Under The League Interviews… Lewis Haldane

Dave Burin has been busy for us once again, this time chatting to former Bristol Rovers, Port Vale and Oxford United winger Lewis Haldane.

Even over a slightly crackly phone reception on a windy August night, Lewis Haldane’s warmth shines through. One of Non-League football’s most likeable and resilient personalities, Haldane won promotion to League One with Bristol Rovers and moved onto Port Vale, before a series of horrific illnesses and injuries curtailed his professional career. The unbreakable wing wizard returned to football in 2013 with Southern League side Yate Town, winning Bristol Non-League player of the year in his first season, before moving onto Southern Premier League club Frome Town.

With open, honest reflections and a personable manner, Lewis talks me through the highs and lows of a tumultuous career, from winning two promotions and playing in the Wales U-21 squad with Gareth Bale, to the physical and mental turmoil of serious illness, and his strong focus on family.

DB: You grew up in Trowbridge in the late ’80s and the ’90s.  The nearest Football League clubs were in Swindon and Bristol, over 30 miles away.  So did you follow a local non-league team, or did you support a big club from afar?

LH: I supported Leeds United. My Dad was a big fan from the Billy Bremner days onwards. I had a season ticket at Elland Road, and my Dad and I always travelled up there. As a young kid, I really liked Lee Chapman and a Lazio player called Schillaci – I’d forgotten about that, but I was apparently obsessed with him! Later on, I looked up to Leeds strikers like Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

I don’t get to see them much now, because I’m still playing, but hopefully I can get to somewhere like Bristol City or Bournemouth if and when they’re there!

DB: As a teenager, you spent time in the youth setup at Southampton, and then at your hometown club, Trowbridge Town.  Even as a youth player, was it a difficult transition moving from a club with Premier League facilities, to Non-League, where the setup is typically a lot smaller and more basic?

LH: At that age, there’s not a big transition. I left Saints when I was 14, because I was a small lad and a lot of the kids were much bigger than me, and I didn’t really grow until my later teens. We just trained at a college in the centre of Southampton, so it wasn’t that different [to Trowbridge’s facilities]. You don’t really focus on those things when you’re young, anyway. You just want to win games and score to impress your parents!

Trowbridge Town was nice, and just a little local club. I played for a couple of teams around the area, like Trowbridge, Shaw Youth and Whitley. All my friends were playing in local sides, and we were just learning how to play football, and learning the ropes!

DB: You joined Bristol Rovers in 2002, but played your first senior games whilst on loan at Weston-super-Mare in the Spring of 2003.  What are your memories of your brief spell with The Seagulls?

Lewis Haldane Bristol RoversLH: I think I scored 3 times in my first 5 games, and I would only have been sixteen at the time. It was different, because it was the first time I’d ever played mens football. It was much more physical [than youth team football], and I was a really skinny little lad back then – I probably only weighed 10 stone.

In my final game for Weston, we got promoted at Clevedon. My Dad was there watching, and one of their players stood there, off-the-ball and just elbowed me straight in the face. He broke my nose. My Dad’s not aggressive at all, but he waited for the guy to come off the pitch and basically said ‘what are you doing, he’s a little kid’. But it was a wake-up call, to say ‘this is senior football. I’m in mens football now!’.

That’s what sticks with me most – learning to play against men, because I was basically a kid. Players grow up at different times. Wayne Rooney, at that age, was already a big strapping bloke, but I was a little lad.

DB: Later that year, you played your first games for Bristol Rovers.  You scored your first goal in an away defeat to Doncaster, and managed an impressive 3 goals in your first 4 games.  However, the club went on a run of just 1 win in 11 matches.  What were your emotions at that time, and also, what was the mood like around the club?

LH: Ray Graydon was manager and we were near the bottom of the league, which is why I got my chance. I think I was just on cloud nine, really, because all my friends were still in the youth team, and I broke into the first team. They came to watch their games, and it was just exciting that one of us had broken into the first team.

Like I said, I was just a kid, so it was all a bit of a blur at the time. But looking back on it now, 13 years later, I can remember it all like it was yesterday. I remember coming on against Cheltenham in my first game [a 2-0 home victory] and got a penalty with my first touch! In my first start against Doncaster – I scored, and you don’t ever forget that moment.

DB: You scored six goals in that first season, and played well throughout the year.  One ever-present in that team and your early years at the club was Ghana striker Junior Agogo.  What was he like to play with?

LH: He was a quality player. He obviously moved on to Nottingham Forest, and later to Qatar – and he earned a lot of money out there. You learn a lot playing with players of that calibre, and he played for Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations too. He was a fantastic player, and obviously moved on the season after he scored 20 goals. Luckily for him, he got that big move, something which never happened for me. But you’ve got to give him his props for managing that!

DB: Bristol Rovers finished 12th in what became League Two in the following two seasons, and you were in and out of the team.  However, in the 2006-07 campaign, you were an integral part of the Rovers team that won promotion in the Play-Offs.  However, the team also suffered a heartbreaking loss in the JPT (Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) final.  What are your abiding memories of that season?

