By Keiran Fleming
Elgin City captain Euan Spark sat down with NE98 assistant editor Keiran Fleming to talk about his interesting journey in football. Euan was part of a golden generation coming through Dundee United’s youth ranks, played in a Brechin team that were relegated twice in a row and he now captains League 2 promotion play-off hopefuls Elgin City.
The first thing that Euan touched on during the conversation was his friendship with fellow Dundee United academy graduates John Souttar and Ryan Gauld. The trio first met at the age of seven but they have stayed in touch ever since:
“John and I were the same age but we went to different primary schools, John went to Luthermuir, Gauldy was at Laurencekirk and I was at Strathcathro. We played all the way at Brechin Boys club then we went to Dundee United together, then we all went to the same secondary school. John and I were in the same year and then Gauldy was the year above us. From then on we kinda just stuck with each other. Even now we’re stuck with each other and we’re still always in contact with each other, so it’s been a long, long time.
“We’re just the closest of pals and have been ever since. I had the two of them on the phone today. We’re always speaking to each other but you never thought that at seven years old we would stick together this long.”
Spark joined the Dundee United youth academy at the age of 9 which would be the beginning of his professional career. Although he always had a soft spot for Dundee United his allegiance lay elsewhere:
“We used to go home and away with Brechin but we did have season tickets with Dundee United. Funnily enough I think the first game I went to watch was Dundee vs Celtic and I think I was in the Celtic end, I don’t know how I got dragged into that one. We were kind of Dundee United times but it was more about the local team for us.
“Alec Robertson was the scout (who scouted me) he scout quite a lot of the talent for United, he’s still there today. You got a 4 game trial which they always put you on, so you would train and play 4 games then after that they’d make a decision. Lucky enough I was able to sign for them.
“I think Gauldy and John were already at United and I came after. From this area there was Gauldy, John, myself, Ryan Milne, Adam Mcwilliam so there were five of us that came from here (Angus). All the parents used to share lifts. We’d finish school and meet at the roundabout. John’s mum and Gauldy’s mum had people carriers so they could get us all in but if they couldn’t do that the other mums and dads would share lifts. Even though we came from such a small area and going to Dundee there were always 5 of us going and then later it ended up just being the 3 of us going to training. It could have been daunting at the start when you’re the boy from Inchbare going to the big bad city of Dundee where the kids are rougher and tougher than us in the country, but when you had 5 of us jumping into the car going it was like being with your pals.”
The fullback pointed to the 2010 Scottish cup winning side as being a huge influence on him when he was coming through the Arabs youth system:
“There was your John Dalys, Sean Dillons, Garry Kenneths, Keith Watsons so there was a lot. When we finally went to full-time I think Johnny Russell was there and Keith Watson was there, who I made my debut coming on for, those were the stars when we first came in. Then Gaz (Garry Mackay-Steven) and Stu (Stuart Armstrong) came in. They came in at the tail end of my first year at United and they took over from there.
“Sean Dillon and Jon Daly were really good with us. Daly was captain for a season there and he just had an aura about him when he walked in a room. It was a proper captaincy, he had the full respect from the whole team. The Irish guys were really good with the young boys, they were tough to you but they would look after you. I think they liked that the three of us went into the first team and we were kinda from the same area. We were young boys and we were willing to work hard and maybe that’s why they took to us a bit more.”
Euan signed his first professional contract with Dundee United in 2012 before making his senior debut 2 years later against Saint Mirren:
“I’d been on the bench a few times. I remember that Keith got booked early on, I think he had another bad tackle and straight away I was told to get warmed up. The rest of it is a bit of a blur but I know we won 3-0. I think I came on at 2-0 and I think Saint Mirren had a great chance where I thought if they score that I’m done for but luckily enough we managed to win 3-0.
“It was surreal. Obviously the nerves go the minute he tells you to warm up. It was only maybe after the game because my mum was in the crowd. We’d been at United games all our days, my mum and I would be in the crowd together singing. After the game I remember behind the goal being full and I was like my mum’s in there but I can’t see her, I’m on the pitch and she’s there watching. It properly hit home when I got out from the stadium where my mum was waiting and she gave me a hug. I just thought I’ve played all these years and I finally got to play.
“That was probably the best feeling for me when I saw my mum after the game. Everything she’s done, she’s put in the money. My mum’s a single mum and when you’re a kid how much football boots are, how much petrol is, how much it is to get the car right to get to games. The longer you go the more travelling you do, even from under 10s you can be asked to go to Rangers, Celtic, everywhere. She was like no problem, she would work around it, it’s a phenomenal commitment from my mum.”
