Gavin Gordon: “I used to love playing at Ninian Park”

Gavin Gordon interview

Gavin Gordon joined Cardiff for £550,000 in 2000, becoming the club’s record signing at the time. Now, he sits down with View From The Ninian’s Scott Salter to reflect on his time in South Wales, Sam Hammam and more.

You came through the youth system at Hull before making a name for yourself at Lincoln City, striking up a strong partnership with Lee Thorpe. Was he the best strike partner you had? Where do your Cardiff strike partners rank in comparison?

Yes, I started at Hull where I managed to get into the first team while I was still in the youth team, which was a good confidence boost for me and a good introduction into pro football. Going to Lincoln was a daunting for me as it was the first time I moved to a club for a fee so there is a bit of pressure on that as well as being young and not knowing any of the players.

The best thing for me was that the manager John Beck worked hard on the team spirit and there was a good mixture of different characters in the squad, which helped me settle in.

The partnership with Lee was help by us staying in the same house I think. One of the players had a home where a few of us house shared, so I learnt that getting on off and on the pitch helped our chemistry on the field. Because we got on and had so much in common, and I think our playing styles complemented each other, made him my best strike partner.

At Cardiff it was different as there were a number of very good strikers at the club, so the managers chopped and changed the side so I just tried to bring what I thought my qualities were to the team and tried to play off whoever I played with. Unfortunately, with me injuries played a major part in not getting a good run in the side, so never really a partnership with anyone, but I would say playing with Robert Earnshaw was the best player to play with.

Your good form at Lincoln prompted a move to Cardiff – how did that come about?

At the time I was in a good run of form, scoring goals and feeling confident, and Cardiff were looking to strengthen the squad. I heard they were looking at a few strikers. Lincoln played Cardiff in an night game; it was good atmosphere and I managed to get a couple of goals and played well. A couple of weeks later Cardiff made their decision and made an offer matching what Lincoln excepted.

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You joined Cardiff for £550,000 – a club record fee at the time – did that bring added pressure or, as a player, do you ignore the money paid for you?

The amount Cardiff agreed was a surprise, and yes it did add to the pressure, but the main thing for me was would I fit into the team and do myself justice. I was still young. so seeing all the stuff in the papers and moving to a new environment was more of a pressure for me, and whether or not I would fit in.

There were rumours when the deal was completed that a clause was inserted into your contract by Sam Hammam that stopped you playing for Jamaica – what can you tell us about that?

At Wimbledon, Sam had an issue with a couple of players I think going away during the season to play for Jamaica or something like that and when we came down for talks that was one of the first things mentioned. To my knowledge, Jamaica had never shown an interest in calling me up for international duty. There was something in the contract that if they did call me up, there would be some compensation paid by me I think. It was a while back now and in the end it didn’t matter because nothing happened. Damn injuries – or maybe I was just not good enough. Probably that, haha.

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We, as Cardiff fans, know all about Hammam’s antics and it was an interesting time for the club – what was it like signing for Sam at that time?

I had only seen Sam on TV, what was said by players and the papers so I was interested in meeting him – well, curious.

Sam was just like John Beck, who also had a reputation for doing unorthodox things shall we say, so I felt I was prepared for meeting him. What you see and imagine he’s like – he was! Big, brash, bold, eccentric and very much in charge.

Once I agreed to sign he said that there was an ritual or an initiation I would have to do; to eat some sheeps testicals. Me and my agent looked at each other as if to say ‘what did he say?!’

I can’t quite remember why I didn’t at the time, but I made sure that it wasn’t brought up again, which was lucky for me! I never had too much interaction with him, but when I did he was fun and always smiling.

One memory that sticks in my head is Sam walking around the pitch before the Leeds United game doing the ‘Ayatollah’, that was Sam and he knew how to create an atmosphere.

Life started well in South Wales, with a goal on your debut in a 6-1 win. You must’ve been delighted?

Yes, it was a good debut scoring but it didn’t start well because I was nervous and excited! ‘Corky’ [Alan Cork, manager] said before I went on to wave to the fans.

