This year, Malmesbury Youth Football Club celebrates its 25th Anniversary. As part of this, I interviewed former Malmesbury Youth FC player James Constable, who has since gone on to represent England, win a play-off Final at Wembley and score more than one hundred goals for Oxford United.
The interview took place at the Red Bull Pitches across a picnic bench next to the B4040 earlier this year. James gave an interesting insight of various aspects outside football such as the importance of school, support from family and other factors such as self belief and inner strength that ultimately allowed him to become a professional football player.
You grew up in Malmesbury. What were your first memories of playing football?
Really being down at Malmesbury Vics. My dad used to be there quite a lot. He used to run a reserve team, so we were down there quite a lot as kids, ball-boying or anything really to play on the pitch at half time or before the game.
It was just part of life, we just used to spend a lot of time on the pitch playing and the nattural progression was then me playing myself and joining up with Malmesbury Youth FC.
Do you have any recollection when you started playing here at Malmesbury Youth Football Club?
I always seemed to play one/two years out of my age group so I was always playing and getting knocked about a bit; it was obviously something I liked doing as I stuck to playing out of my age group for 7-8 years. I followed it all the way through from 5-6 up to U16s when I was 14 years old and still playing out of my age group. Just something I really enjoyed. I used to play with my friends at school at lunch time and then for Malmesbury at the weekends.
The parents were all good friends; it was a great time being young and playing with all your mates.
Did playing out of your age group put you in good stead for your future career, playing against bigger boys?
I spoke with some people at Oxford recently about where my career started and when I said I played a couple of years out of my age group, they asked pretty much the same question; do I feel that made the difference? I honestly do, because you are constantly fighting, week in – week out; trying to keep yourself in the team and beat the kids who were 2 years older than you and you had to learn quickly. You were bundled over and stuff like that and you had to get up and get on with it, so I am certain it did make a difference, especially in my progression as a footballer – back then not knowing if I would make it – but something I desperately wanted to do even at that early age.
You earlier mentioned families. How important was that? The camaraderie, the family and the support?
It was brilliant. We were only young when we started at 5, 6, 7 years old. We started to play football at Lea school originally. There was a pitch we used to play on and that was kind of where the families first met each other and they built a lasting relationship followed wherever we went. We went on tours down to Devon for weekends to play in tournaments – it was just a great time – even now I look back and have pictures and lots of medals, we did really well with the team we had back then. We seemed to win everything and it was just a great time.
Are you still in contact with the boys you used to play with back then?
Yes there are still a lot of players – I’d say 80-90% of the team that we had back then I still speak to and the wonderful world of social media you can keep up with a lot of the people. As you grow up you drift apart a bit but it is nice you can still speak to them and come back and catch up with them.
Developing As A Player
At some stage you transitioned to Cirencester Town. What triggered that? Was it already with a view to progress your ability?
Coming out of school and having done reasonably well, 10 GCSEs 8C – professional football seemed a long way from where my future was going to be. I had a trial at Cirencester at the back end of my last year at school so it was work experience and it coincided with a trial at the same time. They sent me a letter that they would accept me me if I wanted to come to the football academy and do the college side of it as well. I knew that the school work was important – I needed to make sure I got the grades other wise I knew I was not be able to do the football side of it – so it gave me the kick up the back-side I needed to knuckle down and get the results so I could go down there and play football in the afternoons and do the college work in the mornings.
How did you find the progression from the Juniors to the Seniors?
It’s a funny age around 16/17 years old; you’re starting to discover girls and going out and a lot of players when they do reach that age may start to play on a Sunday afternoon and have their Friday and Saturday nights with friends. For me this was not something I wanted to do but make the sacrifices to have the best chance in succeeding.
Did you know fully at that time what you wanted to do?
Football was of course the main drive behind going to Cirencester, but I was also interested in doing the collage part. Others may have taken the football as the main shop window for progression but for me I found it quite useful with the courses I could do and it was all tied in with the football.
There are numerous football academies nowadays. What is your view on these?
Before I signed for Walsall – when I played for Chippenham – I ran a football coaching business in the afternoons and evenings. Qualified coaches have the best intentions with the kids trying to do what is right during training sessions, rather than offering a baby sitting service.
During a seven week period, we used to plan each individual session before we started the first week. At the time we were giving the kids decent coaching sessions and the kids enjoyed what they were doing.
Did you always used to play as a striker?
No, I have played in a lot of different positions. I started at right wing. That was my main position during my youth. When I went to Cirencester I played right back / right wing back. I was quite fit getting up and down an they saw than as a chance to put me there.
I also used to play in goal for Malmesbury Youth. I played on a Saturday above my age group and then again for my age group on a Sunday in goal.
When I progressed from Cirencester collage team into the first team they started to put me up front.
