IN the first of a new series of pieces with figures from Swindon Town’s past, Link Sport’s Sam Morshead meets the one-time loanee who’s taking lessons learnt at the County Ground into the Premier League.
WHEN Tom Heaton joined Swindon Town as a 19-year-old in August 2005, he could only dream of establishing himself as a Premier League number one.
Just under 10 years later he’s realised that goal with Burnley, following their remarkable promotion to the top flight last season, and the lessons that he learnt as a wide-eyed young pro under the tutelage of Andy King at the County Ground still resonate within him today.
Link Sport sits down with the goalkeeper in a quaint, understated cottage at Burnley’s training ground. Heaton has just come out of a team meeting during which the Clarets’ management have dissected events of the weekend defeat at West Brom, where Heaton and his defence shipped four goals without reply.
Lesson one – learn to deal with the difficult times.
Heaton joined Town on loan from Manchester United as cover for the injured Rhys Evans just over nine years ago and was quickly thrown into the very deep end of a very dangerous pool. The Robins’ makeshift squad struggled horribly and went on a run of defeats which toppled the previous club record – eight on the bounce – with Heaton between the sticks.
The stopper laughs when that stat is thrown into the conversation but being part of that team taught him the importance of character.
Having turned down the chance to be a part of an England Under 19 tour to link up with Swindon, he was determined to make the most of the opportunity presented to him – and he managed it, developing a rapport with supporters despite the side’s poor start to the term.
“It was a brilliant first taste of football. There were nerves going in and meeting a group of men who were all professional footballers. I went down to speak to Andy King and loved it,” he says, speaking energetically about his time in Wiltshire.
“My first game was Wycombe, we got beat 3-1 in the Carling Cup and it was just a brilliant occasion. I played 19 games; it was a first taste of football and it was incredible.”
King, the two-time Swindon manager whose penchant for cigars and random rants were prominent parts of the turbulent period at the club at the start of this century, was a father figure to Heaton during his spell at the County Ground.
While many other players would experience King’s anger and unpredictability, Heaton remembers a different side.
“He spoke to me an awful lot, he spoke to my mum and dad an awful lot,” the keeper recalls.
“I think he felt like he was looking after me coming down there as a 19-year-old from Man U. He had an arm round my shoulder whereas I think Jukey (Lukas Jutkiewicz) and some of the other lads down there had a slightly different relationship where they stayed out of his stare for most of the day because you never knew what he was going to do.
“He was brilliant. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He was great with me and I thought we were unlucky not to do a bit better.”
King’s somewhat unconventional methods of man-management included a trip to the driving range during the early weeks of Heaton’s loan, as the Town boss implemented some fairly basic team bonding tactics.
“I remember some form of ‘who could hit the ball furthest’. I think it was about motivation, keeping the lads together, keeping the camaraderie there,” says Heaton.
“It was quite a tough year. The team was struggling with relegation and he was brilliant with me. He gave me a first opportunity of league football in League One – as a 19-year-old goalkeeper it doesn’t happen very often.
“I can’t tell you how thankful I was that he gave me the opportunity. You need that first step on the ladder and that was mine. I’ve got an awful lot of fond memories of my time there.”
It wasn’t all a bed of roses for Heaton, however.
Lesson two – being consistent.
On October 8, 2005, Town were playing Port Vale at the County Ground and led thanks to Rory Fallon’s goal before Heaton made an error which landed him on the cutting room floor of every bloopers DVD producer in the country.
George Pilkington’s long pass from right-back seemed to be floating innocuously through to Heaton, who rushed to the edge of the box only to see the ball bounce over his head, allowing Chris Cornes the simplest of tap-ins.
The keeper can look back on the event now with a wry smile.
“I think I’m on quite a lot of the Christmas DVDs for one of the goals I let in against Port Vale. I remember Soccer AM did something on it at the time and I was watching it, freezing over,” he says.
“It was a long ball forward, it bounced over my head and the guy ran round. Obviously there were ups and downs but you need that. The fans were great with me. Perhaps they understood that young goalkeepers need a bit of support and they were absolutely fantastic.
“It taught me a few things. It boosted my hunger to be a professional player – playing in front of a crowd for points, how much it mattered. It’s all good in theory but when you’re playing for people’s livelihoods it’s almost a drug that you want more of.
“It taught me how good you have to be. You have to be consistently good and that was a massive difference that I had to learn. It’s no good being good two out of three weeks.”