It’s fair to say that Euan’s mum is a huge influence. Even to this day the fullbacks mum has continued to prove that she is his biggest supporter no matter where he is playing on a Saturday:
“She still comes. I need to tell her not to come to some games, like Stranraer away, she says I’m coming to that and I’m like no you’re not just stay at home it’s not worth coming to that. Even after United she tries to come to every game. She’s always in the crowd somewhere anyway. When I’m coming in from the warm-up I’m always looking like ‘is she there, good she’s in, I can concentrate on the game now.’”
In the second half of the 2015-16 season it was decided by both the club and Spark that it was time for the fullback to go out on loan to look for more first team football:
“I tried to go on loan quite a few times before then and they wanted to keep me, which was fair enough because I was on the bench every week. I think it was after the Kilmarnock game, I didn’t have a great game, we kinda sat down and said a loan would do me good. I was quite happy with it. I think I was supposed to go on loan to Brechin but a couple weeks later Jackie got the sack and Dave Bowman took over. Then I played my full debut against Partick, I played really well, but I pulled my hamstring in it which was a nightmare. I always remember there was an international break where we got 2 weeks off. I came back and Mixu Paatelainen got the job. I was supposed to play his first game but the day before it (hamstring) went again, so it was a bit of bad luck with it. By the time I got fit he had brought in his new team.
“I was so desperate to play that I just said let’s go to Forfar, they need players, Gary Bollan had just taken over. He (Mixu) was like go out there just play and come back next season.”
Playing with Forfar gave Spark his real first taste of consistent first team senior football. However, he was now playing in a completely different environment with part-time players:
“It was tough to be fair. I didn’t realise that I had the full-time mentality that it would be alright, it would be easy, it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d played a lot of games in a youth team or a reserve team against part-time teams and you always thought it was going to be alright but going in there was hard. It’s the first time you realise boys are playing for their jobs really. It was tough the different way of playing, in youth teams you can take it out from the back and play, I think I tried to do that in my first game taking it from the goal and the teams up at the halfway line. It probably took me a bit longer to get used to it. As the team didn’t perform well enough it ended up in relegation which is a disaster.
“I was happy to go and play but when the results weren’t coming in it was hard. It was Albion Rovers away we got relegated and I was like ‘this is horrible’. At the time it was alright for me because I thought I was going back to Dundee United but you still feel like it’s a complete failure of a season.”
Up until moving to Forfar Spark had only played 3 professional games. The fullback told Keiran that his first spell consistently playing competitive football may have had an affect on his confidence:
“It was tough because there were a few other folk out on loan and they were doing well. Maybe before that (loan move) I thought I was higher up the chain. When you’re playing in a bad team, don’t get me wrong I was one of the bad players in that team as well, we couldn’t win. It was tough to get used to it and I was coming back thinking I was safe but I didn’t know because I was out of contract. It’s not going look that I’ve gone out to a team and got relegated, you do start getting a little bit worried.”
When the youngster returned to his parent club he was hit with the news that no player wants to receive, he was released. However, he felt as though the release was unexpected:
“Maybe I was a bit oblivious to it. Mixu got the sack and I got on really well with Mixu, I was looking forward to playing with him if I had the chance to. I don’t know if it was because I’d been there for so long I thought I’d just stay there but then the Chairman took over the club. He sacked Mixu and we didn’t have a manager so he came in with David Sutherland, who was his right hand man. At that stage I was in the first team even though I was younger than some of the boys in the under 20s dressing room. We did a training session and we were told the chairman’s in and he is going to take you one by one into the office.
“The first few went in and they came out saying ‘yep that’s me away, I’m not staying, I’ve been told to go.’ I was thinking this wasn’t right, then it was my turn to go in. He sat me down and said ‘thanks very much but we won’t be renewing your contract, we’re clearing out the club.’ I told him that I thought there was a contract on the table for next season but he told me they were doing a complete overhaul of the team. He told 5 of the players from the full squad that he wanted them but I don’t think he could get rid of everyone because they were on contracts anyway. Since I was out of contract he didn’t want me to stay so I had to pack my bags and leave.
“It was so strange because it was the gaffers office. I had never been in the gaffers office that much, you were only there if you were in trouble, going out on loan or doing well. To go walk in and like the chairman’s sitting there, who I’d never spoken to before in my life, it was the first time I ever met the chairman. I obviously knew him and knew he was but it was the first time I had conversation with him. I sat there with his businessman next to him and it was just like they were checking off a list saying ‘no, on you go’.
