Chris Swailes talks to www.themillers.co.uk...It has been 11 years since a 34-year-old Chris Swailes lined up in the Rotherham United defence, more often than not donning a bandage to cover an injury sustained by his brave approach to keeping the opposition away from the home goal at Millmoor.
Those ‘battle scars’ have continued to mount up over the years but much like in his Millers days, the Gateshead-born defender has refused to relent despite three heart surgeries and a screw in his heel.
However, to think that ‘Swaz’, as he became affectionately known in South Yorkshire, was in his twilight years back then would be a long way from the truth.
While other former professionals of his age may have turned their hand to full-time coaching or looked for employment in another field, this summer a 45-year-old Swailes became the oldest ever goalscorer in a Wembley final as his heroics helped Morpeth Town to a 4-1 FA Vase title as they overcame Hereford FC at the national stadium.
Again, you could be forgiven for thinking that would be a fantastic way to sign off on a professional career that began in 1991, but the Gateshead-born defender is once again immersed in the action of 2016/17 with Morpeth and says he just can’t give up the game he has devoted his life to.
“I just love it too much,” Swailes enthused when speaking to the official matchday programme.
“I couldn’t wait for the season to start as soon as we were done at Wembley. You want to have a rest but I was just as excited when the fixtures came out and when the new signings came in and everything. I can’t run around and play and train as much as I’d like to but that’s the only thing.
“When I’m working full time and playing Saturday, Tuesday, I just have to hold myself back a bit because I want to play every game. The manager uses me sparingly now and I don’t like it but its great how he handles me.
“It’s far sweeter when you’re older and you’ve been around the block. For me to win at Wembley at this age is something you couldn’t write. I never experienced Wembley properly when I was playing in the league, so to do it when I should have my pipe and slippers on makes it all the more rewarding.”
It hasn’t always been plain sailing for the defiant defender whose health problems have threatened to halt his playing days on more than one occasion and after joining up with Ronnie Moore and John Breckin at Oldham Athletic, he was actually forced to retire before more recent heart issues that required major surgery.
“Two years ago when I had my heart problems was the worst time. I didn’t think I could walk or run again let alone play football,” Swailes explained.
“I’ve got a three to four inch screw in my heel now and I realise I should never have carried on as I did. I played through the pain at Oldham with injections and pills and managed to get 19 games in which is silly when I think about it.
“After that I ran down my contract, Ronnie lost his job and I retired. Then I was at home applying for jobs straight out of football. I applied for jobs at colleges and in academies and I worked in Middlesbrough’s youth setup for a while with their Under 15’s.”
There is plenty for Swailes to fall back on when the curtain does eventually fall on his playing days with a UEFA A and B Licence already on his resume alongside experience working in colleges as a football coach, but he says nothing will ever replicate the feeling of action at 3pm on Saturday afternoon.
“I took my B Licence when I was 35 at Oldham and then did my A Licence two years later,” he explained.
“I always thought I’d get into coaching and always enjoyed it as it felt like a natural step up. That said, it’s nowhere near playing football for me. It’s second best in my eyes and that’s why I can’t pack the game in because nothing can replace it.”
The feeling of fondness between Millers supporters and the man himself are mutual and tales are still told of Swailes-like defending amongst supporters of the club. The 45-year-old looks back on his time at Millmoor with great affection and says being the underdog in was something that he and his teammates relished greatly.
“I think my favourite thing was taking the scalps along the way,” Swailes continued.
“We were always fighting above our weight and the big clubs would come to town and would think they could beat us but we never gave them an easy ride.
“We weren’t household names but I tell you what, people remembered us after they’d played us.
“I look at it and think we defied the odds and played like Leicester did last season and I think Ronnie meant that. I’m not sure if Ranieri looked at his Rotherham side for inspiration but there were a lot of similarities!
“We had a great mixture of youth and experience with the likes of Monkhouse and Sedgy coming through alongside us oldies like myself, Martin McIntosh and Dawsy. We were the wrong side of 30 but we were still hungry and brought that experience."