Even a two-decade playing career couldn’t entirely prepare Darren Byfield for his managerial introduction, but into his second season at Redditch United, the former Aston Villa, Sunderland and Jamaica striker has some old friends by his side and a lifelong love of the game booming bolder than ever.
His finishing instinct and impactful leading of the line meant Darren Byfield became a recognisable figure around English football in the 2000s. The Birmingham product featured for clubs in each of the top four divisions, and while no experience has been prouder than becoming a father, it’s been a life largely spent devoted to football for the kid who played until the light went out back home in Aston.
Being bonded with a game so emphatic in the extremes it can throw you between means that it could never really be a peaceful, plain-sailing adventure. Nevertheless, for all the highs and lows that Walsall’s 2001 Division Two play-off final hero has felt, you still find him on the training pitch throughout each week, in his present-day guise as Redditch United’s manager.
Every experience has had its hand in sculpting who he is, but nostalgia naturally draws you to the high times, and Darren’s best-loved scenes had a backing track to match. The thunderous pride he felt when representing the nation of his parentage, Jamaica, was quite something, though before that ever came into the picture, there was another island paradise on his map.
It was a place of UK garage music, two-step and Cypriot summer sun, with a swarm of footballers along for the ride. The eternal crossover between football and music is explored and celebrated in each interview on here and it’s a knowing laugh from Darren at the very mention of what was for a time, the must-visit end-of-season destination.
“Yeah, Ayia Napa – I’m getting excited just thinking about it! That was one of my first holidays after Magaluf.
“I mean Magaluf was brilliant, but Ayia Napa was brilliant because I’d just got myself involved with the first-team squad at Aston Villa and then we went out there and it was full of footballers. It was just like, ‘Wow.’
“Chelsea players, Arsenal players, local from Birmingham – everyone just came together and it was a ‘who’s who’ out there. I remember the ‘Black & White’ club.
“It was brilliant.”
Darren had added his name to the Premier League pages with his Aston Villa debut at Leeds United in a 1-1 draw as 1997 drew to a close. He would begin to make his presence that bit more known with loans at Preston North End, Northampton Town, Cambridge United and Blackpool, ultimately making ten appearances back at Villa.
His real mark would be made at clubs throughout the years to come, but in those bright-eyed early days, he was enjoying his own small part in football’s social scene. With so many names to be found unwinding in Ayia Napa from the Premier League down the divisions, football was its own significant backdrop to the setting.
Fellow noteworthy characters from Villa like Gareth Barry, Lee Hendrie, Darius Vassell and Jlloyd Samuel were part of it with Darren in Cyprus, but coming at the end of a gruelling season, did players in Napa want to switch off from football conversation with each other, or did talk naturally lead back to it?
“You weren’t even allowed to talk about football – I think it was a shot if you did! But then after the first day everyone would talk about it and what’s gonna happen when they get back, getting back in the gym and getting themselves fit.
“It’s changed a lot from me growing up to now; with social media alone, you can’t do anything without it being filmed. A lot’s changed, but one thing I’ve found with footballers is when it comes to playing, they get themselves right for it.
“So you can talk about players going out and all that, but they’re still dedicated to what they’re doing.”
That dedication which allowed Darren to have two decades as a player is stirring day in and day out here at the backend of 2017. After working with Chester FC gaffer Marcus Bignot at Solihull Moors, he is now in the hotseat himself at Worcestershire side Redditch United, and while continuing to plot a promotion from the Evo-Stik League South Premier which would be a considerable feather in his burgeoning managerial cap, he also coaches the Reds’ academy each day.
His former Villa youth compatriots Reuben Hazell and Danny Jackman, who both enjoyed sustained league careers as defenders, are part of his staff at the club, with ex-Oldham teammate Hazell currently his right-hand man. While any job, especially within a landscape like non-league, brings its severely trying times, Darren has never lost the devotion or affection for the game.
