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Dublin: 6°C Saturday 10 April 2021

A breakthrough at Liverpool and senior caps for Ireland in a career to be proud of

‘It’s phenomenal to look back at the kind of world superstars you were in a dressing room with.’

THE LENSES WERE already pointing at the Liverpool bench when Darren Potter went to take his place on it at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium.

With the attention of the press photographers directed towards two men in particular, Potter tried to play it cool in the hope that he wouldn’t look like a rabbit in the headlights in the following day’s newspapers. Aged 19, he was the youngest of the 18 players selected to travel for Rafael Benitez’s first game as Liverpool manager.

It was a new beginning for the Spaniard, but for Michael Owen it was the beginning of the end. To preserve his value ahead of a move to Real Madrid that was completed within 72 hours, the England striker remained an unused substitute.

Liverpool’s tie against Grazer AK marked the start of a Champions League campaign that would culminate nine months later with Steven Gerrard lifting the silverware.

When Steve Finnan was called ashore in the 85th minute of the 2-0 victory in Austria, Benitez summoned Potter to make his debut for the European champions-elect.

soccer-uefa-champions-league-third-qualifying-round-first-leg-grazer-ak-v-liverpool Michael Owen, Salif Diao, Darren Potter, Stephen Warnock, Chris Kirkland and Florent Sinama Pongolle on the Liverpool bench in Graz. Source: EMPICS Sport

“There’s a photo of me sitting on the bench with Michael Owen – clearly Liverpool didn’t want to cup-tie him before his transfer,” Potter recalls. “I do remember sitting there and being convinced that I didn’t have any chance of getting on the pitch, so it came as a bit of a shock to be brought on.” 

For Potter, a career in competitive first-team football that commenced on that August 2004 evening came to an end this week. From the highs of playing for Liverpool in the Champions League to the lows of a long-term injury and relegation, the midfielder has found himself in reflective mood over the past few days amid a deluge of well wishes from former team-mates.

He turned 35 last season while playing in League One for Tranmere Rovers, where his spell was cut short when Covid-19 brought the campaign to a premature conclusion.

There was a brief link-up with National League club Altrincham in October, but after nearly 20 years as a professional, he deduced that being involved in a part-time set-up for the sake of prolonging his playing days was a prospect that didn’t appeal. 

“I only registered with Altrincham for one game because they were short players with Covid,” he says. “It was in my mind that I might explore playing part-time but I quickly realised that I’m not up to speed at the moment, having not trained since the lockdown started in March and I hadn’t played since December, so I was short on match fitness.

“My phone wasn’t exactly ringing off the hook with offers from teams either. Obviously I wanted to stay within the league, but with that not being the case I took everything into consideration and thought now was the right time to finish.”

When Rafa Benitez succeeded Gerard Houllier in the summer of 2004, Potter benefited from the ex-Valencia boss’s desire to accelerate the development of Liverpool’s homegrown talent.

A born and bred Liverpudlian, Potter’s displays for the reserve side had already earned him a reputation as one of the club’s most promising youngsters. Benitez had faith from the outset and gave him all 90 minutes of the return leg against Grazer AK at Anfield.

“Starting in that game was a massively proud moment for myself and my family,” Potter says. “Even after coming on as a sub in the away leg, it’s not something I would have expected. It was a little bit daunting but it was something I had been working towards.

“I remember Alex Miller, one of the coaches at Liverpool, pulling me in one day and saying the manager wanted to promote the youth and that he wanted me to be a part of it. Rafa then gave me some opportunities, which was a great experience.

“Gerard Houllier had obviously been there before but, certainly for the young lads coming through, the way Rafa dealt with us and showed us his way of coaching was something new.

“We were used to English coaches who thought us the English way, so to have this European experience and an international style, for want of a better way of putting it, was real eye-opener.”

soccer-uefa-champions-league-first-qualifying-round-first-leg-liverpool-v-total-network-solutions-anfield Potter made his Liverpool debut in 2004. Source: EMPICS Sport

Potter made 10 appearances for Benitez’s side – including a Premier League debut in a win at Charlton Athletic – during the 2004-05 season. For an untested novice seeking to shine while in the shadow of players like Steven Gerrard, Dietmar Hamann and Xabi Alonso, it was an encouraging start.

“It’s only now that I can start to reflect to any kind of degree,” he says. “It’s phenomenal to look back at the kind of world superstars you were in a dressing room with. At the time I was just going along for the ride without thinking too much about it.

“Stevie Gerrard was obviously the best player at the club and he always gave time and a few words of advice. Dietmar Hamann was a big influence on me as well; he was always guiding me through and giving plenty of help along the way if I needed it. If you had any questions, he’d be there to answer them.”

