The New Era of Junior Football

By Keiran Fleming

From the beginning of next season teams from the North Caledonian League, the Super League and the East Region North will have the opportunity to be promoted into the Highland League.

Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming sat down with Culter FC manager Lee Youngson and the manager of Dundee Violets JFC Andy Heggie to discuss the impact joining the pyramid could have on their clubs.

Culter FC are one of Aberdeen’s historically successful Junior clubs. Manager Lee Youngson welcomes the decision of the Super League joining the Scottish football pyramid but he doesn’t believe it will make the division any more competitive than it already is:

“I think it’s a stronger Super League now than it has been in recent years and it’s only going to get stronger because there’s a lot of ambitious people involved in these clubs. I would disagree that if teams were to leave for the Highland League it would make our league more competitive, would it make the Highland League more competitive, certainly. We would all hold our own in the Highland League that’s quite clear.

“It’s an interesting time I think. It’ll be interesting to see how things develop over the next few years. You would look at probably Dyce, Culter and Hermes and think their facilities are ok for the Highland league but they’re not. There’s criteria we wouldn’t meet and for us there would be a big financial outlay to get to that standard. It’s something we are planning to do anyway in regards to adding flood lights at some point and all the other bits that go with it, just to try and make our facilities the best we possibly can. It’s new to us, it’s something we’re interested in and we’ll just have to see what happens in the coming months.”

There have been rumours for years that the northern Junior leagues were going to link to the Highland League much like the West of Scotland Football League links to the Lowland league. However, the news of the link being made came as a surprise to many of the Junior clubs in the north.

“In regards to (joining) the pyramid system we’ve been told it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen, then it’s happening and that’s as much dealings as the clubs have had or certainly us. I think it is the right move. There’s progression there. There’s probably clubs in the Highland League that are quite happy with finishing bottom and there being no repercussion for that.

“I strongly believe the top two, three teams at our level would do well in the Highland League and they would certainly push into the top half.”

Although a chance to be promoted may act as extra motivation for sides competing in the Junior league. Youngson says that there will be some in the Super League that won’t want to make the step up:

“A lot of our players are probably quite happy playing at this level, they could play in the Highland League but they choose not to. It’s local, it’s on their doorstep and that’s the biggest attraction for it (Junior Football).

“Adding that extra motivation of being a part of the pyramid system is only going to help.

Our focus, and I probably speak for a few other teams, is closing the gap on Banks o’ Dee  before we consider anything else. We’ve got to be more competitive in our league and I think that’s what clubs have looked to do in regards to recruiting players and doing things with facilities. Everyone is trying to catch up on a team that’s been so progressive and dominant for so long now.”

“The good thing is people are making up ground quickly. Banks o’ Dee will only get stronger because they’ve got a young squad, but if everyone else can improve at a quicker rate it should make things more competitive, not only for us but for Banks o’Dee, they are probably crying out for someone to be in the run with them. I suppose this adds a bit of the energy to the new season now knowing there is something new at the end of the season for everybody.”

Dundee Violets JFC are considered to be one of the bigger teams in the Tayside Junior football scene. Manager Andy Heggie is extremely excited about the season ahead especially with a new incentive.

“I’m a former player up in the Highland League myself so there is an attachment there. I think the new tier system coming into place could only be good for Scottish football. For us as a club at this moment in time we’re looking to promote players, we’re looking for a fresh start. We’re really excited about it, I think going forward it’s an avenue to go down. The way that Junior football has gone recently with teams leaving for the East of Scotland it’s broken up the Junior scene in Dundee. Going towards the Highland League gives us someplace to go now.

“I think it’s an opportunity for clubs around the tayside area to push for that (promotion). Obviously with the geography side of it there’s a lot of miles to cover which is something that anyone with ambition to take their club forward would be ok with because being part of the Highland League is massive for a club from this area. It’s a great platform for younger players and as a club we want to work with younger players. I think it’s everybody’s aim to play at a higher level.”