“It was the game after, I remember because he kept Blair Spittal at the club and me and Blair are quite close. We were going up to sit in the stand at the game and the chairman walked out of the boardroom in front of us. I was still gutted I was leaving and he said ‘Euan I didn’t realise you’d been here for 10 years, I wish it was him I could release and not you’ and he was pointing at Blair. I froze and I was still hurting inside, he just walked away and that was it. The 2 conversations I had with the chairman was you’re getting released and I wish I could release him not you.
“A lot of boys lost their jobs that day. It was just a bit harder for me to take because I’d been there so long, I had so many friends there, I had a flat in Dundee, I did everything I could to be there. Then one day someone comes in and says nah see you later on.”
After what was a real heartbreaking moment for Spark he was now left with the daunting task of finding a new club. The fullbacks biggest fear was that he didn’t really plan for a life without Dundee United:
“I left school when I was 15 so I didn’t have any grades to go into work. In my head I was still a footballer and I still wanted to play. I thought since I left Dundee United and played for Dundee United that I would get a team. With Dundee United getting relegated and me leaving; also I was part of Forfar being relegated it was a proper struggle to get teams. It was part-time teams coming in and I wasn’t at that stage that I wanted to go there, I wanted to give it another go. My only option was that I had to go to the PFA exit trials. We did a 2 week training camp with various managers coming to watch and then we’d play a one off game where everyone sat and judged you for one game. Luckily enough through that I got Dunfermline.”
Euan’s time with the Pars got off to a decent start during pre-season. He impressed the coaching staff during a trial and signed a year long contract with Dunfermline:
“I’d missed 2 weeks of pre season so I was playing catch up on them but I’d played in 3 of the games, even scored in one I think; but you’re just starting all over again, they don’t know you from anyone, no one knew anything about me. As far as they’re concerned I’d just been released from Dundee United and I got relegated with Forfar. I had just been relegated with 2 clubs in the same season. Luckily enough I did well and they offered me a contract.”
After what would’ve been considered a very good start at his new club. Euan failed to play a single game with the Pars and still to this day he doesn’t understand why:
“My face maybe didn’t fit, which I find hard to believe because I had a trial and they offered me a contract, then as soon as I signed it was a completely different story. I can’t think of anything I did that annoyed him or maybe went wrong. I had ruptured my ankle ligaments twice in 2 games which meant I was hit with the you’re not fit enough thing, which hurt. I used to go into the park at 9 o’clock in the morning and run round the pitch just to prove I was fit.
“I was doing well in training and I don’t even think I got on the bench for them. I always remember we were playing Ross County with the 20s, I used to go as an overage. I would get told the manager is coming to watch and that you might have a chance of playing at the weekend, he’s actually looking at you because you’re doing well in training. I remember thinking on the bus journey up ‘this is the chance’. I played and I scored, I played well. I got on well with John Potter the 20s manager and he said ‘you’ve done everything you can and now it’s up to the manager’. I was in the squad for the game and I got put in the stand, I wasn’t even on the bench. I just thought ‘that’s it, I’m completely done here’.
“A few weeks later I chapped on his door and asked him what’s going on and told him I was giving everything I’ve got, I thought I was doing well. Even some of the boys in the team told me I was doing well and that I should go ask him. He just said “you just don’t fit here” and then he told me I was going on loan to Elgin. I was like that’s fine I just want to go play football. I signed a loan contract with Elgin on the Friday to play on Saturday, I got a call Saturday morning saying they had used all their loans and I couldn’t go.
“ I went back into training Monday and the manager pulled me into the office and told me they were going to terminate my contract. He said ‘Elgin wants to sign you so we are just going to terminate your contract.’ I told him that I wasn’t doing that and he asked me why I wouldn’t leave. I said ‘I have a flat in Dunfermline, I don’t have any education, I don’t have any plan.’ I was like I’m not leaving. He just said I would train with the 20s and that I wouldn’t play but I managed to go to Berwick in the end. Berwick were bottom of league 2 at the time, he (Allan Johnston) thought he was doing me over, but it was the most fun I had with football. I was only 20, I was still really young, I didn’t have an education and he just turned round and told me to get out of the club.I didn’t know where I went wrong.