I saw the players doing the Ayatollah in the warm up, but for some reason it didn’t register with me. So when I came on to the pitch and the fans were asking me to wave, I didn’t wave to them and I was just thinking stay calm, play simple football, work hard don’t mess up. It must have been about five minutes or so before Rhys Weston came running over and says “for fuck sake, wave!” ‘Oh yeah, I have to wave, shit!’ I thought. I did get ripped after the game.

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The rest of your first season in South Wales was troubled with a back injury, that must’ve been frustrating for you as you looked to settle into your new club?

Yes, it was very frustrating; like I said earlier in a new place, not knowing many people, a very good squad of players with high competition for places, the last thing I needed was that, but unfortunately it affected most of my time at Cardiff.

What are your memories of Ninian Park? In those days, it was certainly one of the most hostile stadiums to visit. As a home player, did you feel that worked in your favour?

I used to love playing at Ninian Park, especially at night. Just think; a night under the lights and the atmosphere make for good games. The passion of the Cardiff fans was fantastic and the distance teams had to travel to the game made coming to Ninian Park very difficult.

Perhaps one of your finest moments in a Cardiff shirt came in the 7-1 demolishing of Rushden & Diamonds in 2001, what are your memories of that day? You mustn’t have played many better games during your career!

It was a night game, like I said previously they are the games I like. It wasn’t a sell out by any means but there were a few people there. I had not long come back from another injury, but with the squad we had at the time and the kids coming through we had a decent side; with the likes of Leyton Maxwell, Scott Young, Mark Bonner, Kevin Nugent, big Des Hamilton playing, I was looking forward to playing the game.

Some people were just saying it was a non competition and just a reserve game, but I saw it as a chance to play some football in a proper game. During the game, it seemed like everything I did worked; my control, pass, heading, runs being created something, so I felt good.

My first goal came from a pass through the middle by Maxi [Leyton Maxwell]. My pace got me away and I put the ball through the keepers legs. I remember that because he commented on that.

The second came from a cross, from Josh Low I think, and found me at the back stick where I headed home. After that I was just playing on instinct which felt good. I don’t remember much more, other than Martyn Giles scoring and everyone going crazy once I scored my fifth. I got back into the changing rooms and made sure I got the ball signed by everyone, which I’ve still got. It’s a bit faded but provides great memories.

Some of the boys joked who needs Earnie! I just laughed, he was super that year. I was just happy with everything that day and yes, the best game I’ve ever played.

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For many a Cardiff fan, that squad that you were a part of is a golden era. The likes of Graham Kavanagh, Danny Gabbidon and Robert Earnshaw were stars, what was it like to play in that squad?

Coming to Cardiff when I did, I had a chance to see the progression of the side and the club. Seeing the players that were there and the players that were brought to the club, everyone was just on a ride.

I think the age of the squad helped with the team spirit, which every team needs to progress and achieve their goals; which was Championship football then the Premiership for us.

The work ethic of those players, especially Earnie, Gabbs, James Collins and Kav, working after training on their weaknesses and improving their strengths made them the players they were. They had incredible work ethic, but also made time to have fun as well.

That was a good insight into seeing superstars up close; how they became the players everybody loves. I’ve just remembered; in that time as well, Gabbs played for Wales against Italy and marking Del Piero out of the game! That’s when we knew that he was going places. Top Man.

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You were, of course, part of one of the most famous victories in Cardiff history – the 2002 FA Cup win over Leeds – what are your memories of that game?

My first memory is Sam walking around the pitch doing the Ayatollah – getting the crowd going. The cameras and especially the crowd’s noise and  atmosphere, made the game intimidating for Leeds.

I do remember the warm-up and every time we went from one side of the pitch to the other, the noise that greeted us was tremendous. Goose pimples. You could see that there was going to be a shock on the cards, so long as we played our game, which we did. And everyone knows what happened in the game. What a fantastic day for Cardiff and we did celebrate. Cardiff is a good night out – haha!

Your challenge on Rio Ferdinand took him out of the game after just ten minutes. That was a game changer for us, wasn’t it?

I’m not sure it was a game changer as I think [Jonathan] Woodgate played well – he was probably the best player I played against. I didn’t have long against Rio so I can’t compare. But I would say it helped and with the atmosphere. I think Leeds knew they were in a game, if they didn’t already.

