Billy Paynter is frustrated but philosophical about his lack of first team opportunities at Bramall Lane, writes James Shield.
The former Port Vale and Swindon Town centre-forward joined Sheffield United on loan from Doncaster Rovers earlier this term hoping to become a permanent member of Nigel Clough’s starting eleven. However circumstances, including Jose Baxter’s success as a ‘false nine’ and the League One club’s march into the FA Cup semi-finals, have conspired to ensure Paynter has spent the majority of his time either cajoling from the sidelines or sitting on the bench.
“I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want to play more,” he told The Star last night. “I think any professional footballer in my position would say exactly the same.
“But, on the back of all of that, it’s not as if I can knock on the manager’s door because the rest of the lads have done so, so well. I’m itching to get involved but I can understand why I’ve not been much.
“Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m loving my time here because the spirit behind the scenes is great. I think recent results definitely reflect that.
“So, if I’m not out there on the pitch or on the team sheet, then I try and encourage them as much as I can. And I’m absolutely made-up for them after a victory. I really am.”
Tonight’s match at Vale Park will be a poignant occasion for Paynter who was ineligible for selection when Clough’s squad gave Hull City an almighty scare at Wembley 12 days ago. After graduating from its youth system 13 years ago, he made 158 appearances and was voted the Staffordshire club’s player of the season before completing a transfer to Hull City in 2006.
Paynter’s experiences in Staffordshire - the Liverpudlian took an unconventional route into Brian Horton’s first-team - explain why he will prepare for this evening’s rearranged fixture properly irrespective of Clough’s plans.
“I got spotted by a scout called Henry Bradley, who had good links with Port Vale, who came to watch one of our matches when I was about 10 on a Sunday,” Paynter said. “He recommended me and I got invited to go down.
“I took the usual path through, schoolboy terms and YTS, but I couldn’t get a game in the youth team. Then, one day, the reserves were short and for a variety of different reasons some of the other boys couldn’t play so I was called-up.
“I must have done well because I kept on playing for them but, the strange thing was, I still couldn’t get in the youth team. People ask me to explain that even now but I can’t. I suppose it was just a case of different coaches having different ideas.
“Anyway, I took part in a training ground match between the reserves and the first team one day and got hauled off after 10 minutes. I spent the rest of the game wondering what I’d done wrong but then the manager came up to me and said ‘Get a suit son because you’re playing against Walsall tomorrow night.’
“I remember going down to the shop, Burtons I think it was, and getting one from there.
“But that taught me an important lesson. Always work hard and be ready to take a chance because you never know when one might arise. I think that stands you in good stead no matter what trade or walk of life you are in.”
Born in the tough Liverpool suburb of Norris Green and bred in Bootle - “We moved there later. It’s not too far from where Jose (Baxter) and his family live.” - Paynter’s playing style reflects his upbringing.
“We used to get games anywhere,” he said. “We were always kicking a ball about on the streets, using shop fronts as goals and dodging in and out of the cars that were driving by.
“They were rough and tumble affairs and you learned to look after yourself pretty quickly. If you couldn’t then you weren’t going to get very far.”
After arriving at Swindon Town via spells with Southend and Bradford, Paynter’s move to the County Ground not only kickstarted his career but also allowed the 29-year-old to pursue another of his passions.
“I used to go to a boxing gym down there and work out on the bags,” he continued. “It was run by Paddy Fitzpatrick who trains George Groves now.
“I really like my boxing and, after getting to know Paddy, I followed the last Groves versus (Carl) Froch fight really closely. I remember thinking George had made a massive mistake during the build-up to that what with all the mind games and everything.
“But everything he came out with he backed-up on the night and I thought he was really unfortunate to be stopped. I’m pleased he’s got his rematch and I suppose I’ve changed allegiances a bit now. I hope he does well.”
“Where I’m from, everyone grew up wanting to be a footballer or a boxer,” Paynter added. “And I think that’s why so many footballer and boxers come out of Liverpool; because it’s something lads like me aspire to do.
“With two massive clubs like Liverpool and Everton right on your doorstep, football is part of the city’s culture. It’s in the blood.
“But boxing is too and it’s cyclical. When you get a few good fighters, as we’ve got at the moment, then you get more following suit.
“Closer to Sheffield, I know Curtis Woodhouse because I played with him at Hull. I was chuffed to bits for him when he became British (light-welterweight) Champion recently and it’s really deserved.
“I wasn’t surprised to see him go into boxing though because you could tell he always loved a tear-up. In fact, I think he loved his boxing more than his footy even back then.”
Paynter was an influential member of the Rovers team which gained promotion to the Championship last season but, despite scoring 13 goals in 40 outings, including one against United, faces an uncertain future when his loan expires next month.
Having climbed from 21st to eighth in the table ahead of their meeting with ninth-place Vale, Clough’s side will make the journey west hoping to record their 14th win in 21 outings and keep a third consecutive clean sheet.
“I’m out of contract there and, being honest, I don’t really know what will happen,” Paynter said. “We’ll just have to wait and see but, irrespective of what happens, I’ll keep on giving my all and then take things from there.”