Photo: Hednesford Town

Hednesford Town’s recent capture of Reece Styche seals not just the return of a player who progressed through their ranks once upon a time, but the addition of one of non-league’s most accomplished and experienced frontmen – and a current international footballer to boot. With preparations coming together for a 2021/22 club season that can’t come soon enough for many, the recent Buxton man has just returned in the past few days from national-team involvement with Gibraltar.

Having colourful characters to interact with – and at somewhat closer quarters than the elite levels of the game – is one of the aspects fans relish most about non-league. Perception and reality aren’t always close companions, however, and there is nothing quite like the beautiful game to encapsulate exactly that. The ex-Forest Green Rovers and Darlington player is a familiar figure to many on the terraces by now, but somewhat fewer will know the warm amiability behind the forward player that has drawn the ire of an opposing fan or two down the years.

Here is an extended insight courtesy of the man himself…

 

You’ve just been away with Gibraltar, with games against Slovenia and Andorra, but what kind of experience have you had overall this time? Work aside, are you then able to enjoy the free time with the team, given the restrictions?

Similar to what it always is really. We’re over there to work, as the manager says, and there’s not really much free time that we have. We get up for training in the morning, by the time we’re back it’s lunch time, we have a couple of hours’ free time where you’re just chilling in your room. You can’t really do much because of these COVID restrictions, but even before, we didn’t really. It wasn’t often that we’d get to go out or anything, just because of the security risk, I suppose. Then you’re in doing a gym session or a mobility session, then video analysis and stuff, so the days are pretty full, pretty intense, but it’s all part and parcel of going away and trying to work towards getting a positive result in the games.

Alongside facing the likes of Netherlands and Norway, how much of a positive has it been to have the Nations League games, where you’re matched against similar sides?

It’s really good, and it’s really important as well. It aids the development of the younger lads especially. You’ve seen with Gibraltar as well, before the Nations League started, they were, as bad as it is to say, the whipping boys. I know we had a pretty poor result in Slovenia last week, but if you look back at our games against the big nations, we’ve always come in 0-0, 1-0 or 2-0 down, so always in the game, and that comes from a really solid defensive shape that our manager works on. Going back to the Nations League, we’re playing against teams of similar ability and we’re winning games, we’re drawing games. We beat the likes of Armenia, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and nearly got good results against the likes of Georgia. When we played Republic of Ireland as well, I think we only lost 1-0 in both games, so we’re definitely improving, and we’re taking wins from teams now, which is only a positive.

You obviously haven’t come into international football without significant experience, but has playing internationally sharpened anything in your game or challenged you in a new way?

One thing it has done, when I went from full-time football to part-time, you sort of stop doing the intense fitness work that you’d do when you’re full-time. By being called back up to Gibraltar, it’s put me again in a full-time football mindset, where I’ve constantly got to watch my diet, constantly got to be in the gym. It’s helped me in that respect a lot. When you come up against these bigger nations, I don’t feel overawed by it, I just feel like it’s a personal battle, you’re one-v-one against another bloke. I think if you put the work in away from football then it gives you a bit of an extra edge going into these games against the so-called better players. Mentally, it’s challenging, and physically, but it’s something that I really, really enjoy and thrive on.

Back at club level, you’ve just signed for Hednesford. It’s a club you know well, but were you also specifically looking for a team closer to home again?

I was, yeah. I’m actually living in Hednesford now, Cannock/Hednesford. The manager (Keenen Meakin-Richards) is a real close friend and I didn’t want to do the travelling any more. Travelling to Buxton was an-hour-and-20, an hour-and-a-half, and getting home on a Saturday quite late after games, not seeing the kids on a weekend, it all just plays a part. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to travel up to Buxton again or wherever, I’d obviously do it, because I just love playing football, but with Hednesford being on my doorstep, knowing the club and having that sort of emotional attachment to them, it was an easy decision to make. I’m quite looking forward to getting going now in June/July.

There barely ended up being a season in the end (in the Northern Premier Division) but Buxton were making a number of high-profile signings. I know we’ll never know what the season might have ended up like but what was the experience like overall for you? Was it as you expected?

