His time at Aberdeen soured but Zander Diamond is thriving at Oldham and looking forward to facing Liverpool
ZANDER Diamond is not new to the away dressing room at Anfield. He has been there before, just as he has walked through the Shankly Gates and out of the tunnel at Liverpool’s iconic home.
He has even reached up to touch the famous sign on which players are reminded of the venue. There’s a lot to be said for these stadium tours.
On Friday night, Diamond will be there again, only this time he will not be a tourist. This time, he will be there for real, a player representing Oldham Athletic, of League One, in the third round of the FA Cup. He will not be ambling around with his girlfriend, taking photographs of Shankly’s statue and the Spion Kop. He will be out on the pitch, wrestling with Messrs Carroll and Suarez.
Playing at Anfield will be an unexpected thrill for the former Aberdeen defender whose visit two summers ago, when he was down south for the wedding of a former team-mate, came as his career in Scotland seemed to be on the slide. “If somebody had said to me then, ‘you’ll be going back there as a player in 18 months’ time’, I would have said, ‘you must be on drugs or something’. It’s like a fairytale.”
Adding to the excitement is Diamond’s liking for all things Liverpool. They have been his English club since he was a boy growing up in Dumbarton. After they won the European Cup in 2005, he bought a signed Steven Gerrard shirt on eBay. He has read Gerrard’s autobiography, as well as Jamie Carragher’s. He has played for Aberdeen at some famous stadiums – including Ibrox, Celtic Park, Hampden and Bayern Munich’s Allianz Arena – but nothing will compare to Anfield.
“You don’t sit there as a kid saying ‘I wish I could play in the Allianz Arena’. You want to play in the grounds you have seen on Match of the Day, and Anfield was always the top one because of its history, the league titles and the European Cups. I’ve been really lucky to play at my favourite Scottish grounds. To do it in England after just six months here is incredible.”
Diamond, 26, joined Oldham in the summer, when his contract with Aberdeen had expired, and a move to Hearts had fallen through. Paul Dickov, his Scottish manager, has made him vice-captain of a relatively youthful side, who will also have a date at Wembley in their diary if they can beat Chesterfield in the two-legged northern area final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.
While Oldham’s results have been inconsistent, Diamond has loved every minute of it. He likes the new scene, with Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic on the fixture list. He also likes living in Manchester, where his home overlooks Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, and he can be more anonymous than he was in Scotland. “You can walk around the centre of Manchester, have a coffee, read the papers, and no one bothers you. In Scotland, you can’t do that. And some of the grounds we go to are Premier League grounds really. You’re not going to them twice a season, as you would in Scotland. There’s a freshness to the whole thing.”
Diamond’s enthusiasm is understandable after what was a sour end to his long Aberdeen career. For seven years he played in the first team, initially forming a solid partnership at the back with Russell Anderson but, when the latter left, and the team’s fortunes dipped, Diamond was blamed for much of their haplessness. A deteriorating relationship with the club’s fans, some of whom objected to his Celtic-supporting background, left him determined to pursue his career elsewhere.
He says the culture of football in England is not informed by the same negativity. Journalists are more positive, fans more inclined to back their own players. “A defeat in Scotland is the end of the world with phone-ins and all the rest of it, but down here, it’s more relaxed. You can go and enjoy your football, express yourself. The fans are there to support their team. When a move breaks down, they don’t get on your back as much. That’s when players clam up, and mistakes happen.”
He recalls a recent conversation he had with Lee Miller, the former Aberdeen striker, during the warm-up for a match against Carlisle United. The two of them, chatting near the touchline, agreed that they could not have done the same thing north of the Border without a string of obscenities being hurled in their direction. “There were days in Aberdeen when I didn’t want to go out shopping because I knew that me and my family were going to get negative stuff shouted at us. It happens whether you’re playing well or not. Once you’re out of it, you look back and say to yourself, ‘why did I put myself and my family through that?’ I’d rather be somewhere that I can just enjoy my football.”
Diamond says that he spent two more years at Pittodrie than he would have liked. He fancied a transfer after Jimmy Calderwood departed the manager’s office in 2009, but an ankle injury ruined his next season. When Craig Brown replaced Mark McGhee just over a year ago, Diamond was just as keen to leave. “I said to Craig Brown, ‘if Aberdeen win the Scottish Cup and the league, I would still be leaving because there is always somebody there looking to put you down’.”
A protracted transfer to Hearts was never completed, ostensibly because they were worried about his ankle, but Dickov’s faith in the defender has been rewarded. “If somebody says that you are not fit enough to sign for them, that makes you even more determined to go and prove people wrong. In my six months here, I’ve certainly done that. I’ve been a pick every week for Oldham. It’s just great to have that fire in your belly again, to be looking forward to training, and working with a manager you want to do well for.”
Of course, one game at Anfield does not justify a career move, but it will do for now. The day after Oldham are at Anfield in the FA Cup, Aberdeen will be at Station Park, Forfar, in its Scottish equivalent, a quirk of the draw perhaps, but a juxtaposition that Diamond doesn’t mind dwelling on. “You couldn’t write the script,” he says.