My interview with former Spurs player Ciarán Toner

Ciarán Toner was born in Craigavon, Northern Ireland but grew up in the town of Lurgan. A former Northern Ireland international, Toner who operated as a right sided midfielder but could also drop into defence when needed, combined playing football with Gaelic football as a youngster. The Northern Irishman who played once for Spurs’ first team in a pre-season friendly against Stevenage Borough in 2001, also made the bench for Spurs in the Premier League. Toner started off with Northern Irish side Glenavon as a youngster before being scouted and signed by Spurs, he would join the club as a trainee in 1997. The midfielder would go onto play for the youth team and the reserves during his time at Spurs, and after leaving them he had a good career in the game, playing for the likes of Leyton Orient Rochdale and Grimsby Town. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with the former Spurs man who now coaches at Rotherham United, about his time at Tottenham during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

What are your earliest footballing memories?

Ciarán: Well obviously I’m from Northern Ireland and so I sort of grew up in a town called Lurgan, and I suppose that we would say nowadays that I started playing football pretty late. I was maybe eight or nine years of age which is still quite young, but I think nowadays football teams start at fives and sixes, and really my earliest memory of playing was with my mates. We used to go once a week to a school which had an indoor football night which was run by a local guy who was actually a scout for Celtic, and we just went there once a week and played for fun. There was no real competition or teams or leagues or anything like that, and it obviously kind of started from there, also as well being a youngster 20 odd years ago I used to be out on the street day and night really with my mates playing football. So I got quite a good bit of practice at a young age sort of in the thick of it playing against older lads as well on the streets, so yeah pretty good memories. However, I would say that that was my first kind of thought when I think about football in the first instance.

What are your earliest memories of your time at Spurs and how did you come about joining the club?

Ciarán: I always reflect on it with a bit of a smile, so when I was about 13 I would say I was playing for a club that was involved in a league, and one of the coaches was a scout for Tottenham called Gerry McKee. And he would identify players in the area that were good enough for trials where we would have someone from Tottenham come across and watch a game, and see if there was anyone of interest. Now in this particular instance there was a couple of lads who were older than me (I think they were one or two years older than me), and they were picked out as potential players for Tottenham to look at. So Gerry had arranged a trial game and he obviously asked me if I would make up the numbers to play the game, so we played the game anyway and there was a Tottenham scout who had come over to watch it. And then not long afterwards Gerry had said that the scout had actually liked what he had seen of me even though I was a younger player, and he wanted to kind of keep tabs on me really. So the following year there was another trial game but Tottenham specifically came over to watch myself and another lad called Ciaran Duffin. And then it was one of those situations where everything that I tried in the game just came off, and it was one of those strange instances where I suppose in some respects I count myself as very lucky that I was able to deliver when it mattered. However, everything just went well for me and I knew even before being spoken to by anybody that I’d nailed it. And I remember saying to my dad who used to take me everywhere and kind of never missed a game and was a big part of my progression in football, and I remember saying to him afterwards that I knew that I’d nailed it. And he said yeah I know you did, you played really really well, and anyway then Tottenham had asked me to come over to London during the school holidays to train with the younger lads.

The other lad who I had played in that game with Ciaran Duffin came over as well and then they asked us kind of would we like to sign. And so we signed schoolboy forms and I think I was around 14, and then I played for another couple of years in Ireland before I was just about to turn 16. That was July 1997 and then I moved over to London but obviously in between that period and in school holidays I would have traveled over to train and play, and then the scholarship started in July 1997 so that was how I ended up coming over on a full time basis. Myself and Ciaran had stayed in digs that the club had put up for us and that was kind of where it all started really, that was with Bobby Arber and Des Bolton who were the under 17’s and under 19’s managers as it was back then. 

What was your time at the Lilywhites like on the whole?

