Declan John paved the way for the likes of Rubin Colwill and Mark Harris. He was the prototype. A rare academy graduate at a time when there were insurmountable odds and plenty of obstacles. He was probably the right player at the wrong time and VFTN caught up with him recently to discuss the ups and downs of his career to date.
What was your pathway to Cardiff? I know you’re from Merthyr, so what age did you start playing and when were you spotted?
I was playing for a local side and my dad would take me to training sessions. There were like 60 kids chasing a ball in a tiny sports hall! He threw me in and it started from there. I played there for a year or so and then a scout called John O’Sullivan was watching one of the games against another local side. I was six then and joined Cardiff when I was about seven. I was training once or twice a week at that sort of age and then played games on the Sunday. There was loads of mileage for my parents and family, watching all the games!
You were barely 17 when you made your first team debut. How long had you been in and around the first team at the time?
I was doing quite well with the Under-21’s at the time and played a few games, but I was kind of getting dropped in really, if a first-team player got injured. After impressing in a few sessions, it became a normal thing and I was training with them a few days a week. It was tough. There was a big difference and it was so much quicker. It took me a few sessions to get up to speed with the physicality because I don’t think I had a growth spurt until I was about 16! I was tiny compared to most of the boys.
Cardiff had a strong side at the time and were on their way to the Championship title. How did you find playing with such good players, in such unstoppable form?
It was brilliant. It was nice to look around and see the likes of Whitts and Bellamy. They’re passing you the ball and it takes a few weeks to get used to that. I really enjoyed it and it was a pleasure to be on the same pitch as them.
How did you find working with Malky Mackay and how did he manage you? He clearly rated you, so what sort of advice and encouragement was he giving you at the time?
He was brilliant with me. After coming up for a few sessions, we had a couple of one-to-one discussions and he would tell me to keep a level head and keep working hard. At the time, we had just got promoted and Andrew Taylor tore his calf. I think there was a few days left in the transfer window and my agent at the time told me that the club were going to sign a left back. Apparently, the player was at the airport ready to fly over from god knows where and it didn’t end up happening, so that was lucky for me and I was thrown in straight away.
So, a year after your debut, you were starting in Cardiff’s first Premier League game, away at West Ham. It was a nervous performance from the whole side, but you equipped yourself well. How did you find it? Were you anxious or excited?
I was coming back from training and I was waiting at the train station when I had a call from Kevin Cooper, who was the Under-21’s coach at the time. It was the Monday or Tuesday before and he said that I needed to get ready because I was probably playing on Saturday. I said that I thought we were playing on the Monday and he said I would be playing for the first-team. My jaw just dropped to the floor!
He said he wanted to tell me so I could get my head sorted, rather than me finding out on the Friday, when I would be travelling. I was a bag of nerves for the next few days. Obviously excited as well and buzzing to play because playing at that level is the dream, but it was our first ever game in the Premier League and it was tough.
It was a great season for you, probably playing more than you were expecting and signing a long-term deal. How do you remember that season and what were your highlights?
I didn’t expect to play and be as involved in as many games as I was, even though I did think I was good enough to be in and around the first-team. In terms of highlights, that first game was insane. It was a capacity crowd and you’ve got the bubbles on the sidelines when you come out. I think I was marking Joe Cole, so I was shell-shocked for the first 10-15 minutes, but you just end up getting on with it then.
You were 18 and playing for your local team, at the highest level, having come through the ranks. How do you stay grounded in that sort of situation?
To be honest, I think it has to be in your nature. I’m quite a relaxed person, but obviously the players and the manager will tell you that you haven’t made it yet, that its just the first step in the right direction. Also, if you’ve got good backing from your family, you’ll be fine in that situation.
Malky left during the season, so how did you then find working with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
It was tough to see Malky go because he had brought me in to the team and gave me my debut. I will always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity. When Solskjaer came in, I had a meeting with him in his office. He told me I was going to be his main left back and that he had heard really good things about me. I had a good relationship with him and he’s not a bad person to be managed by.
It didn’t really happen for you under Russell Slade and you went out on loan a few times. What changed and what was your relationship like with him?
I couldn’t put my finger on one reason why, but once every two weeks I would ask the question; ‘gaffer, why am I not playing? I want to play.’ He would say that I had to keep working hard in training and wait for my chance, but the chance never really came. It’s happened two or three times since with different managers. I’m not sure if that is to do with my ability, or perhaps sometimes your face just doesn’t really fit.
