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Exclusive: Interview with Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp

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Loyalty is increasingly difficult to come by in the modern game, so when we see a player who has the passion and motivation, in abundance, while representing their childhood team, it makes it all the more special. But how often do we hear of a player featuring for his hometown club across three different spells? It is, indeed, very rare to see, and that’s what makes the career of Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp absolutely fascinating.

The 30-year-old is now back at Bramall Lane for the third time, following a five year spell away from the Yorkshire outfit. Having begun his professional career with the Blades, he returned to the club in 2007 following an impressive spell with Scunthorpe. After leaving the Sheffield club once more, he went on to feature for Doncaster Rovers, Southampton and Leeds, as well as having loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Derby, before making a full circle, returning for the final time in the 2015/16 summer transfer window.

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Sharp had played under then-Sheffield boss Nigel Adkins at three of his previous clubs – Scunthorpe, Southampton and Reading – and following the 50-year-old head coach’s appointment as Bramall Lane boss, it came as little surprise to see them re-united once more. Upon his arrival, Adkins made signing Sharp – for a fourth time in his career – his absolute priority, and it wouldn’t take long for him to land his man.

Just three weeks later, Adkins’ first wish as Sheffield boss came to the fore: dropped from pre-season friendly against German outfit Eintracht Frankfurt, and on the fringes of the Leeds United first-team, Adkins caught wind that Sharp could be available for transfer. With just a year left to run on his current contract, and having failed to nail down a regular starting place in the Elland Road outfit’s starting line-up, the stars were aligned for a romantic homecoming.

Talks were productive and the deal moved swiftly. Indeed, upon hearing of a potential move back to his childhood club, the then-29-year-old had no hesitation in returning home from Leeds’ summer training camp, in order to complete a £500,000 switch to his former club. In an exclusive interview, he told The Boot Room:

“It was the obvious choice. I was away in Austria on pre-season with Leeds at the time and I got pulled out of a friendly to say that I was going into talks with Sheffield United, so I was very happy. I got on the plane as quickly as possible as I couldn’t wait to re-join.”

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Born into a family of Sheffield United supporters, there is no doubting where the striker’s allegiances lie. As a young boy, Sharp was regularly taken to Bramall lane by his father, which saw him build a life-time affinity for the club he would grow up to lead and represent. He told The Boot Room:

“It is special because I’ve supported Sheffield United since being a boy. I used to come here with my dad and the rest of my family, supporting the team and it’s a dream come true to play for them once, let alone three times. It has been a dream come true for me.”

Sharp capped his return to Bramall Lane with 21 goals in 44 league appearances last season, and was one of few positive performers in throughout what will have been considered a disappointing campaign. The Yorkshire outfit finished in 11th place, a result that saw Nigel Adkins lose his job after just a single term in charge.

Like most forwards gunning for success, the 30-year-old sets himself a goal target ahead of each season, which he surpassed thanks to his efforts in the previous campaign. Having averaged a goal every two games this term, scoring four times in eight League One appearances, he looks set to achieve his objective a second year running. He said:

“If I can stay fit all season, no matter the league I’m playing in, I’ll always try and get to 20 goals. Last season was brilliant, as I managed to do just that. Two or three seasons before, I wasn’t able to. It was important I did that last term, and I’ll try and back it up this time round.”

Sharp’s crowing moment on his return to the club, and the one he holds most dearly, was a successful strike in Sheffield’s 2-0 home victory against Blackpool at the beginning of last season. His first goal for Blades after five seasons apart, this was the perfect means of signalling his homecoming, while guaranteeing a third consecutive win for the Yorkshire outfit.

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After an impressive return season, Sharp found himself made club captain in the summer just gone. Informed of his appointment just before fellow Blades supporter Chris Wilder was unveiled as Nigel Adkins’ successor. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he is now relishing being the man who leads out United every weekend, something he admits to having dreamed about as a youngster, on each of those Saturday afternoon’s spent watching his heroes in the Kop end:

“Again, another dream to captain the club just in a single game, but to be the club captain is something I will never forget, and hopefully my kids grow up and can follow in my footsteps.”

