Danny Graham returned to Middlesbrough, the club where he began his professional career, in the last hours of the winter transfer window. Sports Writer Steph Clark caught up with the striker at Middlesbrough's Rockliffe Park training ground this week
THEY say home is where the heart is, and for Danny Graham, coming back to the place where it all started is an opportunity for the striker to rediscover himself.
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From walking through the corridors inside Middlesbrough’s Rockliffe Park training ground, Graham is offered an instant reminder of the good times he enjoyed during his first spell at the club.
Hanging from a wall is an England Under-19 squad picture from 2006, which Graham was part of alongside 16 other Boro youth team players.
Adam Johnson, Lee Cattermole, Stuart Downing and James Morrison are among several that have gone on to establish themselves at the highest level following their apprenticeships at the Riverside. Graham is no different.
An old-fashioned English centre forward that had bags of potential when he made a breakthrough into the first-team, only to find his opportunities limited by the likes of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka.
After five loan spells, the Gateshead-born striker decided it was time to fly the nest and after a good spells at Carlisle and Watford the former Northern League front man finally found his feet in the Premier League with Swansea City.
He is another example of Boro’s infamous production line, however just under 12 months ago Graham’s career hit a brick wall and he managed only one goal throughout the whole of 2013.
A move back to the North-East with Sunderland is yet to work out, but a loan move back to Teesside has given Graham a chance to get his career back on track, and where better to do that than somewhere the striker still regards as home?
While some of the faces remain the same, there have been plenty of changes at the Riverside since Graham last made an appearance in a Boro shirt.
The glory days in the Premier League have been swapped for difficult times in the Championship, but Graham admits coming back to Middlesbrough has given him a new lease of life – and he’s determined to put the past year behind him.
“It’s been quite tough to be honest,” said Graham, who returns to former club Watford this afternoon. “I would never let myself get that low, though. You have spells when you are very confident and when you’re not so confident but I would never let myself get so low where I would doubt myself.
“It’s just a case of being strong and having the support of your family and friends around you. To come back here is great for me and I’m relishing every moment of it.
“I asked if I could go on loan and thankfully Middlesbrough showed an interest in me straight away. I spoke to Ron Bone (Middlesbrough’s Head of Academy Recruitment) about 14 times a day trying to get something sorted and eventually it did.
“It has been difficult, it’s been a horrible year, but you’ve got to take it on the chin because football can change very quickly and you have to take the highs with the lows.
“I’ve got good memories from my time here and also from Watford and hopefully that can help me. It builds your confidence. 2013 was a horrible year, but coming here I feel like I’ve got my confidence back and that I’ve got a new lease of life. I feel fresh and I’m hungry for goals.
“It is a chance for me to rediscover myself and get back on the goal trail and do well for a club that gave me my first chance in professional football.”
Graham made his second Middlesbrough debut in last Saturday’s goalless draw with Blackburn and although it ended without a goal, the 28-year-old admits playing at the Riverside again felt special.
“It was great. I left six years ago so it’s a long time since I’ve been to the Riverside and worn a Middlesbrough shirt. It was a great moment for me and my family.
“There have been a lot of changes since I was last here. They were in a UEFA Cup final and finishing in the top half of the Premier League. There were all sorts of big names. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Mark Viduka, George Boateng, Bolo Zenden.
“The change here is quite massive. We’re a Championship team and trying to get out of this division, but there are a lot of good players in the squad. I’ve seen that over the last ten days and hopefully we can climb up the league and make a play-off push.”
Going back to Watford today will also bring back good memories for the striker. His best goal return came during his second season at Vicarage Road, where he notched 27 times. Boro will hope a trip down memory lane can reinvigorate Graham even though there is extra pressure from close quarters to succeed.
“My partner is from Middlesbrough and all her family are Boro fans so they were all at the game on Saturday. We wanted to get a result but that wasn’t the case unfortunately.
“It puts extra pressure on me. Put it this way I’m not going round my partner’s family’s house because Middlesbrough is all they talk about!
“For me it’s not about pressure, though. It’s about coming back to a place that I love that gave me my first chance. I want to repay them now and if I can help us get in the play-offs that would be great.”
Graham could have been back at the Riverside much sooner when the club had a bid accepted by Swansea little over a year ago, but his move to Sunderland was already so far down the line that a return failed to materialise.
What happens at the end of his loan spell remains to be seen and once again Graham could find himself at a crossroads in his career. He has two years left on his contract at the Stadium of Light, but the striker revealed he is yet to speak to anyone at the club since Gus Poyet took over.
For now, though, it is clear there is only one thing on the striker’s mind and that is helping Boro climb up the league in the hope they will help him find his feet again.
He said: “From the minute I walked in at Sunderland I wanted to make it work. I got sent out on loan and I haven’t spoken to anyone at the club since the new manager took over, which is fair enough because they’re in a massive relegation battle so I understand why no one has contacted me.
“For me, it was all about playing games. I’m not someone that can sit around and wait too long to be playing. I don’t want to sit around, pick up money and not be playing week in week out.
“That’s why I dropped down to the Championship. There’s a lot of Saturday, Tuesday games in this league so I can get plenty of football in between now and then.
“I’ve still got two years left at Sunderland. We’ll have to wait and see in the summer but I want to put that at the back of my mind and concentrate on playing for Middlesbrough.
“We’ve got two-and-a-half months left so there’s plenty of time to play between now and then and do well and then we’ll see what the summer brings."