Boro on Sunday in the FA Cup 4th round and Salut! Sunderland‘s build-up starts here. For a man who was able to play so few games because injury cruelly cut his career short, Alan Comfort – now, of course, the Rev Alan Comfort – made an impact, him on the North East and the region on him. He remains deeply fond of Boro to this day – and yes, his wife grew to appreciate the Dales – wonders what might have been and says he would happily have seen out a player’s normal-length careeer there …
Salut! Sunderland: When I approached you, you indicated that you were a Middlesbrough supporter or had strong affection for the club so I was surprised later to note that you played fewer than 20 times for them before injury ended your career. What was it about Boro that got into your heart?
This is an easy question to answer but one that not everyone will understand. As a boy I dreamt of being a professional footballer, of playing in front of huge crowds, of being a star. Although proud of my time at other clubs, as soon as I sat in the stands at Ayresome Park the day I came for contract talks, I knew my dream had come true. I loved every moment of being in Middlesbrough. For me it is a proper footballing place, the crowd, the passion. I will never forget any of the moments however short my time was.
When misfortune struck at just 24 (or was it 25?), did you feel bitter or was your faith strong enough to support you?
It was a month before my 25th birthday when injury struck at St James’ Park against Newcastle. Having never been injured in my career to that point it was a shock that never went away. Of course I felt bereft for some time because football was such a huge part of my life and I always wonder what might have happened, how good I might have been at Middlesbrough but my faith did help me hugely. Bitterness always keeps our eyes looking backwards to what could have been and doesn’t let us look forward to what still can be. My faith assures me that no matter what happens in my life God is always working his purposes out for us. It is a mystery why my football had to end and why God didn’t protect me from it or heal when it happened, but so much has happened since that I knew then and still do today that to trust God is central to that faith.
Tell us a little about your spell at Ayresome Park: who were the individuals who stood out while you were there, either as players or as people? And what did you make of the town – not everyone’s idea of idyllic – and the area?
I remember it as if yesterday. Just married before I arrived, my wife Jill cried as we entered Middlesbrough for talks but my heart soared. I loved the area and travelled regularly to the dales and York and so on which Jill did love! We lived in Durham near the training ground at the time and loved the people we lived by and their friendly and straight forward manner. There were mad Sunderland and Newcastle families around us there and all so genuine. The players were a great group who had been together for some time in what had been an amazing revival at the club under Bruce Rioch. Tony Mowbray, Colin Cooper, Gary Parkinson, Stuart Ripley, Bernie Slaven, Mark Proctor. I could go on and everyone I remember. Some real characters like Trevor Putney who made us all laugh. In that group were some really top people not just great footballers. People with values and strength of character. I have watched from afar but a number of those in the group have suffered tragically for those so young and yet handled themselves with such quality. I am really proud to have known them for however short a period..
To what extent have you followed their ups and downs – promotions, relegations, cup finals – since you left? Form this season has been inconsistent but Boro are still in contention for promotion. Do you feel they have the resources, team and, in Mowbray and Gibson, the manager/owner pairing to get back to the Premier and establish themselves there?
For a time I used to commentate on the radio and also the TV which was brilliant and really kept me in touch with the club even though I moved back south. I have always watched closely being really excited through some of the Robson and Maclaren years. Being a big fan of Gary Gibson and admirer of Tony Mowbray I have never wanted Middlesbrough to be more successful than right now. Tony seems to know exactly what he wants and never moves from his principles. He wants to play good football and he belongs to Middlesbrough as a club. I’m not sure whether this is the year to return to the Premiership but I do believe Tony is the right man to lead the club though my eyes.
You also played for Cambridge and with notable success for Leyton Orient. What are the personal highlights of your short playing career and what level do you feel, looking back, you might have reached?
Disappointments still linger more than successes. Having been a young professional at QPR I never broke through under Terry Venables and wish I had. At Cambridge I learnt to play as a winger for a losing team which is near on impossible but then had nearly 4 years of consistent success at Leyton Orient. I guess I fulfilled my potential there and remember every one of my 49 goals (although memory playing up more these days) but waited patiently for a ‘big’ club to sign me. The highlight of my career has to be playing for Middlesbrough and doing well especially in the early games of my short 17 match career. How good could I have been? I don’t really know. If I could have played well for Middlesbrough for the rest of my career I would have been very proud and happy.
Players are much better rewarded now, especially at the highest level. Do you ever wish you had started playing when players’ wages were taking off?
Of course the money is so much better now but football is about more than money and I played for Middlesbrough Football Club once and not many people can say that. Perhaps it would be good if the money wasn’t quite as important now although that bus has already left!
Were teammates and opponents aware of your religious convictions and if so, how did they respond to this important part of your life?
Certainly my teammates knew all about my faith because it was so central to me as a person. Responses were different wherever I went. At Cambridge there was another player who couldn’t cope with the God thing at all. He wanted to humiliate me but this was unusual. At Orient it was a normal part of the daily banter which I loved and always felt at home with even if it was pushed too far some times. Being true to your values and relationship with God is not easy for any person in whatever job they have but football has some special challenges like wanting to win so badly that its hard to be reasonable about it at crucial points. That people idolise you and you can take advantage of this. That you have such a privileged life that isn’t normal at all but you can end up thinking you deserve it. My faith helped me to keep the important things central to me, my marriage, my values, my friendships.
