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'It took me until about 23 to really enjoy football' - In depth with River Allen

Plymouth Parkway FC

Rather than a non-league player with wide-eyed designs on one day living footballing life at League level, River Allen started there, and as he will detail, it’s fair to say he doesn’t miss it. The former Plymouth Argyle youngster was an undoubtedly eye-catching addition for Plymouth Parkway ahead of this season, and he has certainly played his part as the Western League Premier Division side have so far lived up to expectation in 2020/21.

His new side top the table, and though many would utter the phrase 'should be playing higher' at his current league standing, linking up with Parkway ticks some hefty boxes for the former Truro City player. Here’s a lot more about the man behind the name...


You obviously knew about them already, but since joining Parkway, what sort of club and team have you found?

To be honest, it’s probably been better than I expected. I always knew it was a good club, and that they’re on the right path to doing things, but in comparison with clubs in the National South and Southern Prem I’ve played at, it’s actually better than every club I've been at. It's really well run.

You’ve been amongst the goals, what does the manager ask of you personally, in terms of freedom, responsibilities etc.?

Well I’ve known Lee (Hobbs) for a long time, he kind of knows how to work me out. In the game, it's to get deep and try and affect it as much as you can in the final third as well, but he’s basically said ‘prove your worth’ really. I’ve never really played in Plymouth, bar limited games at Argyle, and he said ‘prove the people who wanna put you down wrong.’ There’s mates of mine, and then people like my brother’s mates, who’ve never really had chance to watch me, so now there’s almost like a hidden pressure. I’m playing at a level I’ve never played at, so if you don’t get a couple of hat-tricks a game, people say you’re terrible! I’ve still got it in me that I wanna prove a point, and hopefully, in five or six years, people can say ‘he did a good thing for this club’.

You mentioned leaving Tiverton because of work commitments, is it still the work with the yachts that you do away from football?

I’m still at Princess Yachts at the minute but I’m studying to be a financial advisor. With football as well, trying to juggle all three, it’s quite difficult when you’re travelling to London every other weekend and stuff like that. To be honest, I played for Parkway and helped them out in pre-season a couple of times, and from that moment, I thought ‘to be fair, I fancy a bit of this.’

In terms of the most enjoyable spell you've had playing up to now, where/when would that be?

I’d probably say when I was at Tiverton. I’d been released from Truro and signed for Tiverton, and then within a couple of months, I went back to Truro. The two months I was at Tivvy, it was the best football I’ve probably played up until now. Going back to Truro in the Conference South, we played at Torquay, which was a carpet, and it suited me. We went down that year, there were a lot of things that went on behind the scenes at the club and it wasn’t in a great place, but that season was probably my best season by a mile.

In contrast, what about the most difficult time?

To tell you the truth, considering you play from five or six years old, and you do everything to get your pro contract, the moment I got my pro was the moment I hated football. I got to it and just realised this isn’t for me. You think it’s gonna be this, but earning £150 a week, you’re basically a glorified youth-teamer. You’re left out, you’ve got to do this, got to do that. That was probably the worst year of my life, actually being a footballer. Making your debut and doing this and doing that, from the outside, it seems brilliant. It took me until about 23 to really enjoy football and feel part of something.

At Truro, you had the FA Cup (first round) game at Charlton (in November 2017). There were about a thousand fans there supporting Truro, you came on in the second half, how do you look back on it?

I was actually gutted I wasn’t starting. I’d played every game up until that point, I had an argument with the manager on the Thursday and I said I wasn’t actually going. So me being there, I probably didn’t enjoy the experience as much. We had a good squad there and a good group of lads, so you’re buzzing for everyone there. A close mate of mine (Tyler Harvey) scored on the day. There was a thousand people there for Truro, it was a good achievement and it’s always gonna be there on your CV, but on a personal note, that day doesn’t really stay in my head as a happy day.

Going back to the time around the first team at Plymouth, those appearances you made happened under John Sheridan. What were your experiences of him? Did you get the feeling he rated you as a player, did he say much to you?

It was a tough one because I never, ever felt like I was gonna be a footballer; you’re playing in a team where you’re not actually part of the team. For the young lads coming through at Argyle at the time, it wasn’t a great club. Now, it’s really well run by all accounts, but the lads who were there wouldn’t talk highly of the club at that time. I was a centre-midfielder and you’d go to some reserve game to play left-back, just to fit in other people who would come in. If you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you’ll instantly think ‘this ain’t for me,’ but in terms of Shez, he used to bring his lad down at 15 and he’d start over you in a training session! So I can’t sing his praises too much! He chucked me in one game and I seemed to do alright, and he couldn’t really take me out; Plymouth fans love it when Plymouth-born players play in their team. The moment he could take me out, I came out and I didn’t play again for the rest of the season. For those six or seven months, there wasn’t a part of me that thought I was ever gonna get back in, no matter what happened. You were just there, you reported to training, you were a body and that was it.

