With no game for Nottingham Forest due to the international break, I managed to catch up with Michael Dawson and talk about everything from academy sides past and present to mental health issues within the game.
Some weeks back I wrote a piece about Matty Turner, who’s successfully set up the Red Umbrella organisation, which helps with addiction issues. Given that Turner and Dawson were academy teammates at Forest, I tagged along as the pair reconvened up in Hull.
Michael was kind enough to sit through my barrage of questions after spending some quality time with his old pal.
I asked him does he have fond memories of his time at Forest?
Without hesitation, he said: “It was a special time for me and my family, being nine years of age and meeting the likes of Brian Clough, Roy Keane and Stuart Pearce as I had a tour of the changing rooms, then getting No.22 on the back of my shirt like Bryan Roy, things like that were great.”
Michael told me that to follow in the footsteps of his brothers at the club and then make his debut at such a young age was a real honour. Andy Dawson is now a first team coach at Scunthorpe United whilst Kevin coaches at schools back in their native Yorkshire, occasionally assisting his father at the races.
The question I was dying to ask was how did Michael compare the NFFC academy of 1999 to the current crop of graduates?
“It’s great to see that the club still breeds young players and they too have a chance to play in the first team,” he said.
“Paul Hart was instrumental in giving me a chance when he became the first team manager. Likewise, it was great to see Gary Brazil and Jack Lester giving the young lads an opportunity”.
Michael was pragmatic enough to understand the monetary benefits of selling some of the promising youngsters though. Whilst he agreed that it was important to nurture the talent for as long as possible, he acknowledged that the sales of Bamford, Darlow, Lascelles and Burke were a big help to the club financially.
Casting my own mind back to when Forest sold the man himself along with Reid, Prutton and Jenas, it was a painful reminder of what could have been if we’d won that play-off and been able to retain such players in the Premier League.
I focused on Oliver Burke and asked Michael about his thoughts regarding the record fee for one so young?
He said: “It was massive money for Forest, I played against him last season, he’s so quick. They cashed in and he went, it’s a hard one to call.”
Having progressed through the youth ranks himself, Michael made an excellent point regarding the transition to first team football.
He told me that playing an Under 23 match is completely different from a first team game;, adding: “Lose an Under 23 game and you’re obviously disappointed, but when you’re losing first team games, jobs depend on it!”
Sitting opposite a guy who’s racked up nearly 400 appearances as a professional footballer, it’s easy to see how he’s made that possible.
No full arm tattoo, no daft haircut, just a willingness to do his best and two very grounded feet.
At 33 years of age, Dawson is genuinely trying to be the very best that he can and certainly not winding down on a last big wage. Precisely the attitude that earned him Champions League football and four England caps. Throw in a play-off and a League Cup winners medal for good measure and you have the makings of a successful career in English football.
Such is the respect for Michael Dawson within the game that Carlos Tevez once said “He’s the best English defender I have played against”; some testimony from a guy who’s plundered 189 career goals in five different leagues around the world.
Returning to all things Forest, I wanted to gauge Michael’s thoughts on the comparisons between himself and Joe Worrall.
He said: “Jamaal (Lascelles) was likened to me in a similar way when he came through but it’s great to see Joe getting his opportunity. It’s a tough position to play at such a young age, he will make mistakes and he will improve as he gets older but I wish him well.”
Michael finished the conversation by highlighting the gulf in standard between the Championship and the Premier league, he told me that making nearly 100 appearances in the Championship for the Reds was vital for his development into a top-flight defender.
Reading between the lines, I got the vibes that he’d like Joe to be educated in the same manor and progress at a similar pace.
It was great to see the camaraderie between Dawson and Matty Turner on meeting up once more, the two barely came up for air as they reminisced about their days in the academy. Michael spoke highly of Matty’s Red Umbrella organisation and how it could help fellow professionals within the game.
He said: “What Matty’s doing is magnificent, a lot of footballers need it because they don’t open up about problems, it’s a short career and people start thinking what am I going to do?”
He was also aware of the perils for young players with lots of time and money to spend, adding: “It’s about having the right people around to give you the right kind of advice for the future, because it can all be taken away from you as quick as it’s been given.”
He spoke about the necessity for football clubs to work with organisations like Red Umbrella, saying: “You’re investing in players and you need to make sure they’re doing the right things off the field, as a happy person tends to play well.
“Some guys go home to empty houses and are alone with their thoughts, you need good people giving good advice and that’s where Matty comes in. He’s experienced it so he can relate to people’s needs; he’s doing something great.”
I finished the interview by asking a question that every Nottingham Forest supporter would have asked, could we ever see Michael Dawson in a Reds shirt again? He laughed and stopped short of using a jovial expletive on me before finally answering: “It’s the place where I started and that gave me the opportunity to play….erm never say never!”
It was a real pleasure to meet such an absolute gentleman and an ultimate professional, I would implore any young footballer to model themselves on Michael Dawson and in doing so they’ll not go far wrong.