By Chris Slavin
Tom Soares says his passion for football is still as strong as when he joined Bury on non-contract terms six years ago, and he believes his experience can be useful during Wimbledon's battle to stay up.
An in-depth interview with Tom was published in Tuesday's match day programme for the Charlton game and this is reproduced in full below.
Signed by Stoke City from Crystal Palace for £1.25 million, Tom played in the Premier League. However, after leaving the Potteries he found himself without a club for nine months and he ended up resurrecting his career at Bury, initially by playing without picking up a wage packet.
"At first when I went to Bury I was playing for free," said Tom. "I was willing to play without getting paid because I wanted to get back playing again. I think that shows the kind of person I am. As a child you just play for the love of the game, out there playing in the parks. Obviously, as you get older you earn contracts and start getting paid, so it becomes a job. It's the best job in the world, though, and you're doing it because you love it. If I didn't get a contract again, I'd still be playing in the parks, Sunday League or whatever, just for the love of the game.
"When I left Stoke, a few clubs came in for me, but I waited for a Premier League club. There were different things happening, but the move I wanted didn't work out. Championship clubs were also interested, but at the time I took the wrong advice. I had eight months without a club. I went and trained for a while with Portsmouth, but they were in a bit of a financial situation at the time, so nothing came of that. I kept myself fit, but it's difficult when there's no game at the end of the week. It was a tough time, but I always thought I'd get another club. I have faith in my ability and what I can offer. It was a question of getting the option that was right for me.
"I went up to Bury and trained with them. Kevin Blackwell was in charge – I'd played against him a few times during his playing career. I wasn't as fit as I wanted to be, and I ended up pulling my hamstring. I remember Kevin saying to the physio, 'I want you to work with Tom and get him as fit as you can.' I think I did a lot for Bury, including scoring the goal that earned them promotion. I got a really good reception when I went back there this season. I was really pleased with that, as I had a good relationship with the fans there."
Now 31 years old and having passed the 400-mark for career league appearances earlier this season, Tom is prepared to stand up and be counted as one of Wimbledon's senior players during the run-in.
"It helps a lot that we have experience in the team. Our captain Barry Fuller, Barchy and me have all played plenty of games and been in tough situations like this before. We know what to expect, compared to some of the younger members in the squad, who might not quite understand what's required to get out of this situation.
"I've been in a few relegation battles before, and it's difficult for everyone: the manager, staff, the fans and the players. It's tough, but everyone has to stick together. No-one wants to get relegated, and our aim is to get out of the situation we're in and push the club in the right direction.
"When I first broke into the Palace team with Iain Dowie as manager, we were around the relegation zone in December and we ended up getting promoted in the play-off final at the Millennium Stadium against West Ham. That shows that if you stick together, things can change fairly quickly. Obviously, getting promoted is not going to happen for us this season, but we can still finish the season on a high and push on next season. I was part of something special at Bury. Though they are struggling at the moment, it was much worse when I first joined and we still managed to get promoted. Every club goes through difficult times, but it can make you stronger in the long run."
Tom signed for Wimbledon in January 2017, but after establishing himself as a regular he suffered injury problems that interrupted his progress. Having missed a full pre-season and not featured in the first team until the end of September, Tom was playing catch-up when he started playing regularly again. Now he is aiming to show the form in the centre of the park that made his signing a priority for Neal Ardley 15 months ago.
"I got into the team after I signed, but then I injured my ankle. It was tough when I came back because I then injured my quad and I didn't have a pre-season as such. I was working hard with Jason Moriarty and Stuart Douglas, and they put a good programme in place to get you back. You need that pre-season, though, so that you can crack on at the start of the season. I found it difficult, but these things happen in football. You have to be mentally strong when you come back and get on with it.
"Wimbledon is a massive club and we have a big fanbase. Everyone wants to do well. Unfortunately, it's not been happening for us recently, but everyone is working hard behind the scenes. You can see that the fans are really passionate here and all they want is for us to do well on match days. We work hard in training. I played against the manager in his playing days. What he stands for and the club in general is why I signed. I've also known Coxy for a while, and Bass. I know we're struggling at the moment, but these are exciting times at the club. With the new stadium coming, I can see the club growing and growing. There's only one way it's going – and that's up."
Born in Reading, Tom was spotted by Crystal Palace at the age of just eight, and he was there until the age of 21. Tom had friends at Reading, and his brother Louie, who now plays for Hungerford Town, was also at the Royals' academy, but Tom certainly doesn't regret turning down his hometown club as a teenager.
"I was spotted playing in one of my first tournaments for Reading Town. I went on trial at Palace, and the rest is history. I had an amazing time at Palace, and as it was my first club it will always have a special place in my heart. I had great times there, including playing against some of the best players in the world. I was just a kid when I first got into the team, just 16 or 17, and it was fantastic at that age to be a part of a promotion-winning side.
"I played as a winger when I was younger. I was always a central midfielder, but I was quick back then and I had a few extra tricks, so sometimes I'd play on the right wing with Wayne Routledge on the left. I've just always wanted to play. When I was at Bury I still played on the wing a bit, but then I went into central midfield. The manager here wants me to play the holding midfield role and to do a job for the team so that the likes of Barchy, Lyle and Harry can do things going forward."
Tom's eventful career has included a loan spell at Charlton Athletic. That came in 2009, but a permanent deal to join the Addicks did not materialise. During his time at The Valley, Tom played alongside recent Dons signing Lloyd Sam, and he is fully aware of Sam's footballing talents.
"I enjoyed my time at Charlton – the fans were brilliant. At the end of my loan spell I did sit down for talks and discuss a permanent deal, but it didn't happen, and it was just one of those things. Lloyd can bring a lot of excitement to the team and he creates a lot of chances. He's great on the ball and gets fans on the edge of their seats."