“You’d always hear parents shouting their kids’ names because they’d gone out of the area they were supposed to be in and had gone playing somewhere else.”
Born to Jamaican parents, he grew up in the Aston area of Birmingham. That picture of kids kicking a ball around a patch of grass or in the street, with only unplayable darkness or an impatient ‘final whistle’ shout from inside the house to end it for that day, is exactly what Darren has in the memory banks when he thinks of his footballing roots.
“Football’s all I know. Now it’s all Xbox, PS4s, and kids are getting forced to go outside and get some fresh air.
“It was the other way round, growing up. It was like, ‘Darren, get in.’ ‘Alright Mum, ten more minutes.’ ‘Darren, don’t make me come out there for you!’
“You’d always hear parents shouting their kids’ names because they’d gone out of the area they were supposed to be in and had gone playing somewhere else. You’d always see parents walking up and down roads in their slippers looking for them!
“It was because we wanted to stay out and play. There was nothing worse than when your mum or dad said ‘you’re not going out tomorrow, you’re grounded.’
“Now, you tell the kid they’re not going outside, they don’t care. I listen to my mum now when she talks to my friend about me, and I’m the age of about 11/12, she comes to knock on the door to tell me, ‘Darren, it’s raining outside, it’s snowing heavily, you won’t be going to football today.’
“She heard the door go and saw me walking down the road to go and meet the players. That’s all I wanted to do and I just love football, and that’s why I’ll stay there.”
That love had an extra fuse ignited once he gained an alternative perspective after joining up with Jamaica’s national team. At the time, he was with Rotherham United, where he’d initially gone on loan from Walsall before joining permanently, and he debuted for the Reggae Boyz in 2003.
Darren went to the CONCACAF Gold Cup and turned out for Carl Brown‘s side against Colombia and Guatemala in the old Miami Orange Bowl, the former stadium of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Jamaica advanced out of the group but would see their progress checked in the quarter-final by Mexico.
After starting that one at the iconic Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, he returned that summer to South Yorkshire and his Millers manager thought an imposter had found his way onto the training field!
“Jamaica changed me, going out there and seeing how hungry these guys were. I went back to Rotherham and Ronnie Moore said ‘where’s Darren Byfield?’ – he’d never seen me running around like I did.
“It’s no coincidence that I got a move to Sunderland off that. It was because I was at my fittest at that time.
“Then I went to Gillingham, lost a lot of fitness, then the second year I went with a personal trainer and I was at my best again. When I was fit, I was at the top of my game and I just didn’t feel there were many who could match what I did.
“There’s better players, but when you talk about affecting a back four, when I was fit and I had the bit between my teeth, I feel I was one of the hardest players to defend against. I was never the top goalscorer but I think strikers liked to play with me because they would get so much space.”
When talking about national identity, rhythm, volume and expressive unity are as clear to see with Jamaica as the black, green and gold on the flag. The musical imprint of the Caribbean island should really need no introduction to anyone, with numerous Jamaican players detailing their own personal pride in it in the interviews on here through the years.
“It is to this day one of my proudest moments in football to represent Jamaica, where both of my parents were born.”
One of the most vivid descriptions came courtesy of ex-Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County striker Deon Burton, a national hero after his pivotal role in their qualification for the 1998 FIFA World Cup, which has still yet to be repeated. He told of the music pounding on the team bus en route to the stadium as a squad member would become the hype man, rushing up and down the aisle with a microphone.
While Darren points out that some aspects of being around the national setup might have been slightly different when he joined the squad a few years after that World Cup achievement, the vibrancy was definitely still sizzling.
“To experience just getting on the bus, it’s a party atmosphere – there’s speakers even under the seats! Driving up, windows down, and just going into, we call it ‘The Office’, the national stadium in Kingston, and it’s just a carnival.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. People can tell you about it, but just to experience it, to feel it – oh God, unbelievable.
