Big Interview: Bell’s lived the dream

Bamber Bridge striker Andrew Bell
Bamber Bridge striker Andrew Bell
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Andrew Bell felt 10 feet tall when Wycombe Wanderers manager Lawrie Sanchez glanced around the dressing room and nodded approvingly in his direction.

The Chairboys boss was in the midst of a rousing motivational team talk to his players.

In less than a hour’s time, the League One team was about to face the might of Premier League outfit Aston Villa in the Carling Cup at Adams Park during the 2003/04 season.

Sensing a big upset was well within his players’ grasp, ex-Wimbledon and Northern Ireland midfielder Sanchez demanded the full attention of his men as he attempted to rouse them into producing the performance of their lives.

Current Bamber Bridge striker Bell – who was still a teenager at the time – was on the cusp of making his second appearance for Wanderers after scoring twice on his debut the weekend before against Oldham Athletic.

Although it could hardly be described as the dream debut for Bell – Wycombe were beaten 5-2 by the Latics – Sanchez had seen enough to keep faith with him for the visit of Villa.

As the Wycombe manager belittled Villa’s multi-million pound stars while elevating his players’ ability in their own minds, Bell stepped on to the pitch that evening believing anything was possible.

Unfortunately as the match got under way, reality soon hit home for the inexperienced Bell and his lower league team-mates.

Villa’s Columbia star Juan Pablo Angel ran riot, scoring a brilliant hat-trick as Wycombe were hammered 5-0.

Twelve years later, Bell – now aged 31 – cannot help but have a little chuckle to himself in his Walton-le-Dale home when he recalls Sanchez’s tub-thumping team talk.

“I remember that match more for Lawrie Sanchez’s team talk,” Bell said.

“Villa had Juan Pablo Angel and Darius Vassell playing for them up front.

“Angel was a Colombian international and Vassell had played for England in the World Cup.

“Lawrie was there doing his team talk before the game.

“He said, ‘Right lads, we can win this. Those two up front, they’re wishy-washy...they’re rubbish’.

“But when the match actually started, they ripped us apart.

“Angel scored a hat-trick and Vassell scored as well.

“I remember thinking to myself at the end of the game, ‘‘They’re not that bad really –are they Lawrie’?”

Those first couple of matches were certainly a rude awakening for Bell after he had left the comfortable surroundings of his home town club Blackburn Rovers looking to make his mark in the game.

Brought up listening to tales from his father Norman, who had played in the top tier of English football for Wolves and later turned out for Blackburn, Bell grew up dreaming of following in his old man’s footsteps.

He certainly showed that he was a chip off the old block in his formative years.

Scoring 100 goals a season for his junior club Beardwood Boys was a regular occurrence for Bell.

And his potential soon caught the attention of some of the biggest clubs in the land.

It was not uncommon for Bell to have Premier League managers and scouts stood outside his front door looking to secure his signature.

And his star potential was underlined by his selection for England Schoolboys, where he lined up alongside and against players of the ilk of Wayne Rooney, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

Due to his father’s connections, it was boyhood club Rovers who Bell plumped for at the age of 10 and he later signed a professional deal in 2001.

“I remember Joe Royle, who was the manager of Manchester City at the time, was once stood outside my front door,” said Bell, whose great uncle Harry also played professionally for Middlesbrough as well as appearing for Durham at cricket.

“When I was 14, I had quite a lot clubs wanting to sign me...Manchester United, City, Blackburn.

“They all came around offering silly money, but I had always wanted to sign for my home town club. So I had always thought that there was a chance I would follow my dad into the game.

“I kind of grew up listening to tales from my dad.

“Obviously, as a kid that is all I dreamed about doing.

“You dream about playing at the top level – I don’t think I knew what League One and League Two was at the time.

“I knew what the Premier League was and the Championship and those were the two divisions you kind of aim for.

“Then you dream about playing for England and World Cups and the rest of it.

“So it was certainly a real eye opener when I went to Wycombe and got into the real world of football.

