident. His first two games ended 0-0 at home to Stirling and Brechin respectively. By the third — a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Partick Thistle — he had been reduced to the role of substitute.

Soccer - Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League - Hamilton Academical v Hibernian - New Douglas Park Twigg fell out with manager Billy Reid at Hamilton. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

A week later, Twigg was restored to the starting line-up, but experienced the indignity of being substituted after just 38 minutes amid a 3-2 win at Clyde. The frustrated striker threw his top to the ground in disgust, leaving then-manager Billy Reid decidedly unimpressed. And with that, his Hamilton career was over almost as quickly as it had begun.

I’d obviously been out with injury, coming from Oxford,” he recalls. “The manager said: ‘We’ll give you time, you’ll get time to settle in, get fit.’ I signed on the Friday and the manager played me in a game on the Saturday. I wasn’t fit.

“I played a couple of games and did okay. The manager took me off (in the fourth game) and I felt I was the scapegoat, because we were getting beaten at the time. I threw my top off (after getting substituted) probably stupidly. (I see it that way as) I’m a bit older now.

I had walked in (to the changing room) to get a towel. The manager thought (the worst). I had walked down the tunnel but came back a few moments later. It didn’t look great because someone got a picture of (the jersey-throwing incident) and put it in the paper.

“The manager just ostracised me from everything, which I still feel was unfair. I wasn’t throwing the jersey at him or anybody. I was just disappointed to be taken off. The manager told me on the Monday after that game that I wouldn’t be in his plans. I had just signed a year-and-a-half contract earlier in the month, and before January was even over, I was (out of the first-team picture).

I stayed at Hamilton for the next six months and trained with the youth team. It wasn’t good. But it worked for them, because they got promoted that year, so it’s not as if they missed me… It was disappointing, because they were going well, but it’s just one of these things that happened.”

For Twigg, it was the worst moment of his career and one in which he seriously contemplated giving up.

I was on the edge of just quitting altogether and I wasn’t going back this time,” he explains. “It was six months of just being in a dark place. I was going in training with the youth team and I just thought: ‘What’s the point?’

“I just kept getting injured or else, like in Sunderland, it wasn’t happening. I had probably been injured up to then most of my career, and it wasn’t as if it was two or three weeks, it was always a year or six months (that I was out for).

My kid had just been born and I thought: ‘I’ll go and get a job, the same as all my mates, just try to support the family.’ I actually talked to some junior teams, I couldn’t believe the money they were offering, but I didn’t want to go to junior football.

“Michael O’Neill phoned me and said: ‘I probably won’t be able to afford you, but would you be interested in coming to Brechin?’

I said: ‘Just get me a package together.’ He came, met me and said: ‘I know you’ve gone through a tough time.’ He said: ‘Just come back playing, enjoy yourself and get that love for the game back.’

“He spoke about Brechin and the club. I was like: ‘What do I do?’ I spoke to my wife about it and she said ‘it’s up you’. The package they came back with was reasonably good. It was really good money for a Second Division team. It was a two-year deal. So I said ‘that’s grand, no problem’ and signed for Brechin. It was probably the best decision I ever made because of where it led to.”

Soccer - UEFA Europa League - Group A - Shamrock Rovers v Tottenham Hotspur - Tallaght Stadium Twigg first linked up with manager Michael O'Neill at Brechin. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It was O’Neill who would without a doubt be the single biggest influence on Twigg’s career. The future Northern Ireland boss had started out his managerial career at Brechin in 2006 and played a significant role in restoring the beleaguered player’s confidence, as Twigg hit 13 goals in 26 appearances — a spell that was as prolific as it was fleeting.

After O’Neill agreed to become Shamrock Rovers boss ahead of the 2009 League of Ireland season, however, he took his star striker with him.

At Brechin, it was different from Shamrock Rovers, Michael was a different manager,” Twigg explains. “I wouldn’t say it was easy-osey at Brechin, but there was nowhere near as much pressure as there was at Shamrock Rovers.

“I saw a different side to the man who managed me at Brechin to the one at Shamrock Rovers. Everything was more intense, everything was more professional (with the latter).

