‘It sounds daft, but you can be well respected as a club physio’
Richie Partridge. Remember the name? There was a time when it was a statement rather than a question. It should ring a bell. He was the teenager who had it all, the next big thing for Liverpool and Ireland when he burst onto the scene as a member of Brian Kerr's golden generation in the late 1990s. Greatness was predicted.
Life is rarely that straightforward. This afternoon, 30-year-old Partridge will be fighting for glory away from the bright lights.
The Dubliner is an integral part of The New Saints team which will travel to Bangor in search of a point to secure the Welsh Premier League title. For only the second time this season, more than 1,000 spectators will turn out to watch a game at this level.
But this isn't a tale of an embittered pro down on his luck, blaming everybody else for his misfortune as he stares at the bottom of a glass.
This is the story of a sanguine individual who picked himself up and started all over again. The clairvoyants were half right. He is on the way to enjoying a long career at Liverpool, albeit in a different sphere.
Injuries could have broken him. Instead, they made the man.
We sit down to chat on the veranda of the TNS clubhouse. It's late on Good Friday night and, an hour earlier, the league leaders have suffered a shock 3-2 defeat to Neath, a result which set up today's drama.
It was entertaining fare, played in an unusually convivial atmosphere for a crucial game of a title run-in. The football was intense, but the occasion was more golf club than football club.
Bohemians fans will have grim memories of 'The Venue', the scene of their Champions League humiliation last July. TNS people still speak of that victory fondly, believing that the Irishmen underestimated the task at hand, perhaps getting lulled into a false sense of security by the tranquil surroundings of Oswestry.
Certainly, it's easy to see why Bohs struggled on a rock-hard plastic pitch against a side with a refreshingly positive approach.
On Good Friday, TNS pummel Neath from the outset, before somehow conceding two soft goals from simple crosses to end up with nothing.
It is disappointing for the 400 or so home fans in attendance -- the majority watching from a balcony outside a recreational centre that features a bowling alley and a playpen for the kids -- yet there is no anger. One punter hurls abuse at Neath's star Lee Trundle, a former Championship maestro who once harboured Irish ambitions, and a club official goes over to have a quiet word. Corinthian spirit is the order of the day.
Afterwards, it is equally civilised. The two teams go for a meal together upstairs, and politely applaud as the sponsors' man of the match award is presented. It happens after every Welsh League game, home and away.
"I found it strange at first," admits Partridge, outlining the contrast between this welcoming environment and the cut-throat lower echelons of the English ladder.
On the pitch, it has been one of his quieter nights, but overall he has thrived since his arrival last September. Partridge had reached a dead end in England, having fallen out of favour at Stockport, a club on an unstoppable slide out of League Two. The relationship was going nowhere for either parties; a termination of contract and pay-off was the happiest solution for the player.
"It was win-win for me," he admits. "I knew the physio here, Pete Talbot, so I gave him a shout. Within a few days, I was signed."
He'd never watched a Welsh League game and, Trundle aside, knew nothing of the managers and players.
Moving to a couple of Conference outfits was the alternative, a prospect that was ruled out as it would have involved relocation from his home in north Wales. The standard has pleasantly surprised him, with the exception of some away games where the set-up is particularly "non-leagueish" as he describes it.
It's all part of the gig, though. He's a married man -- his wife Lesley is the younger sister of none other than Michael Owen -- and the priority is putting bread on the table.
The reality is that Owen will be able afford a leisurely retirement, spending money on his string of horses.
Partridge may once have anticipated a life of similar comfort, particularly in his youth where the tricky Dublin winger's name was often preceded by the words "future star."
Fate had different ideas.
The left cruciate went at 18. The right when he was 22. In between, he was on the brink of a senior Irish cap, and the coming man at Liverpool. It was only a matter of time, they said. Three Carling Cup appearances were supposed to be the tip of the iceberg. Instead, the second knee problem froze him in time.
"I don't know about regrets," he muses. "Because there was nothing I could have done. My first knee injury, I was too young to understand the implications. The second one, I sort of knew when I got injured that the likelihood of me playing at the top level -- especially for Liverpool -- was going."
He was realistic enough to identify the barometer. To further his education, Gerard Houllier had sent a 21-year-old Partridge on loan to Coventry, where he shone at Championship level and returned with high hopes. After the second setback prompted a release from Liverpool, he made his way to Sheffield Wednesday and quickly learned that something was missing.