Heaton lived with fellow Manchester United loanee Colin Heath and Neale McDermott in a house in Purton and reflects on his first experiences of staying away from home.
Lesson three – fending for yourself.
“We were in amongst it, went into Old Town to eat a bit and we had a really good time. I thought the club looked after us great; I’ve been on a few loan spells since and the Swindon experience was superb,” he says.
“It was all part and parcel of a loan experience. You have to eat properly, it’s not all laid on a plate for you, you have to sort yourself out and live properly. Fortunately, at United we had a lot of cooking lessons and the right way to go about things; the importance of sleep, rest, hydration.
“You have the tools to do it but it’s a different kettle of fish getting off your backside and doing it. Obviously you get it wrong at times and others work. It was a brilliant first step for me to build from.”
Of the players he player with, one name stands out above all the rest for Heaton – for a variety of reasons.
“Christian Roberts was brilliant,” he says. “I kept in touch with Robbo for a long time. I remember Tony Thorpe, Jamie Cureton, Reevesy was playing and coaching – there were so many you learn different bits from.
“A few of the experienced pros looked at me as if to say ‘who are you, wet between the ears, can you do the job? You have to grow up quickly and you’ve got no choice but to deal with it.
“Robbo was probably the biggest character I’ve met in football. He was an incredible player and had so much ability but he was the life and soul of the training ground.”
Heaton had the opportunity to stay at Swindon for the second half of the campaign but, following Evans’s return to fitness, he didn’t make it off the bench after a 3-0 defeat to Barnsley in November.
Instead he was shipped off to Belgium.
“The second half of the season after Swindon I went to Royal Antwerp on loan,” he recalls.
“It was probably the worst spell of my career. I wasn’t playing, didn’t live properly and I came away from that thinking ‘if I want to have a career in the game I’ve got to pull my finger out’.
“That was a massive learning curve.”
When he returned to England, there followed loan spells at Cardiff City, QPR, Rochdale and Wycombe Wanderers before he decided the time was right to leave the club with which he’d been associated for 13 years.
Sir Alex Ferguson was not best pleased.
“The offer of a contract was there and I spoke to the manager and said the time was right to move on. He understandably was not too happy at the time,” says Heaton.
“I’d been there since I was 11, they’d put a lot into me and I’d just turned 24 so just crept into the Bosman. It didn’t land too well in terms of their position but for me it was definitely the right decision.
“I felt like at United I was just trying to fall on a career rather than earning the right to be a player. Two or three weeks after the manager had me in and gave me a bit of grief he had me back in and said he respected my decision, which was incredible really.
“I’d been there for such a long time so I was really grateful for that. I certainly made the right decision because I’ve played a lot of games since.”
The permanent move to Cardiff brought with it a League Cup final, though Heaton lost his starting spot to David Marshall under the tenure of manager Malky Mackay.
Mackay himself has received plenty of press attention of late following the scandal of a series of offensive texts but Heaton only has good words for his former boss.
“Malky came in and David Marshall played and fair play to Marshy, he was outstanding,” says Heaton. “Even though he didn’t play me in the league though I was desperate to play, and I was banging on his door what felt like every other week, I can’t speak highly enough of Malky.
“He managed me fantastically well. He was honest with me, he was straight down the line, he gave me straightforward answers, he would play me in the League Cup when he certainly didn’t have to.”
Heaton left Cardiff for Bristol City but after a difficult season at Ashton Gate, and thanks in part to a relegation clause in his contract, he secured a move to Turf Moor. Now he’s one of just a handful of English keepers in the top flight.
Lesson four – never give up.
As we discuss whether the 19-year-old Heaton truly thought he would be able to make it as far as 28-year-old Heaton has, the stopper’s self-belief fully reveals itself.
“That was the aim. I think I was squad number 26 at Swindon and when you set out on your journey you talk about what you want to achieve and where you want to go. Being number one at a Premier League club is one under playing for England,” he says.
“I’m incredibly pleased to get here but I certainly don’t feel like the journey’s ended. You never know what’s round the corner. When I left Cardiff I went to Bristol City, shipped 85 goals and had to wait til February for my first clean sheet, which was certainly a tough year.
“Last season couldn’t have done any better and now we’re in the Premier League which is where everyone wants to be.
“The lessons I learnt at Swindon are vital lessons. The earlier you can get the first step on the ladder is vital. I certainly like to think Swindon put the foundations down early for what I’ve achieved in my career.”