Heggie believes that now clubs are playing for promotion it will give those who are part of the team that extra push when it comes to fighting for the top spot of the table:

“Our coaching staff are certainly excited about it. The players I have seen are mixed about it because of the travelling side and that we are part time. They are concerned about how the fixtures would play out if we were successful. There are some players who are really keen to test themselves in that league. I think it’s a good platform for kids who have been released from the likes of Montrose and some other clubs as it’s another avenue to help them get to the level they want to get to.”

During the talks over the years there has been a lot of difficulty when it comes to discussing the Tayside clubs. The main struggle being whether the clubs from the area would be linked with the Lowland or the Highland League. The Violets manager explained to Keiran why this has been so controversial.

“We were always told as we were north of the Tay we would have to go to the Highland League. Teams from the Perth area have then left for the East of Scotland league. To be honest with you the news has come around quite quick. In terms of timescale I think talks started at the tailend of last year so it has had quite a turnaround. I think it was the introduction of the West of Scotland League that kind of prompted everything again. I think it’s (the Highland League) the sensible route”

NE98 would like to thank both Lee Youngson from Culter and Andy Heggie from Dundee Violet for taking the time to speak to Keiran. We wish both clubs all the best in the future.

Overcoming adversity to manage her hometown club – Emma Hunter interview

 By Lewis Michie

It hasn’t been an easy road to get there, but Emma Hunter is living the dream by co-managing her hometown club, and with it now confirmed they’ll have their chance to finish the SWPL 2 season, she’s got the odds in her favour to lead Aberdeen back to Scotland’s top Women’s league. She’s been speaking to NE98 Head of Content Lewis Michie.

Football has always run deep in the veins of Emma Hunter, as she says herself “Sometimes you are just, It sounds really cheesy to say it, but born to play and it’s just in you.”

But it was a different time then, not an easy time for a little girl to get involved with football, no matter how talented.

For Emma there was no doubt she was just as committed as any boy in her class to the sport she loved.

“I was definitely just a really sport young girl – it didn’t matter what I was playing as long as it was a sport – but football seemed to be the sport for me.

“We’d go out and do kicky-ups, street football, put your jackets down as goalposts and play sort of thing”

Early on Emma wasn’t just talented ‘for a girl’ but instead she was just a top player overall, at that age the boys weren’t physically ahead of her, in fact she was even able to out-muscle some of them.

It seemed a no brainer when she attended trials for her school team to include her in the squad – and after impressing that’s what she was told would happen.

“Unfortunately a couple days later they called me back and said look although you are good enough, we aren’t allowed to play you on the pitch, which when you think about it now is so crazy – if that was to happen now there would be a huge outcry.” She told Lewis.

While not the same outcry that would happen today, Emma did find herself in the local paper with her story – she ended up training with the team but not allowed to play.

“I would still train with them, and then go to the games and hand out orange juice at half-time.” She said.

It wasn’t long before she was playing for a team, but instead of being a girl playing with boys she was a girl playing with Women, signing on with East End.

As Emma reached the second half of her teenage years there was a decision to make. With football still her dream she’d have to make the move across the Atlantic, going to University – or college – in the United states.

“I’d put my CV out on the internet, a couple of VHS tapes – no Youtube back then – and right before I went I did my ACL.

“After I recovered it was the USA for me, that was my only option, so at 17 put a back-pack on and my Mum sent me on a flight to Atlanta.”

To be able to make a living through her favourite sport, the best option  for Emma was America – even if the self-admitted home bird wouldn’t have been so keen on being so far from her family.

“I was so determined but it was probably the hardest years of my life, I actually ran up a lot of debt because I would phone home so often and was so homesick and felt so lonely at times.” She told us.

“For me when I went over they were quite taken aback by how good I was on the ball – they are good physically, they are fit, but technically a lot of the players were surprised by how good I was on the ball compared to them.”

With the home sickness such a factor, America was never on the cards long term, but the next move was not home – but to Sweden.

