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INTERVIEW: Roker Report Meets... Ben Herd, best mate and mentor of Sunderland newbie Luke O’Nien

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Ex-Watford defender Ben Herd is not only Luke O’Nien’s mentor, but also his best mate. We sat down with him to find out about his interesting relationship with the Sunderland newbie, and to hear his perspective on how he thinks he’ll fare on Wearside.

Ben Herd with Luke O’Nien on the day he signed for Sunderland
BHPP Academy

RR: Hi Ben - thanks for sitting down with us. Could you maybe just give us a little bit of background on what you do?

BH: I used to be a professional footballer - I started off at Watford, similar to Luke, and then went on to Shrewsbury for four years and then Aldershot in the Football League for four years. I got out of football at 27/28 - I turned down moves that summer because I wanted to play abroad and then some things happened in my personal life that put paid to that.

Football is my life, as it is with Luke, and I’ve always questioned how we train in this country and the methods that we use and it never really made sense to me. I wanted to produce players, and I set up my academy with very different training methods, if you like, ones I’ve learned during my career.

The methods are based on foreign adaptations - they’re very traditional abroad but probably very innovative for this country. I’ve been training Luke with these methods for four years now, since he was on loan at Wealdstone.

We have an academy for boys between 16 and 18. We offer them a great education and they train every day with myself. Luke was taking a team for me too, and he was very much involved in my academy.

We’ve had some good success - we had a boy go over to Russia to join Zenit St Petersburg, for instance, and we had Junior Morias (formerly of Peterborough United) who is now at Northampton Town.

In essence I’m looking for boys that have been released by academies, that aren’t quite good enough at a certain age. I often get players that are deemed too small - like Luke - and its my job to train them and try and put them in the world of football.

RR: And where does Luke come into it all, then?

BH: I met Luke, funnily enough, when I was trying to play abroad. I was working out a deal with CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria but it fell through. I went back to Watford to train with them - I kinda blagged my way back there when Gianfranco Zola was manager - for around twelve weeks or so, and that’s when I met Luke.

He was this annoying little kid actually... I was like, “who is this kid? He’s just a bit irritating...” but he grew on me really quickly. Luke and I would spend pretty much every day at Watford’s training ground, training all afternoon. We’d set each other challenges! We’d stay there until they kicked us out.

And from there it grew - with the formation of my academy it started to get a little bit more serious with Luke. He was on loan with Wealdstone and wasn’t really going anywhere, and then he got released at the end of that season which is when we tried to improve his training.

I think the biggest breakthrough has came in the last year.

Luke was growing a little bit frustrated with his development and he needed to do more. We came to an agreement that he had to do more. We agreed that we’d meet up in the mornings and he’d train at my academy - before he went to training at Wycombe he’d train with me on a morning at about quarter to seven in the morning, at his old school where my son now goes, and we would use the sports hall in there.

We’d train at least three times a week for an hour or so, and then he’d go on and train at Wycombe. Since then, when we made that commitment, I think Luke has shown the best form of his career. It’s really driven him on.

You guys have signed him off the back of it, and there were other clubs that wanted to sign him too - when you look back to a 3-4 years ago, when he was deemed too small and that he couldn’t move his feet, it’s a fantastic achievement.

I think its a testament to him more than anybody. There’s not many footballers that have the attitude that he has - in fact, none. He’s prepared to work extremely hard, and work on his weaknesses.

He would have me in training before I played for St Albans! If Wycombe’s game got called off, we’d be training before I went to play... I’d be knackered during the game because of it, but it was all worth it since I was helping him to get to where he needs to be.

It wasn’t easy and I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him either. For instance... waking up at 6 o’clock, turning to my wife and saying, “... this kid, he better go and make it big cos I’m giving up an awful lot of my time to help him!”

But, ultimately, he’s my best friend. We go on holiday together and play golf - we were in each other’s lives pretty much every day... so I’m pretty sad from that point of view, but over the moon and delighted that he’s joined such a fantastic club.

You haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s got so much more to give than he’s shown at Wycombe, and I think that’s conducive to the way that they play. There’s so much more to his game and I think that fans there are going to like him because he gives everything - every single training session, in his life, his diet... you can’t question anything in his life because he’s bang on it. The technical ability that he’s got is there - and I think with the stage that he’s got now, with the players he’s got around him now at this fantastic club, he’s going to really excel and properly showcase what he’s capable of.

