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VFTN x Darren Purse – Part One

My first memory of Darren Purse came in 2001, not as a Cardiff City player but as a Birmingham City player. It was the League Cup final and Purse stepped up in injury time to take a penalty against Liverpool. A goal would tie the game and take it to extra time, a miss would end Birmingham’s cup dreams. Of course, Purse dispatched the penalty kick and did the same in the penalty shoot-out, which Birmingham went on to lose.

Until I was 14 or 15 years of age, I was a centre forward and always enjoyed taking penalties. I mean penalties are a little bit of technique, but mostly I think they’re about having a bit of bottle. I’ve taken penalties since I was a young kid and I’ve always enjoyed taking them. Throughout my career I’ve taken them. I think I took a couple at Leyton Orient in a penalty shootout and as I moved on with my career, I always took the penalties.

If there was ever a penalty taker within the club that I’d moved to, I’d always wait for him to miss one or two and then put my name forward.

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Leading up to the League Cup final, I think Martin O’Connor was the penalty taker and he’d missed a couple. We were playing Walsall at home and a penalty came up and I grabbed the ball, took the penalty and scored and scored them ever since for Birmingham.

It’s something I always enjoyed doing. I enjoy the one-on-one duel with the goalkeeper and think I only missed two in my career. One was Coventry at home for Cardiff, where I’d just come on as a sub and rattled the crossbar, and the other was in the play-offs for Birmingham against Preston.

You joined Cardiff in July 2005, how did the move come about?

We’d just stayed up at West Brom. Bryan Robson had come in, it was the great escape season and we’d just stayed up. Robson and I never saw eye to eye. I was never his type of player I don’t think. He had other ideas of what he wanted to do.

I had two years left on my contract at West Brom, but I was never one of those players to sit around and play in the reserves. Wherever I’ve played, I’ve always wanted to play first team football. I left Birmingham to go to West Brom because I wasn’t getting enough game time.

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I just wanted to play football. My agent rang me and said Dave Jones has just moved to Cardiff and he wants you to be his first signing. He wants you to be his captain and he wants to have a chat with you. I met Dave Jones at a hotel in Birmingham. We had a chat and I really liked what he wanted to do. The rest is history.

I could’ve hung around at West Brom and earn quite good money, but I just wanted to play football. I liked what Sam Hammam and later Peter Ridsdale wanted to do at the club. They had a vision, it was one that I wanted to be a part of and that’s why I signed.

That summer was a difficult time for the club. The club was in financial difficulty and was forced to sell the likes of Graham Kavanagh, Danny Gabbidon and James Collins. How difficult was it coming into the club at that time?

I don’t know if it had an impact. There was a lot of talk in the press about people taking pay cuts so that I could sign, but I don’t think that was ever a thing. They were coming to the end of their contracts and if they wanted to stay at the club they’d been offered a contract and ended up staying.

I just really liked the football club. I’d played against Cardiff before at Ninian Park and the atmosphere was always superb. The fans were brilliant and I really fancied it. It was a club that I really thought would be going places.

If you look back 10-15 years ago when I signed, compared to where the club is now, it wasn’t a bad decision because it was a club that was going up and be where it is now. Cardiff deserve to be in the Premier League just because of the fans it’s got and the way the club has been developed over the last 15 years.

I think you’re right. You look at the success that Malky Mackay achieved a few years later and the foundations were probably laid in the years under Dave Jones. He developed Cardiff into a club that could compete to be in the Premier League and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for that.

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Definitely. We had a great squad when you look at it. We had Michael Chopra, Stephen McPhail, Riccy Scimeca, Glenn Loovens, Roger Johnson and the year we missed out against Preston on goal difference and we lost 6-0 there (I didn’t play that game by the way!). That was a travesty because that was a long time coming.

We had two or three years building to that. We should’ve been promoted that year because the side we had was a promotion winning Championship side. It wasn’t great but obviously the club did it two years later, which was excellent.

Sam Hammam owned the club when you joined. What was he really like and what was the relationship like between him, Dave Jones and the players?

I’ve got nothing but good words to say about Sam. He was excellent around the changing room. Obviously there are a lot of rumours that have gone around about how he ran the club, but from the way I dealt with him, I thought he was excellent. Both as a chairman and as a person.

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I’ve not got a bad thing to say about him, but of course people take him as they see him. Some of the stories you could tell about him and what he used to do before a game – they’re brilliant! I remember before a game we’d be in the tunnel and, obviously I’d be first out being captain, and he’d say to me “great game today captain! We going to win today captain!” and I’d say “yes, Sam, we’ll win today.”

He always used to have a £50 note in his hand and he’d say to the opposition mascot “here’s £50. It’s yours if, when your captain comes out, you kick him for me.” Obviously that mascot, 6 or 7 years of age, if he kicked the captain, he’d give him the £50. Just little things like that, he was brilliant around the place.

What was Jones like to play under? While popular with Cardiff fans, he did come across as a stubborn and sometimes difficult man.

He wasn’t hard to work with, no. I thought his management of players was very good. He could motivate a side and players, and he’d treat different players how they should be treated.

I’d always get in early, about 8-8.30am, and have some breakfast, and it’d usually just be me and Dave Jones and a couple of his staff. We’d sit and have a good chat and we had a really good relationship.

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I was a little bit disappointed towards the end of my career at Cardiff that our relationship broke down. Since then, I’ve chatted to Dave. We had a little dig at each other in the press and it probably went the wrong way, hence why I probably left the club when I did.

