The latest “Speaks to Joys and Sorrows” is Darren Purse. Darren was a no nonsense, 110% defender who Blues fans have affection for. Darren gave me some of his precious shopping time, (yes really!), to talk about his football career, time at the Blues, Blues today, Gary Ablett and his future. The thing is, it didn’t start very well…
Right Darren, I gather you’re a London boy, and a West Ham fan.
Well Kev, I gather you’re a Villa fan.
The team I support is Millwall!
Oh great – sorry about that. Can we start again?
Right Darren, I gather you’re a London boy and a Millwall fan.
Yes that’s right!
Tell me about your start in football Darren.
I did the usual, played for the school, played for the district. I played for a team called Senrab in London. They produced a load of players like John Terry, Tony Cottee, Sol Campbell. I played for them, my Dad was involved too. He was Secretary and Chairman so on. I had a couple of opportunities to sign as a YTS at Arsenal and Spurs, but I went down to Leyton Orient and they said as soon as you turn 17 you can sign as a professional. That meant I didn’t have to do a YTS and clean boots or do anything like that. Two days after signing as a professional I made my debut away at Brighton.
After Orient you went to Oxford.
Yeah I played for Orient for 18 months and then in the summer I joined Oxford. I had 18 months there and had some good times. In the first season I was there, we finished 8th just missing out in the play-offs which was pretty decent for a side the size of Oxford’s standing it was good. Then in the summer I joined the Blues.
How did you get informed that Blues were interested?
I had an agent then. I told him I didn’t want to know what was going on if people were interested because I just wanted to concentrate on my football. Anyway he rang me up and told me that a bid had been accepted from Birmingham and that was the first I knew. Obviously when I was at Orient, I knew that clubs were interested in me. Although I was only young, I was playing well. The Birmingham deal came quite quickly, if I remember correctly, Kevin Francis went the other way. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done I think.
As a no nonsense central defender, who were your heroes?
Tony Adams was a big hero. I was lucky when I was at Arsenal as a schoolboy we’d always get a couple of tickets to watch a game and he was the player I enjoyed watching. He was an out and out defender who would put his body on the line and I’d like to think that wherever I’ve played I’ve done that too giving 100%, that I’ve never backed out of anything. Sometimes that’s good enough and sometimes it isn’t. I think throughout my career more often than not, it’s been good enough.
Tell us about what you remember of your time at Blues.
I was there for 7.5 seasons. Obviously played for Trevor Francis which was brilliant. I was just disappointed for him that he wasn’t the manager that got us promoted. When Brucey came in he was able to take us to the next level. Obviously the Worthington Cup final was a big break for me. (Kev – yeah we’ll come back to that in a minute!)
I really enjoyed my time there obviously had highs and lows. I think my first game for the club was Bury at home on a Tuesday night and I think we got beat 3-1! I played right back that night. That was definitely a low point, although I was playing out of position. It took me about 6 months to get over that as a young lad, but that was my breakthrough season though.
How about the Blues fans?
I got on really well with them. Mind you wherever I’ve gone I’ve got on well with the fans. I’ve always been a 100% player and that’s all fans ask for.
Did you ever play for Blues against Millwall? I often wonder what goes through a professional footballer’s mind when he plays against the club he supports.
I played against Millwall a few times and obviously the game that stands out is the season we got promoted when after drawing at home in the play off semi, we beat them at their place with Stern getting a late winner. I think it took everyone about 4 hours to get away from the ground! To be honest it was all about Birmingham City then, so it wasn’t even mixed emotions. I did want to further my career so I wanted to do well wherever I played.
Actually I was lucky enough to actually play for Millwall for a season and that was superb. That was also great for my Dad who has followed me through my career to see me play for the team I supported as a kid. There’s never any sentiment in football. You go out and do your best for the club who are paying your wages.
Although I’m a Millwall fan, I’ve always had a great affiliation with the fans of Birmingham. Even now I always look out for their results, as it was a big part of my career being at Blues.
So the Worthington Cup final. That must have been one of the highlights of your career. What was it like leading up to the game and on the morning of the game?
It was amazing. Obviously you try and prepare like for any other game but the big difference is the media coverage. The FA cup is even worse, as I discovered when I went to the final with Cardiff. The build up is massive with the press. But you do try and make it as normal as possible.
Did the team cope with it?
I think we handled it really well, especially the nerves. We’d been in 3 play-off semi finals so we knew what it was like to be in a “big game.” It wasn’t new to us. I think the effort we put in that day proved it. I still think we should have won it, but it just wasn’t to be.
Yeah I agree. We definitely should have had a penalty in extra time.
Yeah absolutely, and I’d have scored that one as well! (Yeah I know you would have!!)
In the 90 Liverpool were the better side in the 1st half, but we did come back into the game.
Yeah they deserved to be one up at half time, but we picked it up in the second half.
Heading into the last 5 or so minutes, the pressure was building. How conscious are you of how long is left or does it just zoom past you? Also talk us through the penalty.