You guys are in for a treat. He’s a very, very good player.

RR: I’d read quite a lot about him before he signed, and the vibe that you get from people that know him is that he’s so switched on and is very down to Earth, and it shows in his game...

BH: Absolutely. At the end of the day we might be footballers but we are still human. You have to have a good attitude and good ethics to become a very good player, because you’ve got to have that humility and that drive to get better.

RR: I read he keeps a mind diary...

BH: He’s weird mate! He writes everything down. Everything. His thoughts, training programmes, him and I - whatever it is, he’ll write it down and reflect upon it.

He’s always got a computer or book by him, and he always analyses - he’s definitely got OCD - but he’s always analysing and looking at where he can make improvements, in training and in every aspect of his life, really.

He’ll reflect and he’ll look back and that’s just his way of coping with life.

He’s always striving to move forward. He’s never, ever satisfied.

If you play him at Chess, Badminton, golf, anything... he wants to win. He’s insufferable when he does win cos he just wants to annoy you and you just want to punch him or wrap a golf club around his head, but in everything he does he wants to be the best at it and, if he’s not, he’ll go away and keep playing it until he makes sure that he is the best at it.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: He suffered rejection in the past when he got released by Watford, so he’s had to work his way back up steadily. He’s still very young and hasn’t reached the top yet - could you see him playing top flight football one day? Is he that good?

BH: Absolutely, yeah. I don’t want to put too much pressure on him but, from my own career, I played with people at Watford that went on to play international football and went on to be mainstays in the Premier League, and he shares very similar qualities with people like that.

He’s a different type of player but has a very similar mentality - he reminds me of Gylfi Sigurdsson, who I played with at Shrewsbury. Gylfi is fluent in multiple languages, was studying for a degree and his appetite for training was very good.

I don’t think people should put ceilings upon themselves, and Luke falls into that category.

One thing is for sure, he has very high ambitions and has high expectations of himself, and he wants to reach the top. And it’s okay saying those things, but the difference between Luke and many other people is that he will work hard to get there. Talk is cheap and some people can’t back that up with their actions, and Luke is the sort of person that will back it up as the last year has showed.

He very much takes leadership of his own career, and for me he’s definitely at the right club now for him to grow and reach the Premier League. It’s a Premier League club that has fallen on hard times - hopefully they’re on their way back up, and it’s very good timing for Sunderland and Luke to meet and rise through the leagues together.

It’s feasible that they could earn back to back promotions, so hopefully he’s a very influential person in that team and in getting Sunderland back to where they belong.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: You’ve been with Luke - training with him and helping him to improve - pretty much every day over the last year or so of his career, but he’s moved North and that’s all going to change now. Have you spoke about what he’s going to do going forward?

BH: Yeah, absolutely. I think Luke recognises that the training is bigger than the both of us, and that the training has given him the tools to get the move to Sunderland, so he’d be a fool to stop now. We’re going to liaise with one another.

You literally will not get him out of the training ground. I went to the training ground yesterday with him and it’s got everything he needs in one place.

I think there’s a cottage on the training ground and he’s trying to get in there so he doesn’t actually have to leave the training ground and can just stay there... he text me this morning saying how bloody wonderful it was!

We’re going to do a programme and we’ll work together - it’s not going to be easy, but I’m hoping he’ll make friends up there, maybe with one or two of the younger players, that he can maybe rub off on and then possibly help him with his training.

He’s got the training ingrained in him now after four years of it, so he’s not daft, but I want to continue working with him and help him to reach the next level - I want him to be the best player at Sunderland and that’s his aim as well.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: What can you tell us about how the move to Sunderland came about?

BH: It’s really interesting actually - we spoke earlier in the summer and, no disrespect to Wycombe as they were fantastic with him, but he had outgrown them somewhat and he maybe needed a higher platform. We sat down and discussed clubs that would maybe be a good fit for him, and Sunderland’s name was one of them.

He rang me on Friday. There was another team in for him, they had been on the edges for the last few weeks but were procrastinating a little bit, and I finally thought that they had got their act together and made a move, but he said “another team have came in for me”.

