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FROM DELHI TO THE DEN

THE STORY OF FOOTBALL’S MOST TRAVELLED COACH

FROM DELHI TO THE DEN

THE STORY OF FOOTBALL’S MOST TRAVELLED COACH

Stephen Constantine with Owen Amos

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First published by deCoubertin Books Ltd in 2017.

First Edition

deCoubertin Books, Studio I, Baltic Creative Campus, Liverpool, L1 OAH
www.decoubertin.co.uk

eISBN: 978-1-909245-47-1

Copyright © Stephen Constantine and Owen Amos, 2017

The right of Stephen Constantine and Owen Amos to be identified as the co-authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be left liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Typeset by Thomas Regan | Milkyone Creative.

Cover Design by Dave Williams

Printed and bound by Opolgraf.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by the way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it was published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders for photographs used in this book. If we have overlooked you in any way, please get in touch so that we can rectify this in future editions.

To my Lucy, who has suffered with me, stood by me, and raised our three beautiful children.

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CONTENTS

FOREWORD

1GROWING UP

2LIVING IN AMERICA

3ISLAND LIFE

4HIMALAYAN ROYALTY

5WAKING THE GIANT

6INTO THE LIONS’ DEN

7FROM MILLWALL TO MALAWI

8COACHING THE COACHES

9DESERT LANDSCAPES

10IN THE CLUB

11SPINNING THE GLOBE

12NYAMIRAMBO DREAMS

13FIGHTING THE SUPERSTARS

14PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE

15EPILOGUE

16MY DAD, THE FOOTBALL MANAGER

17ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

FOREWORD

BY FIFA PRESIDENT, GIANNI INFANTINO

FIFA’S MISSION IS TO DEVELOP FOOTBALL WORLDWIDE AND TO assist all our member associations according to their specific needs and challenges.

In order to achieve this goal, FIFA needs a tailor-made approach that can only be implemented thanks to technical experts like Stephen Constantine. His commitment and dedication to our sport is exemplary and he does not hesitate to accept any appointment wherever the mission goes in order to help promoting and further developing football around the world. He is one of those precious experts who brings our philosophy to the pitch and convert it into reality.

FIFA is very happy to know Stephen, a highly skilled, knowledgeable, experienced and professional football enthusiast who contributed and still contributes to the development of our sport across the globe. We truly hope that his motivation, commitment and passion will further guide him, as these are much-needed elements in football development.

Particularly, we wish him much success in his current role as head coach of the India national football team, a challenging and exciting mission in one of the fastest growing football countries in the world, where all ingredients are reunited for a bright future for our sport.

FIFA would sincerely like to thank Stephen for his contribution to the development of football and we wish him all the best for the future.

Gianni Infantino
Zurich, May 2017

1

GROWING UP

1962–82

NOMADIC. THAT’S WHAT PEOPLE CALL ME.

I’ve coached six national sides. Worked in four continents. I’ve taken my teams to Zimbabwe, North Korea, and most places in between.

I’ve lived in Khartoum and Kathmandu. New York and New Delhi. Brighton and Blantyre.

I’ve been on countless flights. Stayed in countless hotel rooms. Spent countless nights on my own, looking forward to seeing my wife and three children.

So yes, I’m a nomad. I go from place to place. But here’s what people don’t know: it’s always been like this.

I went to eight schools. Moved homes. Moved countries. Moved continents. At one point, I was a refugee, fleeing my home as bombs fell from the sky.

And when I was a teenager, I left home with nothing. I never went back.

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I WAS SIXTEEN YEARS OLD. DAD AND I WERE ARGUING. THIS TIME, it was about football.

I’d just moved to Cyprus, where he lived with my brothers and sister. We lived in a village just outside Limassol, a city on the south coast.

I’d started training with the reserves of a first-division team, AEL. Two other teams in the city – Aris and Apollon – also wanted me to sign.

At the time, I was a striker. Quite quick. Aggressive. Good in the air. At AEL they called me Jordan, after the Scotland striker Joe Jordan. I used to get stuck in.

The problem was, Dad wanted me to move to the village team, Kolossi. They were non-league. Amateur. They trained twice a week and, if I signed for them, I would never have to leave the village. That suited Dad. He never thought I would amount to much.

‘You’ll never make a living playing football,’ he told me, over and over again.

Kolossi were small time. AEL were big time. Playing for them meant travelling to the city every day. It meant leaving the village behind. It meant my dream – playing professional football – was alive.

Dad wouldn’t have it.

‘It’s my house, my rules,’ he said. ‘When I say jump, you don’t ask why – you ask how high.’

I said no. I wanted to sign for AEL or Apollon. I wanted to play in the first division.

‘If you don’t like it,’ he told me, ‘there’s the door.’

I thought about the arguments. The years of yelling. The lack of any father-son relationship.

I thought about his boozing. His temper. And most of all, I thought about Mum. She died on 15 September 1975 – a month short of my thirteenth birthday.