LH: It was fantastic. It was the first season I was in the side regularly, and I managed to play over 40 games that season. I played on the wing, which was a different position for me, but I was quick and I got a bit bigger – my game came together. For the first time in football really, I felt like a man.

The more I played, the more confident I felt and the better my performances were. I had a really good season, and we got promoted. Obviously, we played at Wembley which was the most nerve-racking time of my life! But [winning promotion] was possibly the best day of my life, other than my daughter being born.

When you’re a little boy, you dream of playing at Wembley. The thing I remember most clearly from that season though, is playing at Elland Road. It wouldn’t mean much to most lads, but for me, as a ground, it was even better than playing at Wembley or the Millennium Stadium. My Dad [also a Leeds United fan] was there, and I’m really, really proud that I played there, to be honest. One of the real highlights of my career.

DB: As well as winning promotion, you also made your debut that season for Wales U-21s, in a European Championship qualifier against Turkey.  What was it like to represent Wales at Ninian Park, and where were you when you got the call-up?

LH: I was at home and I got the call from my manager [Paul Trollope] saying that Bryan Flynn, the Wales U-21s boss wants you to go down and join up with the squad. I was quite a shy lad, and just like ‘I can’t believe this!’. I went down there, and obviously the senior squad were there as well, so you had the likes of Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy there, and I was in awe of them.

Looking back now, Gareth Bale was next to me at the dinner table before the game. He was in the U-21s team, and obviously we didn’t know that he was going to be a superstar. [*laughs*] Crikey, how our careers took different paths.

We drew 0-0 against Turkey, and I came on in the last 20 minutes, and I had a good shot tipped around the post. We were virtually out of the race for qualifying, and I was 23 at the time, so I was too old really, but was one of the two older players allowed in the squad. Still, it’s a great memory and I really enjoyed it!

DB: The following season you went out on loan to Oxford United.  You told BBC Sport at the time that “it wasn’t an easy decision to drop down to the Conference”.  In hindsight, was it a decision you’re glad you made, or do you feel you should have stayed with Rovers?

Lewis Haldane OxfordLH: At the time, I felt I was being pushed out by Rovers. When we got promoted, they signed loads of new players and I didn’t really get a chance. Looking back, they made mistakes, as they got relegated the season after and they’d spent all their money. If they would have stuck with the boys that had got them promoted in the first place and actually cared about the club, they wouldn’t have got into that mess. The first season after coming up, Rovers finished 15th and they gradually spent a lot of money on wages and things, and got relegated.

I went to Oxford, who were a really big club at the time, in the Conference Premier. At first we weren’t a great team and struggled a little bit, but when Chris Wilder took over we won 15 games in a row towards the end of the season, and almost got into the Play-Offs.

My form wasn’t brilliant at Oxford. I played well some games, and others I didn’t. My confidence had been knocked by Bristol Rovers putting me to the side.

DB: What was Chris Wilder like to play under?

LH: He was good. He knew what he wanted, and like I said, when he took over we won a lot of games on the spin. He turned our fortunes around, and I really enjoyed playing under Chris.

DB: You joined Port Vale in 2009, with the deal becoming permanent in January 2010.  In that first year, you scored several goals, including a crucial strike in a narrow 2-1 win over Torquay United.  Micky Adams also spoke highly of your pace and ability, in the media.  Do you consider that season one of the best of your career?

Lewis Haldane Port ValeLH: I think the year I got promoted with Rovers was the best season of my career, but that season at Port Vale I felt like I was playing really well, after having my confidence knocked at Oxford.

I moved up to Stoke, where my ex-partner’s family are from. My girlfriend became pregnant about a year after we moved there, and things were good. I got my form back, and I was back in the Football League and people were talking about me again. I put in a couple of good performances live on Sky Sports and I felt that if I could keep it up, I might get a life-changing move somewhere but that didn’t happen.

But I have those memories of playing for several different clubs, which a lot of boys would love to do.

DB: On that note, do you feel that players are even more motivated for televised games, because you know how many people are going to be watching?

LH: Yeah, I think so, because you get your friends back home who don’t get to the matches watching and you want to show them that you’re good!

DB: During the following 2 years at Port Vale, you made a fair few appearances, but suffered horrendous misfortune with injuries – being out for months with an insect bite, and then the leg break which ended your professional career at the time.  How did you manage to stay mentally strong during such difficult periods?

LH: In pre-season, when I got bit by an insect, the Blandford fly, I could have died very easily. I was at home, and I collapsed. My partner called for an ambulance, and they told her to take me to the hospital, and I went downhill from there. I lost 3 1/2 stone in the space of a week. It was lucky I went to hospital, because I might have died otherwise, because the blood poisoning was so bad. It took seven months for the swelling to go down on my ankle, and I don’t think I ever recovered because I broke my leg six months after that.

DB: Do you think the two things were related?

LH: Do you know, I’ve got no idea to be honest. I had three operations on my ankle when I had that insect bite, to release the pressure on it. People laugh when I tell them it was an insect, but it was really tough!

When I broke my leg, I had to be mentally strong. The moment I broke it, I remember looking down and my foot was wrapped around, so my toes were pointing the opposite way. I just panicked, and that second I thought ‘I’m never going to play football again’.