“It is to this day one of my proudest moments in football to represent Jamaica, where both of my parents were born. It was unbelievable for me and for them to take to me straight away was superb.
“To score my one and only goal against Paraguay is something no-one can ever take away from me.”
He struck that Paraguay goal in a 2-0 friendly win in Kingston, while that Gold Cup squad he was part of contained another master scorer in Onandi Lowe. Known best in England for his time at Rushden & Diamonds during their early-2000s rise to the third tier, ‘controversial’ wouldn’t be an inaccurate description of the ex-Port Vale and Coventry City man, but Darren remembers the now-42-year-old fondly.
“Nandi Lowe, what a funny guy. I’ve never met anyone like him and I’ve been in the game a long time.
“What Nandi wanted to do, Nandi did; he didn’t care who was in charge! Nandi was the president, the chairman, the manager and the captain!
“He made me laugh, and the bus driver did as well. When you talk about the two guys who demanded respect, not for being the loudest, because they were chilled, Ricardo Gardner was one – what a guy – and Ian Goodison – I was so proud he asked me to come and play in his testimonial.
“We call them Bibi and Pepe. For me, they were the kings; they got respect just by how they carried themselves.
“Jamaica was everything to them and they were everything to Jamaica. If I was to go out to Jamaica in the summer, I’d ring them and meet up with them, 100 percent.”
Besides the national pride, how he was embraced, the fairly agreeable weather and all that, the everlasting musical pulse is another big reason why Darren was in something of a dreamland in his Jamaica days. He details why rhythm is in his heart and in his life each day without fail.
“I absolutely love music; whatever emotion I’m going through, music is massive in my life. If I’m half-way to the gym and I’ve forgot my headphones, I’m going back for them.
“I go to sleep with my headphones in, I love the music on my way into the game, and I make sure the (Redditch United) boys are playing the right music in the changing room!
“I do love all kinds of genres but I’m an r&b guy, definitely. I also love reggae, old school, stuff like that, so my playlist, you’ll get anything from Stormzy, Wretch (32), Drake, Chris Brown, Trey Songz, your r&b and hip-hop, to the reggae, with Sizzla, Bob Marley, Garnett Silk, all these.
“Then also someone like James Arthur, but one of my favourite tunes at the minute is Stefflon Don ‘Hurtin’ Me’ (with French Montana).”
“Music is massive in my life. If I’m half-way to the gym and I’ve forgot my headphones, I’m going back for them.”
The people held up as inspirations for so many of us growing up through the years and decades have come from the worlds of football and music. An Arsenal fan, Darren had his love for the Gunners set on fire by the talents of the late England midfielder David ‘Rocky’ Rocastle, while the not-so-shy and retiring goal king Ian Wright also became a huge favourite.
When it came to music, who did he listen to through his teen years, and did any of those figures similarly extend to role models in any way?
“Definitely not a role model because he went off the rails, but Bobby Brown. I loved Bobby Brown and Usher growing up, R. Kelly.
“My first album was a CD and it was Usher ‘My Way.’”
Rating Chris Brown as the best performer he’s seen in person, Darren picked out Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Whitney Houston as the ultimate artists to have witnessed at their respective best. For footballers with some musical skill in the locker, he gives a mention to the vocal precision of his striker at Redditch, the former Nottingham Forest youngster Spencer Weir-Daley, who actually featured on here all the way back in early-2012.
Could any teammates from his long career hold their own in that sense, though? Taking it further still, who would he have enough confidence in to get on a track with him, if he ever fancied recording one of his own?
“That’s a good question. Who sang well?
“I’d say Marvin Elliott, because he made me laugh when he did it. Even if he was that bad he’d bring entertainment for the people watching.
“Actually, thinking back, I’d use Lee Trundle – he did Lulu’s ‘weeeeeellllll!’ (‘Shout’). He did that very well actually.
“Trunds is a funny guy as well. I only sang once for initiation in my career, at Bristol City, and it’s funny because everyone knows I’m a journeyman!
