First published: 2016
With injuries blighting the latter stages of regular goalkeeper Neil Edwards’ time at Rochdale, the responsibility of custodian would fall permanently on understudy Matt Gilks.
Stood between the sticks, Gilks was everything the Welshman wasn’t. He was tall and thin, as opposed to short and stout, and could only draw experience from a clutch of cameos, whereas Edwards had played nigh over four-hundred career games.
As it transpired, none of this actually mattered. While Edwards will rightly be remembered as one of Dale’s best goalkeepers, Gilks proved equally adept during his twelve-year spell at the club − as both deputy and sheriff − and his performances elsewhere would eventually take him to the Premier League and international football.
While not an agile, gifted shot-stopper myself, this writer remembers identifying with Gilks more than any other Rochdale player at the time of his emergence due to us being of a similar age. There is an added pride in meeting Gilks, though. Like Craig Dawson, he is a Rochdale-born lad who represented his hometown club and flourished. Even so, Gilks does his best to dampen the mood by revealing it was near neighbours Oldham Athletic who held his football affections as a youngster.
‘Although I was born in Rochdale, I lived in Chadderton and then Royton, so I grew up an Oldham Athletic supporter,’ he says. ‘They were in the Premier League at the time. I was always aware of Rochdale AFC, of course, but I was a season-ticket holder at Oldham for years.’
Gilks then adds with a laugh: ‘I came to love Rochdale eventually.’
A thoroughly likeable and level-headed fellow, I speak to Gilks while he is studying for his coaching badges; the staple of every player nowadays, it seems, who is entering the twilight of their career. This isn’t true of Gilks, however, who, not long after our chat, signed a two-year contract with one of Scotland’s biggest clubs, Rangers, having left Burnley.
But it is at the very beginning where I’m interested in Gilks picking up, and he does so by explaining the origins of his goalkeeping obsession.
‘I always wanted to be a goalie, but I didn’t get the chance when I was a kid,’ he says. ‘When I was playing at primary school I was always a centre half or a striker – every outfield position, really. When I was about twelve, I finally got the chance. I got shoved in goal for a game and I loved it. It stuck from there on in. I was a good outfield player, sure, but that was it for me. I wanted to stay in goals.
‘We used to have a kickabout on the street up near my mam and dad’s house and I used to dive about on the concrete to save all the shots. People said I was mental, but you need to be to be a goalie.
‘I then played for local side Heyside Juniors, with my brother, in the year above my age group. It was there I got spotted. Dave Bywater was Rochdale’s scout for the local area at the time. He came to watch me and then Rochdale made a move. My mam and dad said “no” to them, though. They wanted me to keep playing with my friends and win trophies. They wanted me to keep on enjoying football. I would have been thirteen at the time, I think. A year later, Rochdale came back for me and I joined their youth team on a Youth Training Scheme, which was what scholarships were called back then.
‘I was straight out of school and did a three-year apprenticeship with Rochdale. The club didn’t have its own goalkeeper coach back then, so they had former Walsall ’keeper Fred Barber come in on a Tuesday and me and Neil Edwards used to train with him. I realised at that point just how hard it was to be a professional goalie. I used to get battered. I kept going, though, and worked hard.
‘When you’re a YTS, you’re new to the inside of football and most of your time between training and games is spent doing all the crappy jobs that need doing. I remember one of my jobs was scrubbing the grout between the tiles in the dressing-room showers, getting the white bits white again. It sounds awful, I know, but I really enjoyed it. You’re not doing it alone, you’re doing it with a good bunch of lads and you’re all in the same boat. It teaches you respect and the importance of graft. The scholars don’t do anything like that anymore, which is a shame.’
Gilks remembers when he was initially flung into first-team action while still a raw trainee in 2001.
‘I remember my Rochdale first-team debut like it was yesterday. It was Chesterfield away at Saltergate and we drew 1-1. Paul Connor scored for us and they scored right at the end of the match. I got told I was playing and remember being really nervous before the game. Chesterfield were doing really well in the league − in fact I think they were top − but I think they were struggling financially at the time, too, because people were throwing brown envelopes about outside and inside the ground.
