The Sports Gazette spoke to Neil Danns, one of most experienced players in the English National League system to talk his unique career playing in all five of the England-wide football leagues and his international football experience playing for the South American nation, Guyana.
The 38-year-old Danns has won promotions with Colchester United 2004 (Championship), Birmingham (Premier League), Leicester City (Premier League), Blackpool and Bury (both League One).
Neil Danns Q & A:
At age 38 and having recently signed with National League side FC Halifax town, what is motivating you to keep playing?
— FC Halifax Town (@FCHTOnline) November 17, 2020
What motivates me to play is pure love of the game. I’ve been blessed to have such a long career and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.
I know it doesn’t last forever but God has blessed me with the genetics to keep going. I’ve had no major injuries during my career and I’m still feeling good enough to do a job.
I’m still a bit disappointed to not be playing the EFL Championship because I still feel I can do a job there, even though last season I was playing in League One – it would have been nice to drop down to League Two.
But will all this Covid and clubs budgets being weaker and so many players out of contracts – I’m grateful to have found a club which is a division of good standard below League Two.
What would you say are the biggest positives and negatives of players who have journeyed throughout the different levels on the English football pyramid, compared to players who play predominantly in the Premier league and Championship?
It all depends on the person but for me the journey has been only positive. The way I’ve always looked at it is that I was being paid to do something that I don’t consider to be a job – but rather that I “love”.
I spent the majority of my career in Championship, experienced the Premier League and made my debut in Europe.
Obviously the higher you get in the pyramid the financial reward is better, but for me playing football was a passion and once I gave my all for every team I played for that was always good enough for me.
You made most of your professional appearances for Crystal Palace from 2008-2011. Is that the English club you enjoyed playing for the most ?
Yes it probably was. But I have been fortunate enough to have been promoted five times in my career in many of the teams I played with.
Palace though was definitely the period I connected with fans the most, even though there were periods when the club went into financial difficulties. I was voted player of season a few times.
What do you consider to be your most memorable moment playing professionally in England?
I got the opportunity to play against some of the best players of my generation in Cristiano Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho. That was always a major career goal of mine.
So while I don’t think I have a pinnacle moment in an English club – in all of football it is definitely scoring a goal for Guyana in the 2019 Gold Cup.
This is so because when I first chose to play for Guyana in 2015 I saw the growth and development. So to score [my] first goal for the country in a major tournament and potentially inspire an entire nation’s future of upcoming football players is definitely my biggest moment.
Talk about your journey that made you decide to play for Guyana internationally in 2015 and how proud are you to have scored those famous goals versus Belize to qualify for the Gold cup and during the Gold Cup for the Golden Jaguars?
I was 32 at the time playing for Bolton Wanderers. When I was 24 and around the Premier League I tried to get in touch with Guyana, by sending an email to the federation’s address that I found online. I don’t know if it was the correct email, but I never got a reply.
I literally just wanted to play international football. I never got to meet my grandfather who passed away when my dad was young. So I thought playing for Guyana and reconnecting with my roots there meant that I never fully understood growing up in Liverpool.
I literally knew nothing about Guyana because of my grandfather’s death so I never got to hear stories.
The former Guyana captain Chris Nurse who was born in England alongside British agent Faizal Khan, reached out to me about playing and on my first trip to Guyana it was a totally different experience to what I grew up with in England.
Danns celebrates scoring against Trinidad and Tobago during a Gold Cup match in 2019
Ahead of next year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, for Guyana and all Caribbean countries how important do you think it is for these nations to maintain the diaspora recruitment of players to stay competitive in the confederation ?
— Concacaf (@Concacaf) August 16, 2019
It’s massive. There is so much talent in the Caribbean, but I don’t think the players have had the coaching & opportunities we get in England.
So the experience we can take over can certainly help. We learn from them also with regards to the food they eat that makes players strong.
I see no difference to the Premier League when the top international players and coaches came over to England and helped bring new ideas which certainly improved the English game.
Based on your experience of that difficult personal club situation at Bury, what would be your advice to young football players on how to deal with such situations in their careers?
It was tough to take. By the time the club got thrown out most of the players had already left in a season where we got promoted to League One.
We had an amazing season on the pitch but weren’t paid for seven-eight months. I was one of the lucky ones who had a long career and set myself up financially, so I was ok during those times.
But I saw players who hadn’t been in game long really struggle and it got to the point where some even lost their houses because they didn’t get paid. This was the toughest part for me, seeing teammates at breaking point.
If a young player ever goes through that or as this pandemic has shown, make sure you have a safety net and invest wisely because football is a short career and outside stuff can happen.
Lastly, talk about experience playing with Leicester City alongside current team stalwarts such as Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan etc
I signed for Leicester the season the new owners that recently passed away took over. The coach at the time Sven-Göran Eriksson signed me and Jamie Vardy, Wes Morgan, Kasper Schmeichel around the same time.
So to see them five years later lifting the Premiership was amazing since I’ve remained in contact with them.
I will always be proud to have been part of the building blocks of the modern Leicester City and to have captained the club and those guys in early days.