“It all looks really glamorous when you’re a kid, doesn’t it, when you look at the Premier League and all these stars?

“I was a YTS at Blackburn, who were a top club at the time.

“Everything is kind of gifted to you on a plate.

“And these Premier League players are so arrogant because they’ve only got people telling them how brilliant they are all the time. They walk around with a swagger.

“But when you’re in the nitty-gritty of lower-league football, you’re scrapping around for contracts – you’re on minimum money.

“You have to earn your money by playing and winning.

“Then you come to the end of your contract and you’re thinking, ‘Am I going to get another one’?

“You go to the manager and he’s like, ‘I don’t know...I might get somebody else in’.

“So you’re always wondering where you’re going to be. It is a really tough career.

“At Wycombe, I was earning £250 a week basic, then I would get £300 for playing and then £300 if I scored.

“It was good money if I played and scored, but if I wasn’t playing I could barely fill my car up with petrol to drive back home.”

Bell made 11 appearances for Wycombe and scored three goals, but in many respects he was unlucky that he arrived at Adams Park during a turbulent time which ended in the club being relegated.

Sanchez was sacked not long after the defeat by Villa to be replaced briefly by Glenn Hoddle’s former England assistant John Gorman, who then handed over the reins to legendary ex-Arsenal and England defender Tony Adams.

“We were so excited when Tony Adams became manager,” Bell said.

“He is an absolute legend of the game and I would never say anything bad about him as a player, but when you look at his managerial career in detail, it’s not great. He was a little bit puddled.

“The one thing he said to me before our first training sessions was, ‘Who do you want to be – do you want to be Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry or Dennis Bergkamp’?

“I looked at him as though he was having some kind of a joke.

“I think I just said, ‘I’d loved to be any of them three’!

“He then said, ‘Well I’ll tell you what, I will come back after training and tell you who you could be’.

“So after training, he came up to me and said, ‘Right you’re not fast enough to be Henry and you’re not skilful enough to be Bergkamp’.

“I was thinking, ‘Well yeah, you have a point’.

“And then he said, ‘So you’re going to have to be Ljungberg’!

“I remember he then put our left-winger Jermaine McSporran as the central striker because he was the fastest, so he was Thierry Henry.

“He then put Darren Currie, who was our most skilful player, as Dennis Bergkamp and then played me on the right wing as Ljungberg. I was thinking to myself he’s actually taking this literally.”

Bell’s stay at Wycombe ended at the end of January in 2004, when he moved to York City.

After a brief spell at Bootham Crescent, Bell dropped down into non-league football when he signed for Hednesford Town.

Without doubt, the best period of his footballing career were the four years he spent with Fleetwood Town.

He became the Cod Army’s leading goalscorer as the club rose from the NPL First Division North to the Conference North.

He left in 2010 after a disagreement with then manager Mickey Mellon and has watched the club win promotion to the Football League.

“I remember going to meet Fleetwood’s chairman Andy Pilley and I just thought, ‘He’s lying to me’!

“But everything he’s said has come true...and more.

“At the time Fleetwood were in the same division as Bamber Bridge are now and at the time I wasn’t keen on dropping that far down.

“But Andy said he wanted to get the club into the Conference and he offered me more money than I was getting at Hednesford.

“I moved to Fleetwood and we won something every year – it was unbelievable. We just got used to winning.”

Since leaving Fleetwood, Bell had spells with 
Kendal Town and AFC Fylde, before signing for Brig in 2012.

He is currently out of the team at the moment after missing a few games but is hoping to earn a recall for the club’s promotion run-in.

Away from playing, Bell runs a charity called Opportunity Sports Foundation with his father.

It aims to help the social development of young disadvantaged people and children through a variety of sporting activity.

“I set up the charity after working in youth offending and a children’s home,” Bell said.

“I realised there were not many sporting opportunities for these kids.

“It’s been fairly successful and kept me in a job which I enjoy and love doing.”