Overcoming injuries and set-backs and the transition to part-time: Sam Wardrop Interview

By Keiran Fleming

Assistant editor Keiran Fleming sat down with Dumbarton full back Sam Wardrop to chat about his career both on and off the pitch.

Sam Wardrop has been through a lot during his young footballing career. The 23-year-old has captained a Celtic youth side to a Scottish cup win, had a career altering injury and been part of a squad during a financial takeover.

The right back sees his time in the Celtic youth setup as a hugely important and influential part of his career:

“It’s special to be part of a club like that and you probably don’t realise how lucky you are until afterwards. You think wow the opportunities you got. Everything that was given to you in terms of training, travelling the world, an education, an education in football. It’s only when you look back you think that was an unbelievable experience.”

“Obviously when you’re there as well you do feel like you’re part of something special because it’s one of the biggest clubs in Scotland and globally it’s a big club.”

Wardrop was making his way through the ranks when Brendan Rodgers took over at the club. He told Keiran that there were a huge number of first team members who had a positive influence on him:

“I think as a youngster you kind of look up to pretty much every first team player, I’m coaching some young boys now and they always look up to the first team, I looked up to them all the way through. You don’t stop looking up to them because that’s where you’re trying to go, that’s what you’re trying to become.

“The ones that stick out in my mind are the likes of Scott Brown and Kieran Tierney. Those two in terms of their work ethic and attitude. I worked hard and I was dedicated but the intensity and the energy they brought everyday was just ridiculous. I always asked myself ‘how do they turn up every day to training like that? How can you be that motivated and have that attitude every day?’ but they did.”

“Obviously I played alongside KT but when he became part of the first team those were the two you looked up to.”

All though he never broke into the first team Sam definitely sees his youth career at the hoops as a successful one:

“I had a good time there. In the youth teams we played a lot of European football in the youth champions league, which mirrored the first team stuff which was amazing. You traveled out in a chartered flight with the first team, you played the equivalent of the Barcelona youth team and then you went along to the first game to watch.”

“We did well in these competitions, held our own and obviously the youth cup as well. I think I played in like three or fourth youth cup finals, we always had strong squads at Celtic. Every player was good, we won a lot of things and a lot of them have done really well.

“Good memories in terms of the youth cup finals. We got to play at Hampden which is good.”

After he turned 18, Sam set himself the goal of playing senior football. Little did he know that he would cross paths with Dumbarton, the club he went on loan to, multiple times throughout his career:

“You always have the dream to play for Celtic’s first team. Then you get to 18 and you start to think right if I don’t start playing first team football now I’m going to be 19, 20 I still might not have played any first team football.”

“If you stay at the club and just continue to play youth football then two or three years can bypass you. You can be 20, 21 and not get one single first team appearance under your belt and then your contract finishes and you’re like ‘who wants to sign me?’ The other clubs are like well you’ve not played any first team games so how can we sign you which is completely fair.

“So I was about 18 (when I) decided right let’s go on loan and I went to Dumbarton. I loved it. That was my first taste of first team football. The first team changing room environment was totally different to youth football and I learned a lot from that. It served me well in terms of my experience and it just grew me as a player and a person.”

Whilst at Dumbarton Sam fulfilled a dream that many up and coming footballing talents have. He managed to score his first ever senior goal:

“It’s definitely an amazing feeling. It was the winner as well in that game and it was against Inverness who were a tough opponent. That was incredible, I’ve watched it a lot of times.

“I think scoring a goal is just a special feeling. I don’t get to do it often so that was definitely one of my really good memories from being at Dumbarton.”

After what was deemed to be a really successful loan spell Sam returned to his parent club to be told that he was free to leave. He spent almost 10 years at the club but it was time for a new challenge:

“When I came back it was basically right am I going to get another contract here, no, alright where can I go? I had agents looking after me who were looking for clubs, looking for options and it was in the Summer that Dundee United was going to be a possibility.

“In terms of where I was at, at that moment, they were probably the best. I was looking to go to the Championship at a minimum and they were one of the best teams in the Championship so it was perfect for where I was at that time.

“That was after speaking to Brendan Rodgers and stuff, having a discussion before I left. I went in and asked him ‘Where do you see me playing? What level?” and he was saying ‘Listen you still need to  go get that experience at a club like that (Dundee United)’. So it was perfect. In the Summer of 2018 I signed for two years”

After being signed in the Summer by Csaba Lazlo the newcomer would see the manager who brought him in be sacked two months later:

“Straight away when I came in you kind of got the sense that the fans were frustrated with the team, with the manager already before our football had even started. There was already a bad taste from the previous season because you expected to get promoted. It was clear it was going to be tough.

“Also coming from Celtic where everything is planned to perfection, everythings in place, it’s a smooth operation. I felt as though it wasn’t a smooth operation when I went in and I think there was no cohesion. Things obviously got better when Tony (Ashgar) came in. He kind of steadied the ship and started to put the right people in the right places.”

New manager Robbie Neislon was announced in October and not long after Sam Wardrop was told by his new gaffer that he was no longer wanted at the club:

“Robbie Neilson came in and there was a better feeling about the place because you think a new manager, fresh start. He came in and, I think it was at the first game, he pulled me and Matty Smith in and said ‘look I need to respect the senior players and give them an opportunity’ which was rubbish because we were all first team players. Already I was like I’ll take for what it’s worth. It was the first game against (Partick) Thistle, we won that game, me and Matty were in the stand.

“We thought fair enough, maybe he is going to give the guys who are older a bit of respect. I fully anticipated, I fully expected to be given an opportunity and I didn’t really get any opportunity. It was around Christmas and New Year he pulled me into his office and said ‘I’d like you to leave’ pretty much and that was it.”