Having met a number of Swedes and other players from Nordic countries during her time in the States it was apparent to Emma that it was those nations producing some of the best players – and moving there gave her a chance of semi-professional football.

Whilst once again another good chance to learn, coming home was always the next step – which finally gave Emma a chance to play for her hometown club – then known as Aberdeen Ladies.

A dream fulfilled but over the next few years juggling football and her career became an issue for Emma. Having studied in sports coaching before leaving for the states, it was in that area she was able to make a living.

Eventually retirement from playing followed, but Emma couldn’t be kept away from football. Helping set-up Westdyke Girls and doing other coaching around the North East of Scotland she was soon being noticed for her skills in that area.

“While I was doing regional work for the SFA I got noticed by Anna Signol and she got me involved as Assistant coach at Under 16 and Under 17 national sides.” She told us.

But as soon as it seemed Emma’s coaching career was getting going, life threw up the biggest challenge yet.

Upon returning from a holiday Emma wasn’t feeling quite right and she had an ear infection. On a visit to the Doctor for the ear she decided to ask about the other issue.

“I went for scans and the minute I got the scan I could tell by the look on  the guy doing the scans face that it wasn’t good – he couldn’t tell me what was wrong, but I could tell, so I asked ‘is this bad’ and I think he felt so bad he couldn’t tell me it wasn’t.”

Emma was diagnosed with a rare type of Ovarian cancer.

“Everything got fast tracked from there, I ended up within weeks in high intensive chemo treatment – it was urgent because it was an urgent cancer.

“That was really, really difficult.”

But Emma said as difficult as that period of her life was, it led to plenty of reflection.

“You reflect a lot on life, what you’ve achieved, what was important to you and who was around you at the time.

“A lot of the football connections got in touch and said what a difference I’d made, how I’d helped their daughter achieve their dreams of playing for Scotland”

“Life’s too short and I want to make a difference in my life and just enjoy it.

“I always wondered  about my career in football and did I achieve everything I could have.

“The thought of not seeing my son again was heartbreaking, and knowing I could leave him and what would his memories be of me? So I thought I’m good at coaching, I love it, so why not just go for it?”

Recovery was a long difficult journey, but it wasn’t long after Emma was properly back on her feet that fate struck – Aberdeen Ladies were taken over by Aberdeen FC.

It was possibly the lowest points in Aberdeen Ladies’ history, two consecutive relegations meant they were set to play outside of the SWPL set-up.

But the take-over was able to breathe new life into the club, meaning more investment, more attention and a new managerial team.

Emma and her Co-Manager Harley Hamdani were unveiled at a Sunny but typically cold Pittodrie in early 2019.

“When it came up I just did everything that I could to get the job.” Emma told Lewis.

“When I first recovered I didn’t think I could coach again, I couldn’t walk, I’d lost tons of weight and I had so many bad side effects.

“I lost part of my hearing, I can’t feel my feet like I used to – so I’d love to join in with training but my ability is gone now. So I’ve had to adapt.

“I always knew there was potential in Aberdeen and in the north – there was so many good youth players coming up and some good older players.”

For Emma this wasn’t something she had to do, if she didn’t see the promise in the squad and in the club she wouldn’t have applied, but it was a case of right place and right time.

“When the job came up unless I’d seen that potential I probably wouldn’t have stepped up.

“I just didn’t think I could lose, it was a win-win.”

The pandemic has delayed the path that had been planned, but in their first season the Dons eased to promotion in an unbeaten campaign.

Now the SWPL 2 season has been one that has started twice and is yet to finish. But Emma and Stuart Bathgate, who took over the role as Co-Manager when Hamdani moved to Australia, have the Reds benefiting from a seven point point lead at the summit of the table ahead of the leagues return.

But that success has come from careful and considered planning to bring the best from a squad with select experienced players and an abundance of young talent.

“Some of the players that have got potential were as young as 15 at the time, so it was a huge risk and we had to plan about the integration and it wasn’t that we were just going to take all the young players and put them in together and go.

“It was all falling into place in terms of we knew there was 6,7,8 young players out there and some more experienced players in our squad.

