Exclusive Interview: Dean Hammond

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR  “Hi Dean, thanks for talking to me at TSF today, we have a lot of readers eager to hear how you're doing having retired in 2020.  What’s keeping you busy these days?

DH  “Life is very different these days.  I initially retired a couple of years before that but I came back into it by returning to Leicester City and working with the under 23 team as a mentor.  But I also played for the under 23’s because you can play over aged players, I enjoyed that role and gained valuable experience before becoming the loan manager at the club which I loved.  That is a really valuable role and I believe that it will become a big role within football. 

But I had to leave that role because my wife had a back operation and we have three children to look after.  So I took a year out of the game before coming back to help a friend and a manager at Worthing FC.  And then COVID hit and I never returned really.  Retirement if I am honest has been an up and down experience, it has been challenging and very different.  Leaving the professional game and leaving something that I love and something that has treated me so well, something I have done since I left school, to then kind of the bubble being burst and being released into the real world… it is a challenge.  I am finding my feet again.

I am finding a new direction and purpose.  I have created a fitness platform to help keep players fit and to give them some routine and structure.  It helps to find their purpose in life.  I am also back involved on the media side of football which I absolutely love, watching and analyzing games and working for some of my previous clubs such as Southampton FC and Leicester City.  I am very fortunate but I must admit retirement has been a challenge.”

JR “Being from the south coast it must have been special to play for Brighton & Hove Albion, which you did across two spells at the club?

DH  “It was a privilege to play for the club.  I am a Sussex born lad, I was born in Hastings which is about 45 minutes to an hour from Brighton.  It is the nearest club and the club that I always wanted to play for.  I signed for the club when I was eleven years old at the school of excellence and I made my debut at 17 years of age in the League Cup away to Ipswich Town at Portman Road.  I turned professional at 19 years of age.  Brighton & Hove Albion was a really good experience for me and I loved every minute at the club, I had the opportunity to experience playing in League One and the Championship and I captained the team at 22 years old, that remains one of my biggest achievements in football. 

I loved my time playing at the Withdean Stadium, it was very different.  It was kind of a portable stadium with an athletics track and it became a temporary home for the football club. I learned my trade working under some brilliant people in Dean Wilkins and Martin Hinchelwood who were my youth team coaches, they influenced my career hugely and also as a person as well which I am grateful for.  I had some really good experiences.  

When I was captain of the team we had a really young side as a lot of players had come through the youth setup, I think in a couple of games we had ten outfield players that had come through the youth system at the club which is unheard of really.  I left the club at 23 years old and I returned to the club to play for them again when I was 30 years old under Gus Poyet in the new Amex Stadium.  It was fantastic to see how the club had moved on.  I loved and I am grateful for my experience at Brighton & Hove Albion, being able to play for my hometown club.”

JR  In-between your stints at Brighton & Hove Albion there were three seasons with Leicester City at the start of what was to become one of the most remarkable periods in English football history.

DH  “Where do I start!?  Leicester City was a fantastic experience. I got a call from Steve Walsh and Nigel Pearson and they wanted me to come up and speak to them and sign for the football club.  As soon as I heard of their interest I wanted to join the club.  There was a brilliant squad of players there, young, hungry and talented players who has just missed out the season before through the play-offs when they were beaten by that famous goal by Watford FC.  Nigel Pearson was great for me, he was really honest and he helped me understand that he was bringing me to the football club for my experience and my knowledge of that level and ultimately to win promotion.  He explained that I was to help the dressing room and set the standard in training and that if I was playing well I would get in the team.

There were a lot of competition for places with Danny Drinkwater, Matty James and Andy King.  It was a really strong squad of players and in our first season in the Championship the team clicked pretty early on.  We got a really good run of games and with Jamie Vardy upfront with David Nugent and Wes Morgan at the back, Paul Konchesky and Richie de Laet and Kasper Schmeichel in goal, we had a fantastic team.  Once we got into a routine and rhythm we won a lot of games that season which was so enjoyable.  We gained over 100 points that season to win the Championship and were promoted with nine games left.

Playing in the Premier League was always my career ambition and my career dream and when I started out at Brighton & Hove Albion in League Two it seemed a million miles away, so to get that opportunity was great.  We started that season fantastically well and we had some great results beating Manchester United 5-3 at the King Power Stadium and then we went on a really difficult run before finishing the season in unbelievable form where we won eight out of ten games to survive and beat relegation.  They call it the great escape at the club. 

My two years playing for the club were fantastic, I started as a Leicester City player in my third year which was the year that we won the Premier League.  That was a dream and you can’t really write stories like that.  Unfortunately for myself I had gone on loan to Sheffield United and I could not be there to experience the victory first hand, but I made a career decision because I wanted to play and I didn’t want to be a squad player.  From signing for the football club winning promotion, winning the Championship to surviving in the Premier League to winning the Premier League… it was just unbelievable.”

