Be Ready

A story from my Dad this time…

So what do you want to do with your life? Become a professional footballer, a writer, musician, artist, entertainer, elite athlete, actor, business executive, complete a university degree, become a doctor, dentist, surgeon, help others, or just simply go along with the flow and enjoy your time on this earth. The list goes on. Along the road of life, you will experience some form of rejection and disappointment. Knowing beforehand that things don’t always go to plan, that disappointment and rejection is part of life may help you be strong when you experience the two.

Keep your eyes on the target, whatever that might be. When the road to your target, dream, or goal takes a turn to the right or left be strong, expect this to happen, but keep going. Do not let your dream die because of disappointment or rejection, These two roadblocks have been put in the way to test you. Do you really want to achieve what you set out to do? Will you be strong? This is why you must know from the beginning that these two roadblocks will be there waiting for you. Now when you see them you’ll laugh and say, ‘I knew you’d be there one day, I was expecting you, I’m ready to deal with the two of you,’

What happened when I felt the pains of rejection and failure. I grew up in a Yorkshire town called Doncaster. Every boy, even those who didn’t like sport played cricket in summer and football in winter. I was the best footballer in our school and one day we won 9 – 1 against another school and I scored 6 of the goals. I played for Doncaster Boys, which was the ultimate achievement at school because the team was chosen from hundreds of boys around the district after lots of trial games. Only the best schoolboys in Doncaster made the team. A scout from Hull City, a professional football club came to watch me play and asked if I’d sign schoolboy forms for them. This meant that you could play for their youth team while still being at school. Only the boys who they thought had the potential to become a professional footballer were asked to sign schoolboy forms.

They must have thought that I had the potential to make a living from playing football because they offered me a job when I left school at 16 as an apprentice professional footballer. I left home and went to live in Hull and started my job as an apprentice professional footballer with Hull City. I lived with a family in their home, we called them ‘digs’ and paid 5 pounds a week for board and lodgings. The standard of player was very high because everyone else had also been the best in their school. And so it all began.

Every day I walked to the ground (stadium), which was called Boothferry Park and started work at 9 am. We had to get all the training gear ready for the professionals and first team players for when they arrived for training at 9:45 am. We all started training at 10 am, running, playing games, shooting, tackling, and fitness training. This finished at around mid-day, we all had a bath together in big baths, professionals were finished for the day, but the apprentices had to stay behind and do jobs such as cleaning the professional’s boots, sweeping the terraces in the stadium, cleaning the turnstiles, taking the dirty training gear to the washroom ladies who did the washing everyday, we’d also have to scrub the baths and dressing rooms. After finishing our jobs in the afternoon we’d all go out on to the ‘back pitch’ (a training field) and play 5 a side games. Sometimes fights broke out amongst us, but I’ll save those stories for another day. There were 10 apprentices between the age of 15 and 17 at Hull City, and our ultimate goal was to become a professional player at 18. Only 2 or 3 of the apprentices were offered professional contracts, so we were under pressure to perform at all times. A slump in form could mean failure. All the apprentices would talk about ‘making it’, meaning would they be offered professional terms.

Between the ages of 16 and 18 we would play in the youth team on a Saturday and the reserve team on a Tuesday night, hoping that when our 18th birthday came around we would be asked to stay and not be told to leave. I saw lots of players be called into the manager’s office and come out crying and never see them again. They’d been told that they were no longer wanted, so they quietly left, packed their bags and went home. That was just the way it was, no going home party or ‘You’ve been a good friend, I’ll see you again sometime.’ The players and team-mates just left, embarrassed and disappointed because in their mind they’d failed.

The pressure was high, no sympathy received, wanted or given, every game played was important, and our individual performances were watched and judged. That was the life of a professional footballer.  There was another apprentice professional whose 18th birthday was on the same day as mine, the very same day. His name was Stuart Croft and known as Crofty. We were both born on the 12th of April 1954, and the word went around that only one of us was going to be signed on as a full time professional, which meant that we would no longer do those jobs around the stadium any more. As full time professionals we had made it, or so we thought. We would turn up for training at 9:45am, finish at midday, play in the reserves on a Tuesday and Saturday with the goal of playing in the first team when called upon.