Ciarán: On the whole it was a valuable experience let’s just say that, there were ups and there were downs but really did I apply myself fully to give myself the best opportunity to progress as a professional footballer? Probably not. You look now at the progressions of players and at how they are always in the gym working out and with nutrition and all of that, but that was never really the case with us back then. It was never really prevalent, I suppose the science and research wasn’t really there so there was a different kind of culture back in that time. However, I look at some of the people that I’ve played with such as Peter Crouch who was in the youth team and Ledley King and Alton Thelwell, and Johnnie Jackson who was a year younger. They all went onto have good careers in the game you know, so I had some good times and so travelling over from a smallish town in Ireland to the big bright lights of London was a culture shock. However, it was completely manageable because you’re going over to live your dream and try and make it as a professional football player which was the aim. I was at Spurs for five years and I suppose in the second scholarship year when Patsy Holland came in he really helped me and pushed me forward, and I was lucky really to get a one year professional contract because there was individuals who came into the club who I didn’t really connect with. However, I was able to get a professional contract and that’s when I came into Chris Hughton’s kind of group when he was reserve team manager. He just completely transformed me as an individual really, and him and Theo Foley God rest his soul were really influential along with Colin Calderwood in my development as a player. 

I was still a young kid and still growing up an learning but you know they had real positive influences on me. Then I managed to get into the first team squad and I was in quite a few first team squads for games and I managed to get on the bench in the Premier League. George Graham was the one that really brought me into that fold and he was fantastic, he came with a really big reputation of being a disciplinarian and a hard individual but listen he was great. If you class being disciplined i.e. being professional and doing the right things then yes that was him but he certainly wasn’t any more than that, so I was really surprised as I envisaged this kind of headmaster type of person coming in and dictating and things like that. However, for me he was fantastic really, and he really gave me confidence to get into the first team squad and train and be involved. And then sadly and unfortunately for him and probably not warranted he was replaced by Glenn Hoddle, and myself and Glenn didn’t really see eye to eye and he probably won’t remember me to be honest, but it didn’t really work out. Although his assistant John Gorman was a phenomenal guy and I couldn’t speak any higher of him because he loved the younger players and seeing them progress, and he wanted them to do well, and he wanted them to have fun and enjoy it and live life to the fullest. I really clicked with him but it just didn’t work out and listen I don’t begrudge anyone about that because probably in hindsight I wasn’t good enough to make it to the next level, because I probably didn’t give it enough. I only say that based on how I see football now as a pro license coach, and I coach under 18 footballers and I can totally see what they need because I was in that position, and I was in that bubble where I thought that everything was fine and doing ok. And you know what I was doing ok and sometimes I probably do myself a disservice on the attributes that I had, but really if I wanted to be really ruthless of my opinion of myself then I probably didn’t give it the full hit that it needed.

So we just parted ways and I want to say that that was at the end of 2002 when I traveled to Bristol Rovers for like the final six weeks of my contract in that transfer window. That was me left Tottenham ready to progress to the next stage and so I think that was March 2002, and so yeah it was a good experience and I’ve got fond memories of the football club and always want to see the football club do well because I was part of it for quite a while. I met some really really good people and players and it was certainly a valuable experience. 

Did you have any footballing heroes/inspirations and if so who were they?

Ciarán: Not really in terms of heroes or people I looked up to, I mean I was a big Man United fan when I was young and they had some really really stand out players. So they had Roy Keane obviously and Dennis Irwin and Mark Hughes and Brian McClair but it wasn’t a case of having a hero. However, to be honest my heroes were my dad and my mum because they were hard working individuals and they instilled a quality and character in me, and also resilience and being able to cope and deal with adversity of face adversity, and also step up to the mark. So in terms of a personal perspective they were the two people that I looked up to however, football was just a game that I loved and I loved watching good players. I never really looked at a player and thought I want to be like him, if I felt that a player was doing good things I would probably say what are they doing and maybe what can I do as well to try and achieve those levels. However, it was never one individual, it was a combination of wanting to be a good footballer and immersing myself in a culture at Tottenham of having good players around you and just competing.

 Could you describe to me what type of player you were and what positions you played in during your time at Spurs?