“I wouldn’t change anything, we’ve implemented the young players not too early or too late.”

For Aberdeen the next step has to be mixing it with the top teams in the country. They’ve got work to do in order to secure that promotion, but by July that could  be wrapped up.

The ambition doesn’t stop there for Emma, the players, or the club though.

“We are still a mile away yet, we are still nowhere near where we want to be.” she says.

But whilst Aberdeen Women have grown as a club in recent years, the stature of the women’s game – and it’s standing in the North East of Scotland – needs to continue developing at a pace to make sure this potential is realised.

“As much as I think it’s exciting for this group or players it’s actually a really difficult transition for these players at the moment.” Emma told us.

She continued:

“They know they want to be players and maybe have an opportunity to be professional but I still think they have to balance education.

“These players – not just the ones that are young – they don’t get the credit they deserve. They balance a full-time job, football and a social life some of them don’t have, because they’ve sacrificed so much.”

Some of Scotland’s best young talents are currently shining for Aberdeen. Bayley Hutchison, Francesca Ogilvie and Eilidh Shore among them. There’s no doubt for Emma that their commitment is there, and that the talent is there, but they need to see their own ambition matched.

For Aberdeen it won’t just be about making it to the SWPL 1, but competing and looking to close the gap on Rangers, Celtic and Glasgow City.

“Some of these players are at such a young age they’ve got to make sure they’ve still got a career.

“We’ve got Celtic and Rangers who can invest, but behind that there is a lot of clubs that need to transition to that.

“We could have three clubs breaking away from the rest of the league.”

For Emma while her players can’t treat their role in this squad as a career, she hopes one day some of them might.

But in the meantime, on the training pitch and on the field, they are already treating it like a full-time job, and that’s a mentality instilled from the top down.

“I don’t think that professionalism should be because you get paid, professionalism can be the resources you use, the attitude of your players and the attitude of the club towards the women’s team.”

We want to thank Emma for taking the time to speak to us, and thanks also go to Aberdeen Football club for facilitating the interview. We wish Emma and the team good luck for the remainder of the season.

Dundee United’s State Side Partner, Northern Virginia United – Chris Jennings Interview

By Keiran Fleming

NE98 Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming has been speaking with Northern Virginia United assistant coach Chris Jennings to discuss their new strategic partnership with Scottish Premier League side Dundee United.

Northern Virginia United were founded in 2018 by Arab legend Brian Welsh who is also the current Head Coach. The team from Leesburg, Virginia currently play in the National Premier Soccer League which is considered to be the fourth tier of the US Soccer.

Chris told Keiran that the reason behind the creation of Northern Virginia United was to help develop the US Soccer stars of the future:

“We (Brian Welsh) came together coaching at this youth club and just realised in our area, in our Country, they’re not giving enough youth players a chance. So we wanted to come up with a way to provide opportunities in our community for the players to either go to Europe at a younger age or give them professional opportunities they didn’t currently have.

“We started researching local leagues, adult leagues and we just took a chance. We wanted to start something that was unique to our area and build something from the ground up providing opportunities to the youth that they currently weren’t getting.

“It’s different in Europe. Kids are 16 or 17, decisions are being made, they are signing contracts, your future is laid out. Over here they encourage everyone to go to college and it isn’t until 20, 21, 22 where they get their start. We’re hoping to accelerate the opportunities for youth in our area.”

Although the link between Dundee United and Northern Virginia United was only announced in March, Chris revealed that the partnership has always been on the cards:

“It’s been in the works for a while. Brian had been over to receive entry into the hall of fame years ago and he still kept some connections with the staff there. We’ve been contacted by a few people looking to expand into the US market and we wanted to give players opportunities in Europe as well.

“Over the years we’ve sent players to Chelsea’s academy just for trial, one of our 2002s is a goalkeeper who plays for Salford City, so we’ve been trying to send as many players to Europe as we could over the last couple of seasons.

