Rob Elliot finding solace after a year that fell flat
Ireland and Newcastle United goalkeeper looking optimistically towards future
Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Rob Elliot picks up a knee injury in the friendly against Slovakia at the Aviva Stadium in March. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho.
On March 29th, Rob Elliot won his fourth Ireland cap, against Slovakia in a pre-Euros friendly in Dublin. Elliot had hopes of not just making Martin O’Neill’s squad for France, but of being in the starting XI.
He was the only Irish goalkeeper playing in the Premier League every week and, although it was at struggling Newcastle United, Elliot says he was “growing”. At 29, season 2014/’15 was turning into the best of his career.
Then, 16 minutes in, Elliot dived to his left and heard his right knee “pop”. His season, his Euros, his career, stopped there and then. He left Lansdowne Road in an ambulance.
It’s said 2016 will go down as an unforgettable, landscape-shifting year: here’s Rob Elliot’s.
The first game of the year was a 1-0 defeat at Arsenal. Steve McClaren had been in charge for six months but was under pressure. On arrival he and the Newcastle board told Elliot he could leave – Tim Krul was first choice and Karl Darlow had been signed.
“Then [October 2015] I was away with Ireland and found out Tim ruptured his cruciate,” Elliot says. “Karl was injured, so I was the only fit ’keeper at the club. I remember thinking that no-one really wanted me here a few months ago, my future wasn’t here, but now I was playing for Newcastle again.”
By January 2016 Elliot was re-established as Newcastle’s number one.
“After Arsenal we drew with Man United and I felt we were on the cusp of developing something. We signed Jonjo [Shelvey] and Andros Townsend. We beat West Ham at home and we’d a lift.
“Then we lost at Watford, who were big and strong. Maybe we didn’t have the character to stand up to that. If it was just a football game – like at Arsenal – we could hold our own because we’d good, technical players.
“It was a strange time. Alan Rickman died. I’m a movie buff.”
A 3-0 defeat at Everton kept Newcastle in the relegation zone.
“After the game some harsh words were said by Steve McClaren. I’d made some good saves, but it was a kick in the balls. I wanted to make saves that won us points, not just keep the score down.
“Then we beat West Brom. Again I thought: ‘Maybe this is the turning point.’”
“Seamus [McDonagh] was in touch loads. There were also messages from the gaffer [O’Neill] or Roy [Keane].
“I knew the friendly games were coming up, then the Euros, I was looking forward. I felt it was between me and Darren [Randolph] to have a real go at it.”
Newcastle lost 3-1 at home to Bournemouth. McClaren was sacked.
“It felt like the end. The fans had lost patience with us, the manager and the club. The whole thing had turned sour.
“Then we heard about Rafa [Benítez] and we thought: ‘This can’t be right!’
“We met him here in the canteen, talking like school kids. It was almost like the club changed instantly. The fans changed. We went to Leicester in his first game and did well.
“Then we drew with Sunderland. That was my last Newcastle game. I went to the airport with John O’Shea, had a beer, flew over to Dublin.
“We had Switzerland on the Friday night – Darren played in that one and did well. We’d Saturday off. Me and Daz went into town, watched a film. We grew up together at Charlton, we’ve known each other since we were 15, became pros together. We room together.
“Brian Kerr called me up for the under-17s. People were suddenly asking me: ‘Are you Irish?’ I said yeah – for me football was always Ireland. That was the passion.
“I’d go to my nan’s in Cork. My Mum’s family are English, from Greenwich. My granddad’s actually Scottish but he met my nan in Ireland. I’m a proper mongrel.
“They moved over in the 50s, as you did. I grew up as Irish, my best friend on our street, Liam, his family were all from Tipperary. In London in the 80s that was a bit tough. They’d been the immigrants, ‘the problem’. It all changes, doesn’t it?
“USA 94, I remember. Then 2002, I was watching Shay Given. We’d Mark Kinsella and Matt Holland at Charlton.
“Slovakia? I remember the ball being played across and I moved to my right. The fella’s had a shot and I moved to my left. As I dived I just felt a crack and pop. I knew it was my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament]. There’s a picture of me in the air and I’m holding my knee even before I hit the floor. Wincing.
“The pain for the first 10-15 seconds was really bad, then it disappeared. I thought: ‘Have I just made a big deal of this?’ Then I felt my knee and I knew.
“The doc tested it. I was crying. I knew my season was over, the Euros were gone. I got wound up.
“I went to the hotel and waited for the lads. They all came up to me, it was nice. Martin came and sat with me. He just said he couldn’t believe it. He said nice things, that I’d be back. Roy did the same. He talked about when he’d done his. I was thinking: ‘God, it’s Roy Keane.’ I know he’s our assistant manager but when I was growing up he was one of the best players in the world.
“I flew home the next morning.”
“I went down to London, saw surgeon Andy Williams. April 5th. It was a horrible time but I was so well looked after.
