Football: 'There’s no point giving children dreams without the ability to deliver them'
PETER VINCENTI jnr has had a career few professional footballers can match, taking lesser-trodden paths to earn a living from the game and, rarer still, preparing himself and others for the many challenges faced by retiring players once the roar of the crowd fades.
Now 33, he has learned much from his pro journey from Millwall to Macclesfield, via highs at Aldershot/Rochdale and lows at Coventry – his 14 years simply can’t be evaluated by football’s often inaccurate and certainly limited adage ‘put your medals on the table’. The Muratti and Island Games star, scorer of one of the best Vase final goals of all time in 2006, has, indeed, enjoyed the highs in his time in the English Football League: promotions, cup wins, high-profile transfers, player awards, appearances at Wembley and cup-ties against the game’s giants. No, not the sensational Premier League, European and international achievements of fellow Islander and England star Graeme Le Saux, but a playing career to be proud of nonetheless.
Yet the real value of this Jerseyman’s career might be yet to be fully revealed, as his experiences, both good and not so good, on and off the field, in the often ‘brutal’ world of sport have been stored away; indexed-filed, as a resource to be used when and where needed. It could well be a treasure-trove for those who seek to follow him, encompassing as it does an understanding of the pressures and the need to maintain a balanced lifestyle, including the hot topic of good mental health. Like all stress, knowing how to manage it is the key.
Rarely, if ever, seeming to conform to the blinkered approach demanded of players (oft-hid under the acceptable pre-requisite of being ‘focused’) he achieved a professional reputation that kept his midfield skills in demand, all the while being aware and active in the community. His award for charitable deeds; a huge shift on the management committee of the high-profile Professional Footballers Association; and a drive to gain not only a degree at the start of his career but also a Masters by the end of it, marked him out as not only a team player, but also an achiever. He even found time to to take Uefa coaching badges and qualify as a referee ... not much grass grew under his boots.
Such ambition and love of the game led him to apply, despite his relatively tender years, for the recently available post of chief executive of the Jersey Football Association, putting forward a raft of impressive ideas during an extensive interview.
That post eluded him, but he doubtless made a strong impression that here was a young man that Island football could benefit from in the years to come.
Son to an extremely high-profile Island football man in Peter senior, a former Muratti player who achieved unparalleled success as an Island manager, Peter junior comes across strongly as his own man, but given that link, he was highly unlikely not to develop a passion for the game. However, his junior career was again, not the standard pathway to the pro game.
A tall midfielder with an eye for goal, mirroring his father in that respect, he was not, however, driven that way by his family. ‘I never thought too much about it,’ he says, adding, ‘growing up in Jersey the pathway to professional football wasn’t really there. My dad was never obsessive of me. My parents never put pressure on me to make it in pro football – the only thing they stressed to me was the importance of education,’ something he clearly heeded.
‘It was always a hobby for me, but the memories are just as special as those gained later. Growing up with my dad as a manager and then playing myself – the Murattis I watched and then played in, winning the league with St Peter. In fact, the enjoyment of playing alongside friends was probably greater – you’re not burdened with the pressure of pro football.
‘As a lad I loved the Muratti. I’d grown up watching it and loved watching the games at the old Springfield and The Track. I remember the 1997 Island Games in Jersey – that side [gold medallists managed by this father] were a great squad of players.
His junior career was with First Tower juniors and then on to St Peter where he progressed to the senior squad, playing a leading role in their championship success of 2006, and with the Island team.
‘I only played under my dad for a short time but he was and still is tactically astute. I always remember him taking the pressure off players. Before the 2006 under-21 Muratti we were having a nightmare practicing free kicks. He stopped the session, saying we were only going to practice one more from each area “so you know where to be” because it “will be alright on the day” – and it was as we scored from three set pieces and won 4-0.’
Crowned Jersey Footballer of the Year in 2007, his final Island action was at that summer’s Rhodes Island Games before his pro journey started. And that came as a bit of a surprise.