He made me play a little guessing game, and I said “well, they’re obviously better than the other club who have been trying to get you” and he said, “yeah, they are”.

So I was like “okay... are they a Championship club?” and he said “no”. So I went through all of the clubs in League One and it suddenly dawned on me... Sunderland!

He told me that a bid had been accepted and that Sunderland wanted him to travel North for a medical. He was very cool about it all actually!

I actually saw that Roker Report were the first guys that reported on the news in the mainstream but other than that nobody knew, and from there it just took off!

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: And everything happened quickly...

BH: Yeah, everything happened quickly and that’s a good thing for him as it gives him no time to worry about things - we were in the car, drove up, medical, training today... boom, done.

Inevitably he’s going to have some tough times, of course he will, but he’s at a great age and he’s got good experience behind him and he’s got no fear. He’ll just attack it.

He’s very clear with where he wants to get to in his career. It’s alright saying what you are going to do but now he’s at Sunderland he’s got to walk the walk - he’s got to go out there and show people what he can do.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: We did of course see you lads enjoying yourselves in the car!

BH: When we came up on Sunday, I dunno how, but it went viral!

We were only mucking around in the car, singing songs - that’s one of his songs at Wycombe, ‘Sweet Child O’Nien’, and I put it on Instagram.

It had about 18,000 hits the last time I checked!

I didn’t realise how fanatical you guys are...

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Luke is, apparently, very hard working. We love grafters up here, and when the fans can see a player working hard they really get behind them.

BH: Luke does work very hard but he’s also technically very good, and there’s more about him than just being a player that runs around loads and gets stuck in. I don’t think he gets the credit that he deserves - he’s also a very good footballer. Working hard is a fundamental in life, but certainly in football.

You are right though, it is important to make that connection with the fans. Every single fan would love to be on the pitch representing their team, and your job as a custodian of the shirt is to represent those fans.

Luke will put his heart and soul into it.

He’s already talking about buying a house up there - he’s not going to be one of those that come home every two minutes, he’s not that type of character. You’re more likely to see him surfing in the sea on the coast there than you are seeing him back down south visiting his friends, that’s just the way that he is.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: Take us through your experience having arrived at the club with Luke - what was that like, and how did you find their hospitality?

BH: Fantastic - Leanne, the player liaison lady, she looked after us for most of the day.

We were put up in the Hilton hotel in Gateshead. Luke and I shared a bed as I don’t think they wanted to pay for another room for us both! We got up early, at about 7am, had some breakfast and then made our way over to the training ground.

Luke went off for a medical and met the doctor and secretary whilst me and his agent sat in the canteen, chatting with the players as they passed through. There was a good vibe.

Then we met the assistant manager, the goalkeeper coach and the manager and they spoke really well.

His medical didn’t take long - they said it was the most straight-forward medical that they’ve done, which doesn’t surprise me as he’s ultra-fit.

We watched a bit of training and it was good to have a walk around. We were shown around the training complex, which was fantastic - unbelievable really. I’d like to send some of my boys up there!

Then we went to the Stadium of Light, which was great. Luke requested that. I think they were wanting to do the promotional stuff at the academy but we wanted to see Luke at the Stadium and on the pitch, so we asked if we could go there instead and they re-organised it for us.

I had a lump in my throat as I saw him put the Sunderland shirt on.

It’s a symbolic shirt - one that has become accustomed to being in the top flight and on Match of the Day every week. When you see that, everything in the background and Luke stood on the pitch... it’s fantastic, really.

Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

RR: If you were talking to someone that was maybe a bit sceptical about Sunderland signing Luke, what would you say to them?

BH: Give him a chance. Time will tell. We could have another conversation in six months and it might go the other way. It’s not going to though - he’s going to have bad games, but I know him and I know how hard he’ll work to rectify his mistakes.

It’s not going to happen overnight, so give the kid a chance and he’ll repay you. If it’s not going well he’ll do something to make sure that he puts it right.

I don’t think you’ll ever fault his attitude, work-rate or commitment. And I hope that, with the team of players he’s got around him there, the more technical side of his game is going to come out at Sunderland. He’s going to have to adapt - it’s not easy and he’s never played at this level before - but I’m sure he’ll adapt quickly.

Just get behind him, I say.