Basically, at Brechin, he told me to come in and play, and I did. I just enjoyed myself and really enjoyed my six months there. I probably would not have left if it wasn’t for Michael asking me to go to Shamrock Rovers.

“I think he was more relaxed at Brechin. At Shamrock Rovers, we couldn’t really get things wrong, he couldn’t get things wrong.

That platform of moving to Shamrock Rovers, a full-time club and a big club, it just changed his whole outlook on football.

“He probably always had that in him, but at Brechin, he couldn’t really bring it across. We only trained two nights a week and that’s probably the reason. We probably didn’t see him enough compared to Shamrock Rovers.”

O’Neill has since gone on to bigger and better things, guiding Northern Ireland to the knockout stages of Euro 2016, as well as helping them secure a World Cup play-off spot more recently.

I’ve said all along, I think international football suits (Michael) down to a tee, just because of how good he is tactically and how good he is at knowing what other teams are going to do,” Twigg says.

“His organisational skills are as good as anyone. His motivational skills as well, he can get the best out of players. What he’s doing with the North doesn’t surprise me and I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone at Shamrock Rovers who worked under him.

We probably wouldn’t have known how well he would have done, but we knew he’d have certainly done well (when he) moved on.

“No stone is left unturned. When we were playing, we knew exactly what we were doing. We knew exactly what the other team were doing. Everything was down to a fine art and it was easy for us players to go out and play, because everything had been done by him.”

Soccer - Airtricity League - Shamrock Rovers v Sporting Fingal - Tallaght Stadium Twigg spent four memorable seasons with Shamrock Rovers. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Indeed, O’Neill was instrumental in developing Twigg as a player in particular.

I was never a goalscorer. I was near enough a number 10 — somebody who tried to get on the ball. But the day I signed for Shamrock Rovers, he said: ‘We need a goalscorer — I want you to be a number nine.’

“My whole game changed at Rovers. I just became a goalscorer and that’s basically because Michael asked me to be that. I had (Graham Barrett) behind me in my first year anyway, I didn’t need to get involved. So long as I was in the box, scoring, that’s all he told me to do and that’s what I tried to do.”

During his time at Shamrock Rovers, Twigg would become an undisputed club legend. In three of his four seasons there, he finished as the League of Ireland’s top scorer, helping the club win two Premier Division titles along the way.

Sometimes people go to clubs and they just click, that’s what I felt,” he says. “I got what the club was all about. I felt part of the club, it was a club that had the same values as I had. It was a great time in my life and one I’ll always remember.

“It’s near enough like playing for Celtic in Dublin. In Scotland, nobody likes Celtic. In Ireland, nobody likes Rovers. And I thrived on that when people said: ‘Oh, we hate Rovers.’ That made it even better, because they obviously hate them for a reason.

The first year (2009) was as good as any. We won the league for the first time in 16 years (in 2010). We were maybe not the most talented team, but we really had a strong bond, which probably got us through the last few weeks of that season to win the league.

“Then the job was to continue on and win the league again, which we did.”

Source: PreSeasonHighlights/YouTube

Twigg would ultimately score an incredible overall tally of 81 league goals for Rovers, while some of his most memorable nights would come against European opposition.

In 2011, the club earned a famous victory over Partizan Belgrade, in the process becoming the first-ever Irish side to secure a spot in the Europa League stages, being drawn in a strong group alongside Tottenham, PAOK and Rubin Kazan — the difficulty of which was highlighted by their failure to pick up a point along with the fact that a top Premier League team like Spurs also did not progress to the knockout stages.

Nobody in our team in their wildest dreams thought we would have been playing Tottenham in a Europa League game.

“It was a surreal moment when we went to White Hart Lane, the night before training on the pitch and then the night of the actual game. They’re great memories and ones we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.

There wasn’t even one bit of nerves going into the matches. I think we were just so happy to be there, we just tried to go out and enjoy the game, and take in everything.”

Playing against Juventus in the same competition the previous season was another standout memory, with the Irish side holding their own for large periods of the contest before ultimately being beaten 3-0 on aggregate.