But only one of us would be staying and becoming a full time pro. Would it be Crofty or me? One day after training, while sitting in the dressing room exhausted after training, the coach came in and shouted, ‘Crofty and Micky Dale come with me!’

Was this the day we’d find out? Would we make it? The coach had a football in his hand and told us to follow him to the gym. The gym at Hull City was an indoor half-football pitch on a wooden floor, where we’d play games in bad weather. The coach turned two benches on their side as goals, one at each end of the gym. He then told us that Crofty and I would be playing against each other, I’d be defending my bench, tackling, dribbling, running trying to score goals at Crofty’s end, where he’d be defending his bench and attacking mine. We were told not to stop playing until he blew the whistle. There would be no ins or outs, or stopping for a rest, the game would be non-stop.

Crofty and me went at each other as if our lives depended upon it, kicking lumps out of each other, running and tackling until we could barely stand. Both of us would have killed to win. Neither of us would give in until the coach blew the whistle and we collapsed on the wooden floor with exhaustion, hardly being able to breath.

We walked back to the dressing room, had our bath and waited. The coach came out, told us to sit down and then told us that because of our commitment and spirit, he couldn’t separate us, so we would be both signed on as full time professionals. We thought we’d made it, but had barely started. Contracts were only for 1 year in those days, so players had a job for one year, and a few bad games at the wrong time could signal the end.

The next season came around and as a professional after coming through the youth team and reserves I now had the new goal of getting into the first team. Easy peasy, it would just happen, wouldn’t it? Hull City had 32 professional players trying to get into the first 11; now I was one of them and the competition would be fierce. Fights often broke out in training sessions. This was regarded as normal, but I’ll save those stories for another day.

The season ended and the coach shouted, ‘Micky, the manager wants to see you in his office’ Terry was the manger and he said, ‘Micky, you’ve done okay, but we are not signing you for next year.’

It was me who left the office in tears, I left the ground and walked around the streets of Hull crying like a baby, embarrassed and hurt by the rejection, feeling like a failure, and never wanting to play again. Those feelings didn’t go away for a very long time. I couldn’t even bear to watch the FA Cup Final (the biggest game of the season) that year because of how hurt I was and how bad I felt. The feeling of failure stayed with me for a very long time.

The season after being released by Hull City I went and played on trial with a few other clubs hoping to be signed by one of them, but still felt like a reject and miserable failure. Then one day, I received a letter from a football club in Australia, who asked Grandma and me to go to Australia for 2 years so I could play football for them. On the 18th of May 1974 Grandma and me boarded the flight QF2 to Australia, and landed in Sydney on the 20th of May. One of the good things that came out of that was meeting and playing in teams with other players who had also gone through the same thing as me.

I thought I was the only one who felt sad about being rejected, feeling like a failure.

As players, sharing similar experiences we often talked about the hurt and the feelings of failure, but we kept on playing and enjoyed playing many more games over the years, experiencing often what it’s like to lose and win, to miss penalties in important games, being dropped from the team, being substituted, sitting on the bench, feeling bad, elated, the tears it brought and the laughter; but best of all, the camaraderie and banter of the dressing room. Crofty played at Hull City in the first team for 10 more years, but in the end he also experienced those feelings of rejection and failure when the manager of Hull City told him that he was no longer wanted, and I still have a beer with him and talk about those footballing days when I go back to England on holiday.

Looking back, I would never have missed a minute and would love to do it all again, even with those feelings of rejection and failure because they’re all part of it. In the end, I came to realise that we didn’t fail at all, those experiences were all part of the journey. So when things don’t go your way, think about keeping on and gerrin’ on wi it. It allus works in’ end.

By Michael Dale.