JR. “You’ve mentioned some top players already, who stands out to as a teammate that you admire?”

DH  “It’s hard to pick one.  I would say Adam Lallana has got to be up there from my time at Southampton FC.  He is just a fantastic talent with great balance and two good feet and his awareness is second to none.  He has suffered with his injuries but when he was at Southampton FC in full flow he was an exciting player who worked very hard on his game in training.  Riyad Mahrez was an exceptional player who had great balance and would glide past people, he was an exciting player who was strong on the ball which belies the fact that when you look him he’s very slight.  

Jamie Vardy is in my opinion the most effective player in the game at what he does.  I don't think there is anyone in world football who can play the way he does or is as good at what he does in terms of his pace and his work rate, his aggression and his finishing.  I also played with some really good players who often don't get mentioned.  José Fonte of Portugal & LOSC Lille is a great player.  Bobby Zamora at Brighton & Hove Albion was frightening and Matthew Upson too.. when Matthew came on loan from Stoke City he was really experienced and very cultured on the ball, during my career I didn't come across too many ball playing centre halves as good as Matthew Upson, he read the game really well. 

Wayne Bridge was one of the fittest players you will ever see.  He was just up and down the wing all day.  Vincente Rodriguez who played for Valencia CF.  N’Golo Kante at Leicester City and Teddy Sheringham at Colchester United.  One thing all these players have in common is that they are really good people as well.  Rarely you get exceptional players who are idiots or not a nice person.  These players are all great people.  I have been very lucky to play with some brilliant players and to learn from them too, not just what they do on the pitch, but what they do off the pitch.  I always thought that was very important.”

JR. “Dean, let’s cut to the chase… the best players you’ve come up against.  Go!

DH  “I was fortunate to play in some really good teams and I won a lot of games.  But playing in the Premier League during my time at Leicester City I came up against Mesut Ozil.  That was my hardest experience on a football pitch.  His awareness, positioning and movement was exceptional, he was a really tough opponent that afternoon.  He would just come into areas and catch my eye line and when I would have to move, he would move out of that area, play one touch to suck me in then he would move and go behind me.  I just could not get near him to be honest.  He is technically a brilliant player, very quick off the mark when he wanted to be and one of those players that saw two or three passes ahead.  He knew what he was going to do and why he was going to do it. 

I think if you watch the best players, they know why they are playing a certain pass.  They do not just pass backwards or sidewards.  Wayne Rooney was an exceptional player.  Steven Gerrard was brilliant.  Eden Hazard as well had exceptional balance and he was difficult to read.  He could go both ways on both feet.  The difference I found in the Premier League was the best players were so explosive off the mark and they would want to get you stood still because then they could move really quickly over a short space.  They were the hardest opponents I came up against. 

If I am honest a lot of it was in the training.  I was playing against players in training who were unbelievable and sometimes the training was harder than the games because I was playing against better players in training than I would on a Saturday.  But it helped me improve as a player and the games became easier.  The players in the Premier League are fantastic players, they really are.”

JR “Dean, it’s been great listening to you today, I think our readers will really have learned a lot.  We’ve spoken about the players but which coaches and managers stand out to you?

DH  “That’s an interesting question James.  I think the biggest influence I had from a coach who had the longest influence for the longest period of time would be Dean Wilkins.  He was my youth team manager and he taught me so much, he really did.  He helped me understand football.  As a youth team player I came in from school and you think you know a lot about football but you don’t.  I came into the youth team and he was fantastic with me.  Later I worked with Deano again when he was manager of Brighton & Hove Albion.  He was also assistant manager at Southampton FC when I was there.  He was a fantastic coach who had a huge influence on my career in terms of how I play and prepare for games and how I understood the game. 

Nigel Pearson at Leicester City was the best man manager I worked under.  He was fantastic with the players.  He was just very honest, straight and clear with his players and I really liked that as a player and a person.  I knew exactly where I stood, and Nigel had a presence about him in a good way, not through fear.  He was just a really good and well respected manager. 

Nigel Adkins at Southampton FC was great for me and I really enjoyed working under Gus Poyet at Brighton & Hove Albion too.  He loved football and he was really passionate about the game.  He kind of showed me what football really meant.  He was so passionate about the game, from training to games, before, during and after.  I just lived off his passion and when we were winning and performing well under him it was one of my most enjoyable seasons as a professional footballer.  

He got us playing - in a certain way - total football.  We played out from the back and made the pitch really big because we were fit and strong and we understood what we needed to do. There was a really nice balance between English and Spanish players which worked really well.  I am probably missing a few managers out but I would say the above four were hugely influential for me."

James Rowe is a Dutch Football expert based in the Netherlands, professional writer and translator for The Secret Footballer. He has featured on talkSPORT and regularly features on talkSPORT 2 and Love Sport Radio. You can follow him on Twitter here.