Former Wolves man Michael Kightly: The highs and lows

For many years, a painting of Michael Kightly celebrating scoring against Cardiff adorned the walls of Wolves’ Compton Park training ground, just outside the manager’s office.

Michael Kightly
Michael Kightly

The fantastic painting was the handiwork of analyst Christy Fenwick, and was left as a present to the coaching staff after he moved on to Chelsea in 2007, writes Paul Berry.

It was a fitting tribute, not least as Kightly was one of those who epitomised the regeneration of Wolves in the first season under Mick McCarthy, part of the much-vaunted ‘young and hungry’ mantra which produced a complete reboot for the club after a difficult few years.

Switch it off and switch it on again, for sure.

So many were brought into the dressing room from lower levels of football, but sharing an energy and enthusiasm that so gloriously re-invigorated not just a team, but an entire fanbase.

It was new, it was fresh and it was exciting. And Kightly, a 21-year-old plundered from Grays Athletic in the Nationwide Conference, was at the heart of it. Or, more to the point, racing down the right wing of it.

Wolves welcome Leeds to Molineux on Friday night, and it was 14 years ago to the week that Kightly struck a late winner, his fifth goal for the club, in a previous fixture between the two.

That was right in the middle of such an exhilarating - if surprising - season for Wolves, when a team boasting barely 11 senior players upon McCarthy’s arrival at its start, had made it all the way to the play-offs by its end.

“I remember that Leeds goal, I cut inside and managed to score towards the end of a game which we had dominated,” recalls Kightly, who also notched against Leeds for Burton Albion later in his career.

“Leeds were fighting for their lives for safety at the time, and we were pushing for the play-offs.

“For a long time we struggled to break the deadlock, so there was a bit of relief when it went in.

“It was all going really well for us at that time – and that was a big three points against a big club.

“I think what Mick had done so well was in recognising that the club had maybe gone a little bit stale, and so he went down the route of bringing in younger players from the lower leagues.

“For people like me coming in, it certainly didn’t feel stale at all.

“It felt amazing to be at such a big club and a privilege to play for Wolves and that was the feeling throughout the squad.

“We were playing for ourselves because we were ambitious, but we were also playing for the badge.

“I think the fans could tell that, and it was unbelievable that first season when we managed to go on and reach the play-offs.

“We had been among the bookies favourites to actually get relegated, and the fans might have thought we were in for a bad season bringing in some unknown faces like myself.

“But eventually I think they loved it, being the underdogs, and one of the games that always sticks in my mind is when we lost 6-0 at home to Southampton.

“We played unbelievably that game – it sounds crazy but it’s true – and we got a standing ovation coming off the pitch which I’m not sure happens too often in that situation!

“It’s always great when you are winning games, but when you lose how the fans react can be massively important.

“That gave us such a lift that day, it told us the fans were with us and we really had to try and do something good and achieve something for them.

“Thankfully we did, we were on the crest of the wave and went on to win the Championship and reach the Premier League a couple of years later.”

Sadly however, that upward curve was destined not to last, neither for Wolves, nor for Kightly.

After the sunshine, came the rain.

Having been one of the key factors in helping propel Wolves to the brink of the Premier League, a broken metatarsal sustained in a training ground friendly meant that his final impact was a crucial late winning goal at Nottingham Forest, sparking fantastic scenes of celebration with the travelling fans.

Even more desperately, that was to prove a sign of what was to follow, particularly in the following two seasons as more injury woes, and specifically a problem with tendonitis that proved tricky both to diagnose and treat, limited Kightly’s impact.

Through no fault of his own Kightly’s rapid rise to success had painfully stalled, and he was struggling to deal with it.

“I was in a dark place for a time at Wolves, although I probably didn’t realise it until later on,” he explains.

“I was coming home from the training ground and just locking myself away in a room.

“I was either sleeping, playing Call of Duty till dinner time, eating, then either going back to bed and sleeping or getting back on the computer.

“I was doing that every day, I wasn’t really speaking to anyone, and I became very socially unaware.