Dad and I didn’t get on before she died. Afterwards, it was much worse. There was nothing, and no one, to stop the arguments.

So I looked at the door. I said bye to my brothers and sister, and left home for good.

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IT WAS TEN-THIRTY AT NIGHT. ALL I HAD WERE THE CLOTHES ON my back. We lived six or seven miles outside Limassol, so I started walking.

The road was half-built. There were no streetlights. I stuck to the edge of the tarmac, so I didn’t get run over. The night seemed darker than normal.

Eventually, I reached a set of traffic lights. On the corner was a club called Traffic. I knew the owners, and I knew AEL players went there, so I went in. I had nowhere else to go.

I told the guys what happened. They let me sleep on a couch. The next day, I hung out: coffee shops, street corners, anywhere. Being on your own isn’t too bad in daylight. At night, it’s different.

I couldn’t go back to the club – my pride wouldn’t let me – so I went to my great-grandmother’s house. I didn’t knock on the door. I didn’t want my dad’s grandma to know I’d left home.

Instead, I went round the back. She had a shed, so I tried the door. It was locked, but somehow I forced it open. The next morning, she found me.

‘Why don’t you go back to your father?’ she asked me.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘You should make up,’ she said.

‘I’m not doing it,’ I replied. It wasn’t much of a discussion.

I said bye to my great-grandmother, left the shed, and spent most of the day walking round Limassol. When it was dark, I saw an abandoned car in a field.

I tried the door. Unlike my great-grandmother’s shed, it opened first time.

I climbed in, lay down, and slept on the back seat. It was the longest night of my life.

The next day was match day. AEL were playing in Larnaca, forty miles up the coast.

In those days, the reserve teams played immediately before the first team. If the punters turned up early, they got two games for the price of one. I wasn’t playing for the reserves – I hadn’t been in Cyprus long, and I wasn’t registered – but they wanted me to come and watch. I went to AEL’s clubhouse, as I’d been told, and waited.

The reserves coach was Costas Pambou, a former AEL player. He was affectionately known as Mavrokolos, which literally meant ‘black arse’. He was old-school. Sometimes, he’d pass me on his motorbike on his way to training. Instead of giving me a lift, he would whizz past.

‘Hurry up, you English bastard,’ he’d shout. ‘You’ll be late!’

If that wasn’t bad enough, his nickname for me was Kavlintiri. Loosely translated, it means ‘hard-on’.

Despite that, he took a shine to me. He liked my aggression. When I was waiting outside the clubhouse, he opened the door.

‘Faggot English boy – what are you doing outside?’

At the time, my Greek wasn’t great. Perhaps there’d been a mistake. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to travel with the team.

‘You told me to come,’ I replied, almost whispering.

‘I told you to come inside!’ he said. ‘Not hang around out here!’

I went inside and had steak and chips with the reserves. For a starving kid who’d spent the night in an abandoned car, it was heaven.

I went to Larnaca and watched the reserves, followed by the first team. On the way home, the team manager, Mr Fodis, asked where I wanted to be dropped off.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘Anywhere.’

I had nowhere to go. I probably would have tried Traffic again, or slept on the beach.

‘But you must have somewhere,’ Mr Fodis said.

‘Honestly,’ I repeated, ‘anywhere will do.’

He must have asked six times. Eventually he got pissed off.

‘I don’t have anywhere,’ I finally told him. ‘I left home three nights ago.’

Mr Fodis took me to his house and let me sleep in a shack in his back garden. Back then, a lot of houses in Cyprus had them: they were made from corrugated iron, usually with a bed, a hob and not much else.

The next day, he went to the house three doors down, where they had a spare shack. He spoke to the owners and gave them a month’s rent. It was basic, but it was better than staying with Dad. The shower was a hose that hung from a lemon tree. When I built my house in Cyprus in 2006, I stuck a lemon tree in the garden. It always reminds me of the shack on Mr Fodis’s street.

As well as the shack, AEL got me a job in a hotel: first as a doorman, then by the pool. I was sixteen years old, and football had saved me.

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I WAS BORN IN MARYLEBONE, LONDON, ON 16 OCTOBER 1962. My mum, Paula, was a hairdresser with her own salon called Vogue. The customers loved her, apparently. I’ve still got her business card.

She met dad when he was selling dresses from a van. He was Cypriot, but moved to England when he was young. They went into business, running clothes shops around north London. We moved about the suburbs: Muswell Hill in the beginning, then Mill Hill and Hadley Wood.

Mum was English, but there was Irish there too. Her maiden name was Shine. She was a proper ginger, covered head to foot in freckles. When she lay in the sun they used to join up.

She was really smart, with a great sense of humour. But she was tough. I remember when I was eleven, I used the F-word. Mum was horrified.

‘If you need to use that word to express yourself, you’re not worth listening to,’ she said, before taking me upstairs to wash my mouth out with soap. Literally.

There were six of us: Mum, Dad, me, my two brothers and my sister. Costa is two years younger than me, Monica’s three years younger, and Anthony’s eight years younger.