For the experienced centre-forward, this new clubs role has come with its own set of challenges, all of which he has successfully overcome. Forcing him to take on more responsibly within the club, it is fair to say he has led by example, both on and off the pitch. Talking of his relatively new role, he said:

“Off the pitch I have to be a little more organised, it’s like babysitting some of the lads at times [he joked]. On the pitch I have to keep my head more and you can’t switch off. As a captain you have to be on it 100% of the time, so this is something that I’ve had to manage.”

His influence on the pitch is mirrored by his efforts away from the game. Indeed, Sharp holds a strong desire to make a difference outside of football, and he does just, giving back to the community through his charity work and volunteering. He has always strived to assist in this light, although he admits there is an added importance when it comes to the city in which he learned the ropes as a young boy:

“I have always volunteered to try and give something back, but I think it’s a more important with it being my hometown club and the city I brought up in. I try and be a role model as much as I can, and enjoy all the stuff I get involved in.”

Having recently established the Billy Sharp Football Camp, aimed at providing UEFA Licence coaching for youngsters, Sharp revealed that his long-term plan is to move into coaching and potentially management following the conclusion of his playing career:

“It was always going to be my plan when I finished, but I was advised to do it while I was still playing and people still remembered me. I had a little taste of it [coaching] in the last school holidays and it went really well. At the minute I’m concentrating on my football, but I will come round to earning my coaching badges.”

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Now 30 years of age, Sharp’s professional career has spanned 12 years, during which time he has played for no less than eight Football League clubs. From the Premier League to League One, he has racked up over 400 senior appearances, giving him a comprehensive experience of the upper echelons of the English football pyramid. While discussing the divisions in which he has featured in most frequently, he highlighted the major differences between the Championship and League One:

“I just think there are more mistakes made in League One. The more pressure you but on teams, the more prone they are to error. In the Championship now the teams are set up to be a lot more organised and everything is a lot tighter.”

His return to Sheffield United saw him drop a level, from the second to the third tier, which involved facing a host of new opponents, many of whom are considerably less elaborate than their Championship counterparts. Nonetheless, there were a few sides who stood out for Sharp on his return to League One, most notably Swindon Town, for those style of play he highly commended:

 “In terms of style of play, I felt Swindon were very good, even though we got a decent result down at their place. The way they play, passing it around is very nice, good looking football. They obviously didn’t do as well [last season] as they would have liked to have done.”

Under the tutelage of relatively inexperienced manager, Luke Williams, Swindon have adopted a unique style of play for the level at which they play. With possession the name of the game, the Robins regularly find their hard efforts undone by the typical errors Sharp alluded to previously. Despite a play-off final finish the season previous, the Wiltshire outfit could only amount to a 15th place finish last term, irrespective of the goal scoring heroics of Nicky Ajose – who hit the net 24 times.

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Burton were another outfit who caught the attention of the Sheffield United captain, who was impressed by the Brewers resoluteness and high-octane performances. The 2014/15 League Two champions began the season with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the helm, and despite his departure mid-way through the campaign, were able to continue their form under former Sheffield boss Nigel Clough, finishing runners-up and, in doing so, achieving back-to-back promotions.

“Obviously impressed with Burton. Everyone wrote them off, but they managed to maintain a level of team spirit and the way they played was high energy. They managed to get their rewards through their eventual promotion.”

With eyes now on the current campaign, Sharp is firmly aware of the task Sheffield United face in achieving a high finish. With strength of last season’s relegated Championship sides, alongside the strength and quality of several outfits that remain in the division from previous years, each of the 46 league fixtures bestowed in the Blades’ path have equal importance.

“I think Charlton and Bolton [are contenders] for obvious reasons, both are big clubs coming down from the Championship. I think they’ll both be up there. Millwall is always tough to go to, they always seem to be in the mix. Also, Bradford have started well, and I think they’ll continue their form.”