Ciarán: I came as a midfield player although I started off originally when I was younger as a right back and developed into a central midfield player. At my time at Tottenham people would probably say that I was an industrial midfielder, I was never pacey and I didn’t have the speed, but I had a determination and a good character. I could play both footed which was probably one of my standout qualities and that developed significantly as well as I developed as a player. I was able to find passes with both feet so if I needed to play I could play on both sides of midfield as that wasn’t really a problem. So that was my sort of time when I was an aspiring football player at the football club but once it got to the stages of probably being surplus to requirements I was just sort of played in different positions. I played in a sweeper role at the back in a left sided three of defence and also as a fullback in reserve team games, so I was played in different positions but really probably moving forward central midfield was where I would have excelled at the most. 

Who were your greatest influences at Spurs?

Ciarán: I mean Chris Hughton was a big influence and before that Patsy Holland who became youth team manager and took a real shine to me. However, Chris had Theo Foley with him who sadly passed away recently, and he was a lovely character and I got on really well with him. That created a really good environment and also Colin Calderwood who I’ve come across in the game as I’ve got older, he treated us in the right way and he treated us as adults and he was able to coach us in a way that we could relate to. So those were big influences and then in the first team I obviously spoke about George Graham who brought me into the first team squad, and then during the Glenn Hoddle era John Gorman the assistant manager I had a really good affinity with. Because he just loved young players being better and enjoying it and loving life, so there were quite a few positive people who certainly influenced myself.

Were there any players at Spurs who you would watch closely to try and improve your game or look to learn from? 

Ciarán: Like I said there was players that I wanted to surround myself with who were good players and people, and who were solid individuals in terms of there characters. Stephen Carr springs to mind and even some senior players like Jose Dominguez and David Ginola and Darren Anderton and those types of players. Also Teddy Sheringham was a real great person to be around, he had what I would class as a real elite quality about him and he came as a big big elite player. There were other characters there as well such as Serhiy Rebrov who was a very good player but also a good guy, Steffen Freund was brilliant with the younger players and I got on really well with Steffen and again he probably got some harsh criticism about his attributes. However, he was a tough tough character and a tough player to play against and he absolutely loved integrating and speaking to the young players and helping them and giving advice to say you should be better and you can be better, believe in yourselves. And he was great really and I remember those sorts of things and I think that the more that you interview people in football you’ll realise that it was never about who made you a better player, because obviously the player develops and you take maybe small percentages from coaches and other players. However, it’s about who really made you feel important and you’ll find that a lot of players have drawn themselves towards that when they speak about influences in the game when they’ve grown up.

What prompted you to leave Spurs and could you talk me through your career after you left the Lilywhites?

Ciarán: So obviously Glenn was the manager at the time and he didn’t feel that I warranted a new contract, and so I got a call from my agent when I was out in Lichtenstein with the Northern Ireland international team. And the agent just basically said that there was an offer for you to finish your contract at Bristol Rovers, and so I went to Bristol Rovers in the March time about six weeks before the end of the season and they were in what would have been League Two. They were really sort of struggling down at the bottom of the league, and so I went there and incidentally a couple of other Northern Ireland players went there at the same time. Players such as Wayne Carlisle who was originally from Crystal Palace and James Quinn who had a really good career in the game, so immediately I had a couple of guys that I kind of could connect with. And so I went and played there for six weeks and did really well and they offered me a contract but I was settled in London, and I’d got an offer from Leyton Orient and Paul Brush was the manager at the time with Martin Ling as his assistant. So they offered me a decent contract which I then signed, so I spent two years at Leyton Orient and then got injured sort of the start of the second season which held me back, but I came back strong but unfortunately some promises that were made didn’t come to fruition. So I left there on a bit of a sour note and then because I had played with Gary Taylor-Fletcher at Leyton Orient I ended up going to Lincoln as he was with them at the time. So I went up for a trial at Lincoln and signed for them under Keith Alexander who was a great man and sadly again he isn’t with us, and then from there I ended up signing for Grimsby where I probably had my most prolific goal scoring time. 