You came back in to favour under Paul Trollope and started the season back in the side, but he didn’t last long in charge. I guess, having worked with him in the Wales squad and with him playing wing backs, it was probably a better fit for you?
I found it funny because Trollope was under Slade at the time as first-team coach and as soon as he took over, I was straight back into the team, so football is all about opinions. He didn’t end up keeping the job as long as I wanted him to because I was playing, but that’s football.
When Neil Warnock replaced him, you were back on the outside again. What were your interactions with him like?
I remember coming back from international duty with the Wales Under-21’s and it must have been the day after his first training session. I was in the canteen and one of the coaches said to me that I would be training with Cardiff’s Under-21’s. Then, when I went in the next day, an Under-21’s coach told me I was training with them from now on. I was a first-team player and I hadn’t spoke to the gaffer, so I didn’t really understand what was going on.
Warnock then watched us train a few weeks later and afterwards he called me over for a chat. He asked if I had played for the first-team and I said yes, for the last three or four years, and I’ve played for Wales as well! He had no clue and I was taken aback by it. After that, I went back to training with the first-team, but I was only getting five or 10 minutes here and there. I never really had more than that.
It must have been difficult as a young player, playing for so many different managers, all stylistically very different, in such a short space of time. Do you think that affected your development?
Yeah, you could probably say that. Its tough when you’re taught from the age of 11 or 12 all about possession and passing, then when you go into a Warnock team, every time I got the ball, he wanted me to shell it down the channel. We’ve had managers that wanted to play long and managers that wanted to keep the ball, which is where I fitted. It was weird to have so many managers.
At the time when you came though, you were a bit of a one-off and there wasn’t the same sort of pathway that exists now. You were kind of the original, whereas if you were coming through now, you would probably be in a better position.
Cardiff has always had a good academy, but no one that has really made a mark on the team. You could say Rallsy, but he joined when he was 16 or 17. I think there were some Under-21 boys that could have played for the first-team, but all that has changed over the last year or two and I think that’s brilliant. There should be at least one or two players pushing for the first-team every year.
You ended up going on loan to Rangers and impressed them enough to take you on permanently. How did you find playing in Scotland for such a massive club? What led to that move and what led to your eventual departure?
It was crazy. I haven’t got a bad word to say about Rangers. It’s superb, a massive club. I think it was just before deadline day and there was talk of me going up there on loan. My agent asked Warnock why wasn’t I getting a chance and he said that I had all the ability in the world, but maybe it was time to move on. As soon as I heard that, I knew I had to get back out there, playing games and try to show my talent.
In the second week of pre-season training eith Rangers, we were doing a drill and Steven Gerrard stopped the session to ask me a question. He asked if I was finding the session hard and I said that it was pretty tough. He said to the rest of the group that it must be hard because I was the best left back in the league!
I then got injured though and my back needed an injection, but that ended up with one of the physios telling me that he thought I was faking my injury!? I was coming in to my prime, having done well the season before and was up for Player of the Year, so to hear that was disheartening. It left a bitter taste and I knew I was on my way out after that.
Congratulations on your move to Bolton. You spent the end of last season there, securing promotion to League One. How did you enjoy your time there last year and why did you decide to move there permanently?
It’s a great club, with all the facilities to be playing in at least the Championship. It was a great place to come and get my face back out there. I enjoyed it. We were near the bottom when I arrived, but went 16 games unbeaten and ended up getting promoted, which was brilliant.
Even though fans weren’t at the stadiums, you get them contacting you on social media and Bolton felt like a great club to be a part of. I knew the manager, Ian Evatt, from my time at Chesterfield and a few of the boys as well, so it made sense for me to come here because I’ve got a great connection with the club.
I took a few weeks to make up my mind and there were some other clubs on the table, but the connection I had with Bolton was a major factor in me signing permanently.
Just to finish up. As someone that made the breakthrough at Cardiff and went on to represent his country, from your experience, what advice would you give to the likes of Rubin Colwill and Mark Harris, making that same step up?
The main thing is that you have to keep going. I’ve had a kind of turbulent career for many different reasons, but you have to get your head down, work hard and not take no for an answer. Some managers have liked me and some didn’t, but you have to keep that belief in yourself. Show everyone how good you are.