Despite a stuttering start to the season, Sharp still holds high hopes of a promotion challenge with the Blades this season. Chris Wilder’s side currently occupy sixth place in League One, four points behind leaders Scunthorpe. Following the path to the Championship will be tough task for the 30-year-old and co, but he is confident that a continuation of the squad’s recent level of performance will see them achieve their goal:

“At the start of last season, I really believed that we were going to go up. We’ve had a lot of changes in the club this season, but the way we have kicked on the last few games, if we can build momentum, hope and belief, we can show that we are up to the challenge.”

Chris is the founder of The Boot Room. He is a Swindon Town supporter, having lived in Wiltshire for most of his years. His work has also featured on Squawka, Bleacher Report and Eurosport.

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Greg Docherty – Realising a childhood dream with Rangers FC

After completing his dream move to Rangers, midfielder Greg Docherty sat down with The Boot Room to look back at his career to date and the excitement of his time ahead at Ibrox.

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Last Saturday, Greg Docherty fulfilled a childhood dream by stepping out at Ibrox.

But this time, unlike his four previous visits to the home of Rangers Football Club, he was stepping out of the tunnel and onto the pitch as a home player following his January switch over to Glasgow.

Docherty’s home debut might not have gone exactly to plan – with Rangers falling to a narrow loss against Hibernian – but nevertheless, it was an afternoon that he is unlikely to forget anytime soon.

His move from Hamilton Academical, a Scottish Premiership side where he had plied his trade since joining their youth academy as nothing more than a nine-year-old with dreams, was perhaps as anticipated as it was justified considering his head-turning performances during the past 18 months.

For lifelong Rangers supporter Docherty it’s been a whirlwind start to 2018, and talking to The Boot Room in an exclusive interview he recounted the moment he discovered the transfer was in motion.

“Believe it or not I was actually on my way to the Hamilton game against Hearts [on January 24] and I received a phone call to say that the deal had been done and that I was now a Rangers player.

“It was all a bit mad. I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be playing that night but after the phone call I quickly had a chat with […] who said obviously you won’t play because we’ve signed all of the forms, and it’s up to Rangers now to do their stuff.”

The confirmation of a completed deal before the end of the transfer window would have come almost as a relief for the 21-year-old, who admitted that he first heard of Rangers’ interest courtesy of speculation across social media platforms.

“To be honest that’s where you first find out most of it, because social media is so popular these days for breaking news. You hear something then ask around a bit to see if it’s true or not but it’s quite funny how you read news about yourself.”

Fortunately for Docherty this proved to be one social media rumour that came to fruition, and little more than three days after being officially announced as a Rangers player he was taking his place in caretaker manager Graeme Murty’s squad, coming off the bench in the 74th minute in a 2-1 win at Ross County.

A winning start in a Gers shirt was undeniably the perfect way for Docherty to settle any lingering nerves following his well-documented winter transfer, and reflecting on his debut he praised the supporters who immediately back him that night.

“It was special. The reaction I got from the crowd was great – it was an incredible following considering the distance from Glasgow – and even when I was warming up the whole stand and a half that Rangers had been allocated were clapping and saying my name.

“It’s something I have dreamt of for a long time and for that to actually happen was incredible.”

But when one door opens, another one has to close, and Docherty’s move to Rangers signalled the end of his 14-year spell at Hamilton.

The Scotland Under-21 international spent the young days of his career working through the ranks at Hamilton’s esteemed academy – an academy that has seen the likes of James McCarthy and James McArthur graduate and switch to the Premier League – before making his first-team bow at just 17.

After getting a feel for first-team football in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, Docherty fully broke into the Hamilton side a year later and it’s fair to say that, from that moment, he never looked back.

He became a stalwart in the Accies’ midfield, going on to make over 100 appearances for them across all competitions, and he insisted that his decision to leave the Club was one that was ultimately made with a heavy heart.

“[I’ll miss] the people. I made a lot of close friends – some of my best friends are still there – and I’ll miss seeing them every day. It was a great place to be, a great place to work, and a great place to play football.

It was a joy for me, it was never a chore or anything like that, and I enjoyed every minute. It gave me a chance. I’ll just miss being in and around the dressing room, because it was a great dressing room, but it was time to move on and push on to the next challenge.”