Was it just the not feeling valued side of it, or was there pressure that made it unenjoyable? Or suddenly seeing a different side to the game once you were around it at that level?

I’ve always grown up around football and I love football - and I genuinely didn’t like football at that time in my life. It could be the pressure, but it was more so League Two footballers. I’m quite down to Earth, I come from a council estate, I’ve grew up watching my brother in pub teams and stuff like that. I’m not saying that people in that (Plymouth) squad weren’t good lads, because they were, but what I would be to a young lad now at Parkway, for example, is a complete opposite to what they were. Maybe it’s an old-school mentality and football’s changed now, but it wasn’t enjoyable even sitting in the changing room. In football, you get judged no matter what, so you could make a cup of tea and they’d call you big time for it. I could never come to grips with that side of it. You could walk past and say ‘morning’ and somebody could blank you. I heard Charlie Austin talk about it, saying that League One and Two footballers - not all of them - can be the worst almost; more big time than the Premier League. There’s players I’ve played with at Plymouth who I’ve bumped into on nights out and we’ve not said one word to each other, because I’m not one of them to hang off people and they’re not polite enough to say hello. There’s people I can look back and say ‘actually he was alright, maybe I was just a bit soft.’ Plymouth’s a small city so you bump into people and they go ‘oh, you’re living the dream’, but you're thinking ‘there’s people in the same team as me on ten/15 times more money, so it isn’t like you ever feel part of the team.’ I know people have got to start from the bottom, but we had a game on Boxing Day, you get left out of the squad and you’re travelling, you’re soaking wet, and after the game they go ‘oh, go and collect the pizzas for us.’ That isn’t being a footballer, is it? I don’t know if that’s just a Plymouth thing, because Exeter (City) seem to get it right, and all the lads I played with at Truro and Tivvy talk highly of it. But everything you think about being a footballer, by the time I got there, I thought ‘I’d much rather work on a building site.’

When it came to leaving the club, were you just called into the office one day, ‘that’s it, all the best’? Are you given any support?

It’s a funny story. Me and my mate Aaron Bentley, who got offered a new contract, I went in before him and got released. You would just go into like a little Portakabin at the time, sat around, all your mates, waiting to hear if you’ve got one or not, and to tell you the truth, I was desperate for them to say ‘no, you haven’t got one’, so I could go and do whatever. My mate was the same really, and mine went the way I wanted it to, Shez basically said ‘you’re unlucky, I feel it’s a bit harsh letting go of you but that’s my decision.’ So I came out quite happy, and then my mate went in, and he’s come out all gutted because he’s been offered a new one. That was the situation we were in, that’s the club Argyle was at the time. I think they chucked him an extra fiver for him to stay. Two days later, John Sheridan left the club. After that, I spoke to a couple of people from our youth team, but no, there wasn’t any help from the club, like ‘we’ll put you on to so and so,’ it was almost ‘find your own way’. Fortunately enough for me, I had (former Argyle coach) Gary Owers who took me up to Gateshead.

Gateshead was obviously a long way north, putting it mildly. How did you find life in general in the North East?

I loved it. I didn’t play much, it didn’t go as well as I wanted it to in terms of football, but the lads were brilliant with me. They were young lads, they were good as gold. Gaz (Owers) is a funny one, he can like you, but make it very hard for you to think that he likes you! I travelled all that way, and as soon as you had one bad game, then you’re out of the team. It didn’t help when him and Malcolm Crosby got sacked, the new manager came in and just wanted to get rid of everyone, which is understandable. So it didn’t work out, but I lived in Low Fell, so I wasn’t too far away from Newcastle. Even though the football side didn’t go well, it was quite cushy on a Saturday when you got left out because you could go and watch a Newcastle or Sunderland game. I was up there and just taking it in as a city, I thought it was brilliant. It was a great place to live, it was just miles away.

Was that good, though, coming from Plymouth, where there isn’t that same freedom for someone who's grown up there, to then be far away for a bit?

