‘I keep the pigs down in my paddock just to fill the freezers. It’s a shame, really, people don’t look after pigs but they’re actually really intelligent, caring animals, a bit like dogs. Seems sad to kill them putting it that way but we all like a nice bit of gammon don’t we?’
As opening epithets of footballing interviews go, you’ll have to travel a long mile to find a stranger exchange than that one; prompted by the delivery of said pigs at our arranged time of rendezvous. But the man in question is no ordinary ex-pro – after his career stalled at the relatively young age of 30, Mark Rivers turned back to the things that kept him sane whilst he played the game.
Rivers post-career job sheet reads like that of a playboy factotum – since leaving Carlisle United in 2006 he’s tried his hand at property development (his latest project is a dilapidated farm he plans to turn to holiday lets), small holding, horse training, newspaper column writing and most recently being proprietor of his own corporate chauffeur business.
The latest venture is, he says, beginning to pick up speed – ‘I’ve done a few weddings now and I’m trying to get work in football too – I figured I might have the jump on others as I’ve been there and done it.’ It’s all a far cry from the prosaic wish of most men who pound the bag of air for a living – ‘Doing me badges’ sounds like something out of Mark Rivers’ nightmares.
Football? Bloody hell!
‘I was never really into football, if you believe that,’ he offers. ‘I liked playing football and it was a great job, but some lads lived it, they wanted to know everything about it, watch all the games on TV, take training with the kids, everything – I roomed with Malky Mackay at Norwich and you could just see he was going to be a manager all along. But it wasn’t for me.’
Did that set Rivers apart?
‘I wouldn’t have said I was ‘normal’, no. I liked things the others didn’t – fishing, animals, driving – not boy racing, just, y’know, driving about. And horses, I love horses. But not ‘gambling’ like most footballers; I had a bet but I was really into the horses not the thrill. I sound like a right weirdo don’t I?’
He delivers the last line with a chuckle. I suggest it must have been hard to take another direction in that macho environment. ‘It was, yeah. I was always an old head on young shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, I like a beer and a night out but those things kept me sane and meant I had a life out of the bubble.’
Rivers career started on the famous Dario Gradi production line at Crewe Alexandra that churned out the likes of David Platt, Danny Murphy, Seth Johnson and Dean Ashton. What, I wondered, was the secret of Gradi’s success?
‘He gave you a chance. Simple as that.’
Super Dario Land
‘Crewe Alexandra was/is Dario Gradi’s life’ as someone who’d been at the club since the age of eight, Rivers would know. ‘He knew every player inside out, strengths, weaknesses and just had this instinct for when to give a player another go.’
‘So often players would stay on and you’d wonder ‘how the hell is he still here?’ and then they’d have a great year – that was Dario’s magic. At my other clubs – at Norwich and Carlisle, it happened the other way – you barely got one chance.’ It is Rivers first allusion to his rougher times in Cumbria and East Anglia, but he isn’t finished with Crewe and Gradi.
‘Dario’s other genius was knowing his shortcoming. He was not a people person, not at all. That’s why he and Neil Baker were a great team, Neil is everything that Dario isn’t.’
On his move to Norwich, Rivers suggests he left Crewe too late – ‘A lot’s made of the fact that I was the first player to ask Dario for a transfer but right now I think I might have been too loyal, and I think Dario agrees. By the time I left I wasn’t at the top of my game and I was fed up – I got too big for my boots really, I behaved like a prat.’
‘But Nigel Worthington really wanted me’ he says of his erstwhile Norwich boss, ‘and it was Norwich City after all. I couldn’t turn it down.’
‘It all went wrong’ muses Rivers laconically. ‘I got injured in pre-season and never really got going. I did okay and then I had a pretty decent second year. I was really hitting form at the start of the third when I broke my ankle. I was never fit again after that. Every single recovery brought a new niggle and Nigel got really fed up of me.’
It got worse.
‘We won promotion to the Premier League.’ I suggest that was surely a good thing, a happy time. ‘But I was so disappointed. I was there but I didn’t feel part of it. I was on the bench a few times but it wasn’t my achievement, I think I resented my teammates just a little – no matter that they were my friends. And deep down I knew, I knew I was gone – they wouldn’t carry a crock up with them.’
They didn’t and after an ill-fated loan at Ipswich, Rivers floated back to Cheshire – ‘I took the soft option’. He says of his second spell at Gresty Road. ‘My wife was homesick and I knew that Neil and Dario would look after me, and the fans would still love me.’
Happy in that warm embrace Rivers struck up a fruitful pairing with the wunderkind Ashton, ‘God he was good’ says Rivers, ‘the best I played with. But then he frigged off to Norwich of all places at Christmas!’
One Too Many Trips to the Barr
Rivers second spell at Crewe never reached the same heights and after a spell on the sidelines he found himself asking around for regular football. A call came in from an old team mate…
‘Billy Barr. He wouldn’t bloody leave me alone’ he answers when I ask how he ended up joining Paul Simpson’s promotion chasing Cumbrians in 2006.
‘I actually had my eyes set a little higher to be honest. I was playing okay in the Championship, just not regularly. But Billy sold Carlisle to me – they were on the verge of promotion, they had Michael Bridges purring and they played great football. So I said yes.’
