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'I felt like a fan, not a player. I almost recorded You'll Never Walk Alone from the bench'

As a new Premier League season begins, three former Republic of Ireland internationals give their first-hand accounts of how they coped with their first taste of the big time.

debuts

A PENNY FOR the thoughts of Burnley’s Nathan Collins and Norwich City’s Andrew Omobamidele as they go to bed tonight.

The two young Irish centre backs are about to get a first taste of life in the Premier League – although they are set for different experiences.

While Collins was a £12 million signing from Stoke City during the summer, the former Cherry Orchard schoolboy will likely be on the bench at home to Brighton tomorrow as he prepares to spend his debut campaign as an understudy for Sean Dyche’ s favoured partnership of James Tarkowski and Ben Mee.

For Omobamidele, who broke into Norwich’s starting XI for the final couple of months of their Championship-winning season and earned a call-up to Stephen Kenny’s Ireland squad for the summer internationals, he kept his place throughout pre-season and is earmarked for the heart of the defence when Liverpool visit Carrow Road.

Collins (20) and Omobamidele (19) are embarking on a stage in the career many of their peers growing up could only imagine. Now they have arrived, what can they expect?

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What are the challenges, demands and expectations of life among the elite?

Here, three former Republic of Ireland internationals recalls their first Premier League seasons and explain why it’s important to savour the little things.

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‘All I could think about was stroking around the nice new Nike balls because those old heavy Mitres take their toll after a while’

Kevin Foley reached the Premier League in 2009 at the age of 24 having been Wolves’ player of the year when they won the Championship under manager Mick McCarthy.
He started his career with local club Luton Town in League One and eventually made 74 top flight appearances over three seasons at Molineux, scoring two goals.
But it’s the Nike balls he remembers most fondly.

I played 45 of 46 games when we got promoted and was wrecked by the end. Still, all the lads were heading to Vegas after the season. The day before we left I signed a new contract going into the Premier League. That helped me relax.

But it’s pretty expensive in Vegas so the first round wasn’t on me after that. Every night we put money together and drinks came out of the kitty.

You have to enjoy those moments together, being part of a squad that went up and a group of players that all came from the lower leagues. No one had played in the Prem before, I think it was only Jody Craddock, he was there with Sunderland when Mick [McCarthy] was manager.

We knew new players would be brought in cause we were at the next level now but what gets you there in the first place is the desire to fight for your place.

There was no fear whatsoever and building up to that first game against West Ham, all that I was thinking about was that I was going to be playing with those lovely, new Nike balls. I was glad to see the back of those old, heavy Mitres because they take a toll after the years.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-wolverhampton-wanderers-v-manchester-united-molineux-stadium Foley in action against Paul Scholes of Manchester United. Source: PA

I was picturing myself being on Match of the Day because I remember watching before thinking ‘I wouldn’t mind stroking a few of those nice balls around’. It made me so happy to know I was going to be on Match of the Day.

It’s funny but in the Championship there was minimal time on the ball. You get it out of your feet quick and give it because tackles are coming in from everywhere. After a few games in the Prem it’s like ‘oh, this is a bit different, no one is running around like maniacs’. There is time on the ball to stroke it about and you feel great, but make a mistake and you’re punished.

You feel better about yourself with the kit and the Premier League badge on the sleeve. The lion looking back at you. The TV crews and all the buzz around the day of the game, it just feels so different than the opening day of a Championship season.

I remember we had a big pitch at Molineux in the Championship and would play expansive stuff. As soon as we were promoted I came back for pre-season and the first game the pitch had been squeezed in to minimal dimensions. The thinking was obviously not to get pummelled by the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United.

My own thinking was I didn’t need to start behaving differently or training differently just because I was in the Premier League. It was a case of not broken so no need to fix it. Then I did my knee ligaments early in the first game against West Ham blocking a tackle and was out for three months.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-wolverhampton-wanderers-v-west-ham-united-molineux Foley on his Premier League debut in 2009 with his favoured Nike ball. Source: PA

It was a case of ‘shit, I have to get back fit as soon as I can’. The whole build up that summer was to the Premier League. I got to go on a camp with Ireland and make my debut against Nigeria and even though I was wrecked I didn’t want to miss a minute of pre-season.

I got back in the team around the November and played as a right winger. We stayed up that first season and it felt good to get back in the team and play a part.

I had two dreams as a kid growing up. The first was to play for Ireland at a World Cup and the second was to get to the Premier League. At least I was able to achieve one of those, although maybe I should have nicked one of those Nike balls as a memento.

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‘I’d made up my mind that I didn’t care what the result will be because I was fulfilling a dream.’

In the space of two seasons, Simon Cox went from fighting relegation from League One with Swindon Town to making his Premier League debut for West Brom against champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2010.
The striker scored one goal in 37 appearances over two seasons, and his only regret is being unable to shake the feeling he was still fan and not a player.
And not bringing his camera phone with him on the bench at Anfield.

I done my ankle ligaments in pre-season but my mindset was I was not going to miss a single minute for being injured. I could take being dropped from the squad for better players but I didn’t want there to be another excuse.

I was devastated being injured because to honest I didn’t know if I would ever be there again.