”I got on really well with the boys at Dunfermline and it had become a running joke where anything in training would be my fault. If I lost the ball once they would be straight on me. It would just be a laugh between us. I was staying in a club flat and they wanted the bedroom for someone else. So I told them they could pay me off but I wasn’t leaving.”
Although Euan’s relationship soured with Allan Johnston extremely quickly there had been some early signs that Dunfermline and Spark weren’t meant to be:
“They didn’t offer me any accommodation to start off with. I lived in Inchbare and that was me travelling an hour and a half to Dunfermline every day. The money I was on at the time was nothing, I would’ve spent all my money on fuel to get to training. That wasn’t a problem for him (Johnston) he would just ask if I wanted to play there. I told him I couldn’t afford to pay for my car and fuel with the wages I was on.
“I ended up moving in with John (Souttar) because he lived in Edinburgh at the time, he had just got his first house with his girlfriend, a beautiful, big house and I ended up moving in with them. So I was definitely the third wheel. I stayed with them for a month before I was allowed to stay in the digs in Dunfermline. I maybe should have known from there that it was all against me but I just had to give it a go.”
After going through another experience that would damage any player’s confidence. Spark looked at the loan spell with Berwick as a completely fresh start and an opportunity to prove himself:
“I think they were bottom or second bottom of league and it was considered a suicide (career) move. It was honestly the best football I played. John Coughlin was the manager, he wanted you to pass, to play football, to do it right. There were 4 boys from Fife who would pick me up and go to training, so that was the first time I would carpool down. I think we finished sixth that season and it was brilliant, it was a massive thing for the club.
“Going from being relegated, to not working out at Dunfermline, to finally go there (Berwick) where we were like heroes to the club. We took away from the bottom and saved from going down so it was really good.
“I was basically at rock bottom so I told myself to enjoy it and have a bit of fun. If I didn’t go to Berwick I wouldn’t be known as much. I would’ve been that kid that was at United, got released, went to Forfar, got relegated, went to Dunfermline, never played; so if I never took that move to Berwick it probably could have been the end of my career. I would’ve been that player no one wanted to touch.
“Once you’re on that downward spiral it’s so hard to stop. You might know you’re going down but you don’t realise it as much as everyone from the outside does.”
This time Spark already knew that he was going to be released as soon as he went back to his parent club. However, the release story he tells pretty much sums up his time with the pars:
“It was my last week at Dunfermline, I pretty much knew I wasn’t getting kept on. On the whiteboard in the first team dressing room was Friday meetings and Monday morning meetings, the season finished that Saturday. It came to Friday, I went into the dressing room and all these Friday meetings were going on, which were the people he wanted to keep, so that the Monday meetings were the ones he didn’t want to keep. My name was on the Monday morning list.
“I’d already arranged, this is how much I didn’t want to be at Dunfermline, I was playing with Berwick in the final game of the season and I had arranged to go to Newcastle to watch Newcastle play their final game of the Championship, which they won and got promoted with. I had it in my head that I was finishing the game, the season was done, I was going to Newcastle and I wasn’t getting up the road until Tuesday.
“I went in and saw my name there (on the whiteboard) and I thought nah. So I told Potts (John Potter) that I’m not coming in Monday. He told me that I had to come in, the Gaffers got me on the board so I’ve got a meeting. I was like ‘I’m telling you I’m not coming in’. So I went and chapped on his door and said ‘see I got a meeting on Monday gaffer.’ He said ‘yeah, come in 9 o’clock’ and I said I can’t. He asked why and I said ‘because I’m going to Newcastle!’. He told me you are contracted to this club you’ll be here Monday and I said ‘I tell you right now gaffer I will not be here Monday, so whatever you want to tell me, tell me now’. He went off his dinger and I was like just tell me. He said ‘you’re not getting a contract son’ and I was like ‘fine, thank you’. He was going to bring me in on Monday morning, when the season was finished, to tell me I wasn’t getting a new deal.”
Spark managed to get the tickets to St James’ Park through one of his old Dundee United team mates, Andy Robertson. However, he believes that he played a small role in making the Champions League winner into the player he is today:
“I still joke with him saying he’s rubbish. He was good but no one ever thought he would do what he’s done. My first ever game for United was a friendly against Forfar at Station Park. He was the captain for it and it was the last ever game he played for Dundee United. He said to me before it ‘You’re nervous aren’t you. The first thing I’m going to do is when I get the ball I’m going to ping it across to you. I don’t care where you are, I’m just going to smash it to you and that will be it sorted.’ The first time it came to him, he tried to switch the ball to me and it landed in the center circle and I had to go get it. I always say I played one game and he got a move to Hull so I take all credit for him. At the end of the day he would have never won the Champions League if he didn’t play at Forfar with me. I speak to him all the time and I’ve only just managed to get a top off him after all these years. Everytime I asked him he just told me to do one. So finally I’ve managed to get that. I’ll get it framed and put up on the wall and that’ll be my claim to fame.”