The best player I ever played against was probably (Alessandro) Del Piero,” he adds.

“I got his jersey after the match in Italy, the game he scored in. I’m actually looking at it just now, it’s up framed in the house.”

Yet all good things must come to an end and Twigg waved goodbye to Rovers following the culmination of the 2012 League of Ireland season, having made an indelible mark there in a relatively short space of time.

His family were based up North and so he decided to join Portadown in order to be closer to them.

My wee boy was beginning school, so it was an important time in his life,” he explains. “I just thought I had to be there, because I was away in Dublin a lot. I wasn’t home throughout the week, I’d only get home once or twice on maybe a Wednesday or a Sunday.

“So it was the family, I just had to be home for them. That’s the only reason. I would have never have left Shamrock Rovers if it was just down to football.”

Source: SRFC1899/YouTube

Twigg continued his prolific form at his new club, scoring 53 goals in 114 appearances overall, but still it wasn’t quite the same as before.

It was a different time and a different mentality. We were full-time at Rovers, we were training most days. To go to training two nights a week, football felt like a job then.

“It was training two nights a week and playing on a Saturday, whereas at Rovers, you felt like you were playing football.

Although I did enjoy my time at Portadown. We probably should have done better than we actually did.

“It’s a good club. I had a lot of respect for the manager who took me there, Ronnie McFall, and I’m still in contact with a few of the people at Portadown.”

Gary Twigg Twigg celebrates scoring for Portadown. Source: Darren Kidd

But for all the positives that joining the Northern Ireland Football League Premiership side entailed, the years of regular injury setbacks had taken their toll, and it was becoming harder for Twigg to convince himself that football was worth playing through the pain for.

I was coming to the end, I knew my body was near enough shutting down,” he says. “It wasn’t moving the same way.

“I was only 29 or 30 when I came up to the North and even then, it was just a struggle to play most games. I wasn’t really training. My body was sore.

I went through four or five years of pain in my hips and quads, and it was coming to the fore.

“Just trying to get through games wasn’t nice, but I thought: ‘Just get through them, you’ll be grand, you don’t need to train until the Thursday night and then play on the Saturday again.’

I still did okay in terms of goals, I think it was about one every two games. It wasn’t bad, but it could have been a wee bit better.”

After three years with Portadown, Twigg joined rival club Coleraine in the summer of 2016, however his time there would prove to be short-lived.

I thought the change of clubs and scenery might have done something,” he explains. “The manager (Oran Kearney) was very forward thinking in his ideas of how to look after players. So I thought: ‘This is a good club to be at.’ But unfortunately, I broke down again. I had only played three games.

“That was in September time. I came back in December, played 10 minutes of a game, felt grand. I then trained on the Tuesday night, broke down, and never played again.

I probably played a combined total of about 300 minutes in the whole time I was at Coleraine. So I knew by (last) January I was retiring.”

It was not until the following August that Twigg officially announced that he was hanging up his boots, with the tributes subsequently pouring in on social media and elsewhere for the Shamrock Rovers legend.

Rovers' mascot Hooperman with a message for Gary Twigg Rovers' mascot Hooperman with a message for Gary Twigg. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Since then, the 33-year-old has opted to take a well-deserved break from sport to spend more time with his family, who are currently based outside of Ballymena in Antrim.

I’m not involved in football,” he says. “After the last four years, I thought ‘just take time out’. Just to really do stuff with the kids on a Saturday and enjoy time with them. Take them to games, go to their GAA matches and things like that.

“I’ve enjoyed the last few months with the season being on and not having to go to football.

At the minute, I’m working with kids who have behavioural issues and severe learning difficulties. I enjoy that during the week and I’ve got my weekends free, which I’m really enjoying.”

However, asked if he is sure he will return to football having experienced a glimpse of the underrated pleasures provided by a quieter, calmer lifestyle, Twigg’s answer is unequivocal.

I definitely will,” he insists. “In the New Year, I’ll probably be looking to get back into it. I’ll be starting my coaching badges again in the summer and taking it from there.”

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