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Doing the Rounds

15 October 2013

Russell Kempson joins Scott Murray for Bristol City's Round 3 trip to Southampton

When many players retire, the predictable next step is into management or coaching. It is a tried and tested route. 

Some will walk away from the game altogether, perhaps moving on to sell insurance or run a pub. Scott Murray, the former Bristol City winger, has chosen something completely different. He has immersed himself in shirts, shorts, socks and shinpads.

Murray is City's first-team kitman, keeping him involved in the club - now in Sky Bet League 1 - that has been an integral part of his life for 11 years. 

The Scot attained legendary status at Ashton Gate during a playing career that took in 354 Football League appearances in two spells and in which he scored 74 goals.

So when the time came to hang up his boots, after closing stints with Yeovil Town and Bath City, and the call came to return to his beloved City, Murray could not resist the urge. 

"I was playing part-time with Bath and also working in the commercial offices at Ashton Gate," he explained. "I was a sort of club ambassador, going around the schools, coaching kids.

"Derek McInnes [the former City manager] rang me out of the blue and asked if I fancied being the kitman. It rather took me aback and I said I'd think about it. 

“I was 37, I was coming to the end of playing and I just felt that the job, unless it all went horrendously wrong, would probably offer me a lot more stability. Ultimately, it was a no-brainer."

Murray, now 39, sits cross-legged on a bench in the spacious home dressing-room at Ashton Gate. He has just emerged from the cramped kit store, in which he had been rummaging among shirt hangars with James Burnett, the under-21s kitman and a club masseur. "Have you got an extra large there?" he asks James. Burnett nods in the affirmative.

It is two days before City's West Country derby away to Swindon Town and five days before they take on Southampton, the Premier League club, in the Third Round of the Capital One Cup at St Mary's Stadium. Murray and Burnett have to plan ahead, always checking and double-checking that nothing has been mislaid or forgotten.

"I started last season and I was rather chucked in at the deep end," Scott says. "I think the main thing that got me through was that, being an ex-player, I knew roughly what the lads wanted. The home games are not so bad. If you forget anything, it should be around here somewhere.
"But the first couple of away trips were a bit nerve-racking. I'm not a stressed type of person, I'm the most horizontal person you could meet, yet those trips were very stressful. With a squad of 20, every player gets two shirts. If it rains during the first half, most of them like a change at half-time.

"But for those first trips, I only took one top each. Luckily, it didn't rain. Then, for some reason, it clicked in my head. Well, what happens if it rains? So I started taking two tops each. I always leave the replacement 'blood' shirt and shorts - in case one of the lads gets a head injury - with our physio."

Murray cannot rid himself of the playing bug, though. 

"Until I'm in my Zimmer frame, I'll keep trying to play," he says. He still turns out, when his City kit duties allow, for Clevedon Town in the Calor League Division 1 South & West. Last season, he scored four goals in Clevedon's 5-0 FA Cup first qualifying round victory over Sherborne Town.

It won him the Player of the Round award and a VIP invite - with his 12-year-old son, Jay - to the final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic at Wembley Stadium.

"What a day out that was," Scott recalls. "We went up the day before and stayed in a hotel. It was absolutely brilliant."

Family is a key element in Scott's hectic daily schedule. At 3.30pm, he collects Jay, his five-year-old brother, Sam, and sister Ella, 14, from school. Considering he has been on the go since the very early hours, it is astonishing that he is still awake to make the school run.

"I wake up at 6am, have a quick shower and get down here for about 6.15am every morning," he reveals. "I live only five minutes away. There's no one here and you can get most of your work done then. I stick my headphones on and, for an hour and a half, I'm on another planet. It's great. Once I've picked up the kids, I'll get back here at around 4pm. I usually finish around 5pm to 5.30."

Tracy Ballard, the long-serving laundrywoman, helps ease the strain. She washes the kit for the first team, the under-21s, under-18s and all the way down to the under-eights. "She's brilliant," Scott says. "She's been here a long time, she knows where everything is and she works so hard."

