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George Boyd: Non-League set me on my way to the top

George Boyd

George Boyd starred for Stevenage before going on to play in the Premier League

By Chris Dunlavy

George Boyd was 17, rake thin and full of cocky exuberance when he mugged off Steve Watson in a Stevenage training session.

Watson, a brutish midfield destroyer and a favourite of manager Graham Westley, did not take it well.

“Steve was our captain, and he could be a bit nasty,” recalls Peterborough’s Boyd, now 34 and a veteran of 101 Premier League appearances with Hull and Burnley.

“I megged him in training one day and called it. Next challenge, he lifted me off the deck. I was lying on the floor and he was shouting at me saying ‘Don’t you ever f***ing do that to me again’.

“That was probably my first experience of old pros not taking kindly to things. Nowadays, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Knowing Graham, though, he loved all that. I’m sure he thought it was good for the youngsters to get a kicking.”

Boyd, too, wouldn’t have had it any other way. Released by Charlton Athletic as a teenager, he joined Stevenage on a college scheme in 2002.

And whilst those he’d left behind were farmed out on loan or toiled through meaningless youth matches, Boyd was cutting his teeth at the coalface and forging a reputation as one of the finest talents in the Conference.

By 21, he’d played over 120 matches, scored 31 times and joined Peterborough for a Non-League record fee of £260,000. Today, his CV includes five career promotions, two caps for Scotland, an FA Cup final appearance and nine top-flight goals – including a famous stunner against Man City.

George Boyd

George Boyd celebrates scoring for Burnley in the Premier League

“It was an absolute dream to play at that level,” says Boyd. “It really is the best league in the world. There’s so much media. So much scrutiny. It’s like everything you know is suddenly magnified. I loved it.

“But I might never have got there without that grounding in Non-League. I joined Stevenage at 16, when most kids are still miles from the first team.

“I was tiny when I went there. So, so small. I didn’t shoot up until I was about 19. I was also playing in size 11 boots which were too big for me. I don’t know what I looked like – the lads used to call me Sideshow Bob.

“I’m only a size nine-and-a-half. But, for some reason, I’d always bought size 11 boots. I suppose I’d just never had anyone tell me they weren’t right. It’s no wonder I got released by Charlton!

“But Wayne Turner, who was the manager at the time, integrated me into the first team straight away. I was getting stick. Lumps kicked out of me. Earning money. It was so different to the boys’ football I’d played at Charlton.

“I was there for three years and, looking back, I needed those years to learn how to express myself.

“The higher you go, with the pressure and more at stake, there’s stuff you just don’t do. You’re much more free at that level and my confidence just soared with each passing week.”

Those skinned by Boyd can certainly attest to that. Sparingly used by Turner, Boyd rose to prominence under successor Westley, whose willingness to deploy the young winger in a roving No.10 role saw him dubbed ‘the White Pele’ at Broadhall Way.

“I’ve heard a lot of different stories about Graham over the years, but I got on really well with him,” says Boyd. “Mentally and physically, he developed my game so much. He’d take me to a sprint specialist in Richmond on Tuesdays, trying to get my speed up.

“We’d be on treadmills, doing leg weights, working on running technique. And that’s just one example. He was brilliant for me.

“I know at Preston he struggled to convince the older players of his methods, and that always makes things difficult. But I was  young. I didn’t know any different. I look back now and I’m very grateful for the time and effort he put in.”

Famously, Boyd worked part-time in a sweet shop to supplement his income in those early days.

“I only worked five hours so it wasn’t a proper job,” he laughs. “It was pocket money, really. I still remember finishing a shift and walking from the train station back to the digs in Hitchin.

“It was a horrible feeling living in those digs, so far from home. But once you make it, it does make it all the sweeter.”

Boro reached the play-off final in 2005 but were beaten by Carlisle in the final. When the subsequent season failed to yield a play-off place, Westley resigned and was replaced by Grays manager Mark Stimson.

The former Newcastle midfielder added adventure to the fitness and discipline instilled by his predecessor, with Boyd’s creativity bolstered by the lethal instincts of Steve Morison and the evergreen guile of former England winger Steve Guppy.

“Stimmo was a top coach and a great man,” recalls Boyd. “His team probably played the most attractive football Stevenage had ever seen.

“He’d always played good stuff at Grays, and it was a joy for attacking players. We went on some unbelievable runs, winning eight or nine games in a row.

“Moro scored a lot of goals. Steve Guppy came in and was absolutely amazing. It was the end of his career when he came, but he was half a yard quicker than anyone upstairs.

“And he had a wand of a left foot. He just kept putting it on Steve (Morison)’s head, and Steve would score. We were the last team he played for, but he still loved football. At the time, you think ‘Wow, how does he keep going?’. But, as I’ve got older, it’s an attitude I can completely identify with.”

Stevenage would reach the FA Trophy final that season, beating Kidderminster in the first competitive game at the new Wembley. By then, however, Boyd was gone.

George Boyd playing for Hull City against Chelsea’s Ashley Cole

“Phil Wallace put that £260,000 release clause in my Stevenage contract thinking nobody would ever be willing to pay it,” says Boyd, who joined the Posh – then in League Two – in January 2007 before going on to score 75 goals in 297 games.

“But Peterborough put a few bids in – I don’t know whether they knew about the clause – and eventually hit the figure.

“Did I have any doubts? No, I was really confident. It had got to the stage where I felt in myself that I was beyond Conference level. I didn’t really feel challenged anymore.

“It did help that they brought in a lot of Non-League players. Aaron McLean was already there. Craig Mackail-Smith came a little bit later in January. They were boys I’d played with for England C the previous summer, so it was a home from home.

“It was obvious to us that Peterborough had a plan to recruit from that level and try to improve Non-League players. We got to the Championship within two years, so it definitely worked.”

And 18 years on from that ear-bashing by his Stevenage skipper, Boyd remains an advocate of his hard-knock apprenticeship.

“I got a grounding, and a bit of humility,” he says. “I learned to work hard on my craft. I look at Under-23s football now, and it’s nothing. It’s pointless. It’s boring. There’s nothing to it, no pace.

“I’d advise anybody to get out of it as soon as possible, go on loan to the National League or League Two teams and understand what men’s football is all about. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

 

This article was brought to you by The Non-League Paper, the UK's best-selling football title on the newsstand, on-sale every Sunday.
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