There’s little doubt that Docherty will always be held in high regard by the home supporters for his efforts during his tenure at the Club, not least for his crucial goal that helped Hamilton edge past Dundee United in the two-legged Scottish Premiership relegation play-off in 2017.

It’s a moment that Docherty himself looks back on with fond memories, too.

“Scoring the goal to keep them in the league, that was it for me.

“Hamilton had shown a lot of faith in me through the years so for me to repay them with that goal to keep them in the league, that was special. Football’s funny sometimes with how it works and for me to score the goal after coming through the youth system was nice for Hamilton.”

It won’t be long before he’s back in familiar territory though, as Docherty and Rangers travel to New Douglas Park on February 18 in a match that’ll be rife with emotion for the academy product.

Football is often known to be an ironic sport at times, and there’s a certain amount of irony about the fact that the youngster from Milngavie all-but sealed the deal when playing against Rangers for Hamilton earlier in the Premiership season.

It was in Hamilton’s 2-0 win at Ibrox back in November – a match that gave the Accies their first victory at Rangers since 1926 – where the youngster excelled, earning an assist and generally catching the eye with a powerful midfield display, and it’s this that could have swayed the board of directors at Rangers into signing on the dotted line.

“In a way I hope so. I wanted to play well because it was against the team I support – it’s funny like that – but I wanted to prove that if I was to play for Rangers then I’d be more then capable.

“After that game I received a lot of nice messages from the fans congratulating me so I knew right away that they had taken to me a little bit. Then once the news came in that Rangers were interested in me the amount of support I received was incredible, and that was another factor in me signing.”

For now, though, Docherty’s time at New Douglas Park is a chapter of the past, and his firm focus remains on pastures new at Rangers – and more predominantly, getting them back to the very top.

Their return to the summit of Scottish football last season after four years of climbing back up the ladder has seen the club back where it belongs, and considering the plight that they have been recovering from since entering into administration in 2012, a third-place finish was an impressive feat on their return to Premiership football last season.

And whilst it seems that Celtic are once again set to reign supreme come the end of the 2017-18 campaign, Docherty is confident that Rangers will be right back on their heels again before too long.

At just 21 years of age Docherty has arguably already reached the pinnacle of the Scottish game by virtue of playing for one of the two notorious Glaswegian giants, and he admitted that he could already see himself spending the majority of his footballing career at Ibrox, aiding the club’s revival.

“You never know. If that was to be the case then I wouldn’t be disheartened by that at all.

“Rangers need to get back to the top, and one of my aims is to get them back there and competing at the highest level – and I’m sure the Rangers fans do too. There’s every chance of that happening over the next few years, I don’t see why not, you’ve just got to believe.

“If I was to stay here for the rest of my career then that would be brilliant but you never know in football and you want to play at the highest level possible.”

After achieving his dream move by the time he even turns 22 it’s clear to see that there’s a long and successful career there for the taking should Docherty avoid serious injury, and there is already growing talks that he could be in contention for a berth in the Scotland squad as the year progresses.

It is a testing time for the Scotland national squad at present, currently without a manager and with friendlies against Costa Rica and Hungary looming in March, but with three Under-21 caps to his name – and with a big move under his belt – Docherty is well-placed to push for a first senior call-up.

Asked about his national team aspirations, Docherty replied:

“Absolutely, I don’t see why not.

“Obviously I’ll take each game as they come but I think that if I start off playing well for Rangers I can’t see why I can’t push into the international team. I’ve already completed one of my targets to get signed by Rangers – but first and foremost I need to establish myself in the Rangers team.”

And this could begin with a first start in a Rangers jersey when they travel to Scottish League One outfit Ayr United in the fifth-round of the Scottish Cup on Sunday, with a quarter-final spot at stake.

It would be a full debut that would no doubt be received well by Rangers fans if social media talk is anything to go by, with Gers supporters urging their new signing to be given the chance to impress in midfield.