The challenge came from Ian Harte’s bad throw. As the ball went out of play,  the crowd behind him were giving him stick and then as he was stood looking to throw the ball, a small glass whiskey bottle flew just past his head and I looked at his face and it just dropped. That’s when I thought to myself we could do this because he didn’t fancy it, in my opinion.

So he started looking to just get rid of the ball and threw it short of Rio. I was taught when I tackled to take everything, ball and man. That is all I did. It didn’t matter if it was Rio or Andy Jordan, that was going to happen and it did. When Rio was on the floor he had a go at Harte for the throw, so he knew it was a good tackle. Yes, I do think it was good timing and surely helped the atmosphere of the game.

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In 2003, you scored one of your most iconic Cardiff goals, a 90th minute equaliser against Barnsley. What’s your memory of sparking a riot with that goal?

Again, I was coming back from an injury, so I was on the bench and my son was at the game for the first time.

It was a close game and when they scored, they were playing well so it didn’t look like they would concede and everyone was getting frustrated. I got told to warm up and then was called back to go on.

I played with the Barnsley manager Glyn Hodges – one of the best players I played with and a top man – at Hull City. He saw that I was about to come on and he said “for fuck sake Gav, don’t score!” It stuck in my mind and for some reason, I knew I would if I got a chance.

I’m not usually that confident about my game – that was my problem – but that game I was. I can’t remember who crossed it, but I saw the ball all the way and managed to time my jump well and scored.

I scored at the opposite end of the ground to where the family box was at the time, so I set off running to the stand to celebrate it with my son, Caius.

I have been watching the World Cup and supporting England, but every time they play, I hear my son routing for the opposition. He is very much Welsh – haha!

All the players were trying to catch me, but gave up as it was at the end of the game. Again, I got some stick for that afterwards! But it was a big goal right at the end when everyone thought we were going to lose and I wanted to celebrate with my family. That made it a very memorable goal for me and I think we made the play-offs by a point, so that was a good one.

Moving onto the present day, do you still follow the Bluebirds? What’s your view on the current squad?

I do follow from a far. I follow on social media mainly and hope to see a few games this season. It looks like Neil is building a good squad. I am happy to see that Junior Hoilett signed his contract. I think he gives Cardiff pace and someone with the ability to run at players. The squad looks strong and hard working. Hopefully all the new signings can settle in quickly and do some good things this season. Fingers crossed anyway.

And do you still stay in touch with any of your former teammates?

Because I and everyone else has moved away from Cardiff, its hard to stay in contact with people, but I do look out to see what people are up to. We just keep contact on social media; I am friends with Des, Rhys, Earnie, Gabbs. We don’t really talk much, I just see how everyone is getting on from what they post.

We did get to have a get together a few months ago through Gabbs and Cancer Research Wales at a Legends night, where I got to see the ground, have a mini tour and got to catch up with the promotion winning side. It was a super night; we raised a bit of money and got to catch up with Kav, Gabbs, Leo, Maxi, Jason Bowen, Leggy [Andy Legg], Scott Young, Chris Barker and Richard Langley – it was a good night and I’ve stayed in touch with them all.

So what are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?

I am currently living in Lincolnshire where I based myself after leaving Cardiff. I didn’t like the thought of moving my family around the country, so picked here. Unfortunately, I had to retire from football at 26 due to injury and had a few problems, but well on the road to recovery now.

So I had to look to the “real world” for a job so now I’m a postman at the moment, but looking to get back in to football in some capacity if I can or something else. I’ve got a few things I’m thinking about. I am also on the committee of the Lincoln City Former Players Association, which has just started, so looking to do more with them as well. And just spending as much time with my kids and seeing them grow up.

Finally, how do you think City will fare in the Premier League?

I think it’s important they can create a good team spirit quickly and integrate the new players into the team.

I haven’t seen much of the players they have brought in. I know they have done their research on every player and then its fingers crossed that they make the difference. I do think Cardiff will stay in the Premier League, but it will be very difficult! I have faith they will.