Kightly has made a foray into pundity with Sky

“I wasn’t trying to be rude, I was just hiding away from everyone and everything.

“Even when people tried to speak to me, to ask me about the injury, to ask me how I was, I just used to swerve those conversations in the same way as I swerved doing interviews.

“I didn’t want to speak to anyone, because if I was talking about my injury, it made me feel so low and worthless.

“At the time I thought I was dealing with it, I thought I was fine.

“But later on in my career, when I looked back, I started to realise, that behaviour wasn’t normal, that was weird.

“And when I think about that time now I definitely realise, I needed help.”

Kightly did grace the Premier League with Wolves, both in the first two seasons after promotion and then the second half of the third after a loan spell under Sean Dyche at Watford produced a sustained run of games to get back in the groove.

His first Premier League goal arrived during as perfect a 45 minutes as Wolves produced at the top level at that time in leading Aston Villa 2-1, only to go on and lose 3-2 with McCarthy losing his job three weeks later.

There were so many other highlights for Kightly at Wolves, Forest at home in the promotion season as well as Forest away, that fantastic early impact and, perhaps most pertinently, making friends for life in that dressing room.

Wolves at the time entertained a ‘Band of Brothers’ mentality which has led to so many from that time staying in close touch, even getting together for a night down the pub to reminisce not long before the pandemic arrived last year.

“We had such a tight bond, we still do,” Kightly explains.

“When you go into a new dressing room it is always daunting, heading into an environment where there are 25 lads who already know each other, and in my case were probably questioning why I had been signed given I had been playing non-league.

“Not long after I came in then Wardy (Stephen Ward) arrived from Bohemians, and Andy Keogh from Scunthorpe, and they were probably both feeling the same.

“But we needn’t have worried.

“That squad was literally like a family, every one of them, and it wasn’t difficult to settle in at all.

“You can see that not just in the success we had together on the pitch but how that now, even though we all went off and had different careers with different teams, we stayed in touch.

“So many of us have either stayed around or returned to the local area, and not long before lockdown about 12 of us from those times had a night down the pub in Sutton!

“There we all were, reminiscing about the good old days, which is nice to do every now and again.

“We knew at the time it was a special dressing room, and I think we appreciate that even more now.

“When lockdown finishes, and the pubs are open again, I am sure we will be heading back at some stage for another little session!”

That togetherness and strong spirit extended to include the fans who took that McCarthy team so much to their hearts, as was demonstrated by the reaction to that 6-0 home defeat to Southampton.

For Kightly however, life at Wolves didn’t quite bring the happy ending that perhaps it deserved, when his move to Stoke, keeping him in a Premier League which Wolves were departing, drew criticism from some supporters who felt that he should have stayed at the club given his previous and unfortunate absences.

But football, life even, is rarely that straightforward.

Wolves were heading in a different direction, new boss Stale Solbakken was keen to bring in new faces, and ultimately it was one of those moves which benefitted all three parties.

As time has passed, and Kightly has had more chance to explain his position, there is a sense that for many supporters their stance has softened with a greater understanding both of what was going on at the time and how Wolves were unravelling behind the scenes.

“I know some fans weren’t happy when I left, and I absolutely understand that,” he recalls.

“It was a difficult time for me to leave, and an emotional time, but it also felt the right time with the way the club was changing.

“It’s nothing against Stoke and Burnley who are both big clubs who I moved on to, and I enjoyed myself at both, but I think part of my love for football died after I left Wolves.

“Things never quite seemed the same again and I lost a bit of fire in my belly.

“I just hope that the Wolves fans think well of me and realise how much I appreciated their support – I will always have nothing but brilliant memories of everyone associated with the club.

“And I always enjoyed playing in front of Wolves fans – I always felt that if you played for the badge and they could see you working as hard as you could they would forgive you for losing a game now and then.

“I said this recently about fans not being allowed in stadiums – I think it has affected Wolves as a football club more than any other team in the Premier League.

“They really do become that 12th man at Molineux, and not having that has affected the team.”