"I'd been at Coventry before at that level and did really well. But I realised I couldn't play at that level anymore. I knew I'd just lost a bit of sharpness," he sighs, clicking his fingers to emphasise.
"So I came down to League One/ League Two, which was probably my level after the injuries, and I hung around there for the rest of my career."
From Wednesday, he moved onto Rotherham, Chester and MK Dons. Getting by.
"I made a living from it," he continues. "Look, I'm not saying that I would have gone on and played in the Premiership for the rest of my career. But I'd shown I was able to do it in the Championship at least. So I'd like to think that if I hadn't had that injury, I'd have been able to have a career at that level, if it makes sense."
It does, of course, but rather than feeling down about it, his inquisitive nature demanded that he made sense of just why it was happening.
A pal at Sheffield Wednesday was doing a course in physiotherapy at the University of Salford. Partridge was struck by the idea, went for an interview and secured his place.
"I didn't know what I was getting myself in for," he recalls. "But I soon became very interested. I got hooked.
"It had become apparent that I was never going to make enough money to have four, five, six years out of work when I retired. I knew I had to have something once I retired from football."
Four years later, he was the holder of a first-class degree. In tandem with his football, he has forged another source of income. Now, he is the silent partner in a practice outside Chester, a project he would like to devote more time to.
However, the most significant offshoot of his education is that it has opened the door back to where it all started, to Liverpool FC where he oversees the medical department from U-9 to U-16 level.
"I had worked with great physios at Liverpool, and when I was injured, I always looked up to those lads, realising what a great career it was and how you can be well respected within a football club. It sounds daft, but you are well respected in society with a physio degree.
"That's what prompted me to do it. I was starting a family (his wife is expecting their second child this week), and I needed to have security."
The job is all-consuming. He speaks frequently about it with his brother-in-law, unsurprisingly given Owen's track record. "Michael is a very clever fella," he says. "He's the most interested of any footballer I've met in what's going on. When we were at Liverpool together, he was always quizzing the physios about what was going on.
"If he's ever injured, I'll always have a chat with him. And he'll always tell me what's going on ... and let me know what the Man U physios are saying, which is good for me to learn from."
He laughs when asked if there was any way he could adapt his talents to Owen's racehorses.
"They've got four legs and tail. That's all I know," he grins. "I was looking into what it took to be an equine physio, but it's not something I'm interested in. He can't get his head around it though. I'm Irish, I'm probably the right size for a jockey, and I've got no interest in horses whatsoever."
Domestic bliss has diverted his life plan. He always thought he'd go to England, make his money and come home, but it didn't work out that way. This part of the world is where he expects to spend the rest of his days.
The memories of his youth are cherished. Every time he comes back to Dublin, he looks through the two scrapbooks that his mother keeps. One for his exploits at Home Farm and Stella Maris that had all sorts of English clubs knocking on his door, the other for the clippings that surrounded his move to Liverpool, and the headlines he garnered as part of the Irish U-18 team that enjoyed European Championships glory in Cyprus.
It's a treasured medal, a reminder of the special bond in that group which was nurtured by Kerr and Noel O'Reilly. On his travels, he bumps into other members of that team. They don't keep in touch so much; they've got different responsibilities now. He met Alan Quinn in Portugal on holidays that year before last, and they were both on parenting duty. "We were gangly 17-year-old kids back then, and now everyone's grown up into dads."
Now, in some way, it's turned full circle. Watching the youngsters coming in to train at Liverpool brings on bouts of nostalgia. "I love being back," he says. "It's a different perspective now. Watching the younger lads, just seeing the raw talent. Half the time, you look at a kid and you're thinking, 'surely I could never have been as good as him when I was his age?' and they haven't a clue they're that good."
Is he envious of the young lads getting the chance for Liverpool? He takes a philosophical stance. "The way I look at it now, I made three appearances for Liverpool and I'll be very proud to tell my little lad that when he grows up. As I am of my career in general.
"I was speaking to someone about this recently. We were just talking about how many lads, even at Liverpool, just drift away from the game. So few make a career from it.
"Obviously, mine might have been a little better, given a bit more luck, but I would never be bitter about it."
He's still living the dream, even if it's not the one he imagined.
- Daniel McDonnell - Copyright - Irish Independent