“It was so painful. The physio, she was asking me to move my knee and it was so hard. I was sweating. You’re thinking: ‘Jesus, am I going to play again?’ It makes you realise how serious it was.
“I was on crutches for six, seven weeks. Our physio, Sean Beech, was magnificent.
“From January to March our results weren’t great but my performances were getting better. I was growing. I felt in a really good place, really comfortable. My mentality was really good. The one thing that’s gutting is that I’ve lost that momentum.
“I’d my 30th birthday. That was probably the toughest day. We played Crystal Palace. My little boy Max was supposed to be mascot and I was to lead him out. It was something I could remember for ever and ever, something I could show him.
“I was in pain that day, I probably shouldn’t have gone to the game, my knee was killing me. It was s**t. Selfishly those are the milestones. Other than when I cried when I first did it, that was the only other day when I’ve been really down.”
Newcastle are relegated.
“It was probably waiting to happen for three years. It was solemn.
“But then the whole club turned. It was like the closing of a chapter.
“Then the questions: ‘Will Rafa stay?’ ‘Are things going to change the way we do things at the club?’ Luckily those things have happened.”
On the last day of the season, relegated Newcastle beat Tottenham 5-1.
“If you needed a game to convince a manager, it was the Tottenham game, it showed what the club could be. The best I’ve ever seen this club was the day we got relegated.
“The mentality of the group changed. It became more collective. Maybe players had come to do well at Newcastle in order to move on. No disrespect to them, but as a club Newcastle United shouldn’t accept that. We should be the pinnacle.
“Rafa sent me a message. I was having a thigh operation, they cut the tendon off completely.
“I got a text. ‘Hi Rob, hope injury is well.’ He asked me which players I ‘like for the Championship’. I was half drugged-up, I thought I might put ‘Keegan’.
“I thought: ‘Wow, he’s staying and he’s asking my opinion.’ It gave me such a massive lift.”
Euro 2016: “During the Slovakia game friends had been calling. They knew. On the group chat they put up a picture of a Eurostar ticket for me for the Italy game. That was nice.
“I’d got over it [missing out]. I remember texting Darren because I was buzzing to watch him – he’s my friend. And of course I wanted to watch the lads.
“We went into Lille the day before the game – the Eurostar, my mate had got an Airbnb. Eight, nine of us.
“On the day of the game we camped ourselves in this bar, had lunch, a few drinks. There was the Brexit thing. We were sitting there in Lille saying it’s not going to happen, no chance. All the polls said no chance. Then you wake up and it’s happened. You go: ‘Okay!’ I would have stayed had it been me – well, I did vote to stay.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed this year is getting away from PC – Brexit, Trump. To be a good leader you need to have made mistakes, got things wrong and learned from them. You need life experience. It’s been a strange year.
“In the stadium I was in line where Robbie [Brady] scored. When he scored it was just mental, I thought I’d done my knee again.
“I was walking by then. Even though I didn’t get to play, it was just great to go.”
“My wife, Robyn, was pregnant, we managed to get a few days away. I started driving again and was doing some work outside. I could cycle without wincing.”
On the opening day of the season, Newcastle lost 1-0 at Fulham.
“I went, I love going. We were poor. It was a wake-up call for the lads – how big Newcastle are in the Championship.
“In the dressing room after, I was surprised, the lads were all chatting about what could be done better. I don’t know if it would have been like that last season. There was a group trust developing.
“Then we lost to Huddersfield at home. Again, I think that was good. It showed us how teams were going to play at St James’. We’d lost six points, I remember saying that there were over 130 points left to play for: ‘Don’t stress.’”
Elliot signed a new contract.
“I love living up here, we’ve really settled. I wanted to sign a new contract that showed I was part of the club again and part of its future.
“It means something – if you don’t feel part of where you are, you can drift. I’m signed to 2020 with a two-year option. I was really happy.”
“I started going outside with Simon Smith, our goalie coach. The repetition made my knee better and better. It gave all the work I’d done in the gym a meaning. October was a big month for me.”
“Towards the end I joined in a 5-a-side, which I shouldn’t have done because you’re twisting and turning. Everything I’d done before that was controlled. But I did it and I felt amazing.”
“I’d a reserve game at St James’ v Aston Villa. I was captain. I looked at their team and didn’t really recognise anyone, it was a young team. I was hoping one of them wouldn’t get excited and smash into me. You do think that – the one thing you can’t control are collisions.
“The game kicked off and I conceded immediately. But after that, fine, loads of kicking.
“Carrie Fisher died. The big thing for me this year – this injury – is learning to appreciate what you’ve got.
“We’ve a new baby [daughter Oa]. I’ve ruptured my knee but I’ve signed a new contract. I’m moving to the coast, to a house I never thought I could live in. As you get older you have to appreciate how lucky you are, to have this lifestyle.
“Hopefully I’ll get back in the squad, back on the bench, back with the lads. I still speak to Seamus. It’d be great to be back involved for March, when we play the next qualifier. There’s still loads in front of me.”