You entered the church, became ordained as a priest and, after an ultimately controversial period in Chelmsford over your interpretation of biblical teachings on sexuality, now are now vicar of St John’s, Walthamstow. Does sport still have any serious role in your life or is there simply not time?
There is lots to do and life is not only about football BUT I do love football, it’s in me and so I always try to find ways to connect with people through the things I love. I’ve been Chaplain of Leyton Orient for the past 17 years now. I returned to the club just four years after leaving as a player and have been a part of things ever since. I trained with the first team every Monday until I was nearly 40, although they had to be very careful with me, and have lunch with the players and staff once a week even now. I’m also family liaison worker (child protection) which means I have some involvement with the schoolboy network. Apart from this I help oversee a number of free football clubs in the East End of London on behalf of my church. We run these in the most difficult area’s wanting simply to encourage children and young people through sport. There is also a very real chance that I will be one of the chaplains at the Olympics this summer which is very exciting also. So sport and football especially continues to play a huge part in my life.
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How avidly do you follow Premier League football and what do you think will be the top four, in order, this season?
I love watching football and confess to being a Chelsea fan as a child. I watch Match of the Day every Saturday after putting the finishing touches to Sundays sermon and couldn’t live without it. I think Man City will win the league this year, Man U second. I would love Tottenham to finish third but I think Chelsea will catch them and Tottenham fourth with Arsenal and Liverpool missing out on the top four this year.
Any thoughts on who will go down and, relevant to the coming game at the Stadium of Light, the FA Cup?
I think Wolves will go down this year, Wigan should go but they keep bouncing back and Martinez seems a decent guy. I think Blackburn should also go but have real sympathy for Steve Kean and think Bolton may be close but Owen Coyle has good ideas so any three from that four. Sunderland have experienced an incredible turn round under Martin O’Neill. He is clearly a very special manager with the magic that no one can tie down but all can see. Steve Bruce had been successful before the end arrived but O’Nelil has taken them to a different level. I do fear for Middlesbrough with Sunderland in such a good run and being at home. However, cup games are always different to league. Underdogs are under less pressure and surprises often occur. Because of this I do believe Middlesbrough may spring a surprise but I did say I’m an extremely optimistic person didn’t I?
Hand on heart, did you ever dive or cheat in any other way as a footballer, what is your reaction when it happens in today’s game and should additional action be taken to stamp it out?
This will not surprise anyone who ever watched me play but I was never booked in my professional career. Just not me! If someone kicked me I got up, got the ball and went at them again. I hated losing but never lashed out but this is very consistent with my personality. So I never dived or cheated.
Yes something should be done but it needs to start with the managers. If they stopped their players it would stop. If they pulled a player off for cheating or diving they wouldn’t do it again. However, managers seem to want to win more than do things right and this shapes their teams. And the players sometimes seem more powerful than the manager these days. So change will only occur when the key people stand up for what is right and the football league consistently book and send off players for wrong behaviour.
What thoughts do you have on Sunderland AFC?
Sunderland is another of those big and proper football clubs that every young kid would love to play for one day. With fans that want to win more than anything. This is what makes a football club and means more than money I believe. When the financial world around football collapses one day in the future and it probably will, the Sunderland’s and Middlesbrough’s and Newcastle’s will still thrive because the thousands will still turn out to watch their team.
Among many players and managers who have been associated with both clubs, Brian Clough, George Hardwick, Stan Anderson, Johnny Crossan and, of course, Alf Common from before our time perhaps stand out. Did you meet any of them?
Who are your own sporting heroes?
Johan Cruyff was the top of the tree as I was growing up. I practiced the Cruyff turn endlessly and still do with the kids. I love the truly great players like Zindane, Figo and Raul of Real Madrid. Of Messi now of course. Football consumes my thinking rather than sport generally.
What do you make of the 4th round tie between Sunderland and Boro and how far will the winners then proceed in the competition?
Boro to win 1-0 and then lose in 5th round.
Alan Comfort on Alan Comfort: I currently work as the Vicar of St John’s, Walthamstow about three miles from the Olympic Stadium. This is a good place to be at the moment and close to our hearts being near to Leyton Orient also. Having worked mainly in suburban places before coming here two years ago, this is proving a very different challenge. Densely populated, with many people struggling to find work, and with complicated immigration issues, we have a church with some 32 different nationalities. It’s a vibrant and exciting place to be, but also challenging as we try to build a growing church in a multicultural innercity area. Our heart is simply that we will help people to know that God loves them and Jesus came to change their lives for good. We absolutely believe this and would do anything to help just one person know this. We have a passion for children and young people and know that the early years are key if we can help people make different choices in an area that is gang led as ours is. Jill is a child therapist working mainly with fostered or adopted children, Sarah is in her third year at Nottingham Uni doing architecture, Henry finishing A levels right now and Ollie starting senior school in September. Me, well I still run for an hour every morning even though the physio at Leyton Orient tells me I’ll end up in a wheelchair some day soon. I still wake up believing I’ve just scored a hat-trick on occasions and I still believe that some of the best days of my life are ahead of me. My faith in God is as passionate as ever despite the knocks of life that come to everyone. I look back on my football career with great pride and a sense of privilege but remember the decision I made as a 19 year old Cambridge United loanee to accept Jesus into my life and begin my journey with Him as the most inspired and vital decision I have and will ever make.
Interview: Colin Randall