“Obviously they (Dundee United) have an American owner, they invest in the youth, the academy, Brian’s connection to the hall of fame, it was just a simple match. We share so many commonalities and values.”

Although Brian Welsh has an obvious connection to the club, Chris also had somewhat of a connection to the Arabs:

“Ian Harkes comes from our area. I’ve coached against him since he was a kid. When he was very young he played at the youth club that Brian and I run the boys programme at. I also worked with his father at DC United. It’s interesting that we have all these weird crazy connections.”

The assistant coach believes this relationship to be one that will be extremely beneficial for both clubs on each side of the pond:

“They (Dundee United) view it as a pathway into the US market, a way to expand their brand. We view it as a direct opportunity to send players to Europe at a younger age to see if they can make it or get a chance. We’re also hoping to exchange players our way for the Summers. Maybe that will be younger boys that are going to be out of contract, we can help them be showcased in the United States for College or MLS. If they have a player who’s 18 years old and is interested in the American College system that they aren’t going to sign we can showcase him in the US.

“We’re going to also share resources in terms of our youth setup. Our coaches are going to go over and spend some time at St Andrews with the Dundee United staff

“We’re going to bring over some teams of players as well and they’re going to mix in with the academy, probably play some other local matches. You never know, maybe Dundee United will come over here for a pre-season tour.”

Chris has also been extremely impressed by the way Dundee United’s youth academy has been able to continue to develop players during the pandemic. He hopes Northern Virginia United will be able to take something away from the Arabs success:

“Their videos and how they’ve interacted with their players and families has been incredible. They are going to share all that stuff with us. The way they deal with mental health is impressive. We are hoping to have a few of their players speak to our youth.

“There are different things that they can provide us that we can’t provide ourselves right now and there are things we can provide them by helping them get into the US market. A lot of it is if they see something they think is an opportunity we are open to all types of suggestions, it’s an evolving relationship as we go along as well.”

Chris finally touched on the long-term goals of both Northern Virginia United and the young relationship that has just been formed with Dundee United:

“Our aim is to work ourselves up to a higher level in terms of our league and exposure, we think Dundee United can help us with that. We would love to send over a handful of players each year to Dundee United to see if it opens up opportunities for them. We’d love to be a feeder to a European club like Dundee United or who knows they might want to follow the City group model or the Red Bull group.

“Dundee United have such an incredible history of bringing forward youth players, being successful at European level and stuff like that. There are so many ties to their area that are unique to us. I grew up in New Jersey and football came to New Jersey because of Scottish immigration into the US. In a lot of areas in the North-East of the United States Scotish people played a huge role in developing football in our area. This is a really authentic, unique relationship. It’s not one of those relationships where you slap a badge on a shirt to make money.

“I mean if we had a Northern Virginia United Youth player go over to Dundee United and he plays a role in helping Dundee United win the Premiership or stay up or whatever that would be an incredible story.”

NE98 would like to thank Northern Virginia United Assistant Coach Chris Jennings for taking the time to sit down with Keiran. We wish both him and his club all the best for the future.

Boyhood club, departures and Elgin City – Euan Spark Interview

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.

Dundee United, Partick Thistle and Belgium – Frédéric Frans interview

By Keiran Fleming

Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming caught up with former Partick Thistle and Dundee United defender Frederic Frans. During the chat they covered Frans’ friendship with former Rangers and Dundee United player Charlie Miller, his first impression of Scottish football and his current side’s push for European football.

Frans made his first step into the world of professional football at the young age of five and he has never looked back:

“ I grew up 45 minutes away and I was playing for a local, small club. I was literally playing for 2 months I think and I got an invite to play with Lierse. After the first training session I joined. Obviously because they were my first club they started to become my boyhood club”

Frans spent his whole youth career with Lierse and became a leader in every age group he played with.

After continuously impressing in Lierse’s youth system the centre back got his opportunity in the first team against one of Belgium’s biggest and best clubs:

“I think I was 17 when I made my debut against Genk away, I think it was for 3 minutes or something. Actually a few weeks ago we played Genk and I was thinking about that moment  when I made my debut. The week after (my debut) we played against Standard (Liege) where I played 30 minutes and from then I started playing more.