‘I graduated from Liverpool University after three great years (only playing socially with the 2nds), with a BA in business and was all set to move to Dublin to work in finance, until a trial with Millwall came about. ‘
That chance came about through St Peter FC stalwart Brian Foulser, who had contacts with Millwall and who organised a trial. He trained for two days with the London club’s reserves but left with the vibe that things hadn’t gone particularly well. But a trial against Sutton United followed and that ‘couldn’t have gone any better’. Fine margins, as always.
‘Having returned to Jersey, the following morning I got a call from Millwall to come back over on Monday for a two-week trial with the first team, after which I was offered my first pro contract by manager Willie Donachie and his assistant Pat Holland.
‘Obviously, I’m thankful for Brian giving me an opportunity, he has remained a friend ever since.’
Not taking the academy route into the game, did that make him better positioned to stand up for himself?
‘Not necessarily. Regardless of age, going into a dressing room is quite a daunting prospect. I knew at Millwall I had not done anything in the game and so I was quiet and kept myself to myself. I was confident in myself as a person though and the lads were great with me.
‘I was not conditioned for pro football and needed to build myself up. I was also not used to the nature of the game in the UK, coming from Jersey – I believe that would have been different if I had joined as an academy player. But I wouldn’t have changed my route – university gave me different skills and experiences – I might not have had the career I’ve had if I’d been at an academy from a young age.
‘Coming out of university with options meant that I wasn’t so single-minded on football like a youngster might be. They become fixated on making it and it becomes their everything. For me I was older and my attitude was more of giving my best in the trial and seeing what happened.’
‘Looking back, I can’t remember what I was expecting of pro football. I’ve been fortunate to live a dream and it has given me some wonderful memories and privileges. But it is a brutal industry and what many see on Instagram are only fragments of a footballer’s life.’
Having gained a foothold in the pro ranks at the relatively advanced age of 21, Vincenti certainly has a lot of memories to look back on.
After learning the ropes at Millwall, a move to Stevenage Town provided some big ones, not least becoming the first Channel Islander to play a competitive fixture at the new Wembley [the first of three visits], when winning the FA Trophy and the Conference.
Later came a memorable League Cup run with Aldershot, first beating West Ham at Upton Park and then facing Manchester United. Great years, too, at Rochdale, with promotion to League One and some FA Cup runs, which included victory over Leeds United and scoring the winner against Nottingham Forest.
‘The Leeds win was special –my wife Alice’s family are all Leeds fans and required a lot of tickets,’ he recalled.
But it’s not just the big-name memories that stand out, as such recollections are always personal, as all footballers will surely testify to. One such moment sticks out for Vincenti, a League One fixture away to Leyton Orient: ‘We were 1-0 up, but they pulled back to 1-1. With a man sent off, we conceded just before the break and went in 2-1 down, but hit back to win it 3-2. After going over to the Rochdale supporters we were applauded off by the remaining Orient fans. The atmosphere in the dressing room was an absolute buzz. All together, exhausted, but a real satisfaction for the shift put in. Those moments and memories are just as special.
‘A dressing room can be an intimidating environment at times but you learn about yourself and others within it.
‘Some players are quiet and keep themselves to themselves and others are more extroverted.’
Celebrations are a memorable part of anyone’s career, with Rochdale’s promotion season being marked in style with Vincenti and five others flying to Las Vegas for four nights. Oh, the life of a footballer!
But the down times in football are far harder to describe – and deal with.
‘You can always look back and pick a highlight, but the down times are more frequent and prolonged in a career. It’s the mental side of the game which is the most difficult to deal with.
‘Pro football is constant pressure. If you haven’t won on a Saturday more often than not that pressure is on you for the week . . . and if you lose the following game, it gets heavier as you’re trapped in a cycle of training and fixtures.
‘Looking back, I was always extremely critical of myself – perhaps too much so. That was counter-productive at times – even if the team had won, but I hadn’t played particularly well I would lose sleep over it for the next few nights and shut myself off.’