During Liverpool’s journey towards their Champions League triumph of 2005, Potter played again as a substitute in the first leg of the last-16 win over Bayer Leverkusen.

He was also included on the bench for both legs of a quarter-final tie against a ludicrously talented Juventus team that boasted the likes of Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Gianluca Zambrotta, Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

When Liverpool produced a remarkable comeback to beat AC Milan in the final, however, Potter didn’t receive a medal after being omitted from the matchday squad.

The tally of 25 medals presented to the winners in those days was increased to 40 by Uefa in 2012, widening the scope for ensuring that those who play a part are rewarded with a memento.

“I had only played a bit-part, it wasn’t like I was in every single squad,” Potter insists. “I had no qualms. It would have been nice to take home a Champions League medal, of course, but there’s no disappointment over it.” 

Potter played seven times for Liverpool the following season, before embarking on a loan move to Southampton. While there, he played in a 2-0 win over Millwall alongside 16-year-old left-back Gareth Bale, who was making his debut in senior football.

There was another loan switch for the 2006-07 campaign, this time to Wolverhampton Wanderers, where the impression he made convinced manager Mick McCarthy to table a £250,000 bid in an attempt to make the transfer permanent.

With Liverpool en route to another Champions League final, and the path to the starting line-up obstructed further by Mohamed Sissoko and Javier Mascherano, Potter recognised that opportunities at Anfield were likely to remain limited. In the circumstances, a three-and-half-year deal with a club of Wolves’ standing was too good to turn down. 

“It was clearly going to be very difficult for me to play at Liverpool. It was also just as important for me to start making my own path at that stage in my career,” says Potter, who had just turned 22 when he cut ties with the Reds.

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-championship-wolverhampton-wanderers-v-west-bromwich-albion-molineux-stadium Captaining Wolves during a Championship fixture against West Bromwich Albion. Source: PA

“The years I spent at Liverpool are something I hold very dear to my heart. Do I still feel a connection to the club? Yeah, nobody can ever take away the fact that I was there. I played a part, albeit a small one, and it gave me some incredible memories. But it was the right choice for me and my family and it’s something I never regretted.”

A key player during his first season at Molineux, Potter played 43 times as Wolves missed out on promotion to the Premier League with a play-off semi-final loss to West Bromwich Albion. 

Thereafter, his role under McCarthy was reduced, causing a deterioration in their working relationship. Ahead of the 2008-09 season, which concluded with Wolves securing their return to the top tier of English football, Potter was told he was free to leave. 

“The first season went really well and the second wasn’t too bad either, but Mick told me he was going to bring other midfielders in and that I’d be down the pecking order, so if I wanted to move on to another club I could. I said I wanted to stay and fight for my place because I really enjoyed it there, but Mick saw things differently.

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“I felt as though I was training really well every day. I wasn’t somebody who decided to toss it off just because I wasn’t involved. I never really had that mentality, so I kept coming in and doing what I was supposed to in the hope that it would impress Mick. 

“He didn’t think there was a place for me so things became a bit strained. I knocked on his door a few times to see what I could do to force my way into the team, but it wasn’t to be. To be fair, they got promoted to the Premier League that season, which probably proved that Mick was right in the end.”

By the time Potter eventually left to join Sheffield Wednesday, he was a Republic of Ireland international. His early form at Wolves earned him a debut under Steve Staunton against Ecuador in May 2007. He picked up four more caps, the last of which came in a February 2008 game against Brazil at Croke Park that was settled by a second-half Robinho goal.

Potter qualified to represent Ireland via his paternal grandparents, who hailed from Dublin and Clare. When an U16 call-up came from the FAI, he didn’t need to be asked twice.

“It was always a really big moment for the family when I represented Ireland. They [his grandparents] were absolutely ecstatic so I was very proud to have done it on their behalf. Playing for Ireland was an enormous honour that I never once took for granted. It was such a pleasure to be involved.

“I did get a phone call from someone involved in the English set-up asking if I’d come and train, but I was already embedded in the Ireland youth set-ups at that stage. I felt comfortable there and I was really enjoying it so I didn’t feel any desire to switch.”

Although Potter felt he acquitted himself well during the training camp in Portugal that launched Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign, his international career went no further. 

“I look back on that as a bit of a strange period. I travelled to Portugal for the first get-together and we played a couple of games against local clubs. I actually scored as well but that was it for me, which was obviously disappointing, but that’s life.”

darren-potter-and-diego-ribas Tangling with Diego while playing for Ireland against Brazil. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Despite eventually suffering relegation, signing for Sheffield Wednesday allowed Potter to get “back on track” following his frustration at Wolves. In 2011 he was on the move again, beginning a spell at MK Dons that he describes as “the most successful and enjoyable” period of his career.