If anything, that shows just how highly-rated Docherty is – he’s something of a hot commodity right now.

But he insisted that he’s aware of the competition for places and strength in depth at Ibrox, adding that he feels he is at the right club in order to develop as a young footballer.

“I feel like I need to score more goals, and I need to contribute more. I need to be a more all-round box-to-box midfielder. I think I’ve got the fitness and the strength to do it but I just need to be a bit more aware when I’m on the ball and speed up the play.

“I think that’ll come at Rangers though and I think that’s something they are good at – they’re a very fast-flowing team – and that’s why I’m excited to be playing with them and see what it’s like to play in a game with such high intensity.

“It’s always been difficult to play against Rangers. The movement is always good and they’re always very switched on with what they do – that was another factor in joining, as I wanted to be a part of that. They’re a great side that are building momentum at the moment.”

It is this concept of building momentum that couldn’t be truer on the blue side of Glasgow at this moment in time, with their current position a far cry from the desperate predicament of late 2012.

With Docherty and fellow midfielder Sean Goss arriving in January there’s real potential for a partnership to be grown – one that could be the backbone of this Rangers side for years to come.

The signs are good for the Gers as they strive to compete for a 54th league title, combining energy and youth with some seasoned heads that lends itself to some pleasing football.

As for the immediate future, it may just take another few games for the enormity of the move to fully sink in for boyhood fan Docherty, but it is a scenario that just goes to prove the old-school cliché that dreams can be achieved if you are prepared to work hard enough for them.

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Abu Ogogo – Shrewsbury promotion hopes, Paul Hurst and Arsenal education

With Shrewsbury Town currently exceeding all expectations, occupying third place in the race for automatic promotion in League One, The Boot Room caught up with club captain Abu Ogogo.

Jake Jackman

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Shrewsbury Town have been the surprise package in League One this season and are challenging for promotion to the Championship.

At the time of writing, the Shrews are in third position, but if they win their game in hand, they will move back into the automatic promotion places. Quite simply, it would be a remarkable achievement if they were to return to the second tier for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

The two teams they are in direct competition with, Blackburn Rovers and Wigan Athletic, have both been in the Premier League in recent years.

This underlines how good the Shrews have been, especially considering the other two contenders will have bigger resources at their disposal. Manager Paul Hurst has built a good squad at New Meadow with a lot of young talent being given a chance to shine.

One of the leaders of the dressing room is Abu Ogogo, who has over 300 Football League matches to his name. The 28-year-old is the club captain and has played a major role in the team’s success this season.

The midfielder spoke to The Boot Room in an exclusive interview, revealing the reasons behind the team’s success:

“The manager has done a really good job and built a winning mentality at the club. He’s brought in good players, but also the right characters as well. I think we are also a lot fitter.

“We work hard every single day and we take that into games. We overrun and overpower teams and we’ve got good footballers. We have belief and quality, and that is a good combination to have.”

At the beginning of the season, few would have tipped the Shrews to challenge for promotion, but the likes of Jon Nolan, Ben Godfrey, Dean Henderson, Shaun Whalley and Ogogo himself have performed consistently to a high standard for the club.

They are a cohesive unit that is tough to break down and they always pose a threat when they have possession. Their individual work rate makes them difficult to play against and their high fitness levels are central to that.

League One is a division that grows stronger with every season. There are a number of big clubs currently in the division and that makes Shrewsbury’s current position even more impressive.

Blackburn Rovers have lifted the Premier League before, while Portsmouth and Wigan Athletic have both won the FA Cup during this century. Charlton Athletic are another club that have a history at a higher level.

Ogogo believes that the division is the strongest that it has been for years, but he is hoping that his team can follow in the footsteps of Yeovil Town and Burton Albion to earn a surprise promotion to the Championship.

“It is the strongest that it has been in a few years. You mentioned four teams there. Obviously you’ve got Bradford as well. The list goes on.

We’ve done very well to be in the position that we are considering we were favourites to go down and how our seasons have gone in the last two years, but we don’t look at the names of the teams we are playing or the size of the club.