It was sort of mixed feelings really. Obviously the manager there (Gary Hayward), he brought in a lot of experienced lads, and trying to keep all of those happy I think was probably his toughest job. I think we only played nine or ten league games, so we didn’t have long enough to see where we would have ended up, but I think with the budget that the chairman had given the manager, and the players that we had, we should have comfortably been top two, and our aim was obviously to win the league. They’ve obviously released a lot of lads who were there and brought in fresh ones, so it’ll be interesting to see how they do this year. The chairman’s backing it brilliantly, he’s a brilliant bloke, loves the club, loves the town, so I wish them all the best.

Thinking back over where you’ve played up to now, is there a spell, or more than one, that springs to mind as the most enjoyable? Where has been you at your happiest?

Forest Green would be the main one, because I was there part-time and then went full-time, and it was a time where the chairman Dale Vince had just come in. I’d say at least 80 per cent, 90 per cent of the team were all a similar age, so we had such a close-knit squad there. Obviously it was when I was young, and it was just a brilliant place to play. Darlington would be another one, absolutely loved that club when I went part-time. The fans, the personnel behind the scenes, everything about the club was just immense. Then the same with Macclesfield. I didn’t have too much of a connection with the fans there because I wasn’t there long, but in terms of the lads and the manager (John Askey), it was brilliant there. Even Tamworth I suppose as well, I had two managers there, Mike (Fowler) and Andy Morrell who really believed in me and got me scoring again after leaving full-time football.

On the other side of that, has there been a time where the enjoyment was lost? A most difficult, most testing period that comes to mind.

When I went to Wycombe, in the League, I should have really waited until the end of the season and gone in there at the end of my contract at Forest Green. We were in a relegation battle, a lot of the lads there had played in the likes of the Championship, the Premier League, and it was a horrible place to play football. It was just the whole vibe, being in that relegation fight, and you weren’t really friends with anyone, it just wasn’t a nice place to be. I nearly quit football when I was at Kidderminster, so I went from Forest Green to Wycombe in the January, I then had two years at Kidderminster which were horrendous, to put it politely, and it nearly made me quit football. My performance levels started to drop, I let it affect me too much mentally, and it’s one regret that I let outside influences affect the way I played. I didn’t have any confidence there like I had at Forest Green, so that would be one place where I think it was a real low for me in football.

Thinking again to what enables you to thrive, obviously the environment, the players around you etc. factor into that hugely, but what gets the best from you from a manager?

Trust. That’d be the single biggest thing. Every single manager that I’ve played for, even to the point of when I wasn’t playing, sometimes at Macclesfield, I just had this overwhelming feeling that the manager there, John Askey, he trusted me. Then whenever I’d come onto the pitch, I always played really well. Forest Green, Dave Hockaday, trusted me massively. Going to Tamworth with Andy Morrell, Darlington with Tommy Wright, all these managers where I’ve done really well, it’s because they’ve trusted in me. They just let me express myself and didn’t hammer me if I had a bad game. I think with strikers, it’s easy to be a scapegoat; if a striker doesn’t score, he’s the first one that gets replaced. I’ve had managers who’ve believed in me and that’s when I’ve played my best football. That’s what I’m hoping here. First and foremost, Keenen, the manager at Hednesford, he’s a very close friend of mine, but ultimately, he’s my manager, and I know he’s going to trust me.

Are there any teammates that you felt that really strong understanding with on the pitch, telepathic almost?

There’s three players who stand out more than any. It’d be Lee Fowler when I was at Forest Green; he’s the best midfielder I’ve played with, by a country mile. I just used to run, and I knew even if my back was turned, the ball would land in front of my feet. Phil Turnbull, Twinny, at Darlington; similar player to Lee Fowler, just technically unbelievable. Again, you’d make a run and he’d find you. Really enjoyed playing with him at Darlington. Another one was Darryl Knights at Tamworth; he just used to get on the half-turn, in little pockets, in between midfield and defence, I’d just make a run and he’d find me.

In terms of opponents, not necessarily who’s the best player you’ve played against, but which individual battles stick in your mind? Either for how they tested you, what they said, whatever it may be.