After starting off as a full-time player, Spark now made the step into part-time football. Luckily for him his boyhood, local club were looking for a player of his calibre:
“There was John (Souttar), Harry(Souttar), myself, my mum and his family all went to the famous game that they (Brechin) won to get promoted. They were all looking at me saying ‘you’re out of contract, get yourself to Brechin.’ Then Stevie Campbell, who I knew from Dundee United for years,got in contact and asked me if I wanted to come to Brechin. I said ‘yeah I would love to’ obviously because it was my local team. With them being in the Championship as well, we all knew it was mission impossible, but it was my local team. Brechin were in the Championship. I wasn’t turning this down.
“We had quite a lot of young boys and it was always about the big if. If you had one good season that could bounce you back up to get full-time, which didn’t happen for any of us, but it was good. As bad as the season was, it probably looked dreadful from the outside, but it wasn’t that dreadful from the inside because I don’t think there was much expectation on us.”
After attempting to fight against the odds, Brechin finished with 0 wins and finished dead last in the Championship. The next season City would aim for promotion back into the second tier, however, they would infamously be relegated for the second time in a row
“I thought we had a good enough team at the start. It was typical, the first game season they were a man down and we still got beat. I was thinking oh no, this can’t be like last season. We just kept going, it was a slog, we couldn’t get results, we couldn’t get wins. The manager got sacked. Barry Smith and took in a heap of different players. By that stage I was working in Inverness, I could only make training on a Thursday night.
“I actually ended up jacking my job in so I could get to the Tuesday session. Then the first session after jacking my job in I did my medial ligament in my knee. I remember leaving training just after I finished my job and I was driving home with a knee brace on and I thought this sums my luck up.
“I think I was back for the last 8 games and we were bottom of the league. It was a proper struggle. I was out for 3 months and I came back at the tail end of the season to try to save us.
“That (relegation) was really hard because that meant the most (to me) playing for Brechin. I was a Brechin boy, I knew half the fans there and I knew the board. Everyone knew I was from Brechin and I couldn’t save the club from getting relegated into League 2. It was the last game of the season and we were playing Stenhousmuir. We had to win to make the play-offs. It was typical we got beat again. I was sitting there thinking this is ridiculous, I couldn’t believe it, we’ve just been relegated. We had such a good team, how did we manage to get relegated? So that was really tough, it hit me hard.”
Similar to his release from Dundee United it was another clear out that led to the fullback leaving the club he had followed all his life.
“I couldn’t make it to training one night and a lot of the boys went in. Later there were a few in the group chat who were like see you later lads and left. I was wondering what’s going on. Then I met Barry Smith in a McDonald’s car park in my work van and he said he was doing an overhaul of the team. He said ‘I think it’s a big mistake to let you go but I can’t offer you anything.’ I was wondering what does that mean? He wanted me to come back next season but I wouldn’t be signed. I would just be a trialist. I didn’t want to go back there. He wanted me to fight for my place. I was probably close to jacking football in because I thought this is what it’s come to.”
Euan’s career has seen plenty of ups and plenty of downs but a move to Elgin has seen him perform the best he has so far in his career:
“I went up with no expectations whatsoever. Central belt teams you know everyone, I went to Elgin and I didn’t know anyone. I thought it was a good team and the gaffer wanted to sort a contract out. From there it’s been brilliant, it’s been really good. We finished fourth last season.”
Spark’s impressive performances led to him being named captain of Elgin City last season. The fullback never saw himself as a captain coming through the youth ranks but is delighted his manager has shown confidence in him:
“I tell the boys I’m not a captain, I’m the one to bridge the gap between the manager and players. If you don’t want to talk to the manager I’ll talk to him for you. This season has probably been the toughest for any club captain. With furlough schemes, boys not getting paid, boys not getting contracts. Unfortunately that lies on my head because I’m the one between the players and the manager.
“I never thought I would be captain, I never wanted to be captain but I just wanted to be that person that could help the boys out if they needed it.”
NE98 would like to thank Elgin City captain Euan Spark for sitting down and chatting to our Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming. We wish both him and the club all the best for the future.