Working hard has been a feature of Aberdeen-born Murray's life, from his early days playing for Fraserburgh in the Highland League and also grafting through 12-hour shifts as a forklift driver in a large fish factory. He had trials with Aberdeen, Rangers, Liverpool and Aston Villa, with Ron Atkinson especially keen to take him to the Midlands.

"I went down to Villa for a week and then they asked me back again," Scott recalls. "I played a reserve game against Bolton at Villa Park and I scored a hat trick in the first 12 minutes. I think it's still a record for the quickest hat-trick in the reserve leagues.

"After the game, 'Big Ron' called me into his office and said: 'Listen, you've got to sign this'. I did sign although, for the first year, I was getting paid less than I got for driving a forklift. I joined for £35,000, which was a record fee received by a Highland League club. I think they bought a nice Portakabin with it.

"I was a bit overawed at first, around the likes of Dwight Yorke, Dalian Atkinson, Andy Townsend, Steve Staunton and Paul McGrath. I'd gone from one week watching them on TV, to training with them. Big Ron got the sack and Brian Little came in and changed me from a striker to a right-back cum wing-back. That's how I got to play wide right."

Murray made only four top-flight appearances for Villa in three years before John Ward, the Bristol City manager, rang. "I said, 'Where's that?’ I hadn't a clue where Bristol was." An Ashton Gate legend was born and, apart from one season with Reading in 2003/04, the club had become his home from home. And still is.

He has experienced many highs and lows along the way - two promotions, one relegation, victory over Carlisle United in the 2003 Football League Trophy final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, defeat against Stoke City in the 2000 Trophy Final at Wembley. And defeat in the 2004 Second Division Play-Off Final against Brighton and Hove Albion in Cardiff.

Even now, he still feels the pain of defeat. City's relegation from the Championship to League 1 last season, with three games remaining, was particularly hurtful. "Relegation is one of the worst things that you can go through," he says. "You feel you've let yourselves and the fans down. It's not nice at all.

"As kitman, I tend to stay clear if the team has lost. You know when you can go into the dressing-room and be bubbly, you know when you've got to take a step back. I'm a happy lad all the time but the last thing the players want after losing is me coming in and being all chirpy.

"As a player, me and Louis Carey were always the main jokers. We were the ones giving out the banter. So the lads know that if they give me any stick, they'll be getting it back. They're a good bunch, they don't take the Mickey too much, and they're not the muckiest bunch, either. Mind you, they do tend to leave a lot of wet underwear in the showers."

Murray and Burnett take a breather before setting off in their kit van for the club's training ground, a 15-minute drive over the city border along country roads into the village of Failand in North Somerset. They share the excellent facilities with Queen Elizabeth's Hospital (QEH), one of the country's leading boys' independent schools.

In the neat and tidy canteen, which overlooks the sprawling playing fields, honour boards adorn the walls, listing the past QEH captains of football, cricket and rugby union, as well as numerous team photographs. Young rugby players emerge into the driving rain outside to practice taking penalty goals; their footballing peers soon follow, not appearing quite as enthusiastic in the downpour.

Murray glances out to a distant gap in a hedge, beyond which are the football pitches. "That's where the lads are training," he says. "The van is empty at the moment but, once they come back through the gap, I get all the dirty kit off them. I take it all back down to Ashton Gate to Tracy and she'll wash it all.

"Then we sort out the kit for tomorrow and it's 'Groundhog Day' all over again. I get up here at eight o'clock every morning to put out the training kit. It can be a bit of a nightmare, being based in two different places but, luckily, they are not too far away from each other."

Scott has to go on to training with Clevedon tonight. A Uefa B licensed coach, he also helps out at the City Academy; as president of the City former players' association, he arranges matchday tickets for the old boys and organises charity matches. Spare time? "Only when I'm sleeping," he says. "But I like to be kept busy. I enjoy doing everything and I prefer to be flat out all the time."