Plymouth’s one of them, you can’t go on a night out without bumping into people you know. I liked that side of it in Newcastle, where you could go out and you didn’t know anybody. The lads were brilliant. The lad I lived with, me and him got along really well, so all that helped. Then you almost appreciated coming home; it was just that drive back up that you couldn’t get out of your head!

I'm sure you’ve more than had your fill of people going on about your name over the years. You did say, though, that you were named after River Phoenix, so was that a joint decision from your mum and dad? Or one a bit more than the other?!

I think they made it up on the spot; my dad must have been half-cut and my mum just went with it! They’ll tell you that they’re hippies or whatever and they love River Phoenix, but I think it was more off the cuff and he’s just had a few before she’s gone into labour!

Has it been annoying at times? Did you say once that you were set on changing it?

Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, about seven years old, and I wanted to change it to Travis for some reason; my brother’s mates still call me Trav to this day. When I was younger, you get the ‘cry me a river’ and all that, but it probably helps you in a way with football, because it’s a name that people remember. I’ve ended up at Parkway by 24, so I can’t say it’s helped me too much! But your name gets around a little bit more when it’s a bit different. It’s better than Travis anyway!

What about some of the characters you've been around in football? That could be people you were close with, or it could be someone like a John Sheridan, who you may not have had that same connection with, but they're still a character in the game?

I’ve got a close mate of mine at Truro, Jamie Richards, and he is a character. He’s a funny bloke and he’s the sort of person you wanna play with; doesn’t take it too serious. Then there’s the flipside, of people like John Sheridan. I’d love to meet some of them now as a 24-year-old, because when you’re 18, you look at people my age as blokes, when really, they’re only young themselves. On the flipside, you get characters like Stewart Yetton, 42 years old (35...) and still acts like a 16-year-old and constantly trying to be funny - now he's number five at Truro!

Have you ever had to sing for initiation, and if so, which song(s)?

Yeah, I’ll put on a front that I’m gonna enjoy it, and I always try changing my songs, but one that stands out is the first time I travelled with Plymouth. We stayed at Bolton, and there’s a video somewhere, it’s me singing Arctic Monkeys ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor. I’ve probably sang the song 30,000 times in my life, and I’ve hit every word wrong!

A lot of things get said in the game, about players, about managers, and it's easy for misconceptions to form. Have you felt there's ever been any about you, or mostly a fair impression during your time in football?

Yeah, it’s funny, I’ve just been speaking about this. At Plymouth, you almost got told to do everything you can to be a good boy, do this and do that, if someone’s rude to you, don’t say anything, don’t stick up for yourself. You almost get taught in that culture, which is the complete opposite to the way I am and the way I was brought up. They almost drum that much out of you that you go the other way. With Shez, I don’t think he really knew who I was, in terms of I was just a 17/18-year-old who sat there. I didn’t really offer much to anyone, I would just do as I was told and that was that, whereas if I just was my normal self, I think I would've been liked a little bit more by that manager at the time. Then on the flipside of that, I’ve had it at say Truro, where I went back there from Tivvy, and they had new management. I’ve been myself there, had a laugh and a joke; probably what the majority would say each team needs. I’ve done that and ended up being released for it. So probably a misconception of me being a joker, when I will actually always put it in as well. I don’t think they understood that and it was very serious. For any young lads now, I’d say just be yourself, so at least you can’t say ‘oh, I changed to fit someone and it didn’t work that way either.’

Finally, what do you want from your football in the next few years? If you were to get promoted up the levels, and football’s almost becoming the main thing again, would that be like a hindrance to what you’re doing away from the game?

I know what you mean. It was a case of every other week was spent travelling, so the social side of having a beer after the game, you couldn't enjoy that. Regardless of whether I’m starting a new course or something, at Tiverton, you’re an hour and 15 up the motorway, so there’s always somebody who’s got to shoot off for a meal, you can’t enjoy having a beer after the game because you’ve got to drive. So I couldn’t enjoy it, whereas now, I can have three or four pints and watch the half 5 game, and if I want to, I can sort out loads of stuff to be done on a Saturday morning. Every other week, if we went up, I would still have time to do that (being at home). Even on the away days, at least the coach comes back into Plymouth, you’re not getting out at Tiverton and driving home. Training twice a week and playing away in London, I couldn’t do it with my job. Getting home at 3 o’clock in the morning and going to work at 6, it wasn’t worth it in the end. It’s not the case of enjoying playing at this level, because I’d much rather play at a higher level. If we went up and kept going, I wouldn’t feel like I had to drop down and move on to the next rising club, it would be a case of me staying here, because I’m in Plymouth, and it fits in with my social life and work.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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