It’s eleven vs eleven on the pitch and, to date, we have more than held our own. It’s a very tough league, but we’ve done well so far. But there is a long way to go.

“It is a massive achievement considering how tough the league is this year and how our last couple of years have gone. Going from staying up to getting promoted to the Championship would be a massive achievement. It is possible. Yeovil have done it. Burton have done it. They are a very good example.

“Hopefully we can do what they have and get promoted and stay in the Championship.”

There will be neutrals across the country that are willing Shrewsbury to continue their good form and finish in the top two of League One this season. The modern game is becoming controlled by money at the highest level and it is encouraging to see a well-run club in the Football League earning success the right way.

They have grown naturally and, as Ogogo alludes to, the players go into every game knowing that they can hold their own, even if the opposition are a previous Premier League or FA Cup winner.

One of the key figures responsible for Shrewsbury’s rapid growth is Paul Hurst. The 43-year-old arrived at the club last season and helped them secure their League One status.

It would have been easy for the manager to target survival once again, especially as the odds suggested they would struggle. However, he is ambitious and he has built a winning mentality at New Meadow.

Ogogo was full of praise for the talented coach for the positive impact that the former Grimsby Town manager has had on his own career and the club overall.

“Paul has been very good for my career and all of the players at Shrewsbury. He’s come in and changed our club completely. He’s worked miracles, to be fair, and it’s no fluke that he has been linked with Sunderland and Sheffield Wednesday in the past. He is a young, ambitious manager and he will have ambitions of his own to manage as high as possible. 

“He is a good man manager. You can talk to him about other stuff outside of football as well. He and his assistant [Chris] Doigy work very hard on the training pitch. They show you clips and parts of your game that you can improve on. He’s been massive for myself and I know he’s been played a huge part for all the other boys as well.”

The progress Shrewsbury have made since the appointment of Paul Hurst was most evident against West Ham United. They played two matches against the Premier League side after forcing a replay in the FA Cup.

The Shrews were the better team in the first meeting, which took place at New Meadow. They had more possession (55.3%) and had nine shots to the Hammers’ four. Ogogo played the full ninety minutes and was one of the standout players on the pitch. The midfielder made five tackles, won four aerial duels and completed two dribbles.

The 28-year-old was understandably proud of the team’s performance that day and believes it will benefit them in the long-term.

“When the draw was made, everyone expected us to get beat by four or five. We played them at home and more than held our own. We missed a couple of chances and we were the better team on the day.

We should have won that game. In the second leg, we went to their place and were five minutes from penalties. We had a good chance to go 1-0 up and dug in. It was backs-to-the-wall stuff for some stages of the game, but that was to be expected. We can take a lot of encouragement and heart from that.

“We played an established Premier League team and it took them a hundred-and-however minutes to score against us, so we can take a lot of positives from the performance. We more than held our own against Premier League players, so when we go back to League One, we know that we can more than hold your own in this division.”

It will have been encouraging for Ogogo to hold his own against Premier League players after failing to break into the Arsenal team as a young player. He was a part of the Gunners’ academy and, although he didn’t feature for the first-team, he did make the bench on a couple of occasions.

“It was great. Arsenal are one of the biggest clubs in the world and at the time, they had world class players such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie etc. They play football the right way and like to pass, which is how most people think football should be played.

“It is how I like playing as well, so to be brought up in their facilities, playing with those players and being coached by Arsene Wenger, Steve Bould etc, it was an unbelievable experience.

He spent five years at the Premier League club and his best experience during that spell was an impressive showing during the club’s 2006-7 FA Youth Cup run. The Gunners were seconds away from reaching the final and his performances were rewarded with a first professional contract to continue his development in North London.

Ogogo looks back at that time with great fondness, but he feels young players should now look to play senior football as quickly as possible, rather than playing in the academy set-up.

“For me personally, you should go out and play mens football. Academy football is about development. Of course you want to develop, you never stop developing, but you want to play matches that mean something with points on the line.

“To get out at a young age and play mens football will only be good for your career. I would encourage any young player to get out on loan as early as they can and to play as many games as they can.”