From an early age, I was obsessed with football. I’d organise Subbuteo leagues on my dad’s snooker table. I’d listen to the scores on the radio. And I’d play in the garden, or the park, or – more dangerously – in the front room.

Once, I smashed the glass in Dad’s office door with a tennis ball. Another time, when playing in the garden with my Uncle Spyro, I hit a volley towards the top corner of the living-room window.

I fell to my knees. Not in recognition of the wonder strike, but because I was going to get a beating. As the ball hit the window, a crack raced from one side of the glass to the other. I went to bed at 6 p.m., before Mum and Dad got back from the shop, to delay the hiding. I got a proper telling-off the next day, but my life was spared.

When I wasn’t breaking windows, I’d watch the best team in north London. My first live game was on 3 May 1971: Spurs v Arsenal at White Hart Lane. It was the last game of the season: Arsenal needed a win or a goalless draw to be champions. I went with my dad, who was a Tottenham fan. Perhaps that was another reason we didn’t get on. Or perhaps it was a symptom.

Dad and I stood on the terraces. I couldn’t see anything, but I remember the nonstop noise; the atmosphere; the sense of everyone being on edge. I fell in love.

At the time, I was leaning towards Arsenal, but I hadn’t picked them. With three minutes left, Ray Kennedy headed past Pat Jennings – 1–0. Arsenal were champions and I was hooked. Five days later, I watched the FA Cup final against Liverpool. Charlie George’s wonder strike won us the double.

I often went to Highbury as a boy. Back then, you could turn up, pay your money, and walk in. Once, I went with Dad and my younger brother, Costa. We sat on a scoreboard by a corner flag in the North Bank. It had barbed wire on to stop people sitting on it and, at the end of the game, my coat got caught. By the time Dad freed it, Costa had wandered off. We couldn’t find him anywhere.

We spent hours looking. We even told the police. Eventually, we walked past a chip shop and there he was, sitting on the counter, eating a bag of chips. He was happy as Larry.

Around that time, Dad drove home from the pub after a few drinks. He was nicked and banned from driving. The business relied on him going shop to shop, dropping off stock, so without a licence, he was stuck. He decided to start again. He told us we were moving to Cyprus.

I think the move had been on the cards; the ban just made up his mind. To be honest, I didn’t mind. It was exciting. We were moving to a holiday island, and I couldn’t wait. Even then, I liked adventure.

We moved to Famagusta, which was the place to be in Cyprus. Mum and Dad opened two shops: one on Kennedy Avenue, the main street, and another on a roundabout nearby. They were called Hot Pants boutique. They were the first to do print-your-own T-shirts, which became the big fad.

At first I went to school in Famagusta. It was all in Greek and I couldn’t understand a word. Not only that, I was the new kid. The foreign boy. I played football, which helped in the playground, but really, it was a nightmare. After three months I was sent to boarding school in Nicosia, forty-odd miles away.

Terra Santa College was a Catholic school. On the up side, the lessons were mainly in English. On the down side, the school was run by priests who beat the living daylights out of us. One Sunday morning, we were being served breakfast in the classroom. A boy called Sotiris was sitting in the row in front. When we finished the meal, a priest asked him to collect the trays.

‘That’s a job for women,’ said Sotiris. ‘I’m not doing it.’

The priest approached Sotiris from behind, then whacked him so hard he flew out of his chair. As Sotiris lay on the floor, the priest kicked him to bits. We sat there in shock. Sotiris, bloody and bruised, begged him to stop. He didn’t argue with the priest again. None of us did.

When we walked to the dorms after our evening meal, we weren’t allowed to speak. But there was this one kid – Paul, the youngest of us all – who had an infectious laugh. Once he started, we all went. One time, Paul laughed. We all cracked up. The priest didn’t say a word but, when we were outside the dorm, he got his ruler out. We held our palms out, waiting to be whacked.

Instead, the priest told us to clench our fists. He turned the ruler on its side and smacked our knuckles with the sharp side. I ran to bed to stick my hand under the pillow, where the coolness took the pain away. The pillowcase turned blood-red.

Another time, someone farted in the dormitory as we were being put to bed. I started laughing, so one of the sisters slapped me round the face until I stopped. There was another priest who carried a plastic whip in the sleeve of his cassock. He wasn’t afraid to use it, either. It was brutal.

We went home every other weekend. I used to count the days. One day – a Thursday, I think – my mum turned up at school. It was strange: I never saw her at school.

‘There’s something wrong with me,’ she said. ‘They don’t know what it is, so I’m going to England to get some tests. But don’t worry. Everything will be fine.’

Of course, I did worry, although Mum came back after the tests were done. And later that year, 1974, there was more to worry about.

A military coup deposed the elected president of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios. The Turkish community thought the new rulers, backed by Greece, would ignore their rights. Mum and Dad must have known something was coming, because they had already begun packing. But on 20 July, before we could return to England, Turkey invaded Cyprus. Our island became a war zone.