At various times throughout his career, thoughts about retiring would emerge – even when playing some of his best football.
‘I thought about giving it all up, but ultimately, could never bring myself to make that decision. A football career is short and I didn’t want regrets in later life by finishing too early. “Just a bit longer” I would think – I always chased one more memory.
‘Football is a drug – it’s very difficult to give it up. The thrill of running out onto the pitch never fades – I think when I’ve retired the sights, sound and smells of a match day will be what I will miss the most.’
So how are hard times managed?
‘As I became older, and as awareness in mental health began to change, I did become more open in discussions with my family and others who I trusted. I do think that helps to clear your mind. It’s an important aspect of the game to deal with.’
Much of his time in the pro game was when the industry still appeared to favour an outwardly strong – but silent – approach from players about their personal problems, though that began to change in his later years, with much more awareness of mental health in society in general. Campaigns and individuals who spoke publicly of such issues resulted in far greater acceptance of such ‘revelations’ being made. But there remains work to do.
As an example of how football tended to handle things in this area, Vincenti relates the following incident:
‘I had a good friend, Mitchell Cole, who passed away on a Friday night. We were playing Fleetwood away in the FA Cup on the Saturday and I was told the news that morning at the hotel. I never went to the team meeting.
‘Although the decision to play was left to me the attitude conveyed was “play for Mitch”. I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind to play but as a footballer you were needed to be seen as indestructible.
‘I don’t remember anything of the game other than the goal I scored –which is my favourite goal of my career.’
Trying to deal with Rudyard Kipling’s ‘twin imposters’ success and failure, is key in most professions and certainly football.
‘Looking backwards and feeling proud is not really how I am as a person. If I was to pick one moment it would probably be the day we got promoted with Rochdale. We beat Cheltenham 2-0 and learned results had gone our way, meaning we secured automatic promotion. But the real satisfaction came from the fact all my family were there. My older sister lived in London and she enjoyed coming to the games but my little sister still lives in Jersey and couldn’t make many. But both were there with my mum and dad and it meant a lot for me that they were there to share in the success of promotion on the day.’
On the reverse side of that coin was being head-hunted by former top-tier club Coventry City. It should have been one of the highlights of his career, but nothing is clear-cut in the game – and Vincenti would soon realise that moving from Spotland to join the Sky Blues was far from a dream move.
‘I never enjoyed my time at Coventry – early on in pre-season I knew deep down I had made a mistake – there was an animosity surrounding the club.’
The timing had been all wrong, with an ankle operation the previous season forcing him to miss a large part of the campaign and the surgeon advising him to rest as much as possible during the close season. Coventry, however, came in towards the end of the summer and that meant going into pre-season at a new club still recovering from injury and being far off required fitness.
‘I was desperate to make up for missing so much of the previous season and wanted to do my best to help a big club like Coventry get promoted – in that sense I think I put too much pressure on myself to come in from a League One club and deliver.
‘I was told I was being signed to do what I had done at Rochdale, where we played possession football on the front foot in a 4-3-3 formation. I was either side of the front man which worked, with assists and goals.’
But Coventry, under Mark Robins, the former Manchester United striker, played 4-4-2, with Vincenti out on the right of midfield and unable to contribute in the way he had at Spotland.
Not the type of player to frequently take on defenders one-on-one, but rather an intelligent player in a positional sense, the 6-foot 3-inch midfielder was a box-to-box player and much of what he did would go unnoticed by the fans, particularly in defence.
‘Despite my size many of my goals with Rochdale had come from ‘ghosting’ in at the back post, but rarely did Coventry dominate games – it always seemed to be a battle and a slog.’
Still hampered with the previous season’s keyhole ankle operation, he struggled to even walk the dog following games or tough training sessions and that resulted in him needing a bigger operation at the end of the 2017-18 season to finally rectify the problem.
