August 5, 2011 10:21 pm

First Person: Ryan Clarke

Oxford United’s goalkeeper started at Bristol Rovers cleaning boots, changing rooms, and even the toilets

I’m Oxford United’s goalkeeper, and today I’ll be starting my 12th season as a goalkeeper in the lower leagues. I began playing in goal as a kid for Stoke Lane, my local team in Bristol, and in 1995, when I was 13, I went to Bristol City. They released me that year because I was too small, and within a week I went over to Bristol Rovers, my boyhood club.

When I turned 16, I began a three-year apprenticeship at Rovers. This was the old system, before clubs opened academies to hothouse kids. My first wage as an apprentice was £42.50 a week, then £50 in the second year and £90 in the third. I was up at six every morning to get two buses across town to train. We had to clean the players’ boots, the changing rooms, even the toilets. Not many players will do that today. I had to go to college, to do an A-level in leisure and tourism, in case I didn’t make the grade; but at 18 I earned a one-year professional contract with Bristol Rovers, on £125 a week.

Your career does take some strange turns at this level. In that first season as a pro, I trained with the England under-18s – the likes of Jay Bothroyd [Queen’s Park Rangers], Boaz Myhill [West Bromwich Albion] and Jermain Defoe [Tottenham Hotspur] – and things went well at Rovers until 2006. Then I dropped down two divisions, to Salisbury, in the Conference South; we won promotion to the Conference (National) straightaway – so I’d taken a step back to start going forward again.

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Then I broke my metatarsal. I was on holiday, and I was coming out of the sea when I turned my foot over on a rock. I lost my number-one spot at Salisbury, and by the time I got fit again they were in financial difficulty, so they loaned me out to Northwich Victoria to reduce their wage bill. Northwich were in disarray, and the players didn’t get paid for four months. I had a mortgage, and I was sitting there wondering where my next bit of money was coming from. Even the electricity bill was a worry. After four months of no money, we were contemplating getting changed before a game, then telling the chairman we weren’t going out to play unless we got paid. The PFA [the players’ union] were great: they stepped in and we got our money. Eventually, though, Northwich went into administration.

In the summer of 2009 I signed for Oxford, and we were promoted to division two last season – we beat York 3-1 at Wembley in the Conference play-offs. As a kid, I’d dreamed of playing at Wembley … I could barely take it all in.

I work a five-day week: we have three training sessions every day, and we get Sundays and Wednesdays off – and sometimes, if the gaffer’s not happy, we’re in seven days a week. I’m happy with my contract, and I’m secure: I can put money into savings and a pension. But players never reveal what they earn – it’s too sensitive, and managers worry about players being poached.

The gulf in wages between the Premiership and the lower leagues doesn’t reflect the gap in ability: the wages are miles apart, but the skill levels aren’t. We don’t get much in sponsorship money, so recognition means a lot: glove companies have asked me to wear their gloves for free, which is nice. In the non-league I had to fork out £40 for a pair, and I had to make them last. And last year I was voted player of the season by Oxford Utd supporters, so I get recognised in Tesco’s now: I take time to talk to people who stop me for a chat – they’re showing their appreciation, and they pay my wages.

Has football lost its magic? No, it’s stronger than ever, especially at our level, and the fans are just as passionate as those in the Premiership.

I’m not thinking of a career after football. I hope to push on to a higher level, either with Oxford or another club, and I still want to play for England. My contract runs until I’m 31 – I’m 29 now – and I hope to be peaking then: keepers can do that. Why shouldn’t I play until I’m 40?

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