That lingering feeling for the fans meant that for Kightly, after those spells with Stoke and Burnley which included more time in the Premier League, there was to be no celebration, and in fact an apology, when scoring the winner for Burton Albion against Wolves later in his career.

His footballing days would then end right where they had started, with Southend, the team he first joined having previously been on the books at Tottenham, and it was 18 months ago that Kightly was faced with that dreaded dilemma of hanging up his boots.

In his case it wasn’t the most difficult of decisions, as, after over 400 senior appearances featuring 74 goals, his body was telling him it was time to call it a day.

The trickier proposition was what would come next, but Kightly has worked just as hard as he did as a player in making some impressive inroads into the world of media punditry.

Regular slots have followed with the likes of the BBC, Sky Sports – most recently covering Sunday’s win at Southampton - Talksport and Wolves TV, setting some very solid foundations and ensuring he is able to stay well connected within the game.

“I was worried about what would happen after retiring,” the 35-year-old admits.

“It sounds funny so say it, but I feel like lockdown has almost helped me.

“The world isn’t normal at the minute, and it just feels like my retirement rolled into that and, in a selfish way, has helped me adapt.

“There haven’t been fans at stadiums, and as a player that is what you miss, playing in front of crowds and the buzz that it gives you.

“The media side was something I have always wanted to get into, and so far it has gone well.

“I know it is very competitive and there are a lot of former players who want to do it which can make it difficult to get the opportunities.

“Matt Murray has helped me a lot, giving me some good contacts, and I feel like I have been getting better over the last 18 months and will continue to learn even more.

“I have been fortunate to float about and work for different organisations and have not been committed to any one thing and it’s been nice to go at it that way.

“It is almost the next best thing from playing or managing, and I enjoy talking about football and looking at the game from a different angle.

“And having played football for 17 years professionally, hopefully I know a bit of what I’m talking about!”

When he says he has played professionally for 17 years, it isn’t quite the end of the Kightly footballing fairytale just yet.

Last September it was announced that he had signed for Rushall Olympic, in the Southern Central Premier Division, back to those non-league roots which gave him such a healthy grounding all those years ago.

Michael Kightly makes his home debut for Rushall.

Rushall’s season unfortunately remains curtailed at the present time due to the pandemic, but not before Kightly had relished the opportunity to start patrolling the flanks again.

“I took a year out completely when I retired as I really needed a break from playing, both mentally and physically,” says Kightly, now part of a squad including former Wolves Academy graduates Jon Flatt and Sam Whittall.

“During the first lockdown I needed to do something and started running every day and doing some high intensity sessions and felt I got to a decent level of fitness.

“Then I thought, do you know what? If I still feel I can run around and contribute to a team why not try and play for a club locally?

“There were actually a few options, but I went for Rushall, who have got a manager in Liam McDonald who is a similar age to me, and a great set of lads.

“They have taken me on board brilliantly and when we were playing before it got stopped I was really enjoying it.

“It brings back all the banter of being part of a dressing room again and there are a couple of Albion fans in the team and the kitman is a big West Brom fan so he gives me a fair bit of stick.

“As to the opposition, they all seem so young nowadays, so I’m fairly sure none of them will remember me!

“When a 17 or 18-year-old full back lines up against me he is probably wondering what this old man is doing still playing!”

There might be the odd bit of banter shared with younger opponents when Kightly dusts down the boots again for Rushall when football eventually restarts.

But while he might be trying to go past those opponents on a Saturday afternoon, Kightly harbours a more serious and deep-rooted desire to play his part in helping younger professionals as part of his post-playing career.

His 17 years had pretty much everything.

Progressing from non-league to Premier League, dealing with the increased profile of success, and the misery of long-term injury - there isn’t much Kightly hasn’t experienced.

And that includes those struggles with mental health which can be part of life for so many footballers during an existence which is so rarely conducted on an even keel.

“Football can be put on such a pedestal and I think sometimes people see footballers earning a certain amount of money and think they must be a robot and immune to any problems,” Kightly explains.

