Stan Collymore looks back occasionally at interviews he gave when playing for Liverpool and Aston Villa and is not sure what he sees. Nervousness, maybe. Uncertainty, perhaps. Not happiness, for sure.
‘I had got to the very top of the ladder at Liverpool but then looked over the wall into the secret garden and it wasn’t what I imagined,’ Collymore tells Sportsmail. ‘Villa? That was just so disappointing. Depression, John Gregory, the Priory.
‘I look back at those interviews and ask myself where I was the most content and the answer is at Southend. I was only at the club for six months (in 1992-93) but felt wanted for the first time.
Stan Collymore is relishing his position as the senior football strategist at Southend United
Collymore feels settled at Southend, who he enjoyed playing for in the 1992-93 campaign
During his time at Southend, Collymore helped the club to remain in the First Division
‘I had been at Walsall as a kid and hated it. At Crystal Palace, I was never gonna get in the team. I was 21. Then Colin Murphy, the Southend manager, brought me down here. He actually wanted me. I remember driving in thinking, “This is it. Your debut. No more bull**** and hiding. You are playing Notts County tomorrow and it’s on you”.
‘We were heading for relegation from the old Second Division but I scored 18 goals in around 30 games and we stayed up. I was carried off the pitch. Boots gone, kit gone. Just in my pants.
‘Does it get any better than achieving something tangible with a club that didn’t expect it? Maybe it doesn’t, you know.
‘I walked out of here with a smile on my face and joined Nottingham Forest. Southend spent the transfer fee on building a new stand. And now I have come back again. Why wouldn’t I?’
We are sitting in the directors’ box at Roots Hall and there is optimism on the sea breeze. Southend are a non-League club now, having fallen out of the Football League for the first time in 101 years last May.
We watch Kevin Maher’s team beat Barnet 2-1 and a subsequent victory against Bromley in front of 8,000 supporters means Southend have doubled their home gates in a matter of months. Woking are then beaten 3-2 to make it seven wins from eight league games.
Collymore reached out to the club last year. With Southend in desperate financial difficulties and owner Ron Martin absent from matches for his own safety, Collymore persuaded him to hire a chief executive, Tom Lawrence, from Gillingham and joined the club himself in November as football strategist.
Collymore says he became a cliché as a pundit and that he was all about strong opinions
On one Southend forum, a supporter warned Collymore he was walking into a burning building. But he knew that already.
‘The club was in a thousand pieces and we needed to work out how to put it back together,’ he explains. ‘It won’t happen quickly. But it can happen. My role is a little bit recruitment, a little bit media, meeting commercial partners and driving the community work which is so important.’
At half-time in the boardroom — not far from the bar named after him — Collymore picks the brain of new director of football John Still. The 71-year-old has a record three previous promotions from this division as a manager and at Southend he has 12 scouts working under him.
When he arrived at the start of the winter, the club had none. Manager Maher, 45, came in a month earlier as the replacement for Phil Brown.
‘The uptick in results didn’t come until Christmas, so on Twitter and forums I had some abuse,’ Collymore smiles. ‘I have had to put the phone away occasionally. Go easy on Twitter. You know what I can be like. A bit combative, having a nibble.
‘Tom has warned me I will be the lightning rod for opinion. If things go well, it’s cos Stan got involved. If they go badly, it’s cos Stan got involved. But I went in to the dressing room in the early days and the players’ eyes had gone. A classic down-trodden group.
‘I told them people were going to come in and help them. And they have. The difference already is night and day.’
Collymore, who played for Liverpool from 1995-97, says football was harder the higher he went
When Collymore was a boy in Cannock, he was once locked in a coal shed. On another occasion, he was stripped and made to ride naked around his estate on a bicycle while other boys shouted ‘w*g’ and ‘c**n’ at him.
He was six years old. You wonder if that kind of humiliation ever totally leaves you.
‘Even now Cannock is 98.7 per cent white,’ nods Collymore, most recently prominent as a broadcaster. ‘I stuck out like a sore thumb. My mum is white, my sisters are white, my friends were white.
‘I was locked in a neighbour’s coal house. “You already have soot on your face so that’s where you belong”. You don’t really ever get rid of that.
‘I have mental health issues triggered by anxiety but I also had to have an independence to come out of that background.
‘I wasn’t an inner-city kid like Rooney or Gerrard or Fowler. I was quite molly-coddled by mum but in terms of having an independence of mind and spirit, it all came out of that childhood.
‘As a broadcaster, I was like, “I am gonna say this and if it’s not everybody’s cup of tea and they don’t use me again, then so be it”.
‘I find it hard to swallow stuff and just crack on. Racism, sectarianism, mental health. A lot of players and ex-players don’t get involved and I don’t blame them.
‘Players are more adept at putting out a black square on Twitter and that’s their advocacy. But I have always worn things on my sleeve.
‘I am 51 now and more mellow but I have lost count of the number of times people in broadcasting have told me I have to play the game.
‘What does that mean? Could somebody please tell me as I just don’t know. Keep your mouth shut? That wouldn’t be me.’
Collymore settled at Southend and he is now hoping he can help give the club a brighter future
Collymore was an exceptional footballer and subsequently an award-winning journalist with BBC Radio 5 Live and talkSPORT. These days we hear less of him.
He has a weekly column for the Daily Mirror but his work as a mainstream pundit seems to be behind him and that feels like a shame.
Collymore can be a force of nature behind the microphone. His opinions are well constructed. His frame of reference is vast. There are, in truth, few like him.