I had a contract for another 18 months and for those 18 months I did everything I could to try and get fit. I was at the club every single day of the week, some days from 7:30am to 5pm, but I just wasn’t getting any better. I was having operation after operation. I’d keep thinking I was almost there, and then I’d go for a run and collapse to the ground with my ankle swelling up and in agony.

That was absolute hell, but luckily enough my Daughter was born during that time so spending time with her would make my day better. Even when the training was hell, I could think about going home to see her a few hours later. I would have loved her to see me play professionally, see my games be on the TV and things, but it wasn’t to be. I tried my hardest to get fit, because I loved playing football and playing professionally was all I’d ever wanted to, but having my daughter helped me through. She was the silver lining.

DB: Between your retirement from football in October 2012 and joining Yate Town in 2013, you were obviously out of the game.  Was your hope always to play again at some level – even if it was much further down the football pyramid – or was there a time where you felt like you wanted nothing more to do with the sport?

LH: The day I retired, I couldn’t walk without absolute agony in my ankle. Since breaking my leg in 2011, for those 2 1/2 years, I couldn’t walk without pain. For a long time, I wondered if I’d ever be able to walk or run without pain, let alone play football.

I had a cortisone injection in my ankle a week before I started for Yate in pre-season, just to see if it would help my day-to-day life, really. It felt a lot better. Obviously I knew it wasn’t better, it was just masking it. I decided to go training with them, and thought ‘if I break down, it happens. What have I got to lose?’.

Over the last 18 months, it’s felt a little better. I know that there’s still tissue damage and cartilage damage, but I don’t do myself any danger now in playing once or twice a week. On a Sunday it’s sometimes so sore I can hardly walk, but the thrill of getting out there and scoring a few goals and playing with a few of my friends who live around the area makes it all worthwhile.

I got named Bristol Non-League player of the year in my first season back, so I was incredibly chuffed with that, having at one time wondered if I’d ever walk again.

DB: You joined Yate Town in the Southern League.  Did you approach them about playing at Lodge Road, or did the club contact you initially?

Lewis in action for Yate Town

Lewis in action for Yate Town

LH: One of my friends, Ricky Hulbert joined Yate. I used to have a kick around with him now and again, and he asked me ‘how’s your ankle feeling, Lew? Do you want to come training with us?’. I’d just had the injection, so I said yes. The Yate manager knew my history, and asked me if I’d like to sign for them. I said yes – as long as my ankle’s okay in training, and it just went from there, really.

DB: What was it like taking to the pitch for Yate on your debut – were you just delighted to be playing again, or was there a mixture of emotions?

LH: It felt weird. Obviously, I was unfit because I didn’t run properly for over three years. It was really nerve racking, because I was thinking ‘what if I get injured again’ or ‘what if I’m rubbish, and everyone takes the piss out of me!’ [*Laughs*] Luckily, I still had a bit left in the locker!

My game’s changed now. I can’t run up and down the wing like I used to, but when I was out injured I used to watch a lot of football, and I like to think that my technique and understanding of the game is a little bit better. Even though I’m not the athlete I was, I can do things on the ball now that I couldn’t have before. I just wish I had all that when I was 20!

Lewis celebrating scoring for Yate Town

Lewis celebrating scoring for Yate Town

DB: Last season, you made the step up to the Southern Premier League with Frome Town, and were an important part of the team’s survival from relegation.  Have you enjoyed your time with Frome, and do you still harbour ambitions of playing at Football League level again?

LH: I’m never going to be fit enough to do that, and I’m 30 years old now. Still, when I was at Yate, we were two games away from reaching the First Round of the FA Cup, and I would love to play against a Football League side once more. It would be great to be drawn against Bristol Rovers. Leeds in the Cup would be even better!

I still really enjoy playing my football, though it’s hard combining it with my work life. I work for a lorry components company in Bristol. It’s my first proper job, working outside of football. For the last ten years, my friends have been off getting their qualifications, going to University and building their trade – I have to start from scratch with that now, and it’ll take a few years to get where I want to be. But I’m staying positive.

DB: Obviously your injury misfortunes mean that you’ve had more reason to think about a post-playing career than most footballers do.  But do you now have a long-term plan of what you’d like to do once you hang up your boots, or do you not want to look that far ahead?

LH: Well, I’ve been out of professional football for several years now, and not played properly for four years. I’d like to build a trade, and somewhere down the line, work on a building site. Football was my first love, but that’s gone as a career now. There’s a lot of things I like the idea of doing, but having a trade is the main goal.

DB: Finally – what do you most enjoy doing outside of football?

LH: I spend all my free time with my little girl. Spending time with my daughter is my main passion now – she’s my absolute world! I can’t describe to you how much I love her.

Many thanks to Dave and Lewis for this brilliant interview. You can follow Dave on Twitter: @GoldenVision90

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About DaveBurin

Hi, I'm Dave. Content writer, football groundhopper, curry lover and besotted with 20th century American literature. Like most people my age, I'm 25. Twitter: @GoldenVision90

Posted on August 10, 2015, in Dave Burin Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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