What happened next we all know. After a month of speculation Rivers made his Carlisle United debut in a Football League Trophy game at home to Kidderminster on the 24th of January, he made only six more appearances for the Blues that season, his name passing into United folklore along with John Holliday, Jim Tolmie and Richard Offiong as shorthand for ‘dreadful’.
‘It was an absolute nightmare,’ Rivers says of his first couple of appearances, ‘to be honest I was totally fucking rubbish.’ His tone is quite bashful, and punctuated by embarrassed laughter. ‘I still can’t explain it now. I was still never fully fit from Norwich but that didn’t explain it all.’
What we don’t know is how his treatment away from the pitch impacted Rivers.
‘Paul Simpson wasn’t a talker. He never really told anyone why he did anything and he certainly never gave me a full explanation for why I played so little. Toward the end he was fielding 17 and 18 year old lads on the bench instead of me.’
Rivers is quick to impress he isn’t finding excuses though, ‘I don’t really blame him, as I said, I was terrible. But I was scoring for fun in the reserves and in training, Billy and Dennis (Booth) were telling me that they were trying to get Paul to give me another chance. But he didn’t want to – and I went from Championship first team to retired in six months.’
It was easy at this point to draw a parallel between Simpson and Gradi – ‘Exactly,’ said Rivers. ‘I never appreciated Dario ’til I played for Paul.’
‘I took it badly. Maybe I thought I’d coast, you never know. The Carlisle lads tried really hard to include me but I just wasn’t part of it, Simmo didn’t want me.’
‘When we were in Cardiff (for the FLT final with Swansea) the whole team made a speech about what it meant to them, how they were proud. I didn’t want to do it, but they made me. I think they were doing it for the right reasons but I just felt like a charlatan, an impostor.’
Asked to name a lowest point Rivers confesses he often struggled to leave the house, preferring to stay indoors behind a locked door and away from his team mates. ‘It got really bad. I was homesick for my wife and new baby and I didn’t feel part of what the team was doing. I just wish Paul had let me tell him that.’
One unlikely man who did lend a kind ear was club captain Kevin Gray. ‘Kev came and dragged me out. I often went round to his for tea. You only saw that hard man image but what a good bloke he was, a captain in every sense of the word. Bridgey and Lummy (Michael Bridges and Chris Lumsdon) were great too, they always kept spirits up.’
Simpson did offer Rivers one mercy. ‘I was contracted for three months post season but I went and saw Paul and asked to go – I just wanted to go home. At least he let me have that!’
After leaving Brunton Park that summer Rivers never played professional football again, though he now plays for fun as a goalie in pub football back in Cheshire. Had Carlisle United and Paul Simpson made that decision easier?
‘Honestly? Yeah, yeah they did,’ Rivers admits, before swiftly adding, ‘but I think by making me realising how tough it was for me to get fit as much as through putting out the spark – though it was definitely in Cumbria it went.’
At 30 years old, Rivers had far too much of the world to see and so many things to try. As the interview ends I think back to a point he made early on in our chat – ‘Playing football’s meant I’ve had enough money to make a bit of a go at things I really enjoyed as a job too, so it’s been great.’
I wonder if he misses it? ‘No. Honestly, no. There’s so much else to try,’ he says with a bashful enthusiasm that has hung close throughout.
In his own way, perhaps Paul Simpson just saw the renaissance man, the pig farmer and the property magnate in Rivers and saw fit to let him have his play. Perhaps not. Either way, Rivers story is a another side of the footballer’s life beyond the whitewash and a reminder of their humanity, their fragility and hidden personality.
In other walks of life we champion those traits. It’s time to do the same in the national game.
You can find out more about Mark’s new chauffeuring business via http://www.riverscorporatechauffeur.co.uk/. Just think, a former Blue and a man with a tale or two for your wedding day. Go on…
Most Popular Posts
- 2012/13 – A Season in Stats 66 view(s)
- ‘If the Next Man I See is W… 15 view(s)
- ‘My Biggest Mistake? You’ll… 10 view(s)
- New Signings Profile – The … 7 view(s)
- It’s Not You, It’s Him 5 view(s)
- Our Friends 4 view(s)
- In Search of Keith Mincher 4 view(s)
- Contact Us 3 view(s)
- My Favourite Blue – Paul Pr… 3 view(s)
- The Goalkeeping Circle of L… 3 view(s)
Tag CloudAdam Collin Andy Welsh Ben Parker Blue In Exile Bournemouth Brentford Bury Carlisle United Chris Balderstone Chris Chantler Coventry City Doncaster Rovers Francois Zoko General Football Greg Abbott Huddersfield Town Interviews Jimmy Glass Joe Garner Jordan Cook JP McGovern Karl Hawley League One Lee Hughes Lee Miller Liam Noble Loan Signing Profile Match Day Match Preview Mathieu Manset Matt Tubbs Michael Knighton Mike Grella MK Dons My Favourite Blue Notts County Opinion Paddy Madden Paul Simpson Peter Murphy Plymouth Argyle Preston North End Roddy Collins Ryan Lowe Sheffield United Stephane Pounewatchy Swindon Town Things We Learnt Tranmere Rovers Walsall