When I moved to Chippenham, I realised that playing upfront was the position I wanted to play. Growing up, I enjoyed creating a lot of goals but as I grew older I found the love of scoring goals more of a drive.
What kind of talents and skills really stood out at an early age that set you apart from the others? Was it your technical skill, technique, speed, physical presence, ability to read the game?
I don’t know really. Growing up, strength wise as I played out of my age group, people thought I was older than I really was. But the kids I was playing with all developed at the same rate and we all seemed to be the same size.
When I moved to Chippenham they gave me the chance to play regular first team football and they ‘saw the raw potential’. They were looking for a big centre forward and luckily for me I fitted that bill.
School & Inner Strength
In your earlier career when you came to an obstacle or a hurdle, how did you deal with that but still be at the top of your game?
A good example of this is when I was at Shrewsbury – I only had been there a few months when a new Manager came in and it came to the end of the season. I was told to get myself super fit as next season would be a big season. I came back in the new season and they had signed Grant Holt from Nottingham Forest and obviously that was the end of my time at Shrewsbury. I was told that it was probably best for me to go out on loan. A lot of players can take that in different ways. For me, it was just determination to go and prove them wrong and that I could have done it at that level, given the chance. All throughout my career if I had a set-back it was for me to go out there and prove them wrong.
You mentioned school and education and the importance of that; How were you able to combine education with playing football since you had to train and play more often?
It was all new from being at school. The academic side of it and having weekend games – going in at 09:00 working until 12:00 and then getting changed for training till 2 or 3pm and then finishing collage. Then after that going coaching as I worked with someone at the collage doing some coaching to learn the ropes of of the trade. It was hard to start with – going from being at school and coming home having free time to what adults would do nine to five/six every day. It was hard but it was something that I loved doing – playing football. A lot of my friends were having to go to work and do jobs going straight from school and for me I was glad I was able to make the choice and still be able to do what I love doing.
Who were your footballing idols when growing up and who are they today?
I supported Tottenham when I was younger – and I still do – I liked Lineker and Alan Shearer and a big part of what I wanted to do what I do now – scoring goals.
I watched Shearer at Match of the Day at 15 / 16 years old and watching him score every week I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be the person scoring the goals; nowadays you have Messi and Ronaldo and people like that who seem to be a different breed of footballers. But seeing players do that in front of 50-60 thousand people – that’s what I wanted to do when I was at that age.
Can you learn to become a better striker or is it 20% magic where intuition brings you at a certain time in a certain position or can you learn that skill?
You can always improve. You train every day and you can improve on technique to score a header or a volley; you can always improve yourself as a player.
But I think that natural born finisher – like Lineker – especially watching him a lot younger I am now. At that age you are not taking much in – you are sort of watching him and all you see is him scoring goals. But as you get older you look back at it and he is always at the right place at the right time. It almost cannot be down to luck cause he did it so often. You look at his movement as he is getting the ball, he’s laying it off, he’s getting in the box, he’s making sure he’s the first one in the box. As you get older you pick up much more on coaching technical points rather than just concentrating him just sticking the ball in the back of the net and run off celebrating.
It’s something you do pickup as you get older and learn more about the game especially at my age – 29 – as you constantly trying to look at that little bit that give you a slightly a bit of an edge. It’s important I do everything I can to stay in the team and scoring goals.
Do you still watch youth football and if so how has it changed compared to when you used to play?
It has changed a lot – kids are different shapes and sizes now – everybody used to be the same build but now you get kids 12/13 year old at 5.5-6 foot; it’s mad.
And now with all the multicolored boots and thing’s like that – when you look at them – you see bits of yourself in them and their love for being out there – and you just hope they haven’t got too much pressure nowadays with clubs paying ridiculous money that they get carried away.
What do you think about the parent’s ‘involvement’ or coaching from the sidelines?
I have been to games where you hear that kind of encouragement but then it’s quite a fine line between that and the pushiness and aggressiveness – for us as kids when we grew up, the parents had a flask of coffee and we had a clap when we scored but there was never any shouting so you can say that that’s change a lot over the last few years.
Do you still remember signing your first full-time professional contract?
Yeah – still to this day – every day I go out – or every time we have a game – or any time I am in a difficult situation, I think back to that as it is probability the reason I am doing what I am doing now.
I went for a week long trial at Walsall and my parents were invited by Paul Merson to look around the ground and the stadium. We went back up there on a Monday evening and then the chairman said that Paul Merson wanted a quick word. They put a contract in front of me and asked: “Do you want to sign it?”
To this day – we didn’t look at it, we didn’t read it – it was around 20-30 pages thick but we didn’t really look at it; I was offered a professional contract after going to collage and playing for local teams. Of course I would have thought I would have made it as a professional footballer but I was 21 at the time and was thinking that perhaps the time had gone; I was at an age where you don’t get too many professional players signing.
Of course I signed – I jumped at it – snatched the pen and signed. It was a good time.
