My Story: Graham Stack – From Arsenal to Eastleigh via the Championship and India

Graham Stack discusses his career so far which has seen him in goal for Arsenal, Reading, Leeds United and Barnet among others, as well as stints in Belgium, Scotland and India… 

In the beginning

Coping with going out on loan as a youngster depends on the personality and the character of the player you’re sending out. Some players are a bit more grown up and can deal with it slightly better, but also the environment you’re moving into is important.

I went into digs as a young Arsenal player so going on loan wasn’t a big deal because I’d moved away from my parents at 16 anyway. There’s a number of factors going on, it gives you the opportunity to go and play games if you’re limited at your parent club and it gives you experience of men’s football, rather than youth games or reserve games where really there’s not a whole lot to play for. You go and play in front of larger crowds and you’re playing for your livelihood too.

Myself, Steve Sidwell, John Halls and Liam Chilvers all went to Beveren and that probably helped us all settle quicker. We’d grown up together and we were moving to Belgium, which wasn’t a million miles away from home. The lads at Beveren spoke a lot of English and the staff spoke good English so it wasn’t the most difficult transition for us.

I had a bit of an incident in one match against Royal Antwerp, there was a pitch invasion and one or two fans decided to try and fight me. It ended badly for one of them, should I say it didn’t go as they perhaps would have liked!

Loan difficulties

Ultimately, the number of players that go out on loan nowadays is so big and there are players that are capable of being involved at clubs like Chelsea. There are some quality young players out there and it’s looked at as ‘why aren’t they getting a chance?’ But you look at the success Chelsea have had and see why young players can’t force their way through, they’ve won the league so they’re doing something right.

They’re producing good young players and you only have to look at what Jody Morris has done with the Under-23 team, they’ve just come off the back of winning the treble. It’s a little bit of misfortunate for these players as they are competing with the best players in the world.

The Invincibles

Being around the first team was special in itself, training with them and coming back in pre-season and having a seat in their changing room. That’s when it gets serious because you know you have the trust and belief of the manager, you’re getting changed next to Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry and it makes you realise it’s time to grab that opportunity.

I was grateful to the manager for trusting me at that age because we were really successful at that time, we were challenging for everything and had such a strong squad. I was more than happy to get an opportunity in the League Cup, I knew league games would be tough to come by because we had a quality goalkeeper in Jens Lehmann in front of me.

But that was a big learning curve for me, being around someone like Jens and learning about what the demands were. It was a big season for me and one I won’t forget, making my debut at Highbury and scoring and saving a penalty in a shootout we won.

Unfortunately, we went out in the semi-finals over two legs to Middlesbrough but I was nominated as one of the best young players in the cup, along with Jeremie Aliadiere.

There were a lot of positives that season and to be involved with the Invincibles was team was something I’ll never forget to be honest.

Finding my feet

Moving on depends on the type of character you are, I know plenty of goalkeepers who are happy to be a No. 2 or a No. 3 and not really have much of a career. Being a second choice goalkeeper is key to any success because if you have a No. 2 who is going to upset the dynamic of the group then it doesn’t create a good atmosphere, you have to support each other because there will eventually be a time when you do play.

It’s a very competitive position and as you get older it becomes a little bit easier. The job was always for someone a bit more experienced, I’ve learned a lot more over the years as a senior player than I probably realised when I was a young, hungry lad.

That’s why I left Arsenal in the end. I took a chance by leaving, it wasn’t because I didn’t love Arsenal but my opportunities were limited. I went to Reading, a Championship club that had just missed out on the play-offs and it felt like the right time to find some stability.

It was an initial loan deal but had a permanent deal in place when that deal finished. Patience is key, if you’re impatient then you can end up moving quite frequently.

Seeing it all

I didn’t play much with Reading so I ended up going out on loan again. I got promoted with Wolves when we won the Championship under Mick McCarthy but I got relegated with Dennis Wise at Leeds. There were no shortage of ups and downs for me but I know there’s been more ups than downs across my career.