“I must admit I don’t remember too much about it (the debut). I know I played one pass in it and I know I was nervous before the game but it went so quickly. A month before I wasn’t even training with the first team, I was in the reserves going to school, so I was never thinking I was going to be a professional player. Then suddenly a few injuries happened in the first team and boom I was in. I was a professional football player and it never stopped. That’s how it can go.”

A debut year is always one of the highlights of any professional’s career, however, Frans’ first year in the top flight of Belgian football would end in disappointment.

Lierse would struggle and be relegated into the second tier:

“The team was horrible. They had 5 or 6 points before January and then in the transfer window they signed a few players then I made my debut. In the second half of the season I think we got 25 points or something which was enough to secure the relegation play-offs which was an achievement. If we got the same points in the first half we would have been top 6. We played against Mechelen and we lost the play-off.

“The 6 months I played in the top league I played every minute so I was hoping we would stay up. There were offers from a lot of other teams but because they were my boyhood club from 5 years old I was thinking ‘I’m still young let’s go to the second division and play every week’. I stayed and it took us 3 years to get promoted.”

After 3 years of developing in the second tier, Frans was not just rewarded with another chance of playing at the highest level in Belgium but he was made captain of his beloved club:

“I was 20 years old when we were in the top league again and I think I became the youngest captain in the top league at that moment. I had to thank the coach at the time (Eric Van Mier). He loved playing the young boys at the club because he himself came through the ranks. I think that’s why he liked me. Obviously to be 20, 21  and captain a team in the top league I think that’s something you can be proud of.

“For me it was a massive honor. I was always captain of the youth sides so it was perfect. I captained every team for Lierse so that was perfect.”

Although he started his first season back in the top flight on a huge high, Frans was hit with a knee injury that would put him out of action for 8 months:

“The worst part (about the injury) was because I was captain so young there were a lot of good clubs interested in me. I had German Bundesliga teams interested and you set your hopes and career on these things you know. You think it won’t stop and then suddenly you get your knee injury and then you’re out for basically a year and that was hard.

“You learn a lot of lessons from it as well you know. You get more professional, you learn more about your body, you have to remain positive.”

The Belgian’s first real taste of Scottish football came from an unlikely friendship with former Rangers and Dundee United player Charlie Miller when the scotsman joined Lierse:

“I played with Charlie Miller in the second league and the top league. I was young when Charlie was there and he was fantastic with the young guys. He had such a great experience, he was such a nice man, he was unbelievable for us. He taught me so much. I remember there was a young boy whose football boots were a little bit broken, the next day Charlie came in he had looked at the size of the boots and had bought him new boots. Those things you don’t forget.”

After spending his whole career with his boyhood club Lierse, Frans decided he want to test himself in a different environment:

“I always dreamt of going abroad so now was the time to just do it. My contract was up but it came after the year where I had a cruciate injury so I had few offers in Belgium but I always said if I stayed in Belgium I would play for Lierse. So I waited but since I waited so long the clubs in Belgium went away. Abroad was harder to get because I didn’t play for almost a year. I thought it would be easier to get abroad because I was the youngest captain (in the league) and those things but in football they quickly forget.

“I had some trials. I went to Poland, I went to Leeds but due to different reasons they never worked out. Then Charlie came and said Freddy don’t worry I can help you out. Charlie along with John Viola know Alan Archibald, the gaffer at Partick Thistle, they told him about me and I signed there.”

Although he only spent 2 years at Partick Thistle he managed to connect with the Jags fans. A 30-yard-screamer against Ross County solidified his place in Thistle folklore:

“I’ve only shot at the goal from there once in my life and it was a goal. So I promised from that day I’m never going to shoot again because my shot conversion percentage goes down. It was perfect.”