“it’s nothing like that at all, and footballers can suffer the same sort of issues as anyone else.

“Sometimes it is the little things, like how you are treated by a manager.

“One manager might treat you like a son, but the next one might hate you, and that can be difficult for your mentality and you might need to be thick-skinned to get through it.

“More seriously, look at the racial abuse which some players are currently receiving on social media – I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to cope with that.

“Don’t get me wrong, being a footballer is the best job in the world and I feel very privileged and fortunate that I was able to fulfil my dream.

“But there are negatives, just like with any job.

“When you are injured, and you are working in the gym looking out on the training ground, doing day after day of exercises which don’t seem to be helping, it is horrible.

“If you have an injury and you know you are getting back in four weeks or six weeks you can see a target and some light at the end of the tunnel.

“I never had that with my worst injury, and I found that really difficult mentally.”

Based around those personal experiences, Kightly would love to pass on his knowledge and empathy to those who may suffer the same trials and tribulations and not know where to turn.

Whilst he looks back and is happy to report that Wolves did try and help him, he feels it wasn’t with the right people, and, in any case, there is a strong argument that the very best advice and guidance can come outside of the football club.

News emerged last week of an excellent PFA initiative – the Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme – which includes former Wolves captain Danny Batth as one of a number of mentors forming a support network for footballers at all levels of the game with the aim of increasing the number of players from the British Asian community.

Kightly believes a similar scheme could also be used where former players can act as mentors to help those going through similar experiences to those which he went through during his career.

“It is difficult when you are playing and struggling, because you have your team-mates who you get on with but they have their own problems and their own aims to carry on performing in what they are doing,” he says.

“There was also an occasion towards the end of my career that I decided to open up to a manager and relay details of personal issues I was facing, and when it came to the next game, I was dropped.

“That is the worst thing he could have done.

“People tell you to come out and speak about your problems, and then the moment you do it, you get dropped?

“I was dropped because the manager thought that mentally I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and yet actually going out and playing football at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon was probably the one thing I really needed to do.

“I have a strong opinion that former players can help by maybe being attached to clubs and speaking to different players who have problems either on or off the pitch.

“Those problems I have talked about, when I was just going home and shutting everything out - if I had just had someone I could sit down with for a coffee once a week it would have made a big difference.

“I would love to be that person now on the other side, it feels like I have a passion for it.

“I have done it in my career where players have had the same injury as I have and I have seen them struggling mentally.

“I even spoke to someone on Instagram recently, who isn’t a professional footballer, who was struggling from tendonitis, the same as I had.

“He was struggling even to walk up and down the stairs, and I had a few messages with him to try and help him.

“Having been through what I have, it feels like it is my duty to help someone else because that is what I would have wanted at the time.

“I am already working with the agency I was with as a player and speaking to a couple of players on a weekly basis, just trying to help them through any issues they might have off the pitch.

“The mentoring side is something I am really passionate about, but lockdown has made it slow in terms of trying to pick it up more.

“I can’t just go and watch games, can’t really speak to people face to face with all the social distancing, but it is something I certainly want to step up and look into when things have improved.

“I feel like I definitely have something to offer.”

Like everyone, life isn’t normal for Kightly at the present time, but he is making the best of it, spending time with his children, and keeping himself fit.

Indeed, if you find yourself walking on Cannock Chase and catch sight of a figure cycling past with the same pace and purpose as he and Matt Jarvis did on opposite flanks at Wolves over a decade ago, it just might be Kightly!

“I feel fortunate to still be involved in the game with the media work and with Rushall, and hopefully to be able to help out some other players in the future,” he admits.

“At the minute there are dark times for everyone with the pandemic, and hopefully it will be sorted out pretty soon.”

That image of Kightly may no longer adorn the walls of the Compton training ground, just as he no longer graces the wide, open spaces of Molineux.

But having gone through such a contrasting mix of events and emotions during a lengthy career, the pictures he can paint to help those following in his footsteps may yet be a legacy which carries just as much impact.

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