‘I was also still living in Leeds and driving down before training on Mondays and staying the week in hotels and back home after games – it’s these things which have an effect on players which people on the outside don’t see.
‘ But despite this I don’t regret signing for Coventry when I did. That’s not contradictory, in hindsight I wish I hadn’t, but I simply couldn’t turn down a club the size of Coventry – if I had I would always think “what might’ve been”. ‘
His experience at the Rioch Arena also give an insight into what pro footballers often put their body through.
‘I’ve always played through injuries and have lost count of how many steroid injections I’ve had in my knees and ankles to play. If I had to take a guess it would probably be about 30. Painkillers were taken every day, before and after training and games to get through ... because it’s your job.’
While at Spotland Vincenti started his involvment with the PFA, becoming the club delegate before progressing to the union’s management committee. That was also the opportunity for further work in the wider community, something which had already begun in earnest at Aldershot, and which led to him becoming the Sky Bet Football League’s first recipient of their Unsung Hero of the Month Award in late 2015.
The award was in recognition of his charity work for Edgars Gift and for going the extra mile to strengthen the club’s links with the local community. Set up by Leicester City supporters Julie and Neil Bradford after they lost their son Ben to rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive form of muscle cancer, a request for a signed shirt and ball set in motion a train of communication that led to Vincenti becoming a patron of the charity, which provides unique experiences or gifts to young adults aged 18-30 who are suffering from cancer.
‘They do all sorts for young adults suffering from cancer,’ enthused Vincenti. ‘Special days out, luxury gifts such as an iPad or a PlayStation for those who are going through it. They raise money where they can – even a cycle to all 92 Premier and Football League grounds in the country a while back.’
His involvement with the charity grew after his move to Rochdale, with Vincenti pestering his kit man to get signed shirts whenever they played against bigger teams in pre-season or cup games, donating tickets to watch England at Wembley and the like. But it was his willingness to being involved in the process that set him apart.
Rochdale’s chief officer at the time, Colin Garlick, said: ‘Peter takes his responsibilities as the club’s PFA representative seriously. We regularly send the players out to the schools through our Community Trust programme and he acts as the liaison, sets up the rota and makes sure those things are done. His charity work is typical of his character. He’s quite giving to others and he makes time for people.
‘He’s hugely popular with the fans because he makes time for them. The good that players do in the community reflects very positively on the club and we are happy and very proud to be associated with that when a player receives an award such as this.’
Having become more and more involved with the PFA, Vincenti has no doubts about the union’s importance: ‘Once a member, you are a member for life – players have access for funding for educational courses; access to rehabilitation spaces at St George’s Park; benevolent grants and pension contribution – amongst many other advantages.
‘Another benefit, which some players might not be aware of, but that most would have benefited from, is the Football League contract. As a union the PFA negotiated the contract on behalf of its members and it means players get paid even when injured. In some other league’s salary is reduced if injured for a sustained period.’
The PFA, much in the news throughout negotiations with football’s response to the coronavirus, do, however, do much of their work in the background. Vincenti is keen those efforts are recognised, particularly the help they give to players at clubs that are struggling financially.
‘I have had tremendous support from the PFA. Two clubs I’ve been with have been in difficulties and the union has helped players financially at both. I have also used the educational grant to help fund my MBA through the Open University.
‘As a member of the management committee I have come to know Gordon [Taylor, the high profile head of the union] for a number of years. I have seen what he has done behind the scenes for the benefit of the members which are governed by confidentiality and so remain undisclosed. While there are areas within the PFA which can be improved, as with any organisation, I haven’t felt or seen a resistance to change and there is no doubting that Gordon cares deeply about the members.’
Vincenti, father to Arianna, two this summer, has had a wide mix of managers, all with varying styles and approaches.
‘I always enjoyed my time playing for Dean Holdsworth at Aldershot and it’s still the first team I look for to see their results. He was relaxed around the players, but specific with detail. We had the making of a very good team but the squad was young and didn’t have the experience of the league yet. My time at Aldershot and my first year at Rochdale, I think, were my favourite years in football.
