“Growing up I was mainly focused on Dundee United because I’m a Dundee United fan but I’m a Chelsea fan as well and the big one for me was John Terry,” says Garry Kenneth.
The television on the wall flickers with footage of Johan Cruyff; the grainy images of that turn are airing on a loop. The news has just broken of the legend’s death and as well as sadness and some disbelief the news has prompted talk of footballing idols.
“John Terry still is. He is Mr Chelsea and I wish he was staying at the club in some capacity.” He speculates that the England international will instead switch Stamford Bridge for the likes of Qatar, earning a fortune. “As if he has not made more than enough already!”
The fact that Kenneth, at 28, is young enough to find heroes among guys still playing the game jars given the fact he has struggled to retain his own foothold in the sport.
Six years ago he was winning a Scottish Cup final, playing in Europe and, in the midst of an international break, it is worth remembering he was also being called up to the Scotland squad for a match against Czech Republic. He didn’t get any game time but six months on he would get the first of two caps, playing 90 minutes in Sweden, trying to shackle the arrogance and ability of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
“I still get wound up to this day about me getting Scotland caps. But I’m not going to say to the SFA, ‘here, take my caps back!’ I got to play in Sweden against Ibrahimovic! I remember going to head the ball and he caught it on the inside of his foot at my head height and brought it down. I was like wow!”
Back then Dundee United were turning down £500,000 bids from Blackpool for the centre-half they were privately valuing closer to £2million. Fast forward half a dozen years and Kenneth is sitting watching footage of a legendary superstar, having just woken up after a nightshift in B&Q and discussing Lowland League football, where he now turns out for Selkirk.
It’s not high-profile but the football is fun again and, he is happy to report, at that level the full-bloodied tackle has yet to be outlawed. “I’m sure we made it through the whole 90 minutes last Saturday with just one foul!” he says, with a smile and an incredulous shake of the head. He is also, “touch wood”, he adds quickly, free from injury.
A few months ago he had been ready to walk away from the game. He had left Tannadice for Bristol Rovers in 2012. Captain and doing okay, albeit in a side that was out of the title chase and sitting mid-table, the man who had signed him, Mark McGhee, was sacked. John Ward took over and in his first game in charge Kenneth snapped his cruciate. It was the beginning of a run of bad luck that has seen Kenneth question what he did in a past life that was so naughty. “Whatever it was it is definitely coming back to haunt me now!
“There are regrets, well not really regrets, but I do look back at things. I was misadvised at the time I left United. I’d always said I wanted to try England but would I have left at that time? Probably not, but I went to England, tried it and it never worked.
“When you do your knee in the new manager’s first game, it is never going to go well for you.” It didn’t. Seeking a move back to Scotland, he was on the brink of a return to his boyhood heroes when injury again curtailed his plans. As an indication of the misfortune dogging him, it wasn’t even an injury to him.
“Keith Watson got injured and they had to sign a replacement for him so they brought in Mark Wilson instead of me. Things like that happen. That’s the kind of luck I’m having.”
Stints at Brechin City followed and then there was a flirtation with the juniors before he jetted to Australia to try something new. But the spell at Adamstown Rosebud was shortlived, the separation from his two young children, Miley and Colby, too painful.
The next sojourn wasn’t ideal but it was closer to home and was viewed as a way to get his career back on track but that stint in Latvia, with Skonto Riga, almost scunnered him completely. “It was fine at first and the place was beautiful and the boys were good and most of them spoke pretty good English. The standard of football was good and everything was looking up. I was back to being really, really fit, we were second in the league and challenging for the title but then there were problems with the wages. They kept lying about it and eventually, after some of the players hadn’t been paid for eight months, that was when reality set in.
“I remember chatting to the coach and he promised me the money would definitely be there on the Tuesday but at the start of training on the Tuesday he said there would be no money that month and I just took my boots off and walked off the pitch. My kids were back here and I didn’t see the point in staying in Latvia, missing my kids, and not get paid at the end of it. I was on a plane back before they had even finished training. Not one person from the club has contacted me since and it’s so corrupt, I know I will never get the money they are due me. That just seems my luck at the minute. If it’s not an injury, it’s something like this.
“After Latvia, that was it, I was done. I was ready to move on in life. I have never been interested in the coaching side. I look at Stevie Campbell [his former Dundee United youth coach], he has done well all his career and then suddenly, someone doesn’t like you and you are out of a job. That doesn’t appeal to me.”
Instead he is combining nightshifts lugging timber with commutes to Edinburgh for training two nights a week and long, long days on the road for a match on a Saturday.
“It’s tough but it’s okay. I have the same group of mates I grew up with and most of them have been moaning about their work for years while I was getting paid to play football and finishing up at mid-afternoon each day, so I can’t complain too much now that it is my turn. I suppose if I had been living a different life and was having to give up a massive house, a Lamborghini and a different lifestyle then it might be harder to get used to it but that wasn’t me anyway.
“It is tough, though. The other week we were away to Dalbeattie. I left Dundee at 8am and didn’t get back until well after 8pm, all for 90 minutes of football but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I like the lads, there are no egos and things are stripped back to basics and it’s all about the football and it’s the way I like it.”
The chance to re-engage came courtesy of his former United team-mate David Robertson. A player coach with the Borders club, he made the approach. “Robbo phoned and said: ‘Look, just come to training and see what you think and I did and I enjoyed it and I thought, ‘well, at least I’m back in football and still playing the game’.
“My contract is until the end of next season and we will see how it goes. It’s just good to be back enjoying football again. It is fun. Obviously there are serious times, and we want to win games, but it is a good laugh.”
Managed by Garry O’Connor, he describes the former Scotland striker as “calm”. He must be used to the surprised response because he laughs. “I know, I didn’t expect that either, no-one does when I tell them, but he is.”
Craig Levein still tops his list of favourite managers, though, and with the infamous 4-6-0 formation back in the papers this week, Kenneth is annoyed that people struggle to see past that now. But he will always be grateful for the highlights of his career, which are so interwoven with Hearts’ director of football.
For all the dog days endured in the past few years, there have been several highlights. “How can you throw memories like that away? You can’t discard them just because luck hasn’t gone your way for a few years.”
They don’t come close to those enjoyed by Cruyff or Terry but they are more than most lads can dream of.