Big Interview: Former Sheffield United skipper Nick Montgomery on life Down Under, his time at Bramall Lane and his delight at Chris Wilder bringing glory back to Blades
Nick Montgomery has just spent a week on a South Pacific island, living in a village which, after being destroyed by a cyclone, had no electricity.
The surroundings were idyllic but, the former Sheffield United midfielder admits, witnessing the hardships endured by the locals was a humbling experience.
“A good friend of mine from Australia grew-up in Vanuatu and, not so long ago, a huge storm wiped out his village and wrecked all the homes. He’s spent months and a lot of his own money helping the people there rebuild so, because we’re great mates, I wanted to do my bit as well.”
The Vanuatuans’ story struck a chord with Montgomery because he spent much of his own life battling against the odds. Born in Leeds but bred 40 miles away at Bramall Lane, the midfielder spent nearly a decade-and-a-half with his hometown club’s arch-rivals before, after cementing a place in United folklore, moving halfway across the world to join Central Coast Mariners. Montgomery, who last month announced he was retiring as a player, is now planning the next phase of his career after being appointed the Australian outfit’s new head of football.
“I felt it was the right time as I’d be 36 when the next A League season starts and my back, ankle and Achilles have not enjoyed training every day for a while. I’ve done so much running that I think I’ve disintegrated most of my cartilage so the joints are not like they used to be. Also, when the role of head of football came up at the club and they offered it to me, I felt turning it down just to play on for one more season would have been a regret.
“And although I had offers to play in Asia and elsewhere, I made the decision for all the right reasons; for my family and girls who have just started school and on my own terms.”
Montgomery made 397 appearances for United after graduating from their youth programme in October 2000. A proud Yorkshireman and dyed-in-the-wool Blade - “I’ve always kept up with everything that’s happening” - living in Australia has proved challenging in some respects. But, he acknowledges, extremely rewarding too.
“The lifestyle is brilliant and my girls, who have just started school, are very happy. We really enjoy life on the Central Coast and although in football moving is normal I am happy that for now we can remain where we are.
“I miss my family in England dearly but I suppose we can’t have everything in life. They’ve visited though and we’re always in touch on FaceTime and stuff like that. They know it’s great for the kids and we’ve made some amazing friends over here who have become like family to us.” One of those, Danny Barton, was responsible for organising Montgomery’s trip to Vanuatu in the wake of Cyclone Pam. Twenty-four people died and another 3,300 were displaced when winds, measuring up to 175 miles per hour, hit the archipelago two years ago. The impact of the devastation, described by a UN report as “major and severe”, is still being felt today.
“Danny has spent months and a lot of his own money trying to help out so, to be honest, it was the very least I could do,” Montgomery explains. “The people there don’t have transport but are a 50 minute drive from any shops or other civilisation. Most of their belongings were simply blown away.
“I promised him I’d go out and, along with Danny, rented a truck and took loads of supplies out including bags and bags of the Mariners’ old kit. The whole village are Central Coast fans now and we also bought them a generator so they can have some light at night.”
Montgomery has now returned to the Mariners’ base in Gosford to begin preparing for his new role. Although the team’s fortunes have dipped of late - they were crowned Grand Final champions during his first season in Australia but finished eighth last term - Montgomery is convinced he can help shape its recovery.
“It’s a great family club with a good history in the league. After winning everything in my first season and having instant success, the club then suffered as we had some very good young players like Tom Rogic (Celtic), Trent Sainsbury (Inter Milan) Matty Ryan (Valencia) go together with some very experienced ones. The club was then taken over by an English owner who had to cut losses and has since tried to make the club sustainable. We now have a state of the art training facility, use of a swimming pool and also offices and cafe so the club is heading in the right direction.
“Paul Okon (Mariners head coach) is really good and I enjoy working and mentoring the young players. I’ll be with the first team bots in a morning and then, after that, working on logistics, the academy and other different things.”
