by Chris Dunlavy
STOCKPORT County, Oldham Athletic, MK Dons – at the age of 30, Aaron Wilbraham was the archetypal journeyman.
Then, in 2011, the big striker moved to Norwich and everything changed. Promotion to the Premier League, a top-flight goal against Fulham, another promotion at Wembley with Crystal Palace.
“I really was living the dream,” said the Bristol City striker, now 36. “I thought my chance had gone, but suddenly I was in the top flight, testing myself against the best.”
Here, he tells us about those early days slogging through the divisions, his “revenge” on boyhood club Manchester City, a witty former England star – and how that strike at Craven Cottage set a unique record.
Stockport County. I was at Manchester City as a schoolboy, playing in their U15 and U16 teams.
I got released in 1995 and, luckily, my old PE teacher knew the manager at Stockport. He put me in touch, fixed up a trial and it all went from there. Two years later, Gary Megson gave me my debut in a match against City at Maine Road and I scored the winner!
At the time I was a YTS and I still had a season ticket at City. My Nana and Grandad used to take me and they’d take it in turns to miss out so I could go every week. I gave my ticket to my mum that day and I had about 30 other members of the family spread round the ground.
It was a strange feeling to score against the club I supported but it was also a nice bit of revenge on them for releasing me. I think there were about 30,000 there as well.
I’m not just saying this because he’ll fine me but the gaffer here at Bristol City, Steve Cotterill, is really good.
From the start of the week to the end, the preparation is absolutely relentless. I’ve been playing for nearly 20 years and it’s the most I’ve ever known my job going on to a football field. I think everyone here feels the same and that’s why we had such a good season last year.
And, of all the managers I’ve had, he’s one of the keenest on playing football. He wants us to play out from the back all the time and the fans enjoy that.
He’s great to work under, though Paul Lambert at Norwich was also great. A blend of the two would be the perfect manager.
Wes Hoolahan at Norwich. He’s very under-rated for me and I think he should have played for Ireland a lot more than he has. That year we went up and our first season in the Premier League, he was absolutely unbelievable. He was our David Silva – so good on the ball, finding space all the time, picking passes and making runs.
In training, nobody good ever get the ball off him. Left foot, right foot, it didn’t matter. It was totally effortless.
And he didn’t get anywhere near enough recognition for how hard he worked. He’s not just a playmaker. He tracks back and covers runs. A brilliant player.
That was in 2004-05, with Hull City from League One to the Championship. They’d come up the year before, signed me from Stockport in the summer, then we made it two on the spin.
When you look at the players we had, it’s no surprise. Nick Barmby, John Walters who is now at Stoke, Ian Ashby, the captain. We had Boaz Myhill, the West Brom keeper, and Craig Fagan, the striker.
I’ve been pretty fortunate in my career. Since I left Stockport in 2004, I’ve actually been promoted with every club I’ve joined. Hull was League One to Champ, MK Dons was League Two to League One, then Norwich and Palace were both Champ to Prem. Last season, I won League One with Bristol City.
Marc Tierney, when I was at Norwich. I’m still in touch with him and, sadly, he’s had to retire at the age of 30. He got a bad foot injury at Bolton and couldn’t come back.
He was a great lad, constantly picking the lads up. Jokes, pranks, tricks – he was like a full-time entertainer.
And he did a great impersonation of Paul Lambert. He had his mannerisms, his accent, everything. At the end of the season, we were in the dressing room and Paul said ‘Come on then, let’s see it’. He had to stand up in front of everyone and did an impression of the gaffer for about 5-10 minutes.
This is less an incident and more a funny period but, basically, every day Carlton Palmer spent in charge of Stockport.
He was only in charge for a short while, but he was hilarious, constantly being big time about money but in a jokey way that didn’t get your back up.
I remember he got asked in FourFourTwo magazine ‘What would you do if you won a million quid on the lottery?’ Most of the answers were like ‘Sign Michael Owen’. Carlton said ‘Stick it in the bank with the other three’.
We’d have team meetings and he’d say ‘What are you lads on, two grand a week? I’ve lost more than that running for the bus’. He was like one of the lads.
One day, we were playing ‘next goal wins’ in training and he got rinsed by one of the young lads. The coach said ‘Jesus gaffer, you got turned inside out there’.
Carlton goes ‘Yeah, I did Ricko, but I didn’t at the Nou Camp when I marked Ronaldo out of the game’. He was so quick and had a comeback for everything.
I’ve spoken to people since who played with him, like John Pemberton, the assistant here at Bristol, and they’ve all got similar stories.
Getting promoted to the Premier League with Norwich and Palace, especially at the age of 31 when I thought my chance had gone. It was the best feeling in the world to finally test myself against the very best.
I managed to score against Fulham, which meant I’d been promoted from every division and scored a goal in every division, which I’m sure must make me some kind of quiz question. I’m proud of that record, too, but I think the promotions top it.
For any footballer, being injured is a nightmare. The worst for me was probably when I had a back operation as a young lad at Stockport.
I was 22 and, up to then, I’d been playing every week so it was a real shock to the system to be told you’d be out for several months.
Toughest place to go
When I was at Stockport, we could never get a win whenever we went to Grimsby. Blundell Park was a horrible place, always freezing cold and it stank of fish from all the boats in the port.
The fans all used to wave these giant inflatable fish above their heads and sing ‘We only sing when we’re fishing’. I hated it.
It’s impossible to separate Sol Campbell and Gary Pallister. I played against both of them as a young lad at Stockport and it really opened my eyes to what a good defender is.
They were both physically massive, really strong and imposing. But they were also good with their positioning. They always seemed to be in the right place.
For a target man like me, who relied on pinning people down, it was a nightmare. I met my match and they didn’t give me an inch.
Favourite place to go
It’s got to be Wembley. I managed to play there three times and I actually won all three – JPTs with MK Dons and Bristol, then the Championship play-off final with Palace.
It’s the whole occasion. Looking at it the day before, the build-up, the journey, seeing all your family in the stands. Especially the play-off final.
Before the game, there’s a two-week break from the semi-final to the final. And, for that whole fortnight, all the hype is about money: how much the game is worth, how it will change the club, all those things.
It’s massive pressure and it makes the feeling of coming out the other side so much better.
Just to play as long as I can and to keep enjoying it.
I’m captain of a side for the first time in my career, and it’s a great feeling to still be in the thick of things at 36. I still feel fit, I still feel sharp and I’ve got no intention of stopping.
Will I go into coaching? I actually think I’d be better as an agent, bringing young players on and guiding them through the game. That can wait though.