“It wasn’t the way I expected my career to go at Dundee United, it was probably the worst start I could’ve had but it was just about to get a little bit worse. It was a bit turbulent, it wasn’t how I expected it to go.

“I think it was poor man management skills. I came from Celtic, where I wasn’t part of the first team squad, but the first team manager, Brendan Rodgers, still would chat to you and man manage you properly. Coming from that to this at 20, you’re still a young player, not played many first team games, you’ve got a long time ahead of you. You’d expect to be managed properly.

“So when that came it was a tough one, you don’t really know how to deal with it, you’ve not played for long enough to know how to deal with those sort of things. The good thing was there were good players in the team who were also getting similar treatment but also would say ‘listen this happens at football clubs’ they would just help you. I’m very thankful for there being good teammates in the team at the time.”

At only 20 Sam would face another huge challenge: a major knee injury. The injury would see the fullback out of action for exactly a year:

“See because I had such a turbulent time up until that Injury, I was pretty down, I was pretty depressed but when I got the injury I had to focus again. I had to focus on how can I recover from this and be just as strong as I was before, just as good as I was before? Don’t get me wrong I was devastated when I got the injury but it kind of aligned my vision, my focus. I had this goal in mind, I could just channel all my energy into something which was getting myself back into the best possible condition I could.”

“Although there were ups and downs it was a really frustrating time, the injury. I ended up getting a second operation, just a small tidy up, times like that you’re just so frustrated. They take a section of the tendon, the knee tendon out which can cause tendonitis which is brutal. But I had a focus, I had a goal, I had a time in mind for when I wanted to get back playing.

“I wanted to prove to myself, as much to anyone who was following my career, that I could play at a high level.”

Although many of us may have considered the injury to be a potentially career altering one, Sam saw this as an experience he can learn something from:

“In terms of how it changed me in football I feel like now, no matter what, if anything happens I can overcome it. I overcame the injury, I overcame the treatment I had from the manager, the experience I had in the first few months. I feel like those are really hard things to get over as a footballer. So I feel like now I’ve become pretty strong mentally.”

“Just generally though I know you can get over and get through anything with a bit of resilience, it’s tough but I came out the other side stronger. I’ve learned more than I would’ve if I just played every week, I’d be in a different position but I’ve learned a lot. I look at it, not as a negative, but I look back over the last couple of years as something I’ve taken a lot of lessons from.”

His first game back from injury would be exactly 365 days after he did his ACL with a club that he was beginning to get to know very well, Dumbarton:

“When I first did my ACL I was actually due to go on loan there (Dumbarton). I was going to go on loan and look for a club in Summer. I was meant to go to Dumbarton but the week before I did my knee. It was almost like a year later the same thing was happening.”

“I know Dumbarton, I know the club, I know a lot of the players. It was 100% I was going to go back there.”

After another successful spell with the Sons, the right back decided it was time to make the move to the League 1 side a permanent one:

“The main difference is you’re not training full-time. Up until I signed for Dumbarton I was used to training every single day that was just what you did. Even on loan you trained full-time because you went back to your parent club and you still got looked after.

“You train twice a week and play on a Saturday, there’s less contact time, you train less which means you have to do more yourself, well I like to do more myself just to stay fit. It’s probably more responsibility, more independence to take care of yourself because you’re still playing against full-time teams.

“We’ve got (Partick) Thistle and Falkirk in our league so you need to make sure you’re fit and ready for these games. I’ve been full-time for so long, so I know what you need to do to be match fit and I like training myself.”

Whilst playing football has been a huge part of his life, Sam has always looked to the future after football and strived to further his education:

“I’ve been doing a Uni course for six years at the Open Uni part-time. I’ve been doing that since I left school which has always given me a focus in the afternoons because you have long days as a footballer. You finish maybe early afternoon so I like to have something to fill my time with.”

Not only is he studying Law in his spare but the 23-year-old is also looking to utilise those skills he has learnt so far in his career to help others through personal training and coaching:

“When I came back from Dumbarton on loan last January I was unsure. Because I hadn’t played much football for the last two years I wasn’t sure if I would play for another full-time club so I thought I would do the PT course because I know that would allow me to make money as soon as I finish it.”

“When the Summer came it was a funny one. I was just sitting in my room studying one day and I thought to myself why don’t get my mates to do a work out on zoom just as a laugh and also because we were bored. Literally from that point I’ve grown a small business which I love and I’ve realised my passion for coaching people.

“I managed to do a wee bit of personal training in person when we were allowed to. I’ve just grown it over the last year, I’m loving it. It’s a fluid process, you obviously have a goal in mind, but you don’t know what path it will take or who you’ll meet, different things can happen along the way.

“The most recent thing I’ve started is having a focus on football players. Just a support mechanism for football players because I do think sometimes, I experienced it, there’s real lack of support. A neutral support system that’s out with the club, obviously the club will support you but at the end of the day they’re a business. There’s going to be times where they just offload you and don’t really have much regard for your wellbeing.

“Right now it’s just a private facebook group for anyone that plays football who needs a bit of support just to chat. Maybe just some training tips, just some nutrition tips, just anything they need help with. I’ve really enjoyed that because I’ve got a lot of experience from playing at Celtic, at Dundee United, at Dumbarton that I like to share.”

Sam told Keiran that he still has big plans and expectations for his football career in the future:

“I’ve never had any doubt in my football ability, I do believe I can play in the Scottish Premiership but just through what’s happened I’ve not got to that level. Right now I’m happy at a club where I know I’m going to play, I get on well with the manager and  the players. You just don’t know with football, you don’t know where you’re going to be in a year.”

NE98 would like to thank Sam Wardrop for taking to speak to us and wish him and Dumbarton all the best for the future.

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