You’ve recently reached a major milestone by scoring more than 100 goals. As time progresses and you reach milestone after milestone – do you still set yourself goals?
I always set myself a target on the number of goals I score – I’d love to score 15-20 goals a season but some seasons you get injured or some seasons you don’t play as many games as you’d like. Summer is always nice as you get a lot of time to spend with the family as during the season it’s quite full-on. You always seem to be on the bus traveling to away games. Summer is nice that way, but you also have the opportunity to get yourself in the best possible condition to give you the best possible chance to play at the start of the season; and then hopefully continue all the way through the season.
So when you post pictures on twitter or instagram walking on a beach, are these 2 weeks completely down-time or do you still do football related things?
I would like to say that it’s downtime but I am sure my girlfriend will tell you differently.
We’ve been on holiday and I have sneaked off to watch a game or watch a play-off semi-final. It’s hard to switch fully off from football. Last summer we were away in Mexico and I was following the last round of Premier League games. You try to go on holiday quite soon after the season finishes and then it’s back to it. When your mates go out partying in the summer, that’s when you have to knuckle down and make even more sacrifices.
During a holiday, do you still go running in the morning to keep your fitness levels up?
It’s so different compared to let’s say five years ago. Then it was: “see you at the start of the season”. Now you get a tailored program with a detailed day to day plan consisting of running, weights, swimming or spinning classes. In that way we are very lucky to have the facilities available to do this.
So the summer is an important period and as you get older it’s harder to get that fitness back through the season.
Do you have a special routine as you prepare for a game?
When I get to the ground, there are a lot of players pacing up and down. I am quiet and keep myself to myself. I go through the same routine of getting the same bits of tubigrip cut and getting my pads out ready. I have always cleaned my own boots as I want to make sure they are in the best condition they can be. There are other little things; I always have to go out last out of the changing room and the tunnel; little superstitions you pick up through your career and then the longer you have them the harder it is to break them.
There’s a lot of discussion on improve football at grass-roots level. What are the important things for 6-12 year olds? What should they focus on?
When I was a youth coach, whenever we planned any coaching sessions, the main thing was always the enjoyment of the kids. That is paramount. But as you progress you can work with them a bit more on the things you have to do as a footballer and that it’s not just about scoring goals. You have to track runners but you can do more of that stuff when they get older but the last 4 or 5 years we have really recognised the gap with Spain and Germany who are progressing a lot quicker than we are so there is a lot more focus now on coaching techniques as kids grow up.
There are a lot of big clubs earning a lot of money and somehow some of this should find its way to grassroots so young kids can progress.
Are there any books or videos that have helped you along the way?
When growing up, I did not read enough. I recently read Gazza’s book and I’ve got Alex Ferguson’s audiobook now, but as a kid we did not have much free time to read as we were kicking a football around every available minute! For me the best way of learning was watching it or being out there doing it.
There are now so many videos on YouTube where you can learn different skills and you can then try to apply that after a training session.
Do you stay behind after training to sharpen some specific skills?
I wish I had done much more of that when I was younger. When you are in your early twenties, after training you want to get something to eat and then go home to get some sleep as you are tired from training. But realistically you could have stayed an extra hour to try a few different things. Nowadays the training sessions incorporate a lot of different things, including some of the additional things you want to focus on. For someone who likes scoring goals, you can never have enough finishing sessions!
Life After Football
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given and do you have any tips for young kids playing now?
When I was growing up and came to the stage in life wondering if becoming a professional football player was going to happen or not, I sat down with my parents to plan what else I should do in case it wasn’t to be.
They asked me if becoming a football player was really what I wanted to do and if this was my dream.
Becoming a professional football player was all that I wanted to do, nothing else. My parents supported me and encouraged me to pursue my dream and not getting distracted by anything else.
When I ran coaching schools, I always said to the kids to listen to the coaches because they are there to help you. Perhaps as a kid I didn’t take as much in myself as I should have but looking back, I should have listened a lot more. But coaches are there to help you and they want you to do the best you can.
One day when you hang up your boots, where do you see your next venture?
Physically I feel I can still play for 5, 6, 7 years. I don’t feel I am coming to point in my career where I have aching bones. I want to be out there and playing football every day. It’s in the back of my mind obviously as I am 30 this year, but I am certain it will be in football in some way. So playing for a few more years and then perhaps looking to coach.
Do you have any hobbies outside football?
I like watching football and talking about football, but my whole life has been sports orientated. I like playing golf, being outside hitting a few balls and reflecting on a few things.
But now having a little baby girl, it gives you a different perspective on life, spending it in play centers and listening to Disney CDs. It’s completely different to what I thought what it was going to be but wouldn’t want to change it. I am spending a lot more time doing things like that. It sometimes helps not being able to watch so much football gives you a time away from it and more time with the family.
Interview by Robert