'I handled it all quite poorly and wasn't ready but I have no regrets' - Bowditch on his football journey
PUBLISHED: 16:57 10 September 2018
It's hard to believe it's more than 15 years since Joe Royle ruffled the hair of his 16-year-old substitute and sent him out onto the Carrow Road pitch.
It’s hard to believe it’s more than 15 years since Joe Royle ruffled the hair of his 16-year-old substitute and sent him out onto the Carrow Road pitch.
When Dean Bowditch walked off it again 19 minutes later, he did so as the great new hope at Ipswich Town.
The teenager had inspired a 2-0 victory over Norwich in March 2003, setting up the opening goal of the game just a minute after his introduction as he played with a swagger well beyond his years, placing hope and expectation firmly on his shoulders.
A televised hat-trick against Watford a year later increased the hype surrounding the latest player to come off the famous Ipswich production line, with the country’s leading clubs all linked with a move for the England youth international.
A move away from Portman Road was never one Bowditch and his family entertained, insisting early on that the path to the Ipswich first team was the one he wanted to take.
Now, 15 years on, the 32-year-old is playing in League Two with Northampton Town. It may not all have played out as so many had hoped and dreamed - Bowditch included - but with a long career, more than 450 games and a lifetime of memories under his belt, the forward has no regrets.
“It’s quite ridiculous really, isn’t it,” Bowditch said, when asked if he could believe his big break came 15 years ago.
“It’s very fond memories, I loved my time at Ipswich and was sad to leave because I’d have loved to have stayed there forever.
“It’s a long time ago and so much has happened since then, but it’s a time of my life I will never forget and love dearly.
“It’s so strange because when you are that age and ready to come onto the pitch for your first professional game, it’s a child’s age really. When you think about it you are under the age of drinking and everything so you shouldn’t really be there. But I was.
“I was put in that situation by Joe Royle and was so excited there on the touchline, waiting to come on, and all I wanted to do was get on the ball and try to make something happen.
“Fortunately I did, although Craig Fleming’s hamstring helped too. I remember it so, so vividly. At the time I didn’t realise what he’d done but I had the ball and he slowed down. If that was now I might have reacted differently, maybe kicking it out of play or slowed down, but because I was like a rabbit in the headlights, running around like a lunatic, I just crossed it which led to the first goal. It led to a fantastic result.”
And it was also supposed to lead to a glorious Ipswich Town career, with the Blues battling their way back towards the Premier League at the time with a young starlet in their ranks.
It hasn’t worked out that way for either, with Ipswich still stuck in the second tier and Bowditch ultimately only making 30 league starts for his boyhood club.
But he’s happy, content and is rightly proud of all he’s achieved.
He prefers to look forward, rather than back, but it’s clear he’s at peace with what has gone before while admitting he found instant fame difficult in his teenage years as he battled to live up to his reputation.
“I probably handled it all quite poorly, looking back at it, but I never took things for granted,” he said.
“I let it get to me in unhelpful ways. I panicked on the pitch, let it impact the decisions I made and made me try too hard. It ended up going against me.
“If I’m honest I probably wasn’t ready for first team football at that sort of age and I didn’t really play too many games at 16 and 17. Physically I wasn’t ready and, looking back, it was probably the wrong decision to be exposed to it so young.
“I let that get to me mentally and I was probably mentally quite weak at that age. It changed as I got older and started going out on loan and became a bit more of a man.
“Then I started to realise that it probably wasn’t my ability letting me down, more my brain and my mentality.
“I started to learn the game the way you should do, rather than as a rabbit in a headlights.
“I was too scared to ask the senior players for help. It wouldn’t have been a case of being worried about what they would say back to me, just a case of being a young lad trying to live up to expectation and sometimes feeling like I was falling short.
“I’d let that get to me and I didn’t then get the opportunities. That potential was there – I was a young player doing well – but to have that on your shoulders as such a young kid was difficult.
“At the end of the day I just tried to get on with it and, as I got older, it came naturally.
“Maybe with the way the game is now, with people talking about things a lot more, I might have dealt with it slightly differently.
“But at the time I didn’t want to talk to too many people and I wanted to do things my own way.”
Such was Bowditch’s desire to both play football and prove his worth, he pushed for loan moves away from Ipswich in a bid to return a better player, ready for the first team.
Though it was Royle who have him his big break, a change of manager in 2006, Bowditch hoped, would give him the boost he needed.
Ultimately it proved the beginning of the end of his time at Ipswich.
“I was going on loan with the hope I would come back and play for Ipswich, that’s how I saw it, but a big moment for me was when Jim Magilton took charge,” he said.
“I thought it gave me a big opportunity because I got on so well with Jim as a player. He was difficult to play with sometimes because he was a winner, with everything needing to be perfect. He would only criticise you because he knew you could do better and would always put an arm round you at the end of training, telling you where you can improve.
“When he became manager I thought it was a great chance but, within three or four games, I was out the team. When I went to speak to him he basically told me I wasn’t doing well enough and I was out on loan again (to Brighton).
“I had been at the club for 10 years at this point and I thought it was maybe time for a change. I was almost part of the paintwork at the club and maybe it wouldn’t matter if I did really well in certain areas because there would always be a thought about the things I couldn’t do so well. I could go and play a really good game but maybe the negatives were being picked of me as much as the positives.
“I thought it was maybe time to look for a different club. But when Roy Keane came in that decision was taken away from me. He was great with me but he just told me it was time to find somewhere new.
“It’s crazy because you hear all these horrible stories about Roy but he was a good manager. He did things his own way. With players like us, who he was letting go, it wasn’t just a case of putting us on our bikes out the door. He gave us his number and said ‘if you need anything, call me and I will be there to help you and get you the right help’.
“Coming from him, a legend, it meant something and even though he was telling me he didn’t want me anymore it was done in a really good way. He treated me with respect.
“It was the best thing that could have happened.”
Bowditch left Portman Road in 2009 and, now in the late summer of 2018, Bowditch is enjoying his football at Northampton having become a favourite at both Yeovil and MK Dons.
There have been highs and lows along the way and plenty of new experiences. He’s been a goalscorer, had lean spells, adapted to playing wide and was part of the MK side which won promotion to the Championship in 2015.
He started a game at Portman Road again, with the Dons in April 2016, and had further moments against Norwich as he scored for Yeovil in a 3-3 draw in 2009 and helped MK beat the Canaries 4-0 at Carrow Road in 2011.
It’s maybe not the journey he or those who witnessed that game at Carrow Road in 2003 expected him to take, but it’s his journey.
“When you talk about big clubs looking at me when I was young, all I wanted to do was play football,” he said.
“Ipswich gave me that chance and I was always worried these big clubs would never give me that chance. That’s why I always wanted to stay and push on.
“When I went to Yeovil, that’s what I wanted to do. Same with MK and with Northampton now is where I want to be.
“A lot of players struggle when it’s year after year after year because they maybe get bored, lose the passion or fall away. But I have the opportunity now at 32 and I’m thinking ‘why not, why can’t I go on again and have another three or four years?’
“I still feel like a kid at times. My body can let me down and I won’t lie about that, every 32-year-old will say the same, but I’ve played a lot of football. It’s natural.
“Now is where it’s key you treat your body the best you ever have.
“There are never any regrets, all it is is hindsight,” he added.
“If you could change something after it’s happened then we would live in a different world but I don’t have any regrets.”