Keith Hill and Chris Beech were brilliant in my first two years at Rochdale. Tactically it was very good and enjoyable and we would often outplay and outrun teams. The dynamics in that first year were perfect. We almost had a work-hard play-hard attitude and it suited us. Towards the end of my second year things started to change and I think the dynamics did as well.
‘I’m not one to criticise or comment specifically on individual managers, though that’s far more difficult when you can’t respect them. There have been times when I didn’t agree with how some went about things, but that’s football and you need to get on with it.’
When asked about former England star Sol Cambell as a boss, Vincenti said: ‘No comment, I think people will formulate their own opinions on him.’
A manager’s relationship with senior players can often be difficult as they prepare themselves for life after a playing career, with Vincenti saying: ‘A lot of players will do their coaching badges, but some managers become wary of those who do so and display an attitude towards such players that they think they know more.
‘I remember when I started doing my MBA my manager at the time was very critical of it – he wanted me to focus solely on football.’
With his eye on a future off the pitch Vincenti recently applied for the role of chief executive of the JFA, a job that interested him greatly, as he felt his experiences, knowledge and contacts could make a difference to Island football. He tackled the interview process with customary vigour and is happy to share his own particular vision he put forward for Jersey, although the post went to a more sports management experienced candidate in David Kennedy.
‘My desire was to make the JFA the gold standard of sports organisation on the Island and raise participation levels. I grew up in local football and saw those levels drop over the years. I wanted to raise them, not just for players, but for anyone who wanted to be involved in football – coaches, referees or volunteers. Female participation is a key area for growth, so I took the opportunity of discussing this with Steph Houghton [England captain] who I know from the management committee.
‘I wanted to bring other Premiership players I know to the Island to go into schools and clubs to give the kids dreams and something to aspire to.’
He knows well what pro clubs will be looking for in younger players and adds: ‘There’s no point giving the children dreams without the ability to deliver them. I wanted strategic partnerships with clubs, work with local coaches and bring over pro coaches and managers to give Island players a view of a pathway – not just for the top players but to give all a more rounded view of the professional game which can be incorporated at a local level to raise standards’.
Planning to use his contacts to raise the Island game’s profile through marketing, hosting events and raising income and sponsorship for grass roots growth, he also put forward ideas to introduce futsal pitches and target the building of specific facilities – JFA headquarters with a stadium and additional artificial pitches.
Believing the association has let down local players over the years, with the introduction of Jersey Bulls and Parishes of Jersey highlighting their desire for more fixtures, he advocates bring over pro clubs more frequently and increasing games for Island players.
More immediately, he planned to advocate splitting the season either side of a longer winter break – fewer games weather-hit giving more consistent play. ‘I speak to friends who go weeks without a game and then have three in a week. That can be eased by implementing a winter break and introducing a futsal league during that break. Futsal might also appeal to those who can’t or don’t want to play the traditional 11 v 11.
‘I feel as though certain groups in the Island aren’t playing football and I wanted to tap into that and give anybody who wanted to be involved the opportunity to do so. Football should be a big part of Island life.
‘I was disappointed to hear that players are selected for representative sides almost exclusively from the Centre of Excellence in terms of age groups. Such elitism is not suitable for Jersey’s demographic – what if a youngster has had a tough week at school? Or a difficult time at home? Or even growing into their body ... all leading to a poor trial which meant they might be overlooked for selection? If not selected for the COE they can become disillusioned and even drop out of the game. If their friends are selected and they’re not, they will feel embarrassed and drop out. In an Island with a small population you can’t have that.’
Vincenti, who has personal experience of being overlooked for the centre, adds: ‘Best-case scenario is they have a point to prove and go on to have a good season. But then if they are not selected for the Island at the end of it because they aren’t in the COE, how is that right?’
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