That’s football at the end of the day, but I thought he was excellent as a manager,  he knew what he was doing. Some of the signings were great. He brought in Steve McPhail, myself, Loovens, Chopra, Thommo, all people like that. They were all excellent signings for the football club. You can’t knock him for what he did around the place. He was excellent at what he did.

You built an effective partnership with Glenn Loovens that year, who had joined the club on loan. Where does he rank among your defensive partners?

He was excellent. He’d be up there in my top three or top two defensive partners. Obviously, we had Coxy (Neil Cox) there and he was excellent to have around the football club. He didn’t play that much, but as an experienced man and what he did in the dressing room around that time, he was superb.

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Coxy was like that captain off the field. The lads really respected him. He was a great laugh and he’d always be the first one out on a night out and the last one there. He was excellent around the club. In training, he’d give 100% and he’d never let you down in games.

But yeah, Glenn was excellent, and obviously then Roger Johnson came in and did really well as a young player coming through. They’ve both gone on to have really good careers – which I’m taking credit for!

They were both top centre-halves and in my last year at Cardiff they ended up being the first choice centre-halves and I ended up being the Neil Cox! I was getting on then – I think I was 32 – and sometimes you have to hand the reins over to someone a bit younger.

There were some really talented young players in that side, including Cameron Jerome, Joe Ledley and Darcy Blake. How important do you think your role as team captain was bringing them through to the first team set up?

You always try to. Especially when the young lads are coming through. You know Aaron Ramsey would have days off school to come and train with us, so I’d always try to make him feel welcome. Just little things like when we’d go to away games and if it was their first ever away game, we’d try and look after them on the bus and just generally look after them and make them feel as important as they were.

They were important players for us. You look at the likes of Chris Gunter, Darcy Blake, Ramsey, particularly Ramsey and Gunts, have been massive players for Wales for the last 15 years. When they come through as young lads, they were the future of Welsh football and to be fair to them, they’ve both gone on to have terrific careers.

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You must be due a cut of Ramsey’s Juventus deal after the part you played early on in his career!

That’d be nice wouldn’t it! I was just happy. I think we played Arsenal away in the FA Cup towards the end of my spell with Cardiff and it was great to see Rambo there. I’ve got a shirt signed from him and it’s nice to see someone doing well. I hope he enjoys the last few years of his career like I did when I was at Cardiff. He’s going to sign for an amazing club in Juventus.

The undoubted star of your first season was Jason Koumas, who is the ultimate icon among Cardiff fans. What was he like and how good was it to play with him?

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Koumy was great. I was lucky enough to play with him at West Brom as well, and he was an excellent footballer. He had that special talent that he could just turn the game on a knife edge. You know that little bit of skill, a burst of pace, one strike at goal, one free-kick. He had that special talent that only special players have.

It’s disappointing to me that he never achieved anywhere near where he should’ve been as a footballer. He was up there with the best that I’ve played with. It’s hard looking back at it, but it was potentially a bit of a waste of his talent.

It’s hard to pinpoint why that is. He doesn’t like the limelight or attention that comes with being a professional footballer, is that right?

Not when he was playing! Obviously that’s how he is now and he wants to be with his family or whatever, but he was always the life and soul of the party, was Koumy. He liked a drink, as did most of us then, and we had a great team ethic.

I think we went out together, we won and lost on the football pitch together and we went out as a team together as well. At the end of the day, people just like living out of the limelight and want to be left alone.

Your second season (2006-07) saw a lot of change at the club, with Peter Ridsdale replacing Sam Hammam in December. What was that period like for the players?

We knew that there was the nucleus of a side being built there and we didn’t want what was going on off the field to affect us on the field, because there was a good buzz around the place.

I don’t think it affected us result wise. Every year we built on where we were and our finishing position every year. We were always improving and I don’t think the off the field issues really affected the players. We always got paid on time and as a player, as long as that side of things are alright, you usually get on with it.

You look at football nowadays and there’s clubs being sold left, right and centre. As footballers, you just have to go onto that pitch and do what you do best. The stuff off the field will take care of itself.

Who’s the best player you played with at Cardiff?

I’d have to say Aaron Ramsey. I was coming back from injury and played at Barry Town against Swindon Reserves and there was this fluffy haired kid sat in the corner of the changing rooms and he’d got out of school to play this reserves game.

Paul Wilkinson said to me you’ve got to watch this lad. We’re playing this game and no word of a lie, he absolutely ran the game from the centre of the park. He scored a worldie from about 25-yards, which hit the crossbar and went in.

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After the game, Wilko said to me “told you, didn’t I.” He was just superb. You knew he was going to go far and you look at the career he’s had, and he’s been fantastic. I’m not saying he’s the best when I actually played with him, but potential wise and what he did, you could see that he was going to be a player.

On the other side, who do you think is the most underrated player you played with at Cardiff?

I’ll go with Steve McPhail.

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I had a feeling you’d say that! I’d definitely agree. Even to this day, you talk to Cardiff fans about McPhail and there’s such a split between fans. He played a very simple game didn’t he but one that was really important, and perhaps some fans didn’t see or appreciate that.

I think he got a bit of a raw deal with Cardiff fans. He got sent off against Swansea and people blame him for losing in that game, but ability-wise, and you look at people like Fernandinho and people like that in the Premier League, McPhail was doing that 15 years ago!

He was excellent just sitting in front of the back four, broke things up, manipulated the ball and kept things moving. He got a raw deal from the fans at Cardiff, probably because he was never one of those players that was 100 miles-per-hour or put his body on his line for the team like I would do, but he was a million times better player than I was!

Thanks to Darren Purse for taking the time to talk to VFTN. Keep your eyes peeled for part two of our exclusive interview with the former Bluebirds captain. 

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