Despite not featuring for the Arsenal first-team, it allowed Ogogo to get his foot in the door of professional football. Towards the end of his time at the Emirates Stadium, he went out on loan to Barnet and performed well in League Two. A

permanent move away from the Gunners shortly followed as he joined Dagenham & Redbridge and he became a central figure at the club for six years before finally ending up at Shrewsbury.

When asked about his future aspirations, the midfielder spoke of his desire to develop further and earn an opportunity at a higher level.

“I want to keep developing as a player, whether that is with Shrewsbury or somewhere else. I’m like every other footballer you speak to, they’ll say they want to play at the highest level, which is the Premier League.

“I’m 28 now and I have a good chance of getting promoted with Shrewsbury to the Championship. I don’t like looking too far ahead. I want to train hard every day and play as well as I can in matches and try to contribute to the team. The rest will take care of itself, but I want to play as high as I can.”

As clear from his comments, Ogogo doesn’t get too ahead of himself and there will be no player in the Shrewsbury dressing room that will be thinking about promotion. It will be each player’s aim, but they will be taking nothing for granted.

Paul Hurst will be the first to make that clear to the players as they are competing with bigger clubs. However, Yeovil Town and Burton Albion have shown that it is possible to win promotion to the Championship as a smaller outfit too. If the Shrews continue to perform with the hunger and consistency that they have shown all season, they will take some beating.

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Ollie Banks – A fresh start in the Football League at Swindon Town

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Swindon Town manager David Flitcroft described on-loan midfielder Ollie Banks as a “top, top, top player” after his first appearance for the County Ground outfit.

Officially announced as a Town player the Friday morning before the Robins’ Saturday League Two fixture, Banks went on to play a starring role in his new side’s 1-0 victory over local rivals Forest Green, following which he collected the afternoon’s Man of the Match accolade.

The 25-year-old midfielder, who joined the club on a temporary basis from League One side Oldham, had found first-team chances hard to come by with his parent club and spent a short spell on loan at Tranmere Rovers, where he impressed for the National League outfit.

Speaking to The Boot Room, in an exclusive interview, he explained the rationale behind his move to Swindon and the role manager David Flitcroft had to play.

“I finished my loan at Tranmere and they offered me a deal to stay. I really enjoyed my time there. It is a brilliant club. But I wanted to get back into the Football League. I told Micky Mellon that I needed to give myself the best chance I could and I didn’t want to jump into any decision.

I waited for a few days after speaking to Micky, then Dave Flitcroft at Swindon rang me. He said he wanted me to come down and express myself and get the club where it needs to be. From there it was quite an easy decision to move down South.”

After a mixed start to the campaign for Swindon, who occupy eighth position in League Two at the time of writing, the January transfer window was always set to be a period of reinforcement for the club. New signings were required to strengthen the starting XI and enforce a sense of consistency, particularly to rectify a miserable home record of four wins in 13 league matches (prior to the new year).

Flitcroft’s background in scouting and recruitment has been a regular feature since he took the County Ground hot seat. His quest to bring the required quality of player, while ensuring the right characters and mix of temperaments remain at the club, has seen him turn to trusted peers, both in his playing and back room staff.

For the former Bury manager, recruitment is the key to success. Every deal has to be deemed the correct move for the club and this was no different in the case of Banks. Long-term and thoughtfully considered interest in the 25-year-old resulted in an offer being made for his services, as he revealed:

“Flitcroft said he has always kept track of me and tried to sign me a few times before. It is always important to have a manager who believes in you and likes you as a player. To have the backing of the manager is a huge plus. It allows you to go out with confidence and put good performances in.” 

Banks’ move to Swindon has represented new challenges to the 25-year-old, not least the prospect of living away from what he considers ‘home’.

Having always plied his trade in the north of England, most recently with FC United of Manchester, Chesterfield, Northampton Town, Oldham and Tranmere, this is the first time he has featured for a club in the southern counties.

“The move has been different, to be honest. I have never really had to live away from home, so it has been a bit strange, but I’ve enjoyed it. The lads and the gaffer have been really welcoming.