The invasion began on the north coast, about fifty miles away from our home. On the horizon, we could see bombs falling from the sky. We were told to stay in the basement.

Two days into the war, a ten-ton truck came down the street. We heard British accents. A voice from a loudspeaker said anyone with a UK passport should grab a suitcase and come out.

I remember climbing on the back of the army lorry. You needed a ladder to get there. As we waited to leave, I realised I’d left my football and autograph book in the house. I had loads of big names in that book, as the England team used to stay in a hotel near Hadley Wood before matches. I jumped from the lorry and sprinted into the house. The soldiers went mad. So did my mum.

We were taken to Anzio, a camp at the British base of Dhekelia in eastern Cyprus. We slept in a huge tent with loads of other families. We were lucky: some people slept in cars and buses.

One day, I was kicking a ball around with some other lads when I heard a noise. I looked up and saw a dozen Turkish tanks roll past the base. The Turkish commander was standing behind the gun turret, shouting. The British squaddies cocked their guns.

The British soldiers were yelling: ‘This is British sovereign land; you are not coming in here.’ A British officer, accompanied by some of his soldiers, spoke to the Turks. They turned round. I breathed a sigh of relief and went back to my football.

After three days, the fighting stopped. We were allowed to visit Famagusta. As we reached the town, you could smell burning flesh. There were bodies in the street.

We went to the beachfront. There was a famous hotel called the Salaminia Tower, which was in the shape of an H – two towers connected by a walkway. I saw a boy on a balcony, hanging by his legs. He was dead. The firemen were trying to saw through his leg to retrieve the body.

Of our two shops, one was damaged but standing. A rocket had gone through the top of the building: everything above was destroyed, but the shop was intact. But the other store, on Kennedy Avenue, was ruined. It had taken a direct hit, despite being surrounded by blocks of flats. As we looked at the rubble, my dad said the strangest thing.

‘Crawl in there and get some stuff out,’ he said, meaning the dresses.

I don’t know what he was thinking. The place was a bomb site, but he thought it was important to save a dress or two. Of course, if you’re eleven years old, you do what your dad says. And – in truth – it was quite exciting. But I wouldn’t send my son into a place that had been hit by a 200lb bomb.

Like most people, Dad didn’t realise how terrible the war would become. When we went back to England – on a Hercules into Brize Norton in Oxfordshire – he stayed in Cyprus. He wanted to salvage the business and, if he was out of the country, he couldn’t do that. The rest of us stayed with my mum’s sister, Aunty Kay. She lived in Staines, just west of London. We stayed for four or five months. I went to the Matthew Arnold secondary school.

In 1975, when I was twelve, we moved from Aunty Kay’s in Staines to a house in Hadley Wood, which we’d rented out. Things were getting back to normal. Except by then, we knew Mum had cancer.

It started in her stomach. She was in and out of Barnet General, so we went to see her most days. At one point, she went to Greece on holiday with Dad and some friends, while Aunty Rose – Mum’s other sister – looked after us. We thought she was out of the woods. You don’t go on holiday if you’re ill, do you?

We were wrong. Dad, who had moved back to England, called me into his office.

‘Your mum’s dying,’ he said, bluntly.

Mum got worse every day. She went from an energetic 35-year-old – running her own business, raising four kids – to a dying woman. By the end, she was unable to do anything. For a boy, to see his mother die… I can’t tell you what it’s like. I would leave the hospital and cry.

I went to see her the day before she died. She could barely speak. For a twelve-year-old boy, it was agonising. Even now, I think about it. The next day, I was in the play room in Hadley Wood. My Uncle John – who was Aunty Kay’s husband – came in and spoke to me.

‘Your mum’s gone,’ he said. And that was it. On 15 September 1975, I lost my mother.

She was cremated a week later. Her ashes are in Trent Park cemetery in Cockfosters, north London. On the day of the funeral, it rained. Mum loved the rain.

For months, I couldn’t believe she’d gone. I didn’t want to believe it. My young mind thought it was a joke. A test. I thought – or hoped – that she would walk in and say: ‘That was to see how you’d cope without me.’ But she never came back. And, from then on, something was missing.

Aunty Rose was a massive help. Every family has someone who makes things better, and she was that person. If you can have two mothers, I did. After Mum died, she told my dad: ‘I’ll look after the two older boys. Go to Cyprus with the younger ones, do what you’ve got to do.’

But Dad didn’t want to split us up, and he didn’t want to stay in England. He was worried social services might look at him – widower, four kids – and think he couldn’t cope. Eight or nine months after Mum died, we all moved to Limassol.

To begin with, we didn’t have a proper home: Dad rented a shop and we slept on the marble floor. We had to leave by eight o’clock, so my brother and I would play football on the beach all day. After a while we found a house in Pentadromos in

Limassol, and I went to the nearby grammar school.

It was a fee-paying school – for all his faults, Dad wanted the best for us – and it was where I met my two best friends, Deme and Nick Gregoriou. Their dad founded the school. Deme was my age and in the same class; Nick was three years younger. It was the start of a special friendship.