‘I think I became a bit of cliche,’ he says. ‘I was all about strong opinions whereas a station like Radio 5 Live keeps you in a nice little box.
‘Pundits get pigeon-holed. The fiery Celt, the clownish, funny, black guy. As you get older you want to be more than that.
‘There has been a rush by broadcasters to diversify as they are under pressure. But seeing more black broadcasters and black women is great now.
‘It’s disappointing for me to have disappeared to a degree but then I knew the only way for me to do a mainstream radio show was to be really funny or contrary. I don’t think, for example, there could be a black Roy Keane. To go on and say, “I wouldn’t let that player on the bus home” or “I would knock him out”. If I said that I would never work again.
‘Roy gets away with it because he was a respected captain and a fiery Irishman. An aggressive black guy? Not quite the same.’
Collymore joined Forest from Southend the summer Keane left for Manchester United. The two years he spent at the City Ground were happy, scoring 41 goals in 65 league games. At Forest he thrived under the captaincy of Stuart Pearce. Once Pearce led the whole squad to a Madness gig in Birmingham — ‘He made us all buy Dr Martens boots first’ — and another time into the away end among Rangers fans at AEK Athens. Forest finished third in the new Premier League.
Liverpool was a less happy experience. Collymore was not a failure at Anfield — he scored goals — but he never truly settled. A move to his boyhood club Aston Villa, meanwhile, was a disaster.
As a kid, Collymore wore claret and blue sweatbands and wanted to dye his hair blonde like striker Gary Shaw. His mum said no.
During his time at Crystal Palace Collymore felt there was something of a racial divide
But having joined the club in 1997, mental health issues that had started to appear at Anfield began to spiral. He did not find much in the way of sympathy from Villa manager Gregory or indeed a dressing room that included captain Gareth Southgate.
‘I came back after a spell in the Priory and a senior player stood up and asked where the hell I had been,’ explains Collymore.
‘I told him I had been somewhere to make sure I was well enough to still be around for my family in future years.
‘I am fine with John Gregory now and sent Gareth a message on the morning of the Euros final and he sent me a lovely one back. But Villa was such a bad time for me.’
Collymore is at peace with a playing career that also brought him three England caps. He recognises he was perhaps never perfectly cut out for life in such an exacting environment.
‘Ours was a one-parent family with a mum,’ Collymore says. ‘There was no male figure to take me to football or prepare me. People like Alan Shearer were very tough and focused. I wasn’t.
‘I found my apprenticeship at Walsall absolutely horrific. The manager Ray Train would scatter pennies on the floor and if you didn’t find them all he would run you round the track. I hated it.
‘At Palace l was in a dressing room with Gareth (Southgate), Geoff Thomas and Andy Woodman on one side and the black guys on the other. And I didn’t feel part of either group.
‘I sounded like the white group and looked a little bit like the black group.
‘The white guys were like, “You are black”, and the black guys were like, “What kind of black guy are you?” So physically, mentally and emotionally I was stuck in the middle.
‘For the first year I was literally on my own. But I wasn’t in the team anyway. I was never going to shift Ian Wright and Mark Bright, was I? And then came Southend (below). That was when it started to change.’
Southend have plans for a 22,000-capacity stadium, with Roots Hall to be sold for housing
Collymore is hoping that he can help Southend progress and enjoy a brighter future
Southend is a city now. It was granted that status following the murder of the MP David Amess last year. Sir David’s replacement Anna Firth is in the boardroom on the night of the Barnet game and the club is determined to play a part in giving Southend a brighter future.
Despite its recent financial issues, plans for a 22,000-capacity stadium have been approved and work is scheduled to begin in April. Roots Hall will be sold for housing. Collymore senses a change in direction and undoubtedly has brought a sharp focus to Southend’s efforts.
Before the Barnet game, he is asked to give a talk to the ball boys. Afterwards, he is off to speak to some of the staff who work for the club in the community. Like much of what he has done during his life, Collymore is all in.
‘Football, whether it is pro or Sunday League, is about good times and joy and that kind of reciprocating experience,’ he reasons. ‘When I came back here, the club had won something like 10 of its last 100 games and the fans wanted to know what I was gonna do about it.
‘After six games their view was, “Nothing!” But memories of playing here sustained me. You don’t forget those.
‘I had a bit of that feeling at Forest when we got promoted one day at Peterborough, 10,000 Forest fans hanging off the floodlights. I felt I had achieved what I had come to the club to do. Now I have another chance to help.
‘I wanted a full stop to all the protests here. I asked the fans for that. We then did proper due diligence on the new coach. I had 40 questions to ask.
‘One of the most awkward experiences here is going to the manager’s office after a game. I go in and say well done but I feel awkward because I have never been that guy sitting down and having a beer with other players.
‘They expect Robbie Savage but I haven’t got that style. But there are other things I have got.
‘I have done some scouting for John Still here, gone to games. I have my views. I have done over 1,200 games for radio.
‘I see things. I know people in the game. I can pick the phone up. They know me. They know my life story. It’s Stan.
‘I didn’t win anything in the pro game, so what I take from football are experiences and connections and that is what I have got here. You can’t quantify it. That’s what football is about.
‘The higher I climbed in football, the more difficult it was for me. I looked over that wall at Liverpool and it was like a barren wasteland. That is the exact opposite of what I feel here.’
During his time at Aston Villa Collymore endured problems with his mental health
Collymore didn’t receive much support from John Gregory but the pair are now on good terms