Banks made little of his role in debut victory over Forest Green Rovers. Nonetheless, his references to the competitive nature of the play-off race make both his and Swindon’s objectives for the end of the season glaringly obvious:

“It felt good to get Man of the Match, but there were a few good performers on our team and just to get three points in a local derby was a big thing. With it being so tight at the top of the league three points was the main aim, but to settle in so quickly is always a bonus.”

The central midfielder already has one League Two promotion on his CV, having won the title with Chesterfield in the 2013-14 season. Like all those associated with Swindon, he will be hoping to add another before the end of the current campaign.

Keen to be a figurehead throughout the club’s promotion charge, Banks followed up his debut heroics with Swindon’s only goal in Saturday’s 3-1 defeat to Coventry. Having fallen 2-0 behind after just 22 minutes, the 25-year-old slid onto the end of a low cross into the six-yard box to pull one back for the Robins.

This strike was to no avail, as Coventry proceeded to score a third late into the second half, but it was perhaps a sign of things to come from the Oldham loanee. Not typically know for his escapades in the final third, he is hoping to add goals to his game at the County Ground.

“I prefer playing slightly further forward, as it means you do have chances to get on the scoresheet. I’ve been playing a bit deeper throughout the last few years and I’ve found goals quite hard to come by, but hopefully playing a more advanced role under Flitcroft could lead to a few more goals.”

Bringing a creative spark and eye for a pass in the middle of the park, Banks’ has shown his ability to take up decent positions around the box too. Since his arrival, he has stood out in a Swindon midfield lacking a real presence, helping his side to two wins in three appearances – including a remarkable 4-3 comeback victory over Crewe Alexandra on Saturday afternoon.

The 25-year-old scored once in eight appearances during his time at Tranmere, impressing for the Merseyside outfit. The club, who currently occupying 5th place in the National League, had managed just three victories in eight matches leading up to his arrival, compared to the five matches won with the 25-year-old in the squad. Nonetheless, he underplayed his influence.

“A few weeks before I joined a few of the boys were saying that they weren’t taking their chances. I would be very naive to believe it was all my doing, the way lucked change, but I think the team just started taking chances were they previously hadn’t. That was the main factor.”

Rovers had been crying out for a player willing to take an unselfish role in the centre of the park and Banks provided this. Despite the short term nature of his move, he was able to strike a positive partnership with fellow midfielder Ollie Norburn, for whom he was full of praise.

“I would actually say that he [Norburn] is one of the best midfielders that I have played with for a while. He likes to get about and leave the middle of the pitch more that many midfielders do, so it became my job to hold a deeper role in midfield and work from there. “

Banks knows too well the trials and tribulations of the Football League and the volatility that comes with playing in the lower divisions. From being a regular starter at Oldham, under manager John Sheridan, to being a fringe player following Richie Wellens’ arrival, he found himself low in self-belief and in need of a fresh start.

Having made 33 League One appearances for the Latics in 2016/17, the 25-year-old had been limited to just seven first team appearances in the same competition this year. Ultimately, the November move to Tranmere made sense for all parties:

“Confidence was a major thing, especially personally. The spirit that we had from the backend of the season before didn’t seem to be there. You can go into all sorts of details as to why things didn’t work, but ultimately we just weren’t getting the results that we had before.”

“Richie Wellens came in and he didn’t fancy me as a player, so you just move on and hope that it works out elsewhere.”

With a year remaining on his contract at Oldham it seems unlikely that Banks will extend his current deal at Boundary Park. When questioned on the chances of signing a new contract with the Latics, he was answered, “I highly doubt that I will be extending, to be honest.” 

Instead, he will use the remainder of his time at the County Ground to prove his worth of a move elsewhere and, having made a positive impression just a few weeks into his spell at the club, interest from the Football League is likely to be high.

David Flitcroft is a man with an edge when it comes to scouting and recruitment. To be praised so highly by the Swindon head coach, after just two days at the club, is good indication of what is to come for the humble, but highly talented midfielder.

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