My relationship with Nick and Deme was one of the few things I could count on. To this day, they are fantastic friends. Even if we haven’t seen each other for months, within a few minutes it’s like we’ve never been apart. They are both godfathers to my first two girls. Their school is one of the best in Cyprus, and my daughters all went there. As I can testify, they work them bloody hard.

Despite meeting those two, I was unhappy. I was thirteen years old and, when Dad was working, I was looking after my brothers and sister. I was cleaning, trying to cook. But I couldn’t even look after myself. And if Dad came home in a bad mood, who was he going to take it out on? Me.

I know it wasn’t easy for my dad. He lost his wife to cancer, and his house and business to the war. But it’s hard to feel sympathetic. We never got on.

I wrote letters to Aunty Rose, saying I wanted to come home. I missed England, and I missed my mum. I wanted to be with her or – at least – her side of the family. Dad and I kept arguing and so, after nine months of begging, he flew me back to live with Aunty Rose.

After dad lost his driving licence, I moved from England to Cyprus, then back to England after the invasion, back to Cyprus after Mum died, and back to England again. Like I said: I have always been nomadic.

Aunty Rose was divorced and lived in a three-bedroom house in New Barnet, near Hadley Wood in north London. Her daughter, my cousin Sue, was married and lived in Milton Keynes, so Aunty Rose used to rent her spare rooms to lodgers. With me there, it meant one fewer room to rent.

I went to Southgate secondary school and was soon picked for their football team. I started at left-back but I bombed forward, scoring nine goals in a season, so they put me up front.

Pretty soon, I was playing for the school on Saturday mornings, a junior side called Hinton Youth on Saturday afternoons, and a men’s side from the Home Office on Sundays. The games were usually played on Hackney Marshes. Afterwards I’d go back to Aunty Rose’s for Sunday dinner, followed by The Big Match with Brian Moore on TV. I’d have tea and Jaffa Cakes, then run to the park for a kickabout. No wonder I was fit.

One Saturday, I was playing for Hinton when our keeper broke his thumb. I was charging round up front, about to get sent off, so they stuck me in goal. I stayed there for the next six weeks and was pretty good. A Millwall scout noticed me and invited me for a trial.

I headed south to the Old Den on Cold Blow Lane. There were thirty other kids, including four keepers, so we only got a half each. I made a couple of saves, let one in, did OK. After the game, I was kept behind. A couple of lads fired shots at me from the edge of the box. I made some decent saves and was told to see the youth-team manager.

I stood outside his office for ten minutes. I was given a cup of tea but I was so nervous, most of it went in the saucer. Eventually, he came out.

‘Right, son,’ he said. ‘Our next game is away at Crystal Palace. Make sure you’re at the Den for nine a.m.’

I went to Palace but didn’t get on. The next game was against Fulham: I played one half and let two in. Afterwards, they said they didn’t want me. My unplanned career in goal was over.

My other trial in England was with Chelsea, this time as an outfield player. We had to be at RAF Uxbridge in north-west London for 9 a.m. I had to set off about six: a bus to Oakwood station, then two or three trains from there. I arrived at Uxbridge station at 8.55 with no clue where to go.

There was another kid on the train with a football bag. As we got off, we looked at each other.

‘Are you going to the trial?’ I asked. He was, so we sprinted to the ground together.

The lad, it turned out, was Turkish-Cypriot. Despite the invasion, I never had a problem with Turks. There were lots at school and we got on fine. It was pretty simple, really: it wasn’t them who bombed Cyprus. They were as innocent as me.

The guy in charge of the trial was Ken Shellito, who played over a hundred times for Chelsea. As we burst through the changing room door, we heard him say: ‘. . . and two chickens haven’t turned up.’ We got changed in record time and started on the bench. The match was blues versus reds.

We were losing 1–0, so Ken told me to come on, right side of midfield. Being a cocky bugger, I told him I was a striker.

‘Do you want to play or not?’ he replied. Point taken.

I played midfield and had the game of my life, scoring a hat-trick and clearing one off the line. We won 4–1. All the other parents congratulated me, so I thought I was in. That night, I went to a party at Uncle Ted’s, who was mum’s older brother.

‘Well done, son!’ he said, when I told him about the hat-trick. ‘You’re going to the Bridge!’

I waited ages to hear from Chelsea. Then after six weeks, a letter came through the door. I didn’t meet their standard. Honestly, I must have cried for six months.

In hindsight, it wasn’t a surprise. They had five different games that weekend, and they might have been looking for one player. But the trial influenced me as a coach, one million per cent.

At senior level, you get a feel for a player after five minutes. But at youth level, you need to give players time. You need to see them in their own environment. These days, clubs have six-week trials, which means they have a proper chance. It’s fairer than judging thirty or forty kids in one afternoon.

Although I kept playing, I never got another chance in England. The problem was, I didn’t have a Plan B. I finished school at sixteen – I can’t remember what qualifications I got, if any – and worked at Datsun in Whetstone, learning to service cars. At the same time, I started to get into trouble.