When the game’s going on you do know how long’s left and in a cup final you do tend to push on. We did have a couple of half chances towards the end of the game. Jon McCarthy was putting over great balls with a minute left he put one in there were two tackles and the ref gave the 2nd one. He had to give one of them!
Martin O’Connor was down injured for a while and I knew I was going to take the penalty so I grabbed the ball and walked away.
Were you the prescribed penalty taker?
Yeah Martin was on pens earlier in the season and then he missed one. I’d scored the last one, so I was taking it. I was stood on the half way line thinking what my celebration was going to be! I decided where I was putting it, how hard I was hitting it and how I was going to celebrate it.
I believe you have to totally believe in yourself, otherwise you miss! Actually I did mess part of it up, the celebration that I decided I was going to do, I didn’t actually do! I think it was the elation of scoring. It was a great moment in my career, but was really disappointing we didn’t go on to win it.
Full credit to everyone for the commitment. We were virtually down to 10 because Martin really struggled. But we just didn’t want to get beat. It was a real effort, but we just couldn’t quite do it.
The Carling Cup Final, did you watch it?
I was away in Portugal and watched it like a fan. Spoke to Jonno, (Michael Johnson), the day or so before and he was as nervous as anything. We definitely deserved to win, although I don’t think anyone gave us a prayer. it was great for the club 1st trophy for 40 years. The fans really deserved that for all that they have been through over the years. To be a Birmingham City fan is definitely a roller coaster ride and so they deserved that. Also it made up for it a bit, the fact that we missed out at Cardiff.
In 2002 there was a lot of talk about you going. You did stay in the end. Was that a story that wasn’t there?
No I had a year / 18 months left on my contract. Brucey had taken over, and I was offered a new contract but I thought I was worth more so that was that really. Then all the rumours started coming out. Tony Adams said, which was one of the toughest things for me, that Arsenal should sign me after he had left. That certainly didn’t help the rumour brigade. That was the year we got promoted and so I ended being offered a new contract based on the Premier League so it was all done and dusted that summer. I wanted the best for myself and my family. I did want to test myself in the top flight, so to be able to do that with the Blues was great.
Obviously I can’t finish asking you about your time at Blues, without asking you about the late Gary Ablett. What were your memories of him?
Abs was a top man. He was a top pro on and off the pitch. I was only young when I joined the club and to have Bruce and Abs there, was amazing. What I learned from them especially in the first few months, I owe a lot to them for what they taught me about being a professional and being a centre half. Abs was a big part of that. there wasn’t much he didn’t achieve as a professional. If you asked any Blues player who played around that time, they would say the same, a top pro and a good man off the field too.
Yep I spoke to Benno and he said the same
Yeah Benno room shared with with Abs. I went to the funeral with Jonno, Benno, Dele, Martin O’Connor, Jon McCarthy
and there wasn’t one person who had a bad word to say about him. There was about 1500 people there, which shows what sort of person he was. It’s a sad loss, because he would have made a great coach. It’s very sad that young players aged 18-23 won’t get to benefit from his experience and advice like I did.
One personal story is when he did his knee, an ACL injury, he was doing his exercises in the treatment room. I think he was 34 then. He said I’ll get this knee bent in a week Pursey and running in a couple of weeks. Totally focused on getting fit. People had written him off saying it was a career ending injury, but he was so focused. Although he didn’t get running as quickly as that, he went on to play for Wycombe and in America. So a poke in the eye for those who were writing him off!
Today’s Blues Pursey – thoughts?
I’ve watched the Blues a few times this season. Obviously a lot has been made of the behind the scene goings on – but Chris and the players have handled that really well.
For them to be in the position they are with reasonably low transfers and frees, and to have done so well in Europe is brilliant. He’s a top coach. I’ve seen him in action on the training ground and he’s brilliant, as is his man management. He’s getting the best out of the players at the moment.
So now you’re at Argyle. As I lived in Plymouth for 20 years they are a bit of a second team for me. How are things going there?
Yeah OK. (Must be a tough gig at the moment!). Well I’ve been at the club 6 weeks now and things are beginning to turn around. The club have bought in much needed experience through the spine of the side, so this isn’t necessarily about me, but the experienced players have helped. We’ve picked up some decent results lately.We were 6 points off the next team and bottom but now we’re off the bottom and in touching distance of a couple of teams above us. Hopefully it will continue.
I could have stayed at Millwall and picked my money up there, but I wanted to play and if we can stay up this season and then even say get promoted next season – that would be pretty decent at this end of my career. The potential at this club is massive. It’s a great club, very friendly and they treat people in the right way.
What about your future?
I’ve done my A license so my coaching badges are basically done. Obviously I have the pro license to do if I want to do that. Probably start in March. I’ve been doing my coaching through the Welsh FA because of my links with Cardiff. I do want to go into coaching, well actually I want to be a manager. Hopefully the opportunity will come, but it’s down to me to keep looking and grab it when it comes along. I look forward to it, but I’m not in a rush because I’m still enjoying playing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the legend that is Darren Purse!
Images used with kind permission of Birmingham City FC