Club photographer Damon Campion recently chatted with 25-year-old midfielder Sam Mantom about life away from the game, and also his career to date.
So Sam, we’re sat in your beautiful Nottinghamshire house. Are you happy with life?
SM: Yes, I am very happy so far. I live here now because I had to relocate from where I was living, which is a big step for me – moving away completely from the area I was born in and all my friends and family.
Let’s go back to the beginning then. Where were you born?
SM: In Wordsley, which is near Stourbridge – in the same hospital as Ronnie O’Sullivan and Sam Allardyce. I have an apartment where the hospital was now too, so it’s nice to still be in that area.
How was it as a kid growing up?
SM: It was rural and urban. It had everything you need. It was quite quiet in places but it’s the same wherever you go really. We had train stations near us so could get into Birmingham within 15 minutes. I’ve lived there all my life so didn’t really know anything else really.
Did you have a good childhood? A decent group of friends?
SM: Yeah, I’m still best friends with my best pal from school. I have a lot of people back home, and I’m just waiting for them to come up and see me!
Do you have any siblings?
SM: I have a brother called Ben, who is 22, while my sister is called Elizabeth and she’s 20. We used to have fights and scraps as kids like all brothers and sisters, but I always look out for them. Being the oldest, you always try and give them everything you can.
Have they got into sport at all?
SM: My brother was at Birmingham City, but he stopped at 16 and was released. He played with Nathan Redmond and some players like that but never really carried it on. He loves his painting and decorating and is quite skilled at it. My sister works locally for a company too and they’re both doing well.
Are your parents still in the area?
SM: Yes, they are. My dad is still doing the same job he’s been doing all his life, and is a mechanic and motor engine builder who has his own factory. My mum works in a mental health institute so that’s quite a demanding job, but she enjoys it.
Do you like any other sports?
SM: I’m quite a keen golfer and play a lot. When the weather turns, I’ll be out there pretty much every week trying to get games in with friends back home. It’s a great laugh and everyone enjoys it. When younger, I played a lot of cricket and had a choice between playing cricket for Worcestershire or football for West Brom. I used to play football during the season and then cricket during the summer.
Kind of like a modern-day Ian Botham?
SM: Haha, exactly!
Did you have any other hobbies at all?
SM: Not really, no. I’m just easygoing really.
What do you do in your time off then?
SM: Try and play golf! And just chill and relax really, because you know training is going to be hard the next day.
Let’s move on to football then, how did it start for yourself?
SM: As a young lad I was just naturally playing football and I think it was at six/seven that I started to play for a team on a Sunday morning, with my mum and dad watching. It progressed from there, I got better and better and then somehow got picked up. I can’t remember getting picked up, but I think was eight when I went to Walsall and played for their Centre of Excellence. I was straight in there and never really played on a Sunday with my mates after that. My dad was always into football.
Dare I ask which team you support?
SM: Birmingham City. The whole family support them.
Was your dad one of your main influences then?
SM: I remember going to games with him, and going to the local park with Ben, putting up a net and playing for two or three hours. It feels so much better with a net and you end up not wanting to go home! I remember that quite fondly. Dad used to say ‘you can’t use your right foot, you’ve got to use your left’ and you keep getting better and better – then it becomes natural. I remember walking down the road with netting and pegs, it was good.
When did you move to West Brom?
SM: Walsall messed up and didn’t offer me a new contract in the correct time period, which made me a free agent. That’s when West Brom found out, I was contacted and they said come and join our academy. At the age of 12 I moved there and it was quite local so I didn’t have to travel far. Dan Ashworth, who works for England now, was academy manager at the time and wanted to bring me in.
How did you do academically?
SM: I did quite well at school. I had Tuesday off and went to West Brom on day release so missed out on certain subjects, but I got some good grades and would like to think if I didn’t make it as a footballer I’d be able to fall back on them. I enjoyed school, had a good group of mates, and we’d cycle in, get the job done and then play football.
Was there ever a plan B?
SM: Not really, no. I always had football. I was offered a scholarship at 16 and then a professional contract at the end of that. I was never in an uncertain situation really. I’m fortunate and grateful for it. I have a lot of friends who fell out the game who now do different things.
Tell us more about what it was like becoming a professional at West Brom.
SM: At 16 you start getting paid so that was a nice moment and then you realise that this can get quite serious now. You train with the first team every day, get a little sniff of it and that pushes you on even further. They were in the Championship at the time and went up to the Premier League in the second year of my scholarship. I remember walking down the corridor and seeing Kanu and Kevin Phillips! It was weird and you understand it more the older you get, but it did take me aback.
Then you went to Iceland on loan.
SM: I signed a first-year pro deal at 18, and then it came to April time and Dan Ashworth wanted me and two others to get some first team experience because we hadn’t been out on loan. The only place I could go in that period of time was Iceland, because they start their season in April (that’s because the weather is good between then and September). I was fortunate to go there for two months and play for Haukar, which is still one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had. I travelled alone for the first time and I was literally ‘on my own’. It made me more world-wise and was an incredible experience. It’s a beautiful country and I’d like to go back there at some point. The team I’d played for were promoted the season before and weren’t full-time. They trained in the evening so in the day I just went sightseeing. They gave me a little car and I was half an hour away from Reykjavik.
