Curtis Woodhouse thought so much of Sheffield United that, when things started to go awry, he made an amazing sacrifice.
Armed with a vote of confidence from Neil Warnock and a lucrative new contract simply begging to be signed, the former England under-21 international walked away from the team which had become his surrogate family.
“I left because I felt as if my career was unravelling and I thought so much of the place. I didn’t want people who had given me so much to watch that. So I decided, if it was going to happen, it would be better happening elsewhere.”
Woodhouse, the footballer turned boxer turned non-league manager, does not expect any praise for his altruism. In fact, his motivations were probably symptomatic of what he describes in his new book ‘Box to Box’ as the “long, slow death” of his love affair with the game. But, a decade-and-a-half after electing not to accept United’s offer, the 36-year-old insists it did reveal the depth of his affection for a club he credits with “saving his life”.
“Yes, I really do mean that,” Woodhouse says. “Without Sheffield United, I dread to think how my life would have turned out. I arrived at 16, from a home that had become broken, and found another family there. That’s exactly what the club is, a big family. And it’s something I appreciated so much.
“That’s why I’ll always be a fan, I’ll always count myself as a Blade and, no matter what I do in the future or where I end up, it will always have a special place in my heart.”
Woodhouse’s journey, from a Driffield council estate to British light-welterweight champion via Bramall Lane, Birmingham City and plenty of other places in between, is a triumph of persistence over sometimes self-inflicted adversity. It defies logic too.
The street brawls, the drinking sessions and scrapes with the law which pockmarked his youth were hardly helpful for a successful sporting career.
Yet, despite it all, Woodhouse played in the Premier League and rubbed shoulders with the likes of David Beckham and Frank Lampard before being crowned British light-welterweight champion after deciding his future lay inside the ropes, not on the pitch.
Woodhouse is now putting the lessons learned along the way to good effect at Bridlington Town where, having regained his appetite for football, he took charge earlier this season following spells with Sheffield FC, Hull United and Goole.
“Working at this level is a brilliant education,” Woodhouse insists. “It’s taught me so much because you have to get involved in every aspect of your players’ lives. Why? Well, we don’t pay them enough to cover the mortgage so you end up dealing with all sorts of stuff.”
“Take the other night for instance,” he continues. “I’d got my team all sorted, finalised the starting 11 and then the phone calls start coming through. One lad was having to work late and another had been offered £150 overtime. When you’re only getting £20 to play football you know the choice he’s got to make.”
“I’ve doing my coaching badges, have got a UEFA B licence and am now doing my A,” he continues. “I’ve also got those years in the business behind me as a player and international experience too so there’s plenty to fall back on there. The age I am, I’m in no hurry to get into the league yet but, when I do get there, I know doing this will have made me much more rounded and given me the best possible base.
“The classrooms teach you the theory but what’s important is how you put that into practice. What happens when you say something to a player at half-time and he replies ‘**** off, gaffer.?’
“How do you deal with that? Is it because he’s angry? Is it because he’s scared? Or is there something else going on? Those are the sort of questions you’ve got to sort in your head immediately if you want to results.”
Woodhouse clearly knows the answers, with Bridlington averaging a goal every 12 minutes since he was hired last month. But, having initially hung up his boots following a brief spell with Grimsby, the Noble Art taught him right from wrong.
“I retired at 26 and went into boxing,” Woodhouse says. “I used to cut corners at football all the time. If we were doing 100 metre sprints, I’d do 80. If we were running round the pitch, I’d always shave a bit off and do less.
“But in boxing, you can’t cut any corners at all because you immediately get found out. So I went completely the other way. I always did an extra hour in the gym and, if you add that up over a number of years, that’s an awful lot of extra experience.
“So, in the end, I ended up beating-up the lads in the gym who, to begin with, were beating me up. I’ve taken what I did in boxing into football now. I’ve been away and I’m in love with the game again. But being a footballer can be tough. There are far worse jobs in the world so I’m not looking for sympathy. But take it from me, it can.”
Woodhouse, who progressed through United’s youth system before making his debut aged 17, explains.
“I went from earning next to nothing at United to £3,000 a week in six months. I was a young lad at the time and that sort of money opens all sorts of doors. Some good ones and some that, really, you don’t want to be walking through.
“I didn’t just walk through them, I kicked them down. But I’m a different person now. I’m talking about the person I was at 21 or so. And things change. I’m probably pretty boring.
“A few beers after a match, a Chinese and then home for the footy on the telly. That’s me.”
Time was when it would have been This Morning rather than Match of the Day.
“There was a big drinking culture when I first turned up at United. We’d all be out on a Tuesday because we had the next day off. It wasn’t just us, we used to see the lads from Wednesday, Barnsley and Rotherham out too.
“But my trouble was that most other people would use Wednesday to recover. I’d carry on.
“Soon, rather than 20 or so, there were two or three of us turning up. Times had moved on but, back then, I hadn’t.”
Woodhouse made 121 appearances for United before moving to St Andrews in 2001.
He also represented Peterborough and Hull City before joining Grimsby where Russell Slade, his youth coach and mentor at Bramall Lane, was then in charge.
“Russell could have got rid of me 10 or so times at United,” Woodhouse remembers. “But he didn’t and I think it’s because I’ve never been a bad person. Even if I did something wrong, like trying to run four lads over in a mini-bus after they’d really hacked me off, I did it with a twinkle in my eye.
“Russ, John Dungworth and Steve Myles were my youth coaches. When they went, I felt a bit abandoned. Well, not abandoned because they all went to other jobs but I looked around and those guys, who had been a huge influence on me, suddenly weren’t there.” Which is when, before finding salvation in the ring and putting his life back on track, things began to spiral out of control.
“I got offered what would have been a long contract by Neil, who was the gaffer then, but I knew why I couldn’t accept it,” Woodhouse says.
“Unfortunately, he’d hadn’t been there long so I couldn’t really have a heart to heart conversation with him.
“I’d gone from being one of the best young lads outside of the Premier League to someone who was only in the team on reputation, not form, and I didn’t want that.
“There were lads who I knew weren’t fit to lace my boots in the Premier League. I wasn’t there because my form had suffered due to doing the nightlife too much. I’m 36 but I feel as if I’m 50 because I’ve crammed so much into my life. But, the good bits and the not so good bits, have made me who I am now.”
A decorated footballer, boxer and talented young coach.
n Box to Box: From the Premier League to British Boxing Champion, published by Simon & Schuster, is available now, priced £18.99.