For me, truthfully, the results of the game didn’t matter because I felt like a success just being in the Premier League. Coming from where I had, it felt monumental to be there cause I was fighting for a career before that.

My ultimate aim was to play as many minutes as I could, that was it.

Looking back, I realise that I was still going into games thinking like a fan, not a player. I got caught up in being that young boy who watched and dreamt of being in the Premier League. So then when I got a chance to come on or start, the emotion got to me. I’d made up my mind that I didn’t care what the result will be because I was fulfilling a dream.

soccer-carling-cup-fourth-round-leicester-city-v-west-bromwich-albion-walkers-stadium Simon Cox pats a steward on the head. Source: PA

Maybe if I’d actually spent another year or two in the Championship and become more established, then gone into the Premier League and spent more time there, I’d have been able to go from being a fan to actually a player who felt like he could do it every week instead of being that fan who made their dream come true.

I’m a massive Liverpool supporter so when we played at Anfield I made a decision that I was going to record You’ll Never Walk Alone from the subs bench. Liverpool weren’t doing too well at the time, they had Andy Carroll up front and I actually remember being really disappointed because the atmosphere wasn’t good at all.

I was in the dressing room with the lads before they lined up in the tunnel and was thinking I’ll get out a few minutes before them, get a good spot on the bench and bring my phone with me to record You’ll Never Walk Alone. I was thinking it would look unbelievable from my position on the bench.

I’m ready to do it and then I think to myself, what if Sky or someone in the crowd catches me? That would be my career ended because I’m supposed to be a bloody player. So I didn’t do it.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-tottenham-hotspur-v-west-bromwich-albion-white-hart-lane Cox celebrates his only Premier League goal, the equaliser in a 2-2 draw away to Spurs. Source: Adam Davy

I honestly don’t even remember getting too many chances to score goals. There were a couple against Blackburn Rovers when I felt I should have so when I did get my goal against Spurs it felt like such a relief. It was a lovely curler into the top corner too and while I would have loved to have scored 100 tap ins instead of one at least I can say I scored once.

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Although I should have scored two because in that first game of the season against Chelsea, I came off the bench and had a similar chance to curl one in. Instead I tried to kick the leather off the ball and it went nowhere.

I got loads of laughs and jeers from the crowd because of it and they battered us 6-0. But I didn’t care.

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‘I was thinking one of us would turn up and get dragged away to be sellotaped on the side of a motorway!’

Kenny Cunningham had 10 seasons in the Premier League, spending the first six with Wimbledon and four at Birmingham City while also captaining his country along the way. 
He and a Millwall teammate headed to Selhurst Park in November 1994 in a joint deal worth £1.3 million.
Not that the Dubliner was too fussed about going in the first place.

The first thing you can be sure of is that the first day of pre-season the sun would be out. It would be splitting the stones. I’d be home in Dublin the week before and it would be lashing down. Back to London and still a bit miserable.

Then, bang! Out of your bed first day of pre-season and it’s scorching. Here we fecking go! You never feel like you’ve physically done enough going into that first game of the season, there is always more you have to get into the legs and the body.

When I joined Wimbledon it was a few months into the season and I felt like I was flying. Joe Kinnear came in for me and Jon Goodman together. We’d grown up at Millwall together and been through a lot, we made the breakthrough around the same time.

Mick (McCarthy) was our manager and pulled us to say Wimbledon wanted us both. I was enjoying it at Millwall, though. He said ‘look there’s a bid there for you, it’s up to you both’. It was a funny conversation.

premier-league-wimbledon-v-newcastle-united Source: Alamy Stock Photo

There was no agent involved, this wasn’t a money move or a financial thing at all. There was only a couple hundred quid more at Wimbledon.

I asked Jon what he wanted to do. He asked me what I wanted to do. I wasn’t too pushed to start with. We were asking does it have to be us both together? If one doesn’t go can the other go or is the move off if one of us doesn’t want to go?

We were asking these questions between ourselves and then we just realised it was better to ask Mick. I was in my comfort zone at Millwall and playing every week. I think it worked out in the end that they paid £800,000 for Jon and around £500,000 for me.

Ultimately it was about playing at the top level, it wasn’t about it being the Premier League or whatever. It was testing yourself against the best and the chance might not come again. I was 23 or 24 and just thought ‘fecking hell, go for it’, that was the gut feeling.

It was daunting and when we were training together for the first time, we arranged to make sure we arrived together so we had strength in numbers. We were in different cars and I ended up getting there before Jon so I was sitting in the car park waiting for him before getting out.

The reputation at Wimbledon, the whole Crazy Gang, thing, I was thinking one of us would turn up and get dragged away to be sellotaped on the side of a motorway! But the longer I spent at the club the more I realised all that stuff was played up, it wasn’t so much contrived but a clever way of getting a lot of coverage for the club.

Lads would play golf together, there was a good social side but it wasn’t like we were going down the West End after training or games to go to a wine bar.

premier-league-soccer-leeds-united-v-wimbledon Cunningham tackles Leeds' Lee Bowyer. Source: EMPICS Sport

I went straight into the team against Newcastle and it was a bit of a buzz. I always got really nervous before games so was always fighting that, but we won the game (3-2), it was my first time in the big league and it was a relief more than anything that I wasn’t out of my depth.

After that I went from there.

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