In England in the 1970s, there were a lot of fights. Going to Arsenal matches was a risk – I’ve been chased through King’s Cross station by Chelsea and West Ham fans – but, thankfully, I avoided most of the bother. I would have the occasional scrap – most boys did – but, if there was a top ten of fighters in school, I wasn’t in it. I was a decent footballer, so people left me alone.

But one day, a kid from our school went to a youth club in Cockfosters – rival turf, if you like – and had the crap kicked out of him. The hard nuts of Southgate school weren’t having it. They teamed up and said, ‘Steve – are you coming with us?’ Being sixteen and daft, I thought, why not?

There must have been 200 of us. Some of them were tooled up – bats, chains – and I began to think, oh no – what have I done? But I couldn’t turn round. It would have been shameful.

We got to Cockfosters station. Our boys stormed into the youth club, but the lads who beat up our mate weren’t there. Our boys came out, and it looked like the whole thing would peter out. But, after hearing about our mob, the coppers turned up. Twelve people were hooked. I was one.

I was taken to the station with the other lads. The police phoned Aunty Rose, who was absolutely livid. She didn’t need to say anything. I’d let her down. It went to court but, because no one was hurt, and no property damaged, the case was dismissed. But for my aunty, it was a warning.

As I said, I wasn’t a fighter. But I was cheeky, bordering on disrespectful, and Aunty Rose was worried I’d go down the wrong path. Who knows: I might have. To her, the answer was obvious.

‘You need a man in your life,’ she said.

She wanted me to move back to Cyprus and live with Dad. I wanted to stay in England, but I couldn’t argue. I’d let her down so, in the summer of 1979, I flew back to Limassol.

Within two hours, I was mixing cement, helping my dad build his house in the refugee village. As the sun beat down, and sweat poured off me, one thought kept me going. I had to become a professional footballer.

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I WALKED OUT SIX WEEKS LATER. THANKFULLY I HAD AEL, WHERE Mr Fodis found me the shack, and two first-teamers took me under their wing.

Pambos Pamboulis was a big name; a striker who’d played for the national team and Olympiakos in Greece. When he returned to Cyprus he was like a god. He used to teach me things – body shape, holding the ball up, things like that. I was trying to take his place, yet he still helped me.

He runs a betting shop in Cyprus now, so, when I was on the island recently, I said hello. He recognised me straight away. I thanked him for helping a sixteen-year-old English kid all those years ago.

The other guy was Nikos Japonas: a big, strong, battering-ram centre-forward. He also played for Cyprus, but he wasn’t appreciated back then. For me, he was a great player. Along with the reserves’ manager Costas Pambou, Nikos and Pambos were my first ‘coaches’. Perhaps then, a seed was planted.

AEL trained in the afternoons, so in the daytime they got me that job in a hotel. I was a doorman, then a lifeguard; the manager was an AEL supporter who let me eat in the restaurant on my days off. One day by the pool, I met a guy called Gus. He was a London toughie – late fifties, grey hair, tall – and ran a furniture business. We got on well so I told him my story. I said I wanted to move back to England.

‘I could buy your ticket right now,’ Gus said. ‘But if you really want it, you’ll save up, and buy your own. Here’s my number if you make it back.’

By now, I was part of the AEL senior squad. The manager, a Bulgarian called Chemely Tomov, liked me and wanted to play me in the top division. But the club didn’t pay much – Cypriot football was part-time – and when the summer ended, so did the hotel job.

I worked on a building site, pushing wheelbarrows of cement along planks of wood ten feet in the air, but it wasn’t regular. AEL tried to get me something full-time but most winter jobs in Cyprus were in the government, or in the banks, and my Greek wasn’t good enough.

As autumn set in, I decided to move back to England. Flights were expensive, so I planned to catch a ferry to Greece, then get the bus across Europe. As I went to buy my ticket, I bumped into my old man. I hadn’t seen him since I’d left home. If I’d noticed him in time, I would have crossed the road.

He asked where I was going. I told him. He reached into his pocket and gave me fifty quid. I took his money and never looked back.

When we reached Piraeus in Greece, there were huge strikes taking place in France. It meant I had to wait three days before I could catch a bus. Even then, we went via Belgium, rather than Calais. The delay ate up my fifty quid. I went sightseeing, seeing the Acropolis for the first time, and had to pay for three nights’ accommodation. By the time I got on the coach, I was skint.

I met a Canadian lad on the bus who was also broke. At one stop-off, he pinched a loaf of bread and I nicked some marmalade. Other times, we used to go into takeaways and ask for kebabs with no meat – just pitta, salad and sauce.

Eventually, I made it to Victoria bus station with 50p in my pocket. I didn’t know whether to call Aunty Rose, who I’d left months earlier, or Gus.

I called Gus. Thankfully, he remembered me.

‘Get in a cab to Catford,’ he said. ‘I’ll pay.’

