Ryan Shotton was not messing about when he pulled on a Leek Town shirt in one of the biggest non-league surprises of the season.
The former Stoke City defender, who turned 32 a couple of weeks ago, was only playing for Middlesbrough in the Championship in July and hopes to be back at that level soon enough.
But as a free agent keeping himself in shape and training with local club Leek, he wasn’t going to turn up his nose at the prospect of playing seven divisions below.
“I was training with Leek for six or seven week and (manager) Neil Baker had said if I fancied a few games and hadn’t sorted out a new club, I could come on board,” he said.
“They needed a defender because of injuries so I thought, ‘You know what, let’s have a few games.’
“It’s a good standard and a great club, really well set up. I’m never going to disrespect those leagues. They’re honest lads who’ve got good talent and there’s always some who have a real chance of breaking into higher divisions.
“If you don’t respect it, it’ll bite you on the bum. I prepared and treated it just like I would if I was playing in the Premier League or Championship. I wanted to do the shirt justice. I was proud to play for Leek.”
Shotton actually managed just two appearances before lockdown stopped football at that level but, unlike his old teammates, at least he got to play in front of fans. That’s not something to take for granted at the moment.
There were 271 at Evesham United for an entertaining 3-2 defeat in the FA Trophy and 374 at Ilkeston for a brilliant 3-2 win, a fifth on the spin in the league that put Leek top of the early table.
“That was massive,” he said. “I’ve not been able to play in front of any supporters at all since March so it was great… even if I did get a lot of abuse. We played in Birmingham and Derby so that was to be expected! It was good fun.
“Bakes knows what he’s doing. Most of the lads there say he’s the best coach they’ve ever worked with in non-league.
“It was a real shame that they missed out on promotion last season because of the first lockdown and I hope they can go and finish the job this time, even if hopefully I’m not around to carry on playing for them. They deserve it.”
Shotton, whose brother Liam had previously played for Leek, isn’t alone in having to be patient to get back in the professional game.
There are 48 other players who were recently playing in the Premier League or Championship and Shotton is looking forward to getting back involved – but that doesn’t mean he’s desperate to grab the first opportunity.
“I can still be at Championship level,” he said. “It’s just a matter of waiting to see what comes up.
“As it stands it’s a tricky situation and I understand there’s not a lot of money in the game.
“If the right thing doesn’t appear, I have a young family and I’m not going to sell myself short.
“I’m hoping to be sorted in the next three to four weeks. The January window will get things moving before Christmas and, as fixtures come so quickly, clubs are going to need an injection of players.
“I benefit from that because not many will be able to go and pay £1m to sign someone. I can bring experience and hopefully the right manager and the right team will happen.”
There’s one manager fresh back in the Championship who has played Shotton at two clubs already; Tony Pulis, now in charge of Sheffield Wednesday.
“That’s already been pointed out to me,” said Shotton. “For what Tony Pulis has done for my career I will never say a bad word about him. If you do what he asks, you get rewarded and stay in his team.
“It’s like in any job, if the manager asks you to do it, you do it and he gets results. It’s not rocket science.
“I’m sure he knows I’m available, I’m just not sure I’m a winger anymore!”
That, of course, is where Shotton was given a chance by Pulis back when he was breaking through at Stoke, equipped with a useful long throw into the bargain.
He was a popular loanee at Altincham, Tranmere Rovers and Barnsley before being memorably thrown in as an emergency striker when Stoke played in the Europa League in 2011/12, scoring at Hajduk Split, and then back in the Premier League against West Brom.
“To score a last minute winner at West Brom was brilliant, kicking it out of Ben Foster’s hands,” he said. “It was only this morning that a gent noticed me and brought that up. A lot of people remind me and it’s the one that sticks in my mind too.
“And no one can ever take away the memory of playing in Europe. I remember trying to block out the noise at Split because you couldn’t really believe what was going on. They were great times.”
Shotton didn’t play for Stoke after Pulis left in the summer of 2013, moving on loan to Wigan and then Derby, who he joined permanently.
He was signed by Gary Rowett at Birmingham and then joined Middlesbrough in 2017.
“There were ups and downs at Middlesbrough,” he said. “Garry Monk signed me having chased me for eight weeks – but then he didn’t play me for about five months.
“Then I played one game just before Christmas at Sheffield Wednesday away, scored the winner – and he got sacked that night!
“Tony came in and we reached the play-off semis. It was a tough tie against Aston Villa and we lost to a set piece over two legs. Then we faded away at the end of the next season after being in the play-off places virtually the whole time.
“They were great experiences and I don’t think Jonathan Woodgate had the resources to take the club to his nor the club’s potential. He really dreamed about doing that job at a club he adores and he worked his socks off. I’m gutted it didn’t work out.”
Neil Warnock came in during the re-start to last season and Shotton left in mid-July after a 2-0 win at Millwall had all-but ensured the club stayed up.
But a fight against relegation isn’t the only challenge thrown up by 2020.
Shotton owns the Black Lion pub in Cheddleton – five minutes away from Leek Town – and that’s an adventure in itself.
He said: “I wish I could say it’s going brilliantly but we had to close a week before lockdown because a staff member tested positive for Covid. Unfortunately that meant we didn’t benefit from the rush there was at other pubs before Boris closed everything down.
“But we can’t complain and we’ve managed to renovate while we’ve been closed.
“We’ve done up what we call the attic room. It was just a pool table, big screen and a couple of darts boards but now it’s a cool sports room which everyone will like. Hopefully when we reopen we’ll benefit from that.
“There are things sent to try you but you just have to stay laid back, get through and hopefully the next few months will be good.”