Photo: Dave Kendall

Given John Welsh’s football upbringing – not to mention the 17 professional seasons that followed – the resounding endorsement he gives to his new club Atherton Collieries speaks volumes. The ex-Liverpool and Preston North End midfielder has one eye firmly on extending his association with the game beyond playing, but for now, he is savouring his extended shift in the engine room.

The wind of change has certainly breezed into Atherton Collieries during the past week, with the return of some fond former tenants at Alder House. Former captain Brad Cooke was confirmed yesterday as the club’s new manager, bringing with him from West Didsbury & Chorlton some fellow Collsmen of yesteryear in Chris Lynch and Rob Sadler as assistants.

It follows the end of Micheal Clegg’s highly successful tenure, as he takes over at nearby Ashton United. The young manager has been integral to the Greater Manchester club’s ascent over recent years, with three promotions attained, and in the two months they worked together, he left an emphatically positive impression on midfield man John Welsh.

It is testament also to the heartfelt endeavour of those involved throughout the club that the one-time Liverpool, Preston and Tranmere Rovers player has been so impressed. Having alluded previously to the professional standards at the BetVictor Northern Premier League Premier Division outfit, he paints the picture further of what he has found since he joined.

“It’s just the way it’s run really. Obviously, when you think semi-pro, you just think of turning up, training say twice a week, and then playing at the weekends, but things like the media side was brilliant, getting everything sorted like kit, just everything around the place.

“You see that it’s a good family club and it’s just a pleasure to go there on match days and see how everyone’s working together to make it a unique experience for fans.”

While Colls’ affability puts many clubs at higher levels to shame, it is fair to say the former England Under-21 international comes from a contrasting background in the game to Step 3 of non-league. Playing ten times for Liverpool, last season was the seventeenth he had spent in first-team professional football, with the majority of those in either the Championship or League One.

He left Grimsby Town in March after a disrupted campaign with the League Two Mariners, in which the most recent of his 17 appearances was in January. His move to Colls at the beginning of October was a genuine attention-grabber, and the 35-year-old explains the circumstances that preceded it.

“In the summer, I was sort of contemplating retiring and going into the coaching side, which I am looking to go into. From doing day-to-day training to doing nothing was a big change, so just sat there in the living room I thought ‘this is not me,’ and I wanted to get back into football and get back playing, because I missed it.

“I missed the playing side, and obviously the training side to keep myself fit, and just being around the lads and the banter that you have with players. I went down to Chorley, started training with them for a bit, and was sort of close to signing, but I think the manager there was a bit worried that I hadn’t done a pre-season.

“I think he was a bit worried about me going straight into playing Saturday/Tuesday, Saturday/Tuesday, which is understandable. I went down to Atherton, just to play games really, and it just went from there.

“I’m just enjoying it really.”

The ex-England Under-20 skipper’s know-how is invaluable, particularly for the younger players in the ranks, though it doesn’t feel such a lifetime ago when it was him in that position, on the cusp of a first-team introduction at Liverpool. Although he wouldn’t rate his memory too highly – it might scrape a 6 if it had its own match performance rating – his first steps into professional action at Anfield are still vivid.

John’s debut was given to him by Gérard Houllier as an 18-year-old, in a Worthington Cup fourth round game against Ipswich Town. He came on after 75 minutes of a tie that would go to penalties (with the Reds winning and going on to lift the trophy that season), replacing Vladimír Šmicer and lining up alongside the likes of Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and John Arne Riise.

“I can remember (assistant at the time) Phil Thompson sat me down and told me I was going on. I just remember him telling me to enjoy it.

“It’s mad when you think how panicky I was at the time, but I think that was the best thing he could have said to me. I haven’t got a great memory myself, but I can always remember that moment and him saying ‘just enjoy it.’

“I think he knew what it meant to me, being from the city and supporting Liverpool as much as I do, because obviously he’s been there and done it himself. In the dressing room, I was sitting there eyes wide and listening to everything, trying to take it all in.

“Starting on the bench but going out to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ just made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and I’ll never forget that moment. Coming onto the pitch, I just didn’t know what to do; whether to pull my socks up or tie my boots, put my tape on my socks.

“My heart was beating, a lot of my family who were Liverpool fans were at the game and I could picture them getting all excited. Then as soon as I crossed the line it completely disappeared, and it was back to business.

