Andy Mitten spoke to the Scouser who captained England at five different age groups.
“I captained England at under 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19 level. I played for England at under 20 level, too, but never the 21s. I saw some great places around the world. Brazil stands out and a tournament in the middle of their summer in and around Rio de Janeiro. I wasn’t used to playing in those conditions growing up in Kirkby, a Liverpool overspill town which produces footballers.
Glenn Johnson was my room mate on that trip, while Stuart Downing, Darren Bent, Liam Ridgewell and David Bentley all played. We had a good side. At under 16 level, we reached the semi-final of the European championships and played against Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres, who were in the Spain side.
I was at Everton from seven to 19. I remember my dad telling me that I had a trial for Everton on the way back from a caravan holiday in north Wales. He told me on the day of the game. I played well and was selected. That was the day I fell in love with Everton. Really fell in love with Everton. I’d always supported them before, now it became my dream to play for them.
It was normal for kids in Kirkby to want to play for Everton or Liverpool. Football is a religion in Kirkby. It’s a new town built after the war and there’s not much there apart from houses and green fields. I played football every day with my friends. It’s a very working class area and nobody was interested in anything else. I never saw a cricket pitch, tennis court or rugby field in Kirkby.
Maybe that’s why it has produced four European Cup winners: Phil Thompson, Terry McDermott, Kenny Swain and Dennis Mortimer.
Many other Kirkby lads have played in the Premier League: Leighton Baines, Alan Stubbs, Rickie Lambert, Ryan Taylor, Craig Noone, Mike Marsh and Paul Cooke, the current Portsmouth manager. Has anywhere in England produced so many footballers? There are so many others who play in the Football League.
Kirkby doesn’t get the credit, either, since there’s no hospital there. We’re just listed as being born in ‘Liverpool’.
The next town is Huyton six miles away, where Joey Barton, Tony Hibbert, Steve Gerrard, Peter Reid and David Nugent come from. It’s another Liverpool overspill, another football factory.
But why do they produce footballers? My dad’s school had 2,000 kids. And one football team for each year. Competition was fierce, representing the school a big deal. If you played for Kirkby boys, it was an even bigger deal. Leighton Baines couldn’t get in the Kirkby side and he’s a full England international.
I always say that Kirkby is a mainly Everton area. My Red mates disagree. It’s probably split, but a lot of match going Evertonians come from Kirkby. If they go to games, I respect them. If they’re armchair fans, their opinions don’t matter to me. I’d wind Red mates up, telling them: ‘You say you’re Liverpool fans, so why don’t you go to matches? Do you know where Anfield is?’
At 15, I signed a professional contract for Everton, which was quite unusual then. Liverpool wanted me too. They offered more money and said they’d pay any compensation. I sat in Phil Thompson’s front room hearing this, but I couldn’t leave Everton. I also felt I’d have more opportunity to play in the first team at Goodison and I knew that the then manager Walter Smith liked me. He had me training with the first team squad, he liked a midfielder who could put his foot in and get around the pitch.
My future looked good. Captain of England and a young professional at the club of my dreams. Then Smith got sacked. He was replaced by David Moyes, who inherited a team which wasn’t his own. I trained with the first team, but the squad was so big - 35 or 36. Too many. There were probably nine players in front of me in my position, several of them internationals.
Everton were struggling and Moyes needed results. He was reluctant to take a chance on younger players and I understand that. He took a chance on one, another Scouser, Wayne Rooney.
Moyes told me that it was time for me to play some Football League games. It broke my heart to leave Everton, but I saw the logic in leaving and playing.
I signed for Bradford City, a big club struggling with financial problems. They were paying players next to nothing, but I just wanted to play football and I did that – 50 odd games in my first season. That won me a better contract and I loved being at Valley Parade. I played over 130 games in three years, but the financial problems persisted. The best players were sold to bring some money in and the team were relegated. My contract was up and Bradford couldn’t offer me any more money. In fact, they couldn’t even pay me the same money.
I left for Crewe Alexandra in League One. I saw another side of football at Crewe. I’d been brought up to win matches since childhood. At Crewe, the emphasis was about bringing players through from the youth system. Winning games came second.
I was there for three years and suffered a couple of nasty injuries, one required an ankle operation.
I wasn’t enjoying my football as much or, in the words of the Bury manager Alan Knill: ‘I can see you’re a good player but your head is down, you’ve lost your spark’. He was right and he wanted to give it me back. He made me captain of Bury. I was 26 and at my peak. I had three largely good years at Gigg Lane. We won promotion from League Two and I played another 120 odd games. I scored over 20 goals, too.
Then Bury had financial problems and the PFA had to help pay the wages. Bury were relegated in 2013. Money wasn’t a problem at my next club, Fleetwood, where I got the best contract of my career. They wanted me to help get them up and I did that. Then Fleetwood decided to change things and focus on using younger players, which helped their situation with financial fair play. A lot of the better-paid players left in 2015.
Teddy Sheringham took me to Stevenage last year, my first time away from the north. I moved my wife and kids down south, a big move. Teddy’s a good man, but he was unlucky that so many players, including myself, got injuries. I did my cruciate last November and haven’t played since. When results started going against us, Teddy will be the first to admit that he didn’t have the experience of League Two to change things. He’ll learn from that.
The last nine months have been tough, but I need to put things into perspective. I’ve had a long career in professional football. I didn’t make it in the Premier League. Why? Maybe because I’m five eleven, not six three. Or because I’m not a natural athlete; I probably don’t catch the eye enough. But I can run box-to-box, score and tackle.
I captained England, I must have had something and I remember the manager Dick Bate saying to my dad: ‘Your Steven will play 500 league games in professional football. He’s reliable, he has the attitude and work rate.’ He just didn’t know what level I’d play them at.
I’m well on my way, but maybe if someone had told me at Everton: ‘This is what you’re lacking’, I could have worked on other areas of my game. I’m doing my coaching badges, I’d like to manage and feel that I could pass on a lot to players from my own experiences. Either that or go into sports journalism.
I’m 32 and still have plenty of time to play football. I’ve missed being away and I’m set to play my first game in nine months on Tuesday for Stevenage. I can’t wait to be back playing with lads like our goalkeeper Jamie Jones. He’s from Kirkby, too.