‘Anyway, the match kicked off and I got to a through ball before the attacker. It gave me the early touch of the ball I needed to settle me down. To be honest, I realise now how much the back four that day protected me. It was during Steve Parkin’s first spell as manager and he had the defence well drilled. Funnily enough, [former manager] Keith Hill was playing in the defence that day, too.
‘For me, Parkin was the best manager I had at Rochdale, with Tony Ford as his assistant. I played under Alan Buckley, John Hollins, Paul Simpson, and Keith Hill, too, but Parkin was the best. He was a tough manager but he was fair at the same time. If you worked hard for him, you were treated fairly. If you let standards drop, he was on your case. I needed that. It showed me how hard you had to work to be a successful footballer.
‘Parkin aside, the biggest influence on me at Rochdale was Neil Edwards. I absolutely loved the guy. Being in his shadow was the best thing to happen to me. He is the best ’keeper I’ve trained with on a daily basis. He was so quick and agile. He had such a spring for a small guy. I was a young lad at this point, remember, and I’m looking at this fully grown man throwing himself about. I thought: “Will I still be able to do that at his age?” We called him The Machine because he never, ever stopped. His quality in training gave me the best teaching I could have asked for.
‘When Taffy [Edwards] left, I took over as number one. I believe it was my worst season as a Rochdale player, simply because he wasn’t there. Obviously we both wanted to be playing every week, and I got that wish, but to not have him there with me on a daily basis really affected my game. I didn’t enjoy that year at all. I missed watching him and I missed having him there to talk to. I still felt I needed another couple of years with Taffy.’
With Keith Hill preparing for his first full season in charge of Rochdale in the summer of 2007, Gilks decided his future lay elsewhere and signed a two-year contract with Championship club Norwich City.
‘As it happened, I got through my initial concerns about Taffy not being around and had a good career at Rochdale. I had played almost two-hundred games by the time I reached twenty-four. I felt it was the right time to move on and develop elsewhere. I felt I’d reached my level at Rochdale. I needed a full-time goalie coach with me every day. Rochdale still hadn’t addressed that and I was having to go to Bolton Wanderers on a Wednesday to train with Fred Barber. I wanted something that was all inclusive.
‘Norwich were offering me all of that and I couldn’t turn it down. Even though I didn’t make a first-team appearance for them, I found the move fantastic. The place blew my mind. I was still living with my parents, so had to buy my own house down there. I was travelling into a training ground that was state of the art. They had more than one physio, more than one first-team coach and they even had a goalie coach. I was in the dressing room and I had Dion Dublin on my left, Luke Chadwick on my right. Darren Huckerby was in the corner next to big David Marshall the goalie, and Lee Croft. I was sat thinking: “Christ, I’ve just rocked up here from little old Rochdale.”
‘So, despite not playing a first-team game, that year at Norwich was my best in terms of development as a goalkeeper. That is purely because I had a full-time goalie coach who was brilliant with me on a brilliant training ground. I just loved pulling the gloves on and stepping out there and training. I pushed David Marshall all the way. We’re still good mates now and still talk about Norwich. He said I made him a better ’keeper because I was training so hard and doing so well. Marshall is one of the best ’keepers out there, so for me to push him all the way gave me confidence.’
In 2008, Norwich signed former Livingston starlet Wes Hoolahan from Blackpool. Part of the deal required Gilks to move in the opposite direction.
‘Glen Roeder came in at Norwich and didn’t fancy me at all,’ Gilks remembers. ‘I found myself at Blackpool as part of the Wes Hoolahan deal. Simon Grayson was their manager and they already had Paul Rachubka there. He’d been at Man United and was set in stone as the number one goalkeeper. As a result, my first year was very frustrating. I ended up going on loan to Shrewsbury for a bit. I did okay there and came back hoping to get my chance.
