Cumbrian lad Glenn Murray called time on his 623-game career at the end of last month, and the announcement was immediately greeted by an outpouring of well wishes from clubs and fans who had been able to enjoy the near 20-year journey with one of the humblest top-flight players you could ever hope to meet.
And his career statistics become even more impressive – a satisfying 217 goals included – when you consider that he was a player who’d had to do it the hard way, having dropped out of the youth system at a young age before going on to combine a day job as a plasterer’s labourer with forging a path on the local non-league circuit.
Admitting himself this week that his early steps on the road to finding a place in the professional game were tentative, to say the least, he spoke about how a shy and sometimes withdrawn young man had reached a point where, even though he’s now 37 – an age seen as being senior within the industry – his announcement that the slippers and surround sound TV were going on was met by surprise by those who felt he still had at least one or two seasons left in his legs.
So, over to Mr Murray. Why now?
“I suppose it’s a bit of a weak answer but it’s because I feel like it’s the right time for a host of reasons,” he explained. “Age obviously plays a part in it, and I’m relatively fit and healthy at the moment so that means I won’t be carrying any major injuries with me into retirement.
“When I sat back and thought about what I wanted to do a few months ago it all pointed towards being the right time to bring things to a close, particularly with me still being at a good standard of playing football.
“It’s a career where I started at the bottom and worked my way to the top, and I wanted to retire as close to there as possible.”
“In some sort of way it’s a little bit frustrating because I know I’m fit enough to score goals at Championship level next season,” he added. “Despite my age I’m still at a level where I back myself to do that. But I had to be honest and at this stage of my career it’s finding the right fit in terms of how I play that’s difficult.
“The way a lot of teams play now maybe doesn’t suit someone with my style and approach as much as what it used to, and I have to acknowledge that. I know I’d have to go somewhere and win over another set of fans, and it would be so easy for them to turn on me if I have a bad 20 minutes in a game or a few weeks where I haven’t scored.
“I could be making a channel run and looking for passes, and if I didn’t get to it they could start saying that my legs have gone. Looking at the bigger picture I’ve never been fast, but that would be an easy slur to throw my way and I have to admit that I’ve heard it so many times that I’m at a point where I can’t continue to have to win people over.”
When you’ve worked so hard to make your dreams come true the decision to call time has to be a difficult one to make, but he revealed that it had been something he’d been toying with for some time.
“I’ve known for three or four months that I was going to make this decision, if I’m being honest,” he confirmed. “I think not having fans at games hasn’t helped, because I’m the kind of person who feeds off that. Scoring goals in front of supporters really brings me to life and I’ve missed it a lot with them being locked out.
“The biggest part of the game that floated my boat was playing in full stadiums and feeling that passion from the stands. Not having that part of the game made me start to question other aspects, and that led to the decision I’ve now made.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole and I know it’s one that will never be filled. I understand that, but I have to look at the fact that Im 37, turning 38, and realistically how much playing time did I have left? One, maybe two years, who can tell, and it was never going to get better for me.
“I wanted things to end as a much of a high as possible, rather than it going out with a whimper and with people perhaps saying that I should have stepped away, or that I wasn’t anywhere near the player I had been.”
That player he talked about was one who’d had to learn to roll with the punches as initial rejection ignited a self-determination and belief that survived a brief period where he threw the boots in the bin, with his dream seemingly shattered after a brief spell in America.
“You can say I did things the hard way, but I think it’s the best way,” he insisted. “You see players come through at Premier League clubs and by the time they’re in their mid-20s they’re falling down the leagues and they perhaps haven’t played as much as they would have wanted.
“For me, it’s been a gradual rise right to the very top and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s been special for me because of that, but I’m sure others would disagree and say that the way they did things was a better way.
“When I look back, there was always something to look forward to and always something else for me to go on and try to achieve. From day one there was something to strive for and another level to aim at.
“Even getting to the Premier League, the next challenge there was to keep improving and keep scoring goals, because you’re very quickly out of the team if you aren’t producing. I’ve prided myself on the fact that I’ve done that.
“To become one of the deadliest strikers in the Premier League around 2018/19, in terms of the goals to chances ratio, was a hugely proud moment and probably the pinnacle of my career. I was so close to getting the England call-up off the back of that, but that wasn’t to be.”
Seizing on that point, we dug deeper into that spell which had the chief football writers at many of the national publications predicting that the 30+ year old could well be on the brink of receiving a phone call from Gareth Southgate as he set the Premier League alight with his ability to finish the vast majority of chances that came his way.
“I never received any calls or had any conversations at all,” he confirmed. “There was quite a lot of media talk about it, because articles were being written about me being one of the deadliest strikers stats wise.
“It was a strange one though because I was up against players who were at clubs who were pushing for Europe and the top places, whereas our aim at our club was stay in the division.
“That meant the forwards at those clubs were naturally getting more chances created for them, so even had more goals in some cases, but they weren’t putting as many of them away in relation to me finishing off the lower number of chances that I was getting on the end of.
“Our job at Brighton was to keep clean sheets and grind points out from really tough games, so any connection with England remained as media talk. You’re maybe looking at it being a case of right place at the wrong time, and if it had been a different manager the call might have come my way. Gareth had taken things in a different direction with more of an emphasis on youth and on a possession-based style of play, which is fair enough, in my opinion.”
But enough of all that Premier League lark for now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of how it all started.
“Going back to when I was a young lad, I didn’t think it was going to happen for me at all,” he admitted. “I thought the football dream I’d had as a young boy was dead and buried. Coming from West Cumbria means you feel out on a limb when it comes to football, and when I was lad we didn’t seem to see too many scouts or things like that.
“I’d obviously impressed Workington enough to get a game there, and I’d been in the Carlisle system for a while, but the top and bottom of it was that I simply wasn’t good enough. If somebody anywhere had offered me money to be a professional footballer so that I could play the game every day I’d have signed without even thinking about it.
“I’d have signed a 10-year deal on the spot. It was all I ever wanted to do. I loved it at Workington, we had a great group, but the thought that it might lead to a move into the professional game never really entered my mind. I was working for my dad as a plasterer’s labourer, to earn my living, and that was the path I thought I was going to follow.”
“What gets you through when you’ve got that mindset? Well, it’s either self-belief or sheer stupidity! I was just a young lad who didn’t really have a care in the world, so I enjoyed the football at Workington for what it was.
“I lived with my parents and I had my car to fill and my mobile phone to pay for, so I was able to relax into playing for them. We were below Carlisle in the conference leagues, but Paul Simpson picked up on a few reports that I was playing well.
“I think if they’d been in League Two they wouldn’t even have looked in my direction, so the club’s misfortune of having been relegated was probably lucky for me. It meant that Simmo must have felt that I might be able to take that step up another league and that I was worth a look.
“But, even then, it was a complicated situation and I’d just about given up on hearing anything at all until the call eventually came.”
We’ll find out more about that ‘complicated situation’ and the move to Brunton Park in part two of our interview, on the official website soon.