He was troubled by achilles tendonitis for the majority of his time in Milton Keynes, yet Potter was seldom absent. Over the course of his six seasons with the club, he made a remarkable 263 appearances across all competitions.

Promotion to the Championship was the highlight, but an FA Cup goal against Chelsea and a 4-0 win over Manchester United in the League Cup are also among his fondest recollections.

“That was a great night,” he says of the game against a United side managed by Louis van Gaal in August 2014. “They left a few of their big stars at home but they still brought plenty with them. I think they were expecting an easy night at the office but it gave me one of my best experiences.”

Having been mentored during his own formative years by some of Liverpool’s senior players, Potter was never reluctant to impart his knowledge and experience to younger team-mates, such as the talented 16-year-old who made his debut for MK Dons in 2012. 

“I first saw Dele [Alli] when he came to train with us at 16. From the very start he didn’t look out of place. You would have thought he had already been around for a couple of years. The manager, Karl Robinson, had huge belief in him and he said from day one that he’d play in the Premier League.

“With young players, you try to guide them in whatever way you can, whether you’re just talking to them on the training ground or giving them a rollicking during a game if they’re doing certain things wrong. You’re just looking to help them along in the same way that people helped you in the past.”

Although Potter played his part in aiding Rotherham United’s promotion to the Championship in 2017-18, the achilles problem finally caught up with him. 

“It was definitely the most difficult part of my career. I ended up rupturing it and it was the best part of 16 months before I got back to play a game. It was a really tough time.”

He signed for Tranmere Rovers prior to the 2019-20 season, which he didn’t initially intend to be his last, but the global pandemic’s impact on football ultimately expedited the onset of retirement.

“If you asked me a few years ago what I’d be like on the day I retire, I would have said that I’d probably break down in tears. But with the way the last few seasons have gone for me, the decision was probably easier to come to terms with.

“I was hoping to go on a bit longer but circumstances dictated that wouldn’t be the case. The way this year has been has definitely prepared me for it. It has afforded me plenty more time in and around the house with the kids.”

milton-keynes-dons-v-chelsea-emirates-fa-cup-fourth-round-stadiummk Putting pressure on Chelsea's Eden Hazard during a 2016 FA Cup game for MK Dons. Source: Mike Egerton

A lazy assessment might determine that a career spent predominantly in the Football League can’t compare to the grandeur of big Champions League nights at Anfield. However, Potter has been in the game long enough to know that he left nothing behind.

Many others who were momentarily exposed to the limelight at elite clubs of Liverpool’s stature have understandably struggled to persevere when attempting to resume their journeys elsewhere. The attachment can be difficult to relinquish.

A fine line separates players who make a healthy living below Premier League level from those who bear the misfortune of drifting out of the professional game entirely. For a decade and a half, Potter stayed on the right side of it while savouring a myriad of notable accomplishments, the memories of which will sustain him long into retirement.

“I think the important thing for me about leaving Liverpool was that I wasn’t actually released,” he explains. “I made the decision to start carving out my own path, which helped, and going to Wolves under Mick McCarthy was a great opportunity.

“Listen, I’m not saying if I had stayed at Liverpool I would have played another 20 or 30 games, because that wouldn’t have been the case. Eventually I think I would have been released.

“I’ve seen it myself where players are let go by big clubs and they find it hard to see another path forward for them, but sometimes you just have to spin it on its head. All is not lost when you leave these big clubs, you just need to have the belief and the right people behind you.

“I do feel a lot of pride about the whole thing when I take a step back and weigh it all up. I never really took stock while I was playing but I can do that now. I think I can be proud of what I achieved, the clubs I played for and the amount of games I racked up.

“The longevity is something I was always proud of. In one season at MK Dons I played all 90 minutes in 55 games. Little things like that give me real satisfaction when I think about them.”

Potter, a father of four, is already taking his first steps as a coach by contributing to the academy at League Two club Port Vale, where his eldest son (15) is also learning the ropes as a young footballer. There’s a busy schedule of school runs to keep him occupied too.

He’ll be able to regale his kids with a few decent tales from the Liverpool and Ireland days when they’re all old enough to appreciate them. For now, they “couldn’t care less”, he laughs.

“To be fair, I think they find it a bit surreal that it was actually me. As time goes by I’m sure it’s something they’ll take some pride in.” 

If paternal utopia is to avoid being classed as an embarrassing dad, Darren Potter can consider his career to have been an unqualified success.

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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