“To sing once out of about 20 clubs, I’m happy. I sang for Redditch last year for initiation, upstairs in the lounge, and I did it again this year.
“Bristol City was good fun. I sang a Ne-Yo tune and I can’t remember which one it was, but I messed up because what I learned was to sing a popular one that everyone knows and can join in with, and I didn’t do that.
“For Redditch, I sang ‘New York, New York,’ Frank (Sinatra), so they joined in with that, some of the older lot.”
Messrs Trundle and Elliott were contributors to that 2007/08 Bristol City side that so nearly went all the way to the Premier League just a season after coming up to the Championship. Darren was the Robins’ top scorer (8) that year and came on at Wembley in that galling 1-0 defeat to Hull City.
It was a City team not short on personality and some may remember Soccer AM giving some coverage to manager Gary Johnson vowing to bare his backside in a shop window if defender Liam Fontaine ever scored! Darren recalls how even the team music would say something about the characters in that group – in good ways and bad!
“Marvin Elliott, he was the music man; he knew every new tune coming out and he loved his music. Marvin stands out massively.
“Every team has their DJ but some are just really bad! Every week someone would try and put their music on but they’d get their phones or their iPod thrown across the room!
“I think Bradley Orr tried to put his on once at Bristol City and it was like, ‘don’t ever bring that iPod around here again.’”
There were a number of specific standout days in Darren’s club career, from his aforementioned top-flight Villa debut at Leeds in December 1997, to Rotherham’s 6-0 opening-day win at Millwall in August 2002, in which he hit four for Ronnie Moore’s Millers.
Then there was the Division Two play-off final with Walsall in May 2001, as the Saddlers beat Reading 3-2 with two late extra-time goals at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, with the winner coming from, you guessed it, Mr. Byfield. Asked which game and memory he’d choose to live all over again, Darren stopped to think for a second or two, before responding with unmistakeable sincerity in his voice.
“The playoff final was brilliant. To score the winning goal to get Walsall promoted was brilliant.
“There’s two different things because playing for Jamaica was the highest accolade for me, but for moments, swinging that left peg and that going in. To this day, when people put it on Twitter and fans are saying it was the best day of their lives, when people say that and you know you’ve affected someone, that is massive.
“For me, that’s a hell of a moment and proud achievement in my life.”
In the beautiful games of football and life, there is a strong argument that the good and great times are made that much better by the struggles that came before. Darren speaks with flowing enthusiasm for his sport, but during such a varied and long-lasting career, were there spells when that was severely tested?
“Oh no listen, I love football but you have your ups and downs. Having to leave Villa and drop down from the Premiership to what would now be League One, leaving my friends and having the attitude of ‘I’m better than this.’
“Going to Walsall, thinking ‘yeah, I’ve just come from Villa, I don’t need to be told what to do.’ It was hard at the start, going and playing against men, even though it was different then and you had the Pontins (reserve) League with some of the older pros.”
Recalling one afternoon when he was left out of Ray Graydon’s matchday squad at Walsall, Darren remembers going to a pub nearby before returning at full-time. With a teammate then asking if he’d been drinking, he suddenly gained a reputation, though he explains how that couldn’t be further from the truth, laughing as he recalls being cajoled into having more than soft drinks on nights out at Villa!
Other than that misrepresentation, he believes everything people tended to think about him was generally accurate. Asked about the collapsed contract extension with top-flight-chasing Sunderland in 2004 which saw him leave the club, he also discusses what he wishes could have been done a bit differently in his career.
“I didn’t know anything that was going on with that (at Sunderland). Jonathan Barnett, who’s looked after Gareth Bale, Ashley Cole and all that lot, had gone in and demanded money for me to sign, which I found out afterwards.
“That was for them, before they even got to talking about me, and Mick McCarthy just said ‘no, off you pop.’ I was offered a contract while I was there, which I knew about, but you never, ever accept the first contract, you always negotiate.
