We catch up with former fans favourite, Paul Shaw.
Interviewing Paul Shaw has been on my “to do” list for quite some time now. Unlike other interviews we have performed in the past, it’s not just a case of driving down the road or texting him to arrange a time to conduct a meet.
However, one evening in November, I did finally get round to speaking to Paul, who was only too pleased to reflect on his time at MEMS Priestfield Stadium, and all events that preceded, and indeed succeeded, his time in Kent from his offices at Orlando City, where he holds the position of Technical Director of their youth club.
During his time at ME7, Paul made 151 appearances and scored 29 goals before departing to join Sheffield United in January 2004.
Speaking to me last month, in the first of a two part interview, here’s what the former Arsenal forward had to say…
Q: Let’s kick-off with your time at Arsenal. Very few will realise that your professional debut came for the Gunners in a Premier League tie in 1994? Talk us through the early part of your career, culminating in several appearances under George Graham, Bruce Rioch and Arsene Wenger?
A: I think I joined Arsenal at the age of 14, worked my way through the age groups and I really enjoyed my time there. It was a fantastic experience to be around the household names of the time, be around them and grow as a player into the reserves.
I got my first professional contract in 1991 and made my debut, which I think was at Nottingham Forest away. George Graham was the Manager; I got a few minutes towards the end of the game in a 2-2 draw, I remember it well. Things went from there and one thing I can remember from being at a club like Arsenal were the standards and how hard you had to train.
That is something that stayed with me, I knew it would be difficult to play there and be a starter the whole time but the experiences I had were really valuable. I had a few loan spells at Cardiff, Burnley and Peterborough which changed me. To go in somewhere, in the first team, was really important to me and I learned so much from those stints.
Q: The loan system is sometimes criticised here because a lot of clubs keep hold of players or lower league clubs perhaps become dependent on borrowing players from other teams but, actually, it benefits every party involved and offers the players a platform to show what they can do?
A: I think so. From my own point of view it was a chance to gain experience and how you deal with winning and losing games. The parent club can see those young players in that competitive environment; I eventually moved to Millwall having played against them while on loan at Burnley and they mentioned, when they wanted to sign me, that they first noticed me because I was in a tough environment and doing okay. Teams watch players in a lot of reserve games and they’re always unsure of how that player will take that next step, so going on loan is important to gain that experience and for the parent club to see how they deal with certain aspects of the game. I grew up as a result.
Q: Those spells put you in good stead because you got back into the Arsenal side and scored your first goal in the Premier League in December 1996, playing alongside the likes of Bould, Adams, Dixon, Winterburn, Merson, Vieira, Wright and Hartson. You must have been thrilled and pinching yourself a little bit to be playing alongside that calibre of player?
A: That’s right. Going on loan gave me a bit of confidence; I went back, was in and around the players and I scored my first goal at Highbury having come on as sub. That was so important for me; we won 3-1 and for a young player to be with those guys, and hopefully gaining their trust, along with the coaching staff, was important. I scored in the reverse game later in the season, which proved to be my only start for the club.
Q: What do you remember about your first goal?
A: I got the ball on the corner of the six-yard box and struck it across Dave Beasant. I remember hitting it well; I was delighted at the time and the game was very tight. You always remember those times.
Q: You mentioned going off to Millwall from Arsenal; what do you recall about the move itself?
A: I remember talking to Arsene Wenger at the time; he was very open with me before I left. He said if the right offer came in he would let me go but he also said he would discuss with me any potential club and if it isn’t right I will tell you. I had a couple of opportunities to move abroad, but he was so good with me, and other young players, because it wasn’t just a case of “letting me go.” He sat down with me, Millwall came in with a good offer, and he told me to go and talk to them.
Billy Bonds was the Manager at the time, and it just felt right. I went there and it turned out to be a great move. Billy was exactly the same as a Manager as he was as a player; he was a tough guy but he taught me exactly what league football was about and it was the perfect club for me. If you don’t perform the supporters let you know, but if you do, and you work hard and give everything, they will back you and that’s exactly how it was.
I had a great relationship with the supporters, and it was a tough time for the club because we were struggling and bringing in a lot of young players but I learned so much. It was the perfect time to go there; it wasn’t an easy place to play but if you do the right things and give your best they will back you. I really enjoyed it there.
Q: You mentioned Arsene Wenger and Billy Bonds. Two huge names in the Football world; talk us through their managerial styles and how you got on with them?