“I think for a lot of fans from Partick Thisle that I still speak to that goal was a big memory. We took a lot of fans to away games as well even to Ross County. It was a special moment. I think it’s one of those goals if you ask Partick Thistle fans in 20 years they will still remember and it’s the same for me. It was probably the best goal of my career.”

Although he only spent two years with the club, the jags still hold an important place in the Belgian defender’s heart:

“It was my first experience abroad and I came into a club that was fantastic. They were really nice people, it was a real family club, great coach. Alan Archibald was one of the best coaches I had. They had a really nice team as well. There were a lot of boys that played for a long time together because they came up from the lower leagues and they all stick together. I came to a team that was very tight and they accepted me because I was one of the only foreign players. They treated me like one of their own, I loved it.”

Frans still sees his time under Alan Archibald as being one of the best decisions of his career but a call from his boyhood club meant it was time for a return home:

“My contract was up and they offered me a new deal at Partick. I wanted to stay but then Lierse came back. Lierse will always be a special club for me. The coach who gave me the captaincy became the coach again. I had 2 great seasons at Partick, I had a fantastic time abroad but Lierse is a great project, it’s close to home and I knew we had a great team. I don’t think if it was another club I would’ve gone back.”

In his first season back at Lierse the club came so close to being promoted back into the top flight. Sadly Frans’ fairytale return would come to a tragic end:

“The season after we didn’t get promoted it all started to go wrong. The chairman wasn’t happy we didn’t get promoted, it cost him a lot of money. In 8, 9 years he put about €75 million into it. Before he took over the club he was probably thinking it was going to be a top four club in Belgium.

“He stopped paying us or we were paid 3 months too late. You could feel something was going on. He wanted to sell the club. A lot of people came to watch for example, the guys from Kingpower, Leicester City, they wanted to buy but the chairman asked for €20 million. In the end no one wanted to buy it anymore and he pulled the plug.

“It was horrible, it was really horrible. It’s like somebody died. I remember after the club went bankrupt all the fans and all the players came together in the stadium. There were like 10,000 people in the ground on the pitch. I remember I took the mic because I was the captain. I had to do a speech for 10 minutes, there were people crying. It was unbelievable. I was a fan as well because I was there from 5 years old. It was my life. The fans lost their club.”

After what really was a terrible and emotionally exhausting ending to his time back at his boyhood team Scotland came calling again. Frans now had the opportunity to return to the country that was becoming his home away from home:

“Suddenly you’re a free agent again. Because I had 2 really good seasons at Partick and then 2 really good seasons at Lierse it wasn’t hard for me to find a club. Some offers came in, I had from Ross County, Partick wanted me back, a few offers from Sweden, Norway and then Dundee United came. Dundee united gave me a really good offer and because we liked Scotland the first time we were like let’s try something new. A new place, a new club, they paid a really good contract.”

“It was similar to when I returned to Lierse. It was a good project, they want to go up to the top league, big club. I liked the challenge, trying to get promoted. I prefer playing for teams like this to teams playing for 10th spot.”

Frederic joined the Arabs as part of a group of players signed by Czaba Laslow at the start of his second season in charge. It wouldn’t be long before Frans would be playing under a different manager at Tannadice:

“I don’t think Czaba was bad, I think he was a good manager. A really nice person, he was too nice, I think that was the problem and a lot of the boys took advantage of that I think. The season before the results weren’t great. When I started there I could feel it was going to stop with Czaba, it was a battle he wasn’t going to win. His English wasn’t the best, he could speak good English but the way he communicated wasn’t the best. It didn’t click with the Scottish boys. I don’t think the transfers were good. He signed a lot of players and he tried to bring in some Scottish boys as well that weren’t really up to the standards.”

“I got on really well with Robbie Nieslon, great coach, great manager. I still speak to him because I’m on the UEFA B course and he’s one of the tutors.We speak about the course sometimes, I ask him for help, he helps me and gives me advice. When I came I played everything under him, I learned a lot, we got some great results but then around the January window he got some transfers in. Then I got a big injury, I ripped my abductor at Falkirk, I slipped on the synthetic. I was out for almost a season. I came back for the play-off games but I wasn’t really fit. I had a connection. He liked me in the dressing room. Even though I wasn’t 100% fit he always took me to the game because he needed my positivity, leadership and experience.”

