'In the last six months I've tried to put a positive spin on it' - Chris Brown on struggling with enforced retirement, relegation and leaving Doncaster Rovers
Just a few minutes earlier, Chris Brown had felt the hammerblow of relegation with Doncaster Rovers, and he was still attempting to come to terms with it.
Rovers had been consigned back into League One with the final kick of a game taking place 120 miles away. Their own result that day, a 1-0 defeat to champions Leicester City, was of little consequence until Paul Caddis equalised for Birmingham City at Bolton Wanderers in the 93rd minute, keeping the Blues up on goal difference.
Brown, the heart and soul of the Rovers side that had looked set to survive in the second tier against the odds, had been chosen to face the media, to articulate the feelings of a squad that had only just suffered the ultimate disappointment.
And he knew it would likely be his final act as a Rovers player.
Nine months earlier, the 2013/14 season had started with great optimism for the club, fresh from sealing the League One title with the dramatic events of the final day at Brentford.
But it had been all-change too. The management duo of Brian Flynn and Rob Jones had been moved aside for the arrival of Paul Dickov - something striker Brown felt had been on the cards.
“If I’m being honest there were rumours among the lads towards the end of the season that Dickov had been at the games,” he told the Free Press.
“I half had a feeling it was coming.
“It was one of those things where we’ve got bigger things to worry about. We were going into a new league and needed to put a good squad together.
“I enjoyed it straight away under Paul and got on well with him.
“He wanted to do things differently. He wanted his full backs getting forward and things like that. But as a player you just want to be playing, it doesn’t matter what sort of football it is, you just want to get games and take it from there.
“Thankfully I played the majority of games that season.”
It was a difficult season for Rovers but they always remained competitive in their bid for survival, despite adapting to Dickov’s new approach.
With seven matches to go, they looked to be in touching distance of securing their place in the Championship, only to add just a single point to their total when two would have been enough.
Brown was named Rovers’ player of the year that season, scoring nine goals and working his socks off as a focal point for the side.
But individual accolades could not make up for the disappointment of relegation, particularly the manner in which it was delivered.
“I had a good season personally but it just got overshadowed really,” he said.
“You talk about the highs of the season before. It’s probably the lowest I’ve been, the same weekend the year after.
“The worst thing about it was that we just didn’t see it coming. We were comfortable with seven games to go and even the week leading up to it, we were confident.
“We were confident up to a minute to go, that’s how surreal it all was against Leicester.
“We only needed two points from the last seven games.
“I remember the week before, we were drawing the game and we threw Jamie McCombe up front to try to win the game. I remember him appearing next to me and I didn’t think we needed to do it because a point would have been enough, and then we ended up losing.
“I wish we could play the Leicester game again. I just don’t know why we didn’t go for it.
“The last 20 minutes, it was like a testimonial, thinking it was done and dusted and we didn’t need to worry. Bolton were 2-0 up against Birmingham and we were fine.
“I remember trying to close people down and get the ball back and it was just like we were letting them pass the ball around at the back. It was frustrating at the time and even more so looking back after.
“I remember looking over and seeing Dickov on the touchline, bright red in the face, shouting everyone forward and saying we need a goal.
“That was it.
“I also remember that a fan tragically lost his life that day in the stand and it was something that was more important on the bus for the lads. It was an awful time.”
The final whistle at the King Power Stadium proved to call time on Brown’s Rovers career, his second spell delivering 97 appearances.
Several players in the squad had relegation release clauses within their contracts, allowing them to leave on a free that summer. Had they stayed at the club, they would have seen a significant reduction in their wages.
David Cotterill and Mark Duffy were two players to take the opportunity to leave. Brown also, though it came with real reluctance.
“I was happy, I was enjoying my football and I didn’t want to leave the club,” he said.
“But as soon as the whistle went I thought, that’s it, that’s me done.
“I just knew my time was up and that was another thing that was hard to take.
“Gary Bowyer [Blackburn Rovers manager] rang us the day after Leicester and he’d heard that I could leave on a free if we got relegated.
“I think I had a year left on half my money. I was 30-year-old, I knew I was probably on borrowed time with the amount I’d played on my knee. It was just a decision I had to make.
