Exclusive Interview: John Salako

James Rowe for The Secret Footballer

JR  ‘'Hi John, thanks for taking the time to talk to me at TSF today.  I must say you’re looking really well having retired from the game in 2005….”

JS  ''Yes, I retired in 2005 which seems like an awfully long time ago now, time has just been slipping by.  When I retired I went straight into Sky Sports and television presenting, covering football and doing outside broadcasts and interviews as well as live commentary and studio work.  I was contracted to Sky Sports for between ten and twelve years which was incredible, and at the same time I was finishing off my UEFA A license.  I applied for a number of jobs because I had the ambition to manage and coach.  When you finish playing you are kind of exploring what is out there because you commit to your career and as much as you are thinking about it in the last few years once you reach the age of 32, 33 years old, you are aware that this is all going to come to an end but you’re not quite sure when.

I suffered two bad cruciate knee injuries at the age of 22 years old, so I started thinking about life after football even back then.  I did my original coaching badges at the time because you think if things do not work out physically or if anything else happens in what is a very fragile career, then there will need to be a Plan B.  I did get into television while I was out injured and I said to Sky Sports that I was available, there was a sort of a natural progression for me to go into doing television.

I also spoke to the BBC, but I just thought Sky Sports was the place to be as they looked like front runners and their coverage was just fantastic, so I joined them and worked a maximum of three days a week.  I might do a Saturday, Sunday or a Tuesday, Wednesday so I found that I had a lot of time to do charity golf days and dinners, you receive nice invites and that gravitated into business where I met a lot of football, cricket and rugby players who are working for companies where they do appearances.

I had mates that were doing real life stuff such as telecoms, document management and office management and realized that there is this great big world out there of logistics, IT, and sales.  I also did a bit of property stuff which I enjoyed so it was quite easy to transition into life after football.’’

JR  ‘’It sounds as if you've been very busy.  During your career, I suppose your nine seasons at Crystal Palace are where fans remember your finest moments.  What are your memories of that time?

JS  ''I joined Crystal Palace at 14 years of age and it was a whirlwind really.  One minute I was playing Sunday League in the little village of Westerham, and the next minute I was scouted for Crystal Palace as a schoolboy.  Before I knew it I was signing as an apprentice at 16 and I turned professional at 17.  I wanted to play and I went on loan to Swansea FC and when I returned to Crystal Palace, together with Richard Shaw who was on loan at Hull City, I got in the side.  The club had also brought Nigel Martyn and Andy Thorn and that season we ended up reaching the FA Cup Final after an epic semi final against Liverpool FC.

We had an incredible replay against Manchester United after we drew the first game 3-3, those are the standout memories that are so special.  The season after we finished third in the Premier League and we won the systems final beating Everton FC 4-1.  That summer I got called up for the England squad and that was just beyond incredible.  I went out to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia with the likes of Gary Lineker, Des Walker and Stuart Pearce, it was just the best thing and where I had always wanted to be.  We also played a unified Germany side at Wembley against the likes of Lothar Matthäus and Jürgen Klinsmann, it was just surreal really.  At that time Italian side SSC Bari came in to buy me and take me to Italy so I started learning Italian because I’d wanted to play abroad as it happens.

And then unfortunately my knee exploded against Leeds United at Selhurst Park and I was out for ten months, I came back and got back in the England side and I was growing in positivity and confidence and then my knee went again and that really was devastating and very tough to take.  I battled on to the age of 36 to the point that I had played over 600 games, but it was never the same and I never got back to the same level.

I played and did the best that I could over a twenty year career, so I look back with a lot of pride on my time at Crystal Palace.’’

JR  ''When SSC Bari came in for you was it something that happened quite quickly or were other clubs also interested.  How was the whole process handled?”

JS  ''Liverpool FC were the first club to come in to buy me when Graeme Souness was their manager, but Crystal Palace turned that down.  There was also interest from Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal FC.  I remember Arsenal FC coming in for me and I would have jumped at the chance to go to there, just as I would have done with Liverpool FC or Manchester United, but I remember Crystal Palace ended up selling Eddie McGoldrick to Arsenal FC for one million pounds and I think that could, and perhaps should have been me.  But at the time Steve Coppell and Ron Noades made the decision that they were going to keep me so I was not given the decision and it was not something that was discussed.

It is something I found out years later when it was done but it became irrelevant in that fact that a year later I was injured and out of the game and those kinds of moves and that kind of attention was never really there after that.  Saying that, I was going to go to Newcastle United with Kevin Keegan but in the end that fell apart, it was towards the end of Kevin's time there, but they also wanted to sign David Ginola.  I asked ‘can't you sign the both of us?’  That would have been a very special period to have gone there with Ruel Fox, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Philippe Albert, John Beresford and Warren Barton.  Again, that was a blow and I ended up at Coventry City with Ron Atkinson.

Coventry City are a lovely club and we stayed in the Premier League for three years.  No disrespect to Coventry City - I got to play with Noel Whelen, Darren Huckerby and Gary McAllister was world class and Peter Ndlovu, and we had a good dressing room with the likes of David Burrows and Steve Ogrizovic - but there was always a bit of me that had that one regret of not playing for that one big club at a St James Park, Highbury or Old Trafford, for teams that were winning trophies and playing in Europe.  It is not something I dwell on too much though, I guess it was just not meant to be.’'