A: When Arsene Wenger first came in he was a little bit of an unknown and walking into the Arsenal changing room wasn’t easy and firstly he needed to prove to a lot of the big names there that he was the right manager for the club, and he did that straight away.
I never heard him raise his voice; everything was very calculated, he brought in a lot of dietary things which were new. We bought into that and I just loved his structure; his training sessions were so very structured and he knew what he was doing with every single session and he was a calm guy – a very quiet guy actually.
It was a perfect appointment for the club because he brought in a totally new culture to Arsenal and once those big names buy in he moved the club forward very quickly and brought in some very good players such as Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who, at the time, still had a lot to prove. He already had Tony Adams and Steve Bould of course.
Arsene was great to work for; the training sessions were very intense but he was very calm. Billy Bonds wasn’t a complete opposite; he was so honest with everybody and he had a great career himself. If you played poorly he would tell you, if you did well he would tell you. He knew the game inside out; he was a West Ham legend managing at Millwall and I had so much respect for him. He was fantastic.
Q: You played in over 100 games for Millwall, scoring 31 goals, you had three years there and then, in the summer of 2000, Gillingham come calling. One thing I always wanted to know was whether Peter Taylor had been in touch prior to him moving to Leicester or was the whole thing sparked by Andy Hessenthaler?
A: It was mostly Hessy; the club had got promoted and, for me, it was a case of going into the Championship. I knew a lot about the club because I knew people there and one thing that really struck me was the dressing room. Everyone used to talk about how close the players were and how well they got on.
Going into the Championship and being part of that was something I wanted to be a part of. Hessy was very clear in what he wanted me to do, he brought in a couple of others and it just felt right. When you sit down with a manager sometimes it feels right and sometimes it doesn’t. With Hessy it felt right and the club looked to be moving in the right direction.
Q: We had a couple of really good cup runs during your time here; the first I wanted to touch on was the game with Chelsea. We lost 4-2 of course but it actually turned out to be your first goal in a Gills shirt?
A: I remember that game really well. However, in my first couple of months at the club, I just couldn’t score! The team was playing well, I thought I was playing okay and felt good but the goal wouldn’t come. Chelsea came to Priestfield, it was a great game and they had a lot of quality. They kept getting ahead of us, but we wouldn’t stop and we got back into it a couple of times.
The atmosphere inside Priestfield that day was fantastic; they put us on the back foot and scored early but we kept going, and with the crowd behind us, it was a great occasion.
Q: The next season we were at it again; we headed to your former club, Arsenal. It was 2-2, the fans were going mad and then your former boss decided to throw on a couple of good players?
A: That game epitomised Gillingham at the time. We had good players and our team spirit was incredible. Arsenal had a great team but we played extremely well. Marlon [King] and Ty [Gooden] scored and we were well in it but, as you say, they put on a couple of decent players in Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Their quality came through, those two players changed the game but the away support was full; they didn’t stop signing and it was a great occasion and it was brilliant to be able to put on a good show.
Q: You mentioned how close the group were at the time. During your spell with us did you have any really close friends who you saw outside of the club in addition to training?
A: I’ve been to a lot of clubs and certain players get on with certain people but, at that time, you could literally walk in the dressing room and chat to anybody. I drove in with Marlon King and Nyron Nosworthy because we lived in the Bromley area.
I remember when I first signed Hessy said we were heading for pre-season training in Barbados the next morning and straight away you could see how close everybody was. My wife and two boys used to go to Priestfield and all the wives got on so well and that was really important. Yes, people have friends, but everyone was friendly.
Q: I have mentioned a couple of specific games, but if I asked you for a standout memory, what would you pick?
A: The cup games I think, but personally Wolves away in the FA Cup [January 2002] was a good one. It was possibly the best goal I have scored for the club. Wolves were a good team; we played really well that day and that, insofar as a team performance is concerned, it was really good and we went on to play Chelsea away in the League Cup, Leeds at home in the FA Cup, Derby at home who had Ravanelli in the side. I remember standing in the tunnel at Priestfield looking round and thinking “I know you don’t fancy this.” We were up for it; we won 1-0 and were a lot better than them.
We knew, especially at home, that teams would find it difficult to get anything against us and we had so many good characters such as Ady Pennock, Guy Butters, Barry Ashby and Paul Smith. There are a lot more games, but the ones I’ve mentioned stick out for me.