Montgomery played under seven managers, including Neil Warnock, Bryan Robson and Kevin Blackwell, during his stay with United and was a member of the squad which reached the Premier League in 2006. After agreeing to cancel his contract following their relegation to League One six years later, United’s recent struggles have caused him a great deal of frustration. But he sees similarities between the side which, under Chris Wilder’s stewardship, achieved promotion at the sixth time of asking and Warnock’s notoriously uncompromising group.
“That team spirit and never say die attitude is back and that’s one thing that I always had in the best squads. Chris has given the club its identity back and I’m chuffed to bits for him and some of the great friends I’ve still got there, including many behind the scenes. They’re as much a part of it as anyone else. Okay, people can say the club has lacked stability before Chris came in and, to a degree, that’s true. But it’s only because (co-owner) Kevin McCabe and the directors have been desperate to get the club back into the Championship. Some managers haven’t delivered and wasted lots of the club’s money so they’ve had to take tough decisions for the club to move forward.”
“Coming to ‘Fortress Bramall Lane’ was always horrible for other teams,” Montgomery adds. “Even the best players and Premier League clubs would tell you that. No one came expecting an easy game and to leave with anything would take blood, sweat and tears. As a player, I used to walk out and look at the clock on the John Street Stand and know I was going into battle.”
Montgomery cites Wilder’s arrival last summer and Billy Sharp’s appointment as captain as the catalysts for United’s revival.
“I predicted it because, not only is Chris a Blade, but he’s a good guy who knows and understands the club. It’s not about spending loads but more about assembling a squad who know what the club is about and the culture that is needed for success. Too many players over the years signed there for the wrong reasons and some previous managers made a lot of bad signings who let the club down. I’ve worked for some great managers in the past and learnt tons from them. From others, absolutely nothing at all.
“Chris knows it’s all about getting the right players and the right characters though. I spoke to Chris when he got the job and kept in touch during the season. I’m so proud of him and the club.”
“Also having my good mate Billy wearing the armband was a master stroke by the manager,” Montgomery continues. “Billy bleeds red and white, just like I did for 14 years. Billy has shown what a real leader he is and no doubt that culture he instilled in the squad had a massive part to play in promotion.”
Montgomery worked hard and tackled even harder throughout his time at United; winning the respect of team mates and opponents alike. Regarded as a fearsome competitor in England, working in Australia has helped him develop another facet of his game. “Back home, we rely a lot on fitness and physicality of our players and it’s a 90mins full steam ahead. The difference here is playing in 30 or 40 degree heat doesn’t allow for that so the tactical side is very important. Of course having good players makes it easier, but to have a team who have a style of play and a game plan can be the difference between winning and losing the game. So a lot more thought goes into the preparation with video analysis. Also with only one game a week, this is easier.”
“Given that there is no language barrier, I definitely think it’s something more English players should do,” Montgomery adds. “It’s a very good standard and league and the lifestyle is very rich. The problem is most players think they can leave it until the end of their careers which is not the way it happens now. Most teams won’t touch anyone over 30 as it’s not a holiday as some players think. I have seen some big names come over and really struggle.”
Montgomery, aged 35, has gained his UEFA coaching badges since leaving United and, working closely with Okon, has set his sights on acquiring the Pro Licence. It is a path Montgomery believes could eventually lead back to Bramall Lane where he remains an extremely popular figure.
“Plenty of people got in touch when I said I was retiring. It meant the world and made me quite emotional. To have people say that I was their idol and favourite player is amazing. I think the fans appreciated I went out every week wearing my heart on my sleeve no matter if I was carrying an injury or low in confidence. My association with the club will never end and who knows where I will be five years from now? But one day I would love to have a role at the Blades. I can’t wait to take my girls to the Lane for a game and show them where daddy ran around for 14 years. Maybe that will be in the Premier League in the next year or so. That would be brilliant.”