JR  ‘’I hear that frustration, but even so John, you played for England in an era where they weren’t throwing caps out to just anybody…”

JS  ''It is just the pinnacle of my career.  It is over and beyond… I don't think there is any way of describing it.  For me, my story with my Dad (Albert Salako) who was Nigerian and my Mum, who was white and English, is interesting.  My Dad died when I was five years old and we have always lived in England, I was brought up very much English, and did not really have any Nigerian influence.

I had a call up from Wales because I was born outside of the United Kingdom in Nigeria and I qualified for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Terry Yorath did his homework for sure, He tried to get me with a very nice phone call, plus he was a lovely guy, but I was just honest and told him that I am going to wait for England.  Then Nigeria sent a delegation to my home but I responded with the same answer, “I am going to wait for England”.  I ended up going to see Steve Coppell about it and I said, ‘Gaffer, can I have a word?  I have had interest from Nigeria and Wales to play international football.’  His response was, ‘what do YOU think?’

I told him that I wanted to play for England and he told me that I was good enough, he said that I should just wait, it will happen.  Six months later I got the call up from Graham Taylor. It was the most special thing ever to go on that Australian tour and come on as a substitute, it was incredible.  And to play at Wembley too… when you are on that coach going to the game…  I can remember thinking, ‘this is everything I have ever dreamed of’.  I was looking at Gary Lineker, Stuart Pearce, David Platt, Ian Wright, Des Walker and a young Alan Shearer and I just thought ‘wow! this is where I should be, this is it, this is the dream’.

And that was the last time I played for England due to the knee going again.  I am so grateful and so proud of my five caps.  I am one of only 800 people who got a chance to play football for England.  Nobody can take those five caps away from me… those memories will always live with me.”

JR  ‘'As a skilful and pacy winger you would have come against the best fullbacks that English football had to offer.  In fact, it’s taken until the present day for England to produce anything like the same amount of talented fullbacks.  Whose shoulders are they standing on?

JS  ‘'Absolutely.  When I played there were some incredibly talented right-backs that were very quick and strong, plus some outstanding left backs too.  For me the two standouts would have to be Gary Neville and Lee Dixon.  Gary Charles at Nottingham Forest was arguably the best right back that I played against.  The likes of Brian Laws, Jullian Dicks and Stuart Pearce, Tony Dorigo, Graeme Le Saux, Dennis Irwin… Steve Clarke at Chelsea FC.  I mean, week in and week out you seemed to be coming up against one fantastic full back after another.  They were quick and strong and it was brilliant to be playing in the top flight against those types of great players every week, it was an absolute joy.

But you have got to get an attitude into your head to enjoy the battle and be confident to go to grounds and battle against Gary Neville and Andrei Kanchelskis, or if you switched flanks, there was Dennis Irwin and Ryan Giggs.  Or when you would play against Arsenal FC there would be Marc Overmars and Lee Dixon, so you’d switch again and be up against Nigel Winterburn and Anders Limpar, and you would be like, “really!?"  I spent more time defending than I did attacking and I was always jealous and thinking to myself, ‘if I played for a bigger side I could do more attacking and less defending.’

Ian Wright tells a great story about when he signed for Arsenal FC.  The first thing they said to him is that you do not have to run around and do all that work you did at Crystal Palace, your job is to come here and score goals, so just stay up there and score goals.  And that’s the same thing that Stuart Pearce told me when I played for England.  I was tracking back once and he said to me, ‘what are you doing, get up there, I defend, you attack!  Now get away from me!  That was brilliant.  At club level it was, “tuck in! Get in here!” and sometimes it was all hands to the pump at Crystal Palace because we were always underdogs.  But when you play for a better side you get a bit more license and freedom to attack.”

JR  ‘’That's really interesting!  John thanks so much for talking to me today, it’s been a real eye opener.  Finally, not many players get the chance to ply their trade for over 600 games without having some great coaches and managers, who stands out?”

JS  ''The outstanding person for me was Alan Smith.  He was my youth, reserve and first team coach and manager.  I grew up with Alan and I still call him ‘Dad’, he looked after myself, Richard Shaw and Gareth Southgate when we came through and he was more than a coach and more than a manager to all of us.  We had a great group of players that came through at that stage.  Steve Coppell gave me my chance in the first team which was fantastic and he was very influential in the way I played as a winger having been a winger himself.

I was a centre forward and Steve turned me into a wide player and gave me my opportunity, and I embraced that.  He was a great man manager who would often say insightful and intelligent things that were useful.  Crystal Palace was such a special time.

Ron Atkinson gave me a great chance to go to Coventry City and play in the Premier League again.  I played one season under Kevin Keegan at Fulham and I loved that, and then there was Alan Curbishley at Charlton Athletic.  Alan was a bit like Steve, he was very astute at getting the round pegs in round holes and tactically he knew how to set the team up.  We played with discipline and he had good man to man management as well as a good nucleus of players.

Attention to detail was the key to Alan.  He had a nice blend of players who knew their jobs and roles with a sprinkling of stardust in there and a couple of top players.  I also played under Alan Pardew at Reading FC for two and a half years at the end of my career and that was excellent.  We had a young squad and he brought me in as an older player.  I finished with Martin Allen at Brentford FC, so I had a very wide spectrum of different managers and different personalities.’'


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.