From Wembley glory to battles with mental health, a career spanning over a decade has brought Paul Anderson many highs and lows. The former Forest, Swansea and Ipswich winger takes us on his journey in the beautiful game.
By Matthew Benton-Smith | @matthewbsjourno
Imagine what it is like to find yourself training with college kids at Mansfield Town, when only 10 years earlier you were sitting on the bench for the Champions of Europe, hoping to one day break into the first team. “I was having to train with lads who weren’t even youth team players, they were college kids,” recalls Paul Anderson. “And that’s no disrespect to college kids but when you’re an elite athlete and you’ve played at the levels I’ve played at to have to go in and do these things…”
This is what can happen when your relationship with a manager completely breaks down. Things had begun quite well for Paul at Mansfield. “It was Steve Evans who signed me. I played quite a lot, and when I was in the team I think right at the end we were fourth with a game in hand, so I had a massive part to play in that. Yes I didn’t score or assist as many as I’d have liked at that time but I was playing right back for a lot of the season and to be fair we didn’t lose many when I played.”
However, the arrival of David Flitcroft saw things take a drastic turn at Field Mill for Anderson “We know what football’s like… the old manager goes in, he’s signed quite a few of us, a new manager comes in and he wants to have his stamp on things… myself and another lad we were like captain/vice-captain and he just pushed us aside and treated us like dirt, and it was out of my hands.”
“It was nothing down to me being a bad egg or a bad character.” Paul asserts “If you go to any player, any manager that I’ve played for, other than him, they will not have a bad word to say about me. So he had an issue from the start, but at the end of the day he had the biggest budget in the league and probably the best team in the league and he failed to get that team promoted 2 years in a row so I can sleep well at night anyway, I know I do!”
A lifelong passion for Paul, football is all he has known since young. “You know what it’s like as a kid… you just want to play football and have fun with it.” But at the age of 10, he started to get more committed to a long-term future in the game playing with both Leicester City and Northampton youth teams. “I didn’t quite make it, I just wanted to play with my mates at that stage.” Paul continued “I signed for West Brom when I was 13 and that’s when I thought ‘I’ve got half a sniff here of being professional’ but then I got released from the under 16’s so at that point you thought that football was done.”
But a chance came when he trialled successfully for Hull City. Anderson was given a youth contract at the Humberside club and then bought by the then European champions, Liverpool, in 2006 . He took the move in his stride as a youngster “Within 18 months I’ve gone from thinking I’m never gonna play football to being on the bench in the Champions League for the Champions League champions.” However, Paul was unfazed by this opportunity, “When you’re in it you just feel like that’s normal… to be an elite athlete you have to believe that you’re good enough to do what you’re doing and I believed I was good enough to be there.”
Anderson finally got first-team game time with a loan move to League One Swansea “We won the league, I had an amazing experience and it really put me in the shop window for other football clubs.” He said “Liverpool obviously thought I’d gone out and done really well.
“At the end of that season they said ‘look you’ve conquered League One… we want you to go out on loan in the Championship, go and tear it up a little bit.’” Paul explains. “The 2 options through my agent were Swansea and Forest, Liverpool were asking for a loan fee and Forest bent over backwards to do anything to get me and that’s when I ended up signing for them”
He reminisces on his time at the City Ground: “When I look back at it now, I look at it very positively. The first year we were aiming to survive relegation which we achieved and then the two following years our aim was to get into the play-offs. They were two of the probably most successful seasons in my career and I look back at them with fond memories”
Anderson looks back at what could have been in his Reds’ career and his involvement in two failed play-off semi-finals against Blackpool and then against his former club, Swansea. “The club deserves to be [in the Premier league] first and foremost, it’s an amazing club with a great fan base. It was a wasted opportunity, a real disheartening one. We had an amazing opportunity… Unfortunately it didn’t quite happen and both years I believe it was a wasted opportunity. At the end of my career I look back on it with amazing memories and realise how fortunate I am and what a pleasure it was to play for such an amazing club.”
After a four year stint at the City Ground, Anderson left the club and signed for Bristol City on a free transfer. He wishes that things had gone differently towards the end however “Of course I wish I could have been part of a team that got the club back to the Premier League.” He reflects “It was quite a mess at the top; when Nigel Doughty passed away it sent massive shockwaves through the club. That year about 11 or 12 of us left on a free [transfer] because the club wasn’t in a position to offer contracts. I was only 23, so if you’re under 24, another club would have to pay compensation if Nottingham Forest had offered me a contract but Forest weren’t in a position to offer one because they didn’t have an owner at the time … I didn’t want to leave Forest, I wanted to stay but nothing could be done about that. I would have loved to have been a one club legend.”
Lately, Anderson has been open about his battle with mental health, admitting that his fall from grace at Mansfield put him in a very dark place “The reason why I struggled wasn’t because of pressure, wasn’t because of disappointment or losing or feeling lonely or anything like that.” Paul explains. “My issue was I was being treated extremely badly by one or two people who were really damaging my name and my career.
“I was in a bad place and it was affecting me, it was affecting my family, and that’s not ok for someone to do that to other people.”
Paul continues to offer his advice to anybody struggling like himself. “To other people who are going through it, speak to the people closest to you. They will be the ones that want to help and don’t feel like you’re a burden on people, which I did at times. I didn’t want to share stuff.” He reminisces. “Half of my friends, half of my family have no idea what I was going through… but I should have opened up and I should have shared that more. It’s a tough place but there are lots and lots of people out there who can help.”
As well as playing Championship football at a young age, Anderson was highly regarded within the national setup, making 4 appearances at under-19 level whilst scoring once. He feels he could and should have furthered his national team career “I’m not 100% sure why I didn’t get an under-21’s opportunity, I think I should have definitely got that chance. At 18,19,20 I’m playing constant Championship football at one of the top teams… I believe I should have been given an opportunity at that level. It’s just out of your hands completely and it’s just 100% down to performance.”
Since representing Bradford, Northampton, Mansfield and Plymouth in the lower half of the football rankings, the winger now finds himself a free agent but insists his future will be in football, whether it’s as a coach or player. “I was surprised I didn’t have more offers with what I’ve achieved. I had a massive part to play in Northampton getting promoted because they were 18th when I signed. If I’m honest, if there was a league club interested I think I would carry on playing but I don’t want to just cling on and hope for something when technically my last game of football was winning at Wembley and I look at that and think ‘what a way to go out!’”
Paul admits he has concerns about going back into the beautiful game but doesn’t think they will be enough to put him off. “There’s no stability in it whatsoever and look, the likelihood is that coaching’s more of a cut-throat business than playing so I know what I’m getting myself into but I’m fortunate to have a very supportive family, but at the end of the day, would I want to go into coaching if it was that bad? I’ve got that much experience to pass onto the next generation that I want to be able to give other lads the opportunity that I’ve had. I actually think I’ll be a better coach than I was a footballer!”
Throughout his career, Paul has had to give up a lot for his job and is ready to show his commitment yet again “You don’t get to do stuff with your family and if there’s weddings, birthday parties it’s tough… your job comes first. At this moment in time I’m prepared to miss all that and my family knows that but moving further down the line I can’t say I’m prepared to give that up in a few years time.”
After a career of ups and downs, Paul still feels privileged to have had his 15 years in the game. “Certain things haven’t fell for me but I also appreciate that I’ve been very fortunate to have the career I’ve had.” The winger concludes “Just to represent my country at any level was an amazing achievement for me.”