I spent three years at Grimsby and Russell Slade was the manager of the time and we got to the play off final and the Johnstone Paint Trophy final. So then Russell left and Alan Buckley came in and then just by sheer opportunity I moved onto the left side of midfield at Grimsby and sort of got quite a few goals from that position. It helped that I had my sort of my best mate in football Tom Newey playing left back behind me, so we had a real good chemistry in the game not just with our technical output but also with our psychological skills that we had as well. So that was a really good enjoyable time because we loved a challenge, we loved being competitive and we loved going up against good players and getting the better of them, and that was a positive experience for me. Then I moved on in 2008 to Rochdale under Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft and they were just amazing people, they were crazy but in a good way and they just had an appetite and a real passion for the game and making players better. They treated me at that time as a 26 year old as a proper adult with an opinion and they listened to my opinion and really made me feel very comfortable, and probably it was the best kind of period of my football career. However, then after the two years with them we got promotion to League One and I didn’t stay as I’d picked up a bad injury and I didn’t play the second too much, although I finished it off. So my time had come to and end there and I had an opportunity in 2010 to go to Luton Town however, I ended up making the decision to finish playing. As I just thought that at that stage I’d gone through a lot in my football career and even though I’d had good times from Rochdale just finishing, I just felt that I needed to look to the next aspect of my career and my life, so I actually quit in 2010 and went and got a proper job.

So I quit the game altogether and I kind of just stopped playing, I turned down a contract offer at Luton Town and went and got a job as a buyer for a metal recycling company in Sheffield which was near where I lived. I was also starting a family as well so it was sort of time for me to do that, people sort of say would you have changed anything or would you have taken the contract at Luton Town, but I look at where I am now and I’m happy at where I am now. I’ve worked really hard for it but I wouldn’t change it as ultimately you can’t turn back the clock really. However, incidentally when I started working full time I got opportunities to play at semi-professional level so I signed for Harrogate in 2010 and then started my semi-professional career which spanned about five years up until I became a full time coach at Rotherham United.

What was the greatest moment of your footballing career?

Ciarán: I’d probably say making my debut for Northern Ireland’s senior team, we played Italy in a friendly and Sammy McIlroy was the manager, and that was in 2002. So we went out to play in the friendly game in Italy and I came on for 25 minutes I think it was, and I just had such a good experience, I played well and was feeling good. And going back to my trial at Tottenham everything just seemed to come off in the game, and that was a really special time for me because it only really hit me then what I had achieved. And that I had actually been lucky enough to put on the international shirt at senior level, I mean I had a real good youth international career and I played quite a few games for the under 21’s. I captained all the teams from under 15’s to 16’s, 18’s and 21’s and so I had a successful international youth career but to actually play at senior level was actually really special for me. Then of course we had Spain the following week in a European Championship game, so it was a double header really. We drew that game 0-0 and I came on for the last ten minutes at Windsor Park, so I’ve got a couple of special moments really that I’ll always remember with fondness on my achievement in the game really.

Who was the greatest player that you have had the pleasure of sharing a pitch with? 

Ciarán: Probably the best player that I’ve played against was Dennis Bergkamp, we played a reserve team game against Arsenal and they were preparing for the semi-final I think of the FA Cup. So he played and I ended up marking him because I was playing in defence for this game, it was towards the back end of my career at Tottenham, and that was such a great experience as he was a legend and such a quality player. It was tough don’t get me wrong but it was a really great experience for me to play against someone of his quality, also of course in the international senior games I played some really great players in the Italy game and the Spanish game. However, in terms of playing with it would have to be my time back at Tottenham when I was involved in the squads and playing pre-season games and you had the likes of Teddy Sheringham and Les Ferdinand and Darren Anderton and Christian Ziege and Jose Dominguez who were great great players. There was a lot of them at Tottenham and I was quite fortunate really to play in some way, shape or form with those players. 