“It was a weird feeling going from such a panicked state to such a focused state; forgot the crowd, forgot family, it was just ‘win this football match.’”

Current Reds player James Milner was one of John’s England U20 teammates, and like the former England midfielder, he also played a part in a winning UEFA Champions League season for the club. Away at Bayer Leverkusen in March 2005, and with Rafa Benitez’ side in firm control of their last-16 second leg encounter, he came on for Jamie Carragher.

It was his solitary game time in that European campaign, but he had a front-row viewing of what was a truly remarkable run – from Steven Gerrard’s Olympiacos goal, to Sami Hyypiä and Luis García against Juventus, and a night in Istanbul you may have heard of.

John was on the bench for the semi-final second leg against Chelsea. The Anfield clash is naturally remembered for the García ‘ghost goal,’ but few of a Liverpool or Chelsea persuasion will forget Eiður Guðjohnsen in front of the Kop, dragging agonisingly wide a shot which would have sent the Reds crashing out in a split-second. John recalls the carnage on the home bench from that May evening on Merseyside.

“I was mostly on the bench for the games that year, and I can remember the Chelsea semi-final, we were all focused and prepared, being professional and everything, and by the end of the game, the last five or ten minutes, we were near enough singing and dancing on the bench as fans! A lot of the younger lads were there, and when we scored, we all fell over the chair and nearly fell onto the manager, which was Rafael Benitez – everyone was trying not to touch him!

“It’s a massive occasion, the Champions League, I think only the World Cup beats it, and it was amazing hearing the music when you came out. Seeing different cultures and parts of Europe as well was brilliant for me.”

That summer’s domestic football was dominated by talk of Steven Gerrard to Chelsea in a sensational move that ultimately never was. John, though, was one homegrown midfielder who would bid farewell.

“It was a feeling of sadness, because I’d been supporting the club as far back as I can remember, but it was a decision I knew I had to make. I remember having a meeting with Rafa Benitez and he was sort of saying ‘there won’t be much game time; you might get a couple of cup games if you’re lucky.’

“The way it was going, I think younger players were sort of pushing me out a little bit, so they were given more of a chance in pre-season, and I just knew it was best I left to go and play games.”

He joined a Hull City team who had sprung from fourth to second tier in just two seasons, with ex-England man (and another former Red) Nick Barmby embodying the exciting new era for the club. John would bag a double in the 2-0 win at Coventry City in his first season, surpassing a half-century of appearances in his second.

He would not, however, feature again for the Tigers past March 2007, before he was released at the end of the club’s debut Premier League season in 2008/09. His game time in the final 16 months came in loan spells at Chester City, Carlisle United and Bury.

The root cause of that was something that still ranks as his toughest experience in football – a broken tibia and fibula suffered against Preston’s Neil Mellor, a friend who had made his Liverpool debut the same night as John.

“Yeah, that’s the standout one; probably the lowest point of my life really. At the time, it was one of them where you thought ‘I’m never gonna be able to play football again.’

“It wasn’t even just that; I was thinking I wouldn’t even be able to walk without limping, because it affected me in that way. I had great people with me at Hull, physio-wise, who helped me a lot, and it was made easier seeing the best surgeon in the country for leg breaks, if you like, so everything was geared for me to come back.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t break back into the team, because they obviously had success when I was injured, so it was tough to get ahead of the likes of George Boateng and Jimmy Bullard. Again, it was just time to move on; I think that happens in football.”

Like comedy, timing is everything in football. It can shape the next five or ten years of a career sometimes, with a player given their golden opportunity due to another’s misfortune, a managerial change saving someone from the exit door, and so on.

Brighter spells can often be waiting around the corner for those willing to work for it, and perhaps the fact that John is only at his fifth club since leaving Liverpool 14 years ago speaks to the standards he has held himself to. He puts his 2015 League One play-off final win at Wembley with Preston alongside making his Liverpool debut as the happiest time he has had in the game.

During his six years at Deepdale, he wore the captain’s armband for a time, lifting the play-off trophy alongside Tom Clarke after the 4-0 win over Swindon Town. He reflects on why he thinks his Lilywhites stint proved a happy marriage, as well as some of the chief characters responsible.

“We were successful in being promoted from League One, but I just felt a real connection with the club. I think even before I signed, driving up to Deepdale, you can see the stadium as you’re driving up, and I think seeing that, I just knew it was the club for me, regardless of what the manager (Graham Westley) said or the figures involved.

