DANNY Graham is nothing if not honest. What, I ask him, is the key to scoring goals? “I don’t know,” ponders the Middlesbrough striker before breaking into a wry chuckle.
“But if you’ve got it, can I have it back please?” Graham is joking of course, but the laughter masks a brutal reality.
Since finishing the 2011-12 season with 14 Premier League goals for Swansea, the Geordie hit-man has found the
net just eight times, and only once since January 2013.
Once valued at £5m, he has played for four clubs and five managers in a shade over 12 months and now finds himself on loan at Middlesbrough, the club where he started as a pro way back in 2003.
“I can’t lie,” he admits. “2013 was a bad year, but what can you do? I can’t have it back. It’s in the past and I want to keep it there.”
Graham’s barren patch began when Brendan Rodgers – the man who signed Graham from Watford – left Swansea to join Liverpool in the summer of 2012.
Little admired by replacement Michael Laudrup and overshadowed by Spanish sensation Michu, Graham grew accustomed to life on the bench, eventually joining Martin O’Neil’s Sunderland in January 2013.
First came a lack of goals, then the replacement of O’Neil with Italian fire-brand Paolo Di Canio. Once again, the new emperor had little time for former subjects and Graham was jettisoned, loaned first to Hull, then to Boro.
It’s hardly a recipe for consistency, but refreshingly, Graham doesn’t blame the upheaval for his lack of form.
“Plenty of footballers have been through that,” says Graham, who hit 30 goals in 91 league games for Carlisle and 38 in 91 for Watford before joining Swansea in the summer of 2011.
“You sign for a manager who trusts you and plays you regularly. Then he leaves and someone comes in who maybe doesn’t fancy you so much.
“It happened at Swansea, then again at Sunderland. But I’m not the only one and I’d never use it as an excuse. On the occasions I did get games, I didn’t score, so it’s hard to argue I gave the manager much of an option.
“It’s a funny one, and I’d honestly love to have an answer for you. I’d love to have an answer for myself. But I really don’t. I think in football, you just have good times and bad times, times when things go for you and times when they don’t. This last year has certainly been a bad one, but I’m putting it down to a freak.
“I’m back now. I’m fit. Aitor (Karanka) has said I’ll be playing matches regularly, and that’s really the key for me. The sooner I get back playing, the sooner I’ll start scoring and then hopefully 2014 can be a good one.”
At least the surroundings will be familiar after spending the first four years of his career at the Riverside. Born in the Gateshead suburb of Birtley, Graham was 17 and working as a window fitter for a double glazing company when he was spotted by Middlesbrough in 2003.
“I was playing for Chester-le-Street in the Northern League and we played in the FA Youth Cup,” he recalls. “A Middlesbrough scout came to a few of the games, spotted me, and that was it really.
“I had a week’s trial, played against Blackburn Rovers Under-19s on the Saturday afternoon. On the Tuesday night I went back to play for the Chester-le-Street first team and scored twice. Then the following day I got a call from the club and the next thing I knew I was signing for Middlesbrough. A year-and-a-half later I was making my debut against Man United.”
Graham never quite made the grade at Teeside, stuck behind the stars of a team regularly in the top half of the Pre- mier League.Now, seven years after leaving to rebuild his career at Carlisle, he is the main man.
“I’m the older player now, which I never thought would happen,” says Graham, 28. “When I was in the youth team we had Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu, Bolo Zenden – to come into that environment was superb for me. Those players would always be there to offer help or advice and if I can do the same, I will.
“It’s obviously changed quite a lot since I left, but there are a few old faces – Seb Hines, Jason Steele, Jonathan Woodgate.
“It was quite strange, the first couple of days. Walking through the buildings, remembering where to go for this or that, seeing some familiar faces among the staff. It’s like you’ve gone back in time.
“But there’s no denying things are very different. Middlesbrough are a Championship club now, trying to get back to where they were then. It is bit sad, yeah. When I was here, they got to the UEFA Cup final and were regularly finishing in the top half of the Premier League. We had a future England manager, world-class players coming every summer. It’s very strange to see them in the middle of the Championship and I’m here to hopefully try and change that.”
Which will, of course, mean scoring goals. For both Graham and Boro, that has proved tough in recent months, with the Teesiders having failed to score in each of their last five games.
But the last time Graham played Championship football for Watford, he finished as the division’s top scorer with 24. And despite the setbacks, he insists he is ready to do it again.
“I haven’t lost that confidence,” says Graham. “I still believe I’ll score goals, be that in the Championship or the Premier League.
“I know I’m capable of scoring goals in the top flight. I did that at Swansea when I got 14. It’s a cliché, but you don’t become a bad player overnight. And I know that once I get a couple on the board, I’ll be flying.
“All we both need is a bit of luck – one to go in off the backside or hit you in the face and fly in the top corner. Then who knows? Maybe we can launch a late run at the play-offs.”