If you look at my career, I’ve wanted to go out and challenge myself. I haven’t played much in spells, at Reading I was behind Marcus Hahnemann who was part of the US setup at the time so chances were limited there.

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I went on loan to Wolves where they had Wayne Hennessey and Mick made it clear to me he wasn’t sure if Wayne was ready to cope with week-to-week games in the Championship. Matt Murray was the No. 1 there at the time and I was a solution for Wolves if Wayne wasn’t quite up for it.

For two years I’d gone out to try and play some games, I didn’t have a great experience at Leeds because there were so many changes going on and the club went into administration. It does affect the team, it probably affected other players more than me because I was on loan but there were players being forced out the door who were on big money.

They weren’t wanted and couldn’t agree severance packages, that negativity was just hanging over the club, it ended up being a bit of a mess really. Dennis came in that season and was trying to make changes and his record the next season was excellent. The next season there was a bit of a clean slate really and ever since the club have started to move forward every season, they haven’t got to where they want to be but they’re getting there.

But it was a difficult time for people around Leeds, people working for the club were getting laid off and that does have an effect on the team. As players, it’s out of your hands. I was on loan and it had nothing to do with me but it’s not a positive experience. But it was no excuse for results on the pitch, we let the club down with some of the performances that season.

Settling in Scotland

I found my feet when I went up to Scotland and had three good years with Hibs. I played in Europe for Hibs and a Scottish Cup final before I decided it was time for me to come back down and settle as I had children. I spent some time with Watford under Gianfranco Zola and Preston under Graham Westley, I found myself playing for Watford in a friendly and Barnet approached me about playing for them.

It hasn’t been plain sailing by any means but I really settled down at Barnet and had three excellent years there. It was a team threatened by relegation with one of the smallest budgets in the league, I saved a last-minute penalty in our last game at Underhill in the penultimate weekend of the season, but despite my heroics, we went to Northampton and got beat on the last day which saw us relegated to the Conference.

Fortunately, through hard work we bounced back in our second season to the football league. My career has taken me here, there and everywhere really. I’ve done my fair share of travelling and experienced a lot of different things along the way.

Unexpected arrival

Edgar [Davids] coming in at Barnet was a surprise to everyone, before he came in we were on a poor run and hadn’t won in something like our first 13 league games. We were rock bottom and then Edgar walked through the door – it was the last person anyone expected!

He had an immediate impact and the run he had us on would have maybe had us in the play-offs if we’d not given everyone a 13-game head start. He was certainly a character, for me he had a mentality that was a real winner’s mentality, he wanted to win at absolutely anything.

Sometimes he would lose control but that’s the way he played the game – he played the game on the edge. But as a player, a manager and a man I enjoyed working with him at Barnet.

Indian adventure

It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. I had another year at Barnet playing for Martin Allen and it was a club I was really fond of and supporters I had a great relationship with. It was a club I’d been through a lot with, it was close to my house so it was definitely a tough decision to move on and leave.

It was going into the unknown, I’d only heard of Kerala Blasters a few months before, it was a league I’d never seen any games from and a country I’d never been to. It was an experience I’d never had before but I knew it was a challenge I might not get again, but leaving behind my wife and kids for six months was very, very difficult.

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I had long, long conversations with my family over a number of days but I decided it was something I wanted to do. You don’t want to regret anything so I let Martin and the chairman know I’d taken the decision to go to India and was signing the deal.

Steve Coppell was a manager I’d worked before, and the coach Wally Downes. On reflection, it was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my football career. It wasn’t just about success on the pitch, getting to the final – even though we lost on penalties. It was because of what I saw and what I experienced off the field made it well worth it.

Eastleigh expectations

The expectations among the group this season is to go out and win the league. I think that’s justified with some of the players we’ve got but it’s a tough, tough league. I’ve played in the Conference for a number of years and I know how difficult it can be to get out of.

There’s some tough teams, some long journeys and some tough away games, but we’ve equipped ourselves well in pre-season and we have a decent blend of youth and experience. It’s a decent group in terms of characters and personality too, I think it’s a group of lads that can really kick us on this season.

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