How often were you on the phone to your parents?
SM: I wasn’t homesick. I really enjoyed it and it was amazing, but I’ve never been one who missed home too much. I think that came about through travelling away a lot through football as a young lad.
Did you keep in contact with the family you stayed with in Iceland?
SM: I’m friends with them all on Facebook and we stay in touch. There was a big article on me when Walsall were in the play-offs last year, saying how much I’d progressed and I’d been in Iceland, and they sent me the links to it. They had lads who played football too, so I built up a bond with them. I still speak to them every now and then on Facebook.
After that you came back and went to Tranmere.
SM: I did pre-season and trained with the first team every day. I needed to go out and get some games and went to Tranmere for a month. It was another unbelievable experience in a totally different way. The weather was horrendous, it was snowing and freezing cold. There was no heating in the changing room, and we were fighting relegation. I left West Brom and playing reserve games at the big stadiums to go there and didn’t really enjoy it to be honest.
These things help shape you though, don’t they?
SM: Definitely. The manager (Les Parry) was the physio previously and he was an outspoken guy and I’d never come across someone like that. It helped me. It never really worked out and West Brom called me back.
You then went to Oldham.
SM: Yeah, that was a better one. I played a few games there and it went well. It only lasted a month because I was covering injuries. Once the players came back, they couldn’t afford me anymore and I went back to West Brom.
Then that led to Walsall…
SM: I signed for them on loan during the same season too. Dean Smith was manager and they were in the relegation zone at the time. Being local to West Brom, I thought it was a great opportunity. He’d seen me play loads of reserve games, made me feel wanted and like a focal point of the team. He was the most laidback manager I’d ever seen and you really wanted to play for him. I remember the first meeting with him, he introduced himself, welcomed me and then said ‘we have a game against Sheffield United tonight and you’re playing’. We ended up winning 3-2 and I scored on my debut. I’ll never forget that game or goal. We had an unbelievable run until the end of the season and we stayed up. It was a big thing for me because I felt I played a part in that. I went back to West Brom at the end of that season. Steve Clarke came in as a manager and basically said ‘the young lads won’t be involved so find yourselves a club’. I spoke to Dean Smith and he said he wanted me. I joined on a free transfer.
How did the move to Scunthorpe come about?
SM: We’d just finished in the play-offs and I got a text from someone who said Graham Alexander wanted my number and would they be able to pass it on. I was out of contract and the deal Walsall offered wasn’t the greatest. I knew everyone was leaving too, so I spoke to him and met him just after the play-offs. He said he really wanted to bring me here because he’d been watching me for the last couple of months and knew all about me. I went on holiday for three or four weeks and nothing really happened, it was gradual every day and I spoke to other clubs at the time. I thought I was going to start pre-season without a club and then it was June 30th and the agent told me it was all done. I made a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Scunny and it’s always nervous on that drive to a new club. I met up with him and it’s been brilliant ever since really. I knew Luke Daniels from West Brom and texted him before to see what it was like. He was the only one I really knew. It’s an easy group to fit into. I was gutted I missed the Austria tour through injury so it took me a little longer to get to know everyone.
I know it’s only happened at Under-17 level but how was playing for England?
SM: Interesting. It was in a three-team tournament, playing Portugal and Israel at Northampton and Peterborough. I remember being called up and even though it’s Under-17s you still can tell people ‘I’ve been called up for England’. It was great playing with people like John Bostock, so when I turned up everyone knew him because he played for Spurs and had an aura about him. It was a good experience. We won one and drew one. Unfortunately, myself and a lot of that team didn’t get called up again.
How is the dressing room before a game – crazy or quiet?
SM: Everyone has different personalities. Some are outspoken, while some relax and keep it in. Tom Hopper puts the music on, some good and some bad! The main focus is on three points.
Do you get nervous?
SM: I did when I first started, but you get used to it. I’ve played over 150 games and don’t get nervous anymore. I usually get a good feeling going so I can go into the game in a positive frame of mind. I sleep well too.
SM: I used to have beans on toast and a piece of chicken for pre-match all the time but one time there were no beans and I had a great game, so I thought ‘that’s a load of rubbish isn’t it’. When I was a really young lad, if I got a new pair of boots I used to put them on the pillow next to me when I went to sleep to bring good luck.
Do your family come to games?
SM: They’ve been to a couple and try their best to come up, but it is quite a distance. It doesn’t affect me whether they come here or not though. They always ask how it’s gone after a game. I’ve never been one who forces them to come to games.
Have you always been a midfielder?
SM: I used to play up front for Walsall as a youngster and scored a lot of goals. I gradually dropped down into midfield though and enjoy it because I’m an energetic player.
Do you keep memorabilia?
SM: I know there are a load of programmes at home. My mum went to the games at Walsall and took one every time. I don’t tend to keep them though. I’ve kept an England shirt, my two caps and the Portugal and Israel shirts too. I have Ramirez from Chelsea last year and a few other lads who are friends in the game whose I’ve kept. I have player of the season at Walsall and my debut shirt at West Brom framed.
Have you thought about life after football?
SM: I like fitness and have done a personal training course. I have thought about going into that kind of business when I finish and maybe will try to start up before I finish. I’m relaxed about life after football though and could always go and work for my dad too!