From washing his own kit at Newcastle Blue Star to playing in Gateshead’s half-empty athletics stadium, Lee Novak knows all about the other side of the beautiful game.
“When I started out,” says the Chesterfield striker, “you were lucky to get one man and his dog on the sidelines. It wasn’t about money or fame or anything like that. It was just a load of lads who loved playing football. I’ve never stopped thinking like that.”
Which is why, despite those years in the muck and nettles, the 27-year-old describes last season as the most hellish of his career.
Birmingham’s top scorer in the 2013-14 campaign, Novak had hoped to cement the success of his first season at St Andrew’s by leading a revival under gaffer Lee Clark.
But, having evaded relegation with the final kick of the season, the cash-strapped Blues showed precious little sign of improvement and, in October 2014, Clark was jettisoned in favour of Gary Rowett.
For Birmingham, the switch proved inspired. The wins stacked up. The points accumulated. By the end of the season, the Blues were top half.
Yet, for Novak, Rowett’s arrival was a disaster. The Geordie would play just 15 more games, all but four of them as a substitute.
“It was the absolute worst time ever,” says Novak, who joined the Blues from Huddersfield in 2013 after netting 42 goals in 172 games for the Terriers.
“I’d always been a regular. As a kid, at Blue Star and Gateshead, then at Huddersfield. All of a sudden, I wasn’t wanted.
“People say ‘Don’t take your work home’ and you try to shake it off. But you do get down and you can’t help but be miserable.
“It’s a horrible feeling. You go in every day, work your nuts off in training. But you know 100 per cent that, when it comes to Saturday afternoon, you’ll either be sat in the stand or at home while the lads are travelling around the country.
“It’s not nice. All my life, I’d trained to be able to play well on Saturday. In a situation like that, it just feels so pointless. You miss the big games, you miss the atmosphere round the dressing room.
“It’s always nice to spend more time with the family, but it just gets to the point where you just don’t feel like a footballer any more.”
With his contract due to expire in the summer, Novak – currently on loan at the Proact – knows he has kicked his final ball for the Blues. Yet the affable striker doesn’t bear a grudge against Rowett, much less the club he grew to love in two turbulent years.
“I’m just glad that I didn’t leave Birmingham on bad terms,” he says. “I loved my time there, made some friends for life.
“People say ‘Do you regret leaving Huddersfield?’ But I’d never regret taking the chance to play for a huge club like Birmingham. I’m just thankful I can say I’ve worn the shirt.
“And I never fell out with the manager. Gary is a straightforward, honest bloke. He always explained why I wasn’t playing.
“He always let me know if loan moves came up. But, up until this time, he’d always wanted me around and said I was more than welcome to stay.
“At 27 I couldn’t afford to wait for a chance. I’d never want to sit around and pick up a wage, playing the odd ten minutes here and there. That’s not what got me here in the first place.
“This summer gone, Chesterfield expressed an interest but I wasn’t keen at first. I wanted to see what would happen with Birmingham if I had a good pre-season. I did, but when I spoke with Gary it hadn’t changed anything.
“He said I’d be involved but I wasn’t guaranteed to play. By contrast, Dean Saunders said ‘If you work hard and you get in the team, you’ll stay there’. That was it for me.”
Saunders, of course, is now in the past. An unpopular replacement for promotion-winning gaffer Paul Cook, the former Welsh international won just eight of his 23 games in charge and was replaced in December by veteran campaigner Danny Wilson.
And, in a neat reversal of his experience at St Andrew’s, the change has galvanised Novak, who has scored five goals in four games to double his tally for the season.
“The turning point was the gaffer’s first game, against Coventry,” explains Novak.
“They’d been beating everyone, but they needed a last-minute goal to draw with us. We got big confidence from that. Then, the next game we went and beat Shrewsbury 7-1.
“It’s only early days but the gaffer has nailed down what he wants us to do. He hasn’t come in tearing up trees, shouting and screaming. He’s just got his point across clearly, which is what everyone needed.
“For me personally he’s been great. He’s put his trust in me, played me in a system that suits my strengths.
Most of all, though, I’m just enjoying playing again. I think I’ve got ten in 21 games now, which just shows what you can do with a bit of consistency.”
And after that? Does Novak still have Championship aspirations or would he be eager to stay at Chesterfield?
“I didn’t have any hesitation in going back to this level,” he says. “Like I said, when you’ve played where I have, you appreciate every chance you get.
“And, with my contract up, the second half of the season is a big deal for me. But football is a funny game – if you think too far ahead, you can get caught out.
“At Birmingham, I was thinking about having a big season and next thing I wasn’t even in the squad. So for now, I’m just going to concentrate on doing the business here.