At 1.45pm, via the gap in the hedge, the players arrive in the canteen. Louis Carey, Murray's fellow City legend and joker in the pack, has little time to rest, either. A quick bite to eat and he's off with the under-21s, a now familiar routine as the 36-year-old defender winds down on a 17-year career with City.

Carey has yet to make the same quantum leap as Murray, from player to former player, but the day is nearing when he will discuss his future with Sean O'Driscoll, the City manager. 

"I'm not getting too much match time now and I miss that," Bristol-born Louis says. "I'm mostly here as first-team back-up and to help with the under-21s, which I enjoy doing.

"When you train all week and there's no game, no end product, that can be frustrating. I'll probably only get a chance if someone is injured or has a loss of form but, of course, you don't really want that to happen to a team-mate. I'll speak to the gaffer again in the New Year and we'll review it all."

Carey has done the hard yards at Ashton Gate - apart from an eight-month spell with Coventry City in 2004/05 - and, when his time comes, he will reflect on it with pride. He has made 577 League appearances for the club and, in 2011, played in his 600th match in all competitions. Two promotions, two relegations and appearances in four finals, three of which were lost, are indelibly stamped on the Carey CV.

Losing 1-0 to Hull City at Wembley in 2008, in the Championship Play-Off Final, was particularly galling. So near to the Premier League for the Robins captain, yet so far. 

"We went to the stadium the day before and I climbed up the steps and imagined lifting the trophy," Louis said. "To be leading my hometown team out at Wembley, I felt so proud.

"All of Bristol seemed to have turned up, it was a mad atmosphere. I thought that we were the better team and deserved to go up but we just couldn't score. Then Dean Windass scored that fantastic goal and that was it. It was just not meant to be. From the massive high of being there, there was the massive low of the result.

"People were devastated, people were crying. When you looked at them, you felt you'd let them down. But when you looked them in the eye, you felt a huge sense of pride at what we'd achieved that season. Sadly, it's been a gradual decline since then, a downward spiral. Relegation last season was terrible but maybe, in the long run, it was a good thing. We have to start again."

Carey might have been involved in the Cup tie with Southampton on the following Tuesday, a rare outing, but he was stricken by a virus. As he nursed his pounding head at home, his team-mates travelled to the South Coast club after a leisurely overnight stay in Bournemouth.

It was City's first appearance in the Third Round of the competition for 10 years. On the last occasion, they lost 3-0 at Ashton Gate, to Southampton. This time, having beaten Premier League Crystal Palace in the Second Round, the 531 travelling City fans at St Mary's hoped for better.

As O'Driscoll stood studiously in his technical area - notepaper in hand, arms crossed - Saints started the better and went 1-0 ahead through a stunning Gaston Ramirez volley. Encouraged by chants of ‘Red Army’ from their supporters, City improved markedly in the second half and could have equalised from numerous chances.

However, when Jos Hooiveld nodded in from a James Ward-Prowse corner in the 83rd minute, the prospect of a second successive giant-killing for City effectively disappeared. "We got stronger as the game went on, which was pleasing," O'Driscoll observed. "We were a lot braver in the second half."

For kitman Murray, his day was far from over. It had all gone smoothly for him - apart from the shorts of John Pemberton, the assistant manager, going temporarily missing - but the away dressing-room still had to be swept. "I always do that," Scott said. "Some away teams don't but I like to leave it as I found it."

Departing St Mary's at 11pm, the team bus arrives at Ashton Gate at 1.15am. After unloading the kit skips, Murray sets off for home half an hour later. And is back in at 7.30am, to help Tracy as she sets in motion the three washing machines and two tumble driers.

Groundhog Day all over again? 

"I was a bit tired but I'll catch up on my sleep another night," Murray says. "I love it, though. I'm really enjoying doing this at the moment and I'll carry on doing it until I'm told not to."

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