HE was Britain’s first £1 million teenage footballer, an England under 21 international and a terroriser of Premiership and second tier defences for more than 10 successful seasons.
But Bruce Dyer, whose footballing career saw him play for Barnsley, Sheffield United, Rotherham United and Doncaster Rovers, says he has never enjoyed the game so much as right now – playing regular five-a-side matches with jailed convicts.
For, this bruising centre forward, who scored some 117 goals in 469 games, has eschewed the usual life of retired professionals.
Instead of TV work, management or running his own pub, he has spent the last two years going into prisons across the UK to offer those serving time help, advice and a kick around – as well as the promise of a curry if they get out and stay straight.
His not-for-profit company, Love Life UK, has become so respected prison authorities regularly request he visit their institutions, while Bruce estimates he has personally come into contact with more than 300 cons.
“Life has never been better,” says the 36-year-old, who started his professional career with Watford in 1993. “What I’m doing now is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. It’s helping to change people’s lives – what can be better than that?”
If it doesn’t sound like your archetypal post-football career, it’s perhaps fair to say Bruce was never quite your archetypal footballer.
On the pitch he may have been a huge and popular presence, capable of turning a game with his pace and power; but off it, for the last 14 years, he has been a born-again Christian devoting his life to helping others.
“I’m not a Bible basher, though,” laughs Bruce today. “I don’t preach to anyone. I tell people what God has done for me and they can receive that or reject it. It’s up to them.”
And what God did for him, he says, is turn his life round.
His personal moment of enlightenment came in 1998 when, as a still young footballer playing for Crystal Palace, he tried to blunt the numbness of injury by throwing himself into every footballer cliche imaginable: drinking, clubbing and womanising.
“I spiralled out of control,” he says. “I was DJ-ing through the night, drinking too much, had a woman in every port, being unfaithful to my then partner.
“I’d had a good start to the season – Palace were in the Premiership and I’d scored four goals – but I got an ankle injury in the October of 1997 and I went wild, partying every night.
“The strange thing was I knew even at the time it was making me miserable.
“I remember the summer after that season sitting on my bed thinking I’ve got everything I ever dreamed of and I’m still not happy. I felt broken.”
So he phoned older brother Isaiah Raymond for advice.
Back in the mid-Nineties, he’d served time for robbery and crack dealing, and had been living as a born-again Christian ever since.
“He had absolutely nothing,” says Bruce, who also has five sisters. “He was struggling to make a living and he’d had to move back in with our mum but he was happy.
“I asked how and, by the grace of God, he showed me the light. I found Jesus.”
Things were looking up on the pitch too.
That summer he left London for Barnsley where he would enjoy five successful seasons notching 57 goals in 181 appearances. He only left after the club twice asked him to take a pay cut – despite being leading goal scorer in successive seasons.
“The first time I could accept because I loved the place and I would have been happy to stay there for the rest of my career,” he says. “But the second time was hard. I felt people were trying to take advantage.”
He returned to first club Watford before enjoying short spells at a series of sides including Rotherham, Doncaster, Sheffield United (“I missed a sitter in the Steel City derby,” he shudders), Millwall, Bradford City and Chesterfield.
But it was when he retired in 2008 that his life took on new meaning.
He, wife Janine, and their four sons, all now aged between 16 and two, had moved back to South Yorkshire and, financially stable, Bruce threw himself into learning God’s word.
“That’s what makes me happiest,” he says. “I can honestly say I’ve never missed playing football. I still enjoy a kick around and I’ve done some charity games but my life has more meaning now than it ever did before.”
That his prison work came about is perhaps proof the Lord moves in mysterious ways.
Bruce had been watching a documentary where ex-pro and fellow former Crystal Palace legend Ian Wright had spent time in a prison.
“It moved me so much, I started praying for those prisoners I didn’t know,” says Bruce. “But I didn’t think about doing anything myself.
“Then two weeks later I got a call, from another ex-pro, Barry Miller, asking me to go into Doncaster Prison as part of a Christian programme. He wanted me to play football and talk about my faith. I said yes immediately.”
Indeed, he found that first session so fulfilling he asked to do more and has not stopped going back since.
Now he and Janine have set up their own not-for-profit company, Love Life UK Outreach, which hosts weekly Bible workshops at Doncaster Prison, while taking semi-regular sessions in other institutions across the country. In the last month alone Bruce has visited prisons in Milton Keynes, London and Wetherby.
He hosts five-a-side games inside too and holds weekly meetings with those who get out and stay straight.
“Then, occasionally we’ll take them for a curry, and just have a bit of a social,” he says.
And, if Bruce is enjoying the work, it seems those inside are too.
“They understand we’re genuinely there to help and not judge,” he says.
“They look at me and they say ‘Well, it’s been easy for you with your life’ but I take Isaiah too and we can say that we both had different lives but we’re both in the same place now – and they can be too.
“That hits them. They can respond to that.”
Love Life UK will hold an awareness-raising festival on Bank Holiday Monday May 7 with funfair, live music, five-a-side games and an appearance from England ace Rio Ferdinand. It will take place at the Kendray Powerleague Five-A-Side Centre, Barnsley, 1 - 8pm. Free entry. Visit www.lovelifeuk5aside.com for details.
Still good enough for the Sky cameras
DOES Bruce Dyer still have it on the pitch?
The answer, it seems, is yes.
The 36-year-old is one of several retired professionals who have turned out to represent Barnsley at the Masters Football tournament - and with some success.
The competition – fast becoming a popular staple on Sky Sports – sees ex-pros playing each other at six-a-side.
In 2010 a team of Oakwell legends, including Nicky Eaden, Kevin Miller and Dean Gorre, won the Yorkshire heat and reached the semi-finals before losing to Birmingham City.
“I scored probably the best goal of my career,” says Bruce. “It was an over-head kick – the kind you dream of.”
Last year, they couldn’t repeat the success, and came bottom of the Yorkshire qualifier.
Bruce also plays in the odd charity match.
The Londoner who’s definitely a Northerner now
BRUCE Dyer says moving to South Yorkshire was, apart from finding God, the best thing that has ever happened to him.
Quite a turn around for a Londoner whose first question when he heard Barnsley were interested in signing him was: ‘Where’s that?’
“I use to joke about people from up north,” smiles Bruce.
“I swore I’d never leave London, but as soon as I arrived here I knew I’d found the place I was meant to be.”
The move came about after Crystal Palace placed the striker on the transfer list in 1998 and a move to Fulham – then managed by Kevin Keegan – fell through.
“My dad, who was my agent, said I should give Barnsley a try,” he remembers.
“I was impressed with the club’s set up and chairman John Dennis. I’m so glad I gave it a go.”
He stayed at the club some five years, becoming a favourite with fans and, apart from a short period playing for Watford, Stoke City and Millwall, has remained in the area since.
“I love the pace of life up here,” he says. “And my family are settled.
“We’re Northerners now.”