“There was a great bunch of lads to play with, we had a great staff, I got on well with the managers that were there, the chairman and everyone. Just a good family club and I knew it was for me.

“There were quite a few characters really. Callum Robinson always made me smile, every day!

“Calum Woods was the mickey-taker in the group, Gally (Paul Gallagher) was probably the funniest, Joe Garner made me laugh every day, so there was loads. It was that good of a bunch of people that no matter how you felt going in, you’d have a laugh with them, and when it was time to be serious, we were serious.

“When we went out, or we went for meals or did anything, we always got on great, and it’d be the same in training. There wasn’t any cliques or anyone who poisoned the group.

“You went into the canteen and the first people you saw, you sat down with. It wouldn’t be ‘I’m gonna sit with the lads I drive in with, or I’m gonna sit with the Scouser there.’”

He commends Simon Grayson and Alex Neil in particular on their management at Preston, with the latter of those describing John as ‘a model professional’ when his departure was announced. However, he picks out former England caretaker boss Peter Taylor, his manager at Hull, as the one who perhaps best understood the approach he needed as a player.

Managers aside, the list of those he has shared a dressing room with is vast, but in terms of a standout example of a player whose ability belied the level they were at, one from Tranmere comes to mind.

“I think probably one would be Dale Jennings. I know he went to Bayern Munich, but even after he came back, I still felt he could have done a lot more and played at a better standard, but for whatever reason it didn’t quite happen.

“He was a sensational player at Tranmere. He’s one of them players who when you could be needing a bit of magic from someone, Dale would be that person.

“He was only 18, and if you can produce that level at that age, when a team’s sort of depending on you, you know you’re not a bad player.”

After their title win last season, Atherton sit 17th of the 22 teams in the top division of the Northern Premier League so far. A 4-1 win over Bamber Bridge at the weekend sends them into the Brad Cooke era in very good heart.

The FA Trophy run has been undoubtedly impressive, and after the 1-0 win over the National League North’s Boston United, Colls will host non-league’s leading side Barrow in the first round proper in 11 days’ time – and what a scalp that would be. The season has also yielded the odd social media highlight, like striker Tom Bentham’s unique excuse for missing training.

It is a club not short of character, and many would say there is nothing like a night out to get to know your colleagues – or 150-odd miles each way on a bus, in John’s case.

“The club’s been really successful the last few years and you can tell that the chemistry with the lads was already good, and a part of why they’ve had success. They were really welcoming and I think my first game was South Shields away, so I spent a long trip up north with them.

“It was just nice getting to know them, not only on the playing side but what they do for their job and stuff like that. I think the quickest way to get to know the lads is not just spending time with them but playing games with them as well.

“Sometimes when you go to a new club there’s a four-week period of training in the summer without games, and I think the best way to get to know the lads is to get straight in there and playing. I think you get a sense of connection there and a bond with people.”

When it’s come to officially announcing his arrival at clubs in his career, ‘Help!’ by The Beatles is one of the songs he has turned to for his initiation performance. If he got to bless the changing-room playlist with one of his own choices, though, The Score, rather than the Fab Four, would be where this Scouser would venture!

“It’s not from football, but my little lad does Muay Thai, and his walkout song is ‘Ready or Not’ by the Fugees. So I think if I was gonna get a song to get me up for playing a football match, it would probably be that.”

To know you’ve played a part in something like 2004/05 at Liverpool, whether it’s one minute, seven games, or every second, is worth savouring, to say the least. For John, though, he’s not at Atherton just to pass on wisdom – or whatever the non-league equivalent of sitting around a campfire telling stories is – he wants to be at the heart of it. That will to compete is a nightmare to try and switch off.

It will be 17 years tomorrow since the legendary George Sephton read his name out over the Anfield stadium speaker as he came on for that professional debut. Considering what it has all taught him since, John also reiterates his ambition to stick around long after the final 50-50 has been won on the pitch.

“I think I’m a bit more knowledgeable now. When I was younger I just took it for granted a little bit, what I was doing and where I was going.

“I take a bit more care with it now and enjoy the little things more. I’ve got kids who are doing Muay Thai and combat sports and football, so they’re keeping me busy!

“I’m currently on my UEFA B badge at the minute. I’ve loved watching football from when I was a kid and still enjoy watching it, so I’d like to go into management at some point; that’s the end goal.

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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