“That wasn’t the case here; it was the agent’s fee they were negotiating. That’s where I got a little bit upset once I found out later on.
“Looking back, if there’s anything I could have done differently it would’ve been at Aston Villa. I’d have realised what an opportunity I had, I would’ve worked harder every day in training and matches, and I would’ve played a lot more games than I did, 100 percent.”
Although he would depart John Gregory’s Villa permanently as a 23-year-old in summer 2000, it was effectively the true beginning of a career’s journey that brought international caps, goals around the country, and much more. He played in the Football League until 2011, finishing up back at Walsall, before staying in the striker’s groove in non-league.
Turning out for AFC Telford, Tamworth and Solihull Moors in the Midlands, he also had his preparation in many ways for becoming a manager. At Moors, he assisted current Chester FC boss Marcus Bignot and says they were kindred spirits, stating his complete belief that the former QPR full-back will be a long-term success in management.
“So, I take more time now to think about the other person, and that’s the biggest thing that’s helping me right now to become a better person.”
Darren’s ambition and enthusiasm greatly impressed Redditch United chairman Chris Swan and he was duly handed his first managerial opportunity in May 2016. The Reds are hoping to keep pace with the frontrunners in the Evo-Stik League South Premier, currently sitting 7th after 17 games of the season, and you can catch the segments of this interview dedicated to what he’s found since he began coaching in a separate NonLeagueDaily.com feature very soon.
In his playing days, he says the best gaffers knew when to leave him alone, and man-management was at the forefront of his thoughts as we discussed what the game has taught him the most during his life in football.
“I’ll tell you what I do now: whatever it is, whatever problems, whatever emotions are going on, I stand still, and all I say now is ‘alright, I’m gonna become you, and I’m gonna look at it from your point of view. Why do you act that way?
“Okay, could be this.’ So, I take more time now to think about the other person, and that’s the biggest thing that’s helping me right now to become a better person and with helping others.”
With a daughter he was incredibly proud to see start secondary school recently, Darren is always assured of having more than just his players’ welfare to think about. Aside from fatherhood and football, does he get any time to dedicate to himself now?
“My life is all football now. If I’m not with my daughter, or with the first team or the academy, I’m driving up and down watching games, looking for players.
“I love when I can go round with my friends and have a drink, have a chat and catch up, but my clubbing days are way past me – I mean I’m 41 now! I’m just an adult really now, a grown man and those days are finished, I suppose.
“I wish I could play golf. I used to play a lot of snooker, badminton, but I just don’t have time for it; it’s just all football-related now.”
From Aston to Kingston, the Millennium Stadium to Wembley, and through any trials and tribulations, the fire and wonderment Darren feels toward the game continues to shine. While we wait to see where this new voyage guiding the performers of today and tomorrow takes him, we end here with a selection from his own playing career.
In this regular closing question, the interviewee is asked to picture a small-sided scene, with a bunch of teammates from any time in their career to fill the spaces in their team. The player is not asked to necessarily name the outright ‘best’ and so when he thinks of the friendships, the like-minded souls, the ones who’d make it enjoyable, and those with undoubted ability, who are some of the names who could represent that if Darren Byfield came back to terrorise a backline once more?
“My closest friend, Reuben Hazell (defence), would be there. Lee Hendrie (midfield) – growing up with Lee, I played Sunday league within district with him, Villa together, and still play now in Sunday league over-35s together.
“Who would my goalkeeper be? Jimmy Walker – he was my roomie when I was at Walsall.
“Lee Trundle (striker) – bag of tricks, funny guy as well. Kevin Betsy (midfielder) – who’s now England Under-15s manager, and one of my closest friends as well.
“(Any Jamaica teammates who’d go on the bench?) Michael Johnson (defence), 100 percent – top guy. Frank Sinclair (defence) as well.
“Yeah, them two would be there.”
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