Could you talk me through some of your favourite memories of your time in the various Tottenham youth teams and reserves?

Ciarán: When I was in the youth team at Tottenham I think that we got to the final of the Premier Youth League and we played Arsenal, and we had some really really good players in those groups. Players such as David Lee and John Piercy who were a year above me, then you had Peter and Ledley and a couple of other lads and they were real highlights to play in those games, they were something that you maybe at the time don’t consider. However, certainly when you get older you look back and say that was a really really good experience, also making the bench in the Premier League against Leicester was fantastic for me. I remember in the warm up playing and we did a possession practice and Tim Sherwood who was a real real quality player and a real good guy, anyway we were warming up and playing this possession game and I ended up knocking the ball through his legs. I wasn’t trying to be clever I was just trying to keep the ball but then I thought to myself it was maybe not the best thing to do that to a senior pro before a Premier League fixture. However, it’s little things like that that you kind of look back at and say that was a good time really. However, even coming in and training down in Spurs lodge at Chigwell and the environment there was just an elite environment that you just wanted to be a part of. And that felt like a real good place to be at at that time.

Could you describe to me what it was like to play for Spurs’ first team on one occasion?

Ciarán: Listen I played in pre-season games and I wasn’t fortunate enough to get into competitive games with them however, again in hindsight I maybe wasn’t at the level I needed to be. So playing in pre-season games was ok and that’s really all it was, it was a good experience but I always say to players now when I’m coaching them that you’re not really a first team player until you’ve made 50 starts you know what I mean. So I look back on that and I wasn’t really a first team player, it was only really when I stepped into the real world of kind of League Two football at Bristol Rovers and then Leyton Orient and then further up north to Lincoln and Grimsby and Rochdale that you only start to get into what being a professional footballer is all about.

Who was the toughest player that you ever came up against?

Ciarán: That’s a good question but I mean in terms of actually a one on one battle not physically but I remember playing against David Noble who was previously at Arsenal and I remember playing against him in the youth team at Arsenal. However, he was a great player but he probably didn’t do as well as he should have done in his career, but he was able to instigate a real one on one type battle with you in midfield where it was you against him and there was no hiding place. I remember playing against him when he was at Boston and I think that I was at Lincoln at that time and I think that we played in a cup game, and he just really took me apart in that game if I’m honest, he kind of like just got on the ball and he faced me one v one. And he would lead me into challenges and still come out with the ball, and I remember thinking after the game that he was a decent player and that was a solid test for me. I’m not saying it all went wrong for me but it was certainly something where I thought to myself yeah he’s got the better of me in that game. I don’t think that there’s been many players that I’ve played against where I’ve felt that a player has done that, I’ve always been quite capable of coping, but he was certainly a player that I though that that’s decent from him. And how he’s able to front up a one v one and create that psychological battle with a player and come out on top was a tough encounter, although it was a decent game to be involved in.

Were there any players at Spurs who you were particularly close to?

Ciarán: Yeah so one of my closest friends is Steven Ferguson who came down from Scotland as I want to say a first year pro and he came down from East Fife. Because he was in digs not far from where I was living, so we kind of connected and became quite close really and we speak quite regularly now. So that is something that you don’t often come across in football, and let’s just say we lived a good life back in our younger days. He was a good player and a good centre forward who maybe didn’t get the break that he deserved at Tottenham, but he then went onto have a decent career in the lower divisions. 

What would your advice be to the young Spurs players of today as they look to break into the first team?