When I arrived, he told me there were two choices. Move back in with Aunty Rose, or stay with him and go to work at six o’clock the next morning. I told him I’d work for him.

‘Right answer,’ he replied.

I worked in a factory in Hackney that made three-piece suites. When the guys wanted anything, I ran off to get it. It was simple work. After a while, I moved from Catford to one of Gus’s houses in Maidstone, which doubled as a furniture showroom. But that caused a problem: most people bought suites at the weekend, meaning I didn’t have time to play football.

I worked with Gus for a year or two, but the football thing was coming to a head. In 1982, I moved back to Aunty Rose’s house and started training with Enfield, which was a good standard. They won the Alliance Premier League that season, the highest level of semi-professional football in England, but I never played in the first team.

At the time, my brother Costa was studying at Queens College in New York, living with another aunt. He invited me to stay for a few weeks over Christmas. I overpacked, just in case, and ended up staying ten years. It was the seventh time I’d moved from one country to another. I was twenty years old.

In America, my life changed. I turned from a boy into a man. I also fulfilled my dream: for a short time only, I became a professional footballer.

2

LIVING IN AMERICA

UNITED STATES, 1982–92

WHEN MOST FOOTBALL MANAGERS WERE TWENTY, THEY PLAYED the game for a living. Me? I pumped gas at a petrol station near La Guardia airport in New York.

La Guardia is a waterfront airport. In winter, the wind whips off the bay and freezes anyone stupid enough to stand outside. I worked eight-hour shifts putting petrol in people’s cars. When it was quiet, you sat inside and stayed warm by the fire. But when a customer arrived, you ran into the New York winter. My body shivered and my fingers went numb. I longed for quiet shifts.

The owner of the petrol station was a football fan from Greece. He had a team called AO Crete in the Hellenic League, which was a strong local competition. When my brother – who also worked at the station – told him I was coming to visit, the owner said, ‘Tell him to train with us.’

In January, the team played in a tournament in Upstate New York. It was indoor five-a-side – football was barely played outdoors in winter – and there were teams from all over the East Coast. I ended up top scorer. In between games, some guys introduced themselves. They were from a pro team, the Pennsylvania Stoners, and invited me for a trial. I extended my visa, cancelled my return trip to England, and waited for the try-out in spring. Thank goodness I overpacked.

At the time, early 1983, the NASL was the top league in America. The second tier was the American Soccer League, where the Stoners played. There were only six teams, stretching from Detroit to Dallas, and the crowds weren’t huge – a few thousand if you were lucky. But it was full-time football: my first glimpse of it since the reds-versus-blues Chelsea trial at RAF Uxbridge.

The Stoners’ try-out was held over a weekend. In the first game, I scored a couple of goals and knocked some people about. They must have been impressed because when, on the second day, I told them my hamstring was tight, the physio worked on me for half an hour to make sure I could play.

I didn’t have the touch to be a top player, but I was aggressive. A pain in the arse. I wouldn’t score 25 goals a season, but I would run all day. Those weekends on Hackney Marshes did me good. After day two, the Stoners coach – a Hungarian called Kalman Csapo – said, ‘We’re going to bring you in.’

Teams in the ASL were allowed to pick four foreigners, and I was the fifth in the squad, so I knew I wouldn’t get many games. I only had an eight-month contract and the wages weren’t great – $800 a month, I think. But I had done it. After years of practice, and years of knockbacks, I was a professional footballer. It wasn’t England but, to me, it was the big time. It felt amazing.

The Stoners – named after the Keystone State of Pennsylvania, by the way – were based in Allentown, 100 miles from New York. I said bye to my brother, bye to the petrol station, and moved west. My days were simple: train in the morning, eat lunch, then come back for more training.

My first game was a friendly against the big name in the NASL, the New York Cosmos. Pele had moved on but they were full of tough, hardened pros who wouldn’t take shit from a skinny twenty-year-old. I played the last twenty minutes on the right of midfield. Andranik Eskandarian, who played 29 times for Iran, gave me a kicking. Boris Bandov, the American international, elbowed me in the throat.

I came off bruised but inside I was buzzing. I was making my way in pro football. My teammates were guys like Solomon Hilton, Michael Collins – who went on to play for the US national team – and Jeff Tipping, our Liverpool-born captain who became a highly respected coach in America.

In the local paper, the Globe Times, Coach Csapo called me ‘a good runner with pretty good skills’, which summed me up nicely. I wasn’t physically strong, but I put myself about. Soon after, Csapo picked me for a fundraising friendly against a team from Cleveland. We won 5–3 and I scored twice. I thought it was a turning point. It was actually the high point. The league, and the team, were in trouble. There wasn’t enough money to pay the bills. No wonder we were fundraising.

I lived in a room above a bar, which the Stoners paid for. One day, I came home to find a padlock on the door. The club hadn’t paid the rent. With nowhere else to go, I shimmied up a flagpole to the roof of my flat. From there I climbed through a window, but after three days, the owners put a lock on that, too. The whole thing summed up US soccer in the mid-80s. It was a farce.