Dundee United would again fail to win the Championship and enter the play-offs. In the final they would come face to face with Saint Mirren in what would be a heart-wrenching game for the Arabs:

“The one with the penalties at Saint Mirren was horrible, I don’t know what to say about it. For the players, for the fans it was just horrible.”

After another enjoyable spell in Scotland Lierse came calling again and it was time for Frederic to return home to help rebuild the club he once loved:

“I had another year on my contract. Robbie had brought in new boys when I was injured and the owners told him if he wanted any more players he needed to make room. He needed to get players out because the year before a lot of players came in. He said to me that he’d love to keep me but I was on too big of a wage so I accepted that. No problem that’s football but obviously I needed to wait for another team to come in. I fancied my chances still because I thought I was better than the centre backs that were in (the squad) but you could feel that they wouldn’t allow me to play.

“I remember in the league cup group stage there were 2 centre backs injured and they would play midfielders there so you could feel they wanted to push you out. We came to an agreement at the end of August, beginning of September, and I signed for the new Lierse.

“They had to restart in the 3rd league, I was 30 years old, they gave me a 5 year deal at the new Lierse. I thought it’s my hometown, they’re going to try get to the top league asap again so why not,”

After joining the new Lierse Frederic immediately began to realise that this was nothing like the club he had grown up playing for since the age of 5:

“I joined in September and I’m not going to lie, it was horrible. First of all it didn’t feel like Lierse to me, there were a lot of the same people and fans. This is the crazy part, there were 2 new Lierses so the fans were divided, the only thing we had was that we still played in the stadium, still the same colours and badge but it was different. I was hoping I would come back into a club with a fresh start but it was not good. We had a very bad team as well because they promised me a team that would easily get promoted from the third league and we literally couldn’t win a game.

“After a month I realise this is horrible. I thought I still had this for 5 years because I’m a very professional player. I love being very professional like first in, last out, getting to the physio all those things. They had nothing, they didn’t have a doctor. You know it really stings. In January Beerschott came in so I was only at the new Lierse for a few months. There are a lot of fans that are angry at me because I left them. I wouldn’t have left if it was like the old Lierse but with this one I didn’t feel the same thing. I’m happy for them, the fans, because they have a new Lierse to follow. I still speak a lot to the people there but for me it wasn’t the same. I don’t think it was right in my career either. If I think about it I should have never done it, go back to the 3rd league, I wasn’t ready for that yet.”

For many last year would have been considered one of the most difficult of their career due to the ongoing pandemic. That wasn’t the case for Frederic Frans:

“2020 was the best year of my career. I scored against their (Beerschott) biggest rivals. I scored the winning goal that made us go top of the league. In the last game I scored another important goal that helped us win the game and got us to the play-off final. I always knew I was better than the 3rd tier, I always knew I was better than the 2nd tier. My goal was for Lierse to be in the 1st tier. I could see that wasn’t happening so I took a chance with Beerschott, I knew that would be my best chance. Fantastic club, fans, history also only 40 minutes from my house. I believed in myself.

“We won the first leg of the play-off final, then covid happened. In May they decided the promotion final needs to be played one week before the start of the new season. 2 days before the final the league decided that they would have 18 instead of 16 teams in the top league so both of us were promoted. We still played the final just to find out who was the real champion and we won the second leg.”

“Next week we played in the top league and started with 3 wins in a row and by November we were top of the league. We beat Brugge away, we beat Genk. At one point we were the most attractive team in Europe, so the most goals were in our games. From getting a transfer from the 3rd league to the 2nd, becoming the champion, to the end of 2020, almost, being top in the top league. For a promoted team we’ve done amazing.”

We’d like to thank Frederic Frans for taking the time to chat to our Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming. All of us at NE98 wish him all the best for the future.