The one that stands out is Carl Piergianni. I only remember playing against him for Salford, and he matched me physically more than anything. Also, Manny Smith when he was at Wrexham; he was strong and fast and I always had good battles with him. They’d be the two where you’d think ‘they’re gonna be able to match me, and I’m gonna need to be a little bit more switched on to try and get the edge over them’.

Speaking as someone who used to love Twitter, I’ve felt for a while that the negatives now outweigh the positives, and the experience isn’t the same in more recent times. You used to be on Twitter, are you fully off it now?

The only thing that I have is Instagram, and it’s strictly personal. I came off Twitter, I wanna say three years ago, and pretty much for the reasons you just said. I found that I was having, not banter, because it wasn’t banter, just arguments with rival fans. You’d have someone hammering you and I’d look at their profile picture and it’d be some man who’s got kids, and I’d just think ‘if that was my dad, and he was hammering players – not that he would – I’d be so ashamed and embarrassed of him’. I just used to go on and the people who’d be hammering you would be middle-aged blokes. It got to the point where I was coming home and I was sitting on the settee with my wife, I’d be on my phone, and I just thought ‘do you know what? There’s more to life than needing to sit on a phone reading tweets from other people’. It’s been the best thing for me, in terms of coming off it, not worrying about what people say, what opinions people have got. I’m 32 years of age, I came off it when I was about 29, so I’ll just leave it to other people.

There’s all sorts of viewpoints of people in football, plenty of them wildly far off the mark in reality. Through your time in the game, how much of a fair impression do you think people have tended to have of you, and how much of a misconception is there?

This is quite funny, I have this little story. I have this misconception in non-league especially, because it’s where I’ve played the majority of my career, in the Conference and stuff, where people assume that I’m this loudmouth, big-time, stuck-up, arrogant so and so. On the pitch, I’m completely different to off the pitch. On the pitch, I want to win, I’ll do all I can. I’ll moan, put myself about, have the craic back with rival fans, but off the pitch, I’m completely different. I’m quite jokey, get on with everyone. Fans sort of see what you are on the pitch and just assume that you’re going to be a bit of a nobhead. When I was at Gateshead, we had a lad called Paddy McLaughlin, who had been at York before then. York is one of the teams that I always have a good game against, always score against and have that banter with the fans. We went out for a Christmas do with Gateshead in Newcastle, and York’s players were all there. I remember walking past going to the toilet and Paddy was talking to some of the York lads, because we were in the same pub, I walked back to the table and Paddy comes over to me. He said ‘it’s quite funny, they just asked what you were like; they all assumed that you were a proper nob!’ He said ‘I’ve told them that you’re completely different and you’re a real, real nice lad’. That’s what people do, they see you on the pitch and they stereotype you, through no fault of their own. I’ve judged players before, and then I’ve played in the same team as them and they’re completely different. It’s quite funny that stereotype and that stigma attached to me, but now I’m older, it doesn’t bother me as much.

Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a new team, and if so – surely you have! – which song(s)?

We had a family barbecue the other day for my little girl’s birthday, and this question got asked, about singing. My mum got a school report out from when I was in reception, and it said that I loved singing and joining in with playing musical instruments. I said to my mum ‘I told you I was a good singer’, and my dad shouted out ‘well, you best be, you’ve had that many clubs!’ I always go back to the same songs: Calum Scott ‘Dancing On My Own’ or R. Kelly ‘Bump n’ Grind’.

Away from football, family’s obviously key, but what else do you enjoy doing in terms of interests, or ventures you’ve currently got on the go?

I’m currently studying for my chartered accountancy, so I’m studying for my CIMA at the moment. I haven’t picked up my books for about three weeks now, but that takes up a lot of time, it’s quite stressful as well. Taking my little boy to football, love going to watch him, and just the gym really. I lead a pretty normal, family sort of life, I don’t really do much else.

Finally, it’s all come back around full circle, rejoining Hednesford. You were there as a teenager, so what have you learned the most since then, and how are you different/the same?

I suppose it’s just an experience thing now, isn’t it? Going back there now, you’ve got the experience of knowing how the game is played and being able to help the youngsters out, help them develop. I’m just going there now to play with a smile on my face really. I’ve got nothing to prove any more, I just want to go in there and have a really good season, and get back to really enjoying my football.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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