Ciarán: Listen first of all those players at Tottenham will be decent players who will be technically good and they’ll all have an attribute that puts them up there in that elite category. However, if they don’t have resilience or if they don’t have the commitment to be the best that they can be, and if they think that they can kind of just run alongside or not look to excel or do more and can’t cope or pick themselves up when things go wrong, then they are going to end up a statistic. They are going to end up thinking that they should have got a contract and made it, and they’ll be blaming everybody else without really looking at themselves in the mirrors. Those young players are not all going to be good enough and they are not all going to get the opportunities because it is a ruthless industry and it’s all about opportunities. However, they have to look at themselves everyday in the mirror and say am I doing enough to get through this day, and have I got targets to hit today and can I be the best that I can be, so that’s not being in the gym 24 hours a day and seven times a week. It’s also not running around on a football pitch to cover the most distance, it’s about understanding as an individual what am I good at and what am I not good at and what am I doing about that. Ultimately this is the problem at this level as well, we talk about this category system in place now and we look at Tottenham being a category one academy development centre. Where you’ve got a lot of finances and money going towards the programme and resources, but ultimately you find that a lot of those players can’t cope when they get released and they go further down the ladder. Because they go into what I call the proper game, which is understanding that playing out from the back is not always a five yard pass to someone whose stood in your box, it’s also not about trying to play the nicest football because everybody thinks that passing the ball and keeping the ball is the be all and end all.

It’s about understanding what are the basic principles of the game and being physical to get around the pitch and cope but also have in game intelligence, because it’s about ultimately preparing people for the future game. Also without game intelligence and what I mean by that is understanding that there are decisions to be made and they are willing and prepared to understand how to make those decisions and the opportunities and outcomes that they are searching for. Then ultimately they are not going to be anywhere near good enough and I’m not just talking they might just miss out, they’ll be nowhere near good enough and that’s for me how the game has shifted a lot. When I was playing we could get by by going out a couple of times a week and having a couple of beers, and I had a decent career don’t get me wrong I had a really really decent career however, nowadays you have to do more and you have to become a different animal, and you have to live and breathe it but in the right way. You have to understand how recovery works, how preparation works and understanding the game and learning and studying the game. Ultimately the frustration for me as an elite coach now is that players nod there head when they hear that but they are not prepared to go through that pain because it hurts. Those top players have gone through pain in some way shape or form and it’s actually well documented, if they want to research any top players who have been elite players then you will always see something about adversity. Also good times and bad times and being in pain mentally and physically, and about it hurting and wanting to be better, and having to make hard choices.

 Quite frankly a lot of people aren’t prepared to go to those limits, and what I would say and it’s not to be doom and gloom it’s to be realistic. I’ve been in the game nearly 25 years so I think that I’m well versed and experienced to say it, but really the bottom line for those players is it’s entirely up to you what you want to do but don’t start blaming everybody else when you’re not getting what you want because you haven’t put the effort in. Be realistic about what you’re going to be and understand what you need to do to get there and if you’re doing it then the chances are you’ll probably have a good opportunity to reach it. If you’re not doing it and by the way everybody knows if they are not doing it, individually you know if you are not doing it so don’t start blaming everybody else, take it on the chin and move on.

After all these years how do you look back on your time at the Lilywhites and is Spurs a club who you still hold close to your heart?

Ciarán: Yeah absolutely, you know I always and I say to my kids as well that I have an affinity with the club because I was involved with them for a significant amount of time. They were the starting point of my career in England and they gave me the opportunity and I’ve grown up and been able to understand that yes it is about opinions, and yes I might not have agreed with peoples opinions but you respect the position of the club that they are in. I met some good good people who had positive influences on me, not just as a player but as a person and I do feel that moving into the professional game with Tottenham with Chris Hughton and Theo and Colin that that propelled me as a different player. That gave me the platform to go on and be successful, so would it have been different if I’d have signed for someone else well who knows really, but you know I’ll always reflect on my time at Tottenham with fondness of the people that I met and the experiences that I got as I’m quite a resilient character. So I can take it on the chin that it didn’t work out and move forward and ultimately that’s kind of the way it is, and that’s probably a part of what I got from being at Tottenham. Because it was an elite environment, and it was you’ve got to be better and do better and do more, and that’s what happens when you’re involved in high performing academies now and high performing teams. I was able to take that on board and relish that challenge and move onto the next challenge even through the times of disappointment, so I wouldn’t change it because it’s made me who I am today partly. I met some really really good people and I always want to see the club do well now and in the future, and probably always will.

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