The club and the league limped to the end of the season before going bust (the Stoners actually made the final, but were beaten by the Jacksonville Tea Men). I left halfway through the year without playing a league game. After working my whole life to be a pro, it was over within months.

I went back to New York and enrolled at Queensborough Community College, which was near my aunt’s house in Queens. I wasn’t there to study – I can’t even remember the course I signed up for – but I knew the soccer coach, Bob Ritchie, and he wanted me in the team. Bob – who helped me pass the SATs I needed to enrol – used to call me Soccer Whore. One day, I asked him why.

‘Because you’ll go anywhere for a game,’ he replied. Spot on, I thought.

At Queensborough I met Andy Nicolaou, an English-Cypriot guy who became one of my best friends. Andy was a couple of years older and grew up in Wood Green, just down the road from Aunty Rose’s house in New Barnet. For the best part of ten years, we were inseparable.

We played up front together: if someone nailed me, he would run fifty yards to fight for me, and I mean that literally. They called us the Gold Dust Twins, which is an American nickname for a sporting partnership. I don’t know how many goals we scored, but we got plenty of red and yellow cards. Andy still lives in New York, and we still speak.

I enjoyed my time at Queensborough. It was a worse standard than the Stoners, but we trained every day and became one of the best college sides in America. At one point, we were ranked eighth in the country, which was a big deal for a community college. But the season was only sixteen games, and when it finished I left. I should have got a degree, but the Soccer Whore just wanted to play.

After college, I trained with the Pancyprian Freedoms, a club formed by Cypriot immigrants after the Turkish invasion in 1974. At the time, they were huge. They played in the Hellenic League, before joining the Cosmopolitan League – which had teams from across the East Coast – followed by the Northeastern Super Soccer League. They also entered the US Open Cup, which was a national version of the FA Cup (although NASL teams didn’t enter). They won it three times in 1980, 1982 and 1983. In 1984, they even made the semi-finals of the Concacaf Champions’ Cup.

Really, they were a team of superstars. They had a coach, Mimis Papaioannou, who had scored more than 200 goals for AEK Athens and had 60-odd Greece caps. Some of their players had been in the Cyprus national team. I was good enough, but when they registered players for the 1984 season, I was injured. So I went to a Hellenic League club called Hermes, which was also based in Astoria, Queens.

The owner of Hermes was a guy called Christos Rizos. He was a jeweller with a workshop on the junction of 47th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan – the Diamond District, right by the Rockefeller Center. As part of the Hermes deal, he got me a job in the workshop. At first I swept floors, but after six months they taught me how to set diamonds. There are three or four different methods, and I used to practise by bending an old penny. As a kid, I was into military models – I still am, actually – so I was pretty good. If my football career ends, I could still set a diamond or two.

Hermes played their home games at the Metropolitan Oval, which, back then, was a dirt pitch surrounded by metal poles. Because I was fit, and didn’t score much, I was moved to right-back, before being pushed into centre-midfield, where there were more people to tackle. I loved it.

I had finally found my position. I ran, won the ball, then gave it to someone who could play. In those days, man-to-man marking was normal, as were crunching tackles. Really, I should have been there all along. I ended up as Hermes captain, and to this day I’m proud to call Chris Rizos my friend.

When I wasn’t playing football, or setting diamonds, I went to Spanish night-clubs. By then, Nick and Deme were living in New York, but they didn’t usually fancy my type of music – merengue or cumbia, both popular in Latin America. I’d go to clubs like Trenta Trenta, Club Broadway or Sounds of Brasil on my own. I told Nick and Deme to call the police if I wasn’t home by 1 p.m. the next day. You couldn’t be too careful: some of those clubs weren’t designed for skinny white boys with a ponytail.

I loved Latin clubs. Great music, great atmosphere, and if you put your hand out, a girl would dance with you. In other clubs, they’d tell you to get lost. Of course, if you couldn’t dance, the Latinas would tell you to get lost, too. In fact, they’d walk off and leave you in the middle of the dancefloor. But I learned some basic steps, so I got by. I also learned a little Spanish, which I still use.

You have to be confident to survive in New York. After leaving the jewellery trade, I sold flowers at Flatbush Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. I went to the market in the morning, spent $150–$200 on fresh flowers, then sold them outside a kiosk in a space rented from the Indian owner. I must have done it for a year or so and – on a good day – I made a killing.

Valentine’s Day was fantastic, as was St Patrick’s Day. I’d buy all the white flowers I could, then stick them in water dyed green. By the afternoon they were as green as the Irish hills. I look back at those days and laugh. I was a hustler.

When I stopped selling flowers, Andy Nicolaou and I sold watches on the street in the Bronx, Spanish Harlem, Queens… anywhere we didn’t get chased by cops, basically. I also worked for a building firm, installing kitchens and bathrooms, or putting together pre-fabricated houses. Really, I did anything to survive. I earned a few dollars playing football, but it wasn’t enough to get by.