“Dickov was brilliant with me, I was nervous about going in to see him but he completely understood where I was coming from.
“He shook my hand and wished me all the best, thanking me for my efforts. It helped but I didn’t want to leave.
“It was a financial decision but it was a tough one to make.”
Not only did that summer mark the end of his Rovers career, afterwards Brown would not play football consistently for the remainder of his career.
Back and knee problems had blighted his entire career and began to take their toll during two years with Blackburn Rovers. Brown was restricted to 41 appearances across two seasons.
He joined Bury in the summer of 2016 but never featured due to injury and would ultimately retire at the age of 33.
Now 35, he admits retirement was a release from the stresses of his battle for fitness.
But he also found it tremendously difficult, and confesses he did not cope initially.
“Footballers are experts at putting on a brave face, a bit of a front, and working out a coping strategy for the situation you are in,” he said.
“I did that for 18 months after I finished playing.
“Even before then, in my time at Blackburn and Bury, I knew I was struggling.
“When I was talking about doing my stretching at Donny, I’d been doing it all my career and I was obsessed with getting my body right for matches.
“On one hand that stress was taken away because I didn’t have to do it any more. But on the other hand it took me 18 months of looking back on the frustrations of doing this and that, of what might have been.
“It’s only been after that when I’ve started looking back on the highs of my career, the successes I’ve had.
“I’m very proud of the promotions, four in total, and it’s probably only been the last few months where I’ve been able to dissect it all and be positive about what I’ve achieved.
“They said I was finished at 18 with injury, that I’d never play again.
“So in the last six months I’ve tried to put a positive spin on it.”
Helping Brown through into a more positive mindset has been his successful podcast series UndrTheCosh, which he produces alongside former Rovers loanee Jon Parkin and comedy writer namesake Chris Brown.
It began as an idea of documenting enforced retirement from the game but developed into a confessional, featuring interviews with a different retiree each week.
Much of the popularity of Undr The Cosh has come due to the hilarious stories told. Mark Crossley recounting his time as a young player under Brian Clough is a particular highlight.
And then there is the tremendous chemistry between the three hosts, all down to earth and all willing to be the brunt of plentiful jokes.
But it is also a series that has delivered some gut-wrenching admissions about lowest ebbs that players have reached.
Such discussions about the struggles with retirement have helped Brown come to terms with his own, as well as making him realise more needs to be done to help players through the transition.
“The podcast stuff has helped, speaking to lads who have been in the same situation, talking about their good times and bad times and relating to things they are saying,” he said.
“It is tough afterwards and I think there needs to be more help for people.
“We spoke to Brian Deane recently on the podcast and he’s going to be setting up a company that does just that - after care for footballers, getting lads who have played at the top level to get on the phone, or have a coffee and just talk about it.
“It is something that needs to be done.
“There’s a lot of people out there who will be struggling and the scary thing is a lot won’t even realise that they are struggling, they’ll just go back to their coping strategy of just getting on with things and thinking this is their life now.
Brown believes plenty of players will be struggling with a lack of routine enforced by the Covid-19 outbreak.
He said: “I know a lot of people speak about it when they’re on the tele and it doesn’t matter whether you live in a six bedroom house with a massive garden, these people are struggling.
“We had Matt Piper on and for him it was all about focus and structure to his life. It wasn’t so much the football, it just didn’t have anything in his life.
“I think a lot of people are going to be struggling with that now.
“Whether it’s exercise or whatever. I think exercising has been a godsend for people - I’ve never seen so many people out running so that’s been a positive to come out of this.“It does make a difference.”
Recording Undr The Cosh has helped Brown find a routine, particularly with live broadcasts on YouTube on Wednesday and Saturday nights, the latter of which features a quiz which raises money for NHS charities.
The series has put him back in touch with former Rovers team mates and, recently, managers Dickov and Dean Saunders.
But he has remained in contact with plenty from his time at the club - a place for which he holds a lot of affection.
“I loved my time there,” he said. “As I said before, it was always somewhere I thought I’d go back to after that initial loan spell.
“There was some tough times but I had plenty of happy memories too.”
For part one of our interview with Brown, covering the first two years of his second spell with Rovers, click HERE.