‘I remember getting that chance in a game against Crystal Palace, which we won 1-0. I’d just sat down on the bench with a cup of tea when Chubs [Rachubka] got sent off. On I went for my introduction into Championship football. I did well. I was coming for crosses and getting them. I was playing with lads I’d only trained with for half a season up to the point, but we clicked.’
With new-found confidence, Gilks still found opportunities between the sticks hard to come by in the Championship, but he was to be aided by the entrance of enigmatic manager Ian Holloway, who, within nine months of arriving, took the Seasiders to the Premier League.
‘Ollie is the best manager I’ve had at any club. It didn’t start so well between us, though. He came in at the end of the season, so I didn’t meet him until the summer. I remember waiting for him to finish a meeting, as I was on my way to speak to another club about a transfer. I said: “Nice to meet you, Ollie, but I need to go.” He just looked at me and said: “I haven’t seen you play. You’re not going anywhere. Get your kit on and get out there.” I was fuming at that point, thinking: “Here we go again.” I went out there and trained as hard as I’ve ever trained. Eventually, Ollie said: “I can’t ignore you any longer. I’m going to put you in.” That was it. I became Blackpool’s number one.
‘He comes across as a joker, but Ollie was such a driven man. I remember us being given the bonus sheet by the club at the start of the next season. It had two options on it. We could choose £1 million pro rata to stay in the league or £5 million pro rata to get promoted. All the players were going to choose the million. Ollie said: “No, you’re not getting rewarded for failure, so take the five.” We all looked at him blankly at the time, but then we went on to get promoted to the Premier League.
‘I had a lot of self-doubt early on at Blackpool − working hard in training for no reward. Ollie sorted that. I think he liked me as a person. We were similar. We liked a laugh and a joke but both believed in hard work. He gave me the platform I needed to go and do my job. We were successful together the whole time he was at Blackpool.’
Gilks had achieved a lifelong dream in reaching the Premier League, but the standard was to surprise even him.
‘Any player wants to play at as high a level as he can. You do set yourself goals. To play in the Premier League was mine. It’s every boy’s dream. Playing at Wembley, in the play-off final, was fantastic, sure, but the Premier League is a special league – all the media, the hype, the talk, the TV. It was magic for a hard-working goalkeeper from Rochdale to reach those heights.
‘The first thing I noticed about the standard, from a goalkeeping point of view, was how hard Premier League players hit the ball. Trust me, it’s hard. The other funny thing I noticed was how little you can go out to catch crosses. The quality of the crosses tends to be so good, that there is no point. It’s going onto the forward’s head and that’s all there is to it. They know the exact pace and angle to put on the crosses, too. You’re best setting yourself to save the resultant header or volley, rather than trying to claim the cross. The quality in that final third is so good in that league that, if a team breaks, they’re probably going to score. You train for so long to be a goalie that you do need to rely on your instincts a lot more at that level. In the lower divisions, you invariably know where a striker is going to put the ball when he shoots. You can just tell. In the Premier League, a striker can hit the ball while he’s still running, without even setting himself up for the shot. You can find yourself out of position quite quickly when that happens.’
Sadly, as Gilks was still acclimatising, his Premier League adventure was to be cut short.
‘I broke my kneecap in the November of that season,’ he said. ‘I ended up playing only the final five games after that. I was in turmoil the whole time in between. I had to have an operation and it felt a little bit like I was starting all over again. You train to play, not sit on your arse. Then, when you’re finally able to train again, it takes time to get fit and sharp – and, in the Premier League, you’re having to get fit and sharp to an even higher standard. It’s a horrible process. Luckily for me, I found a guy called Mick Clegg, who had been Man United’s strength and conditioning coach for twelve years. He’d set up on his own. He helped me get back into better shape than I was in before the injury.’
Unfortunately for Gilks, Blackpool were relegated at the end of the season, mainly due to a continued poor run after the festive period. Holloway led the team to the play-offs once again the following season, but there was to be no repeat promotion. When Holloway left for Crystal Palace early the subsequent season, Gilks said the entire club felt his departure.
‘I stayed at Blackpool for another three years after relegation from the Premier League,’ he says. ‘We had such a good bunch of lads and players, but, when Ollie left, that was it. The lads wanted Ollie. That was the bond. When that bond is broken, other clubs come in and dismantle your squad player by player. On and on it went. I was the last one remaining from the promotion season when I left. Other people coming in didn’t understand how hard we’d worked to achieve what we did the season we got promoted. I think they thought we could do it again, no problem. It was too much for me, so, when my contract was up, I went to Burnley.’
As mentioned earlier in this chapter, Gilks has international experience. However, it isn’t the Three Lions on his chest, as one might expect of a Rochdale lad, but the Lion Rampant of Scotland.
Yes, in August 2010, the Scotland manager at the time, Craig Levein, was looking for cover for Allan McGregor and was tipped off about Gilks’ familial links to Caledonia.
He told STV: ‘[Gilks] is one we became aware of a while ago and have kept track of his progress. Obviously, he was a key figure in Blackpool’s promotion to the Barclays Premier League and while I will not name my squad until tomorrow, he is one I think we need to take a closer look at. He comes highly recommended, is playing regularly for his club and the next logical step is for our goalkeeping coach to work closely with him.’
The goalkeeper himself explains his Scottish heritage.
‘When you get to the Premier League, you appear on more people’s radars. My grandmother was Scottish. She was born in Perth. So, through that link, Craig Levein knew I qualified for Scotland. I think they wanted another Premier League goalie in the Scotland squad.
‘I got the usual stick off the English lads when I declared for Scotland. You know, like: “Did you have a tartan blanket when you were a kid?” or “How you doing, Scottish?” The Scottish lads, strangely, didn’t bother about me being from England.
‘I went along to training, not knowing what to expect, but it was a proper eye opener. All of a sudden, Blackpool seemed like a walk in the park. The standard was so high. I remember my first training exercise was with Darren Fletcher and Kenny Miller – seasoned pros at massive clubs – and they trained like it meant everything to them. They didn’t take their foot off the gas until the gaffer called time. It made me think: “Jeez, if that’s where I’ve got to be to get on in this game, I’d better pull my socks up.” I thought I was doing well at Blackpool, but clearly there was an extra level to aspire to.
‘My Scotland debut was in a friendly against Australia at Easter Road in 2012. I was on the bench with David Marshall. Allan McGregor started but got injured quite early, so I went on. We won the game 3-1 and had already conceded before I came on, so to keep a clean sheet was very pleasing.
‘What weighs on your mind when you make your international debut is that it isn’t a club you’re playing for, but an entire country. It’s quite daunting. At the same time, it’s a very special feeling. It meant so much to my mam, whose own mother was my Scottish grandmother, who had sadly passed away and didn’t get to see me play for Scotland.’
As we round off our chat, Gilks underlines the key qualities he believes are required to make an elite goalkeeper and also the role Rochdale played in helping him become one.
‘Hard work makes an elite goalkeeper. You cannot get away from not working hard. Any coach that believes this isn’t the case is wrong. You also need to have desire and you need to love the job. You can’t be half-hearted in that regard. You need self-belief and a thick skin, too. You are the one that is closest to the crowd taking abuse all game. I’ve seen a lot of sports psychologists over the years to help me deal with that.
‘Rochdale gave me the opportunity to learn what it is to be a professional goalkeeper. They put me in the first team when I was needed and took me back out so I wasn’t overwhelmed. They built me up.
‘Players like Gareth Griffiths, Wayne Evans and Neil Edwards were top, seasoned pros who did everything they could to help me out. It’s funny, because now I’m the one advising the youngsters, saying: “Enjoy it, it’s a short career, you’ve got to do more than he’s doing or he’ll take your place, etcetera”. I got that from the advice I received at Rochdale.
‘The fact I did an old-fashioned YTS there was character building, too. It was a harsher world than the one footballers enter into now, but I’d never have wanted it any other way.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham