THERE was a time when James Meredith was training alone in Derby – “in parks f***ing full of mud” – when he considered packing it in and going back to Australia.
He was just back from a spell with Sligo Rovers in the west of Ireland, and his money was running out. There were no clubs interested in signing him, and the dream of professional football seemed a million miles away. It was a daunting situation to be in for a nineteen-year-old 10,000 miles from home.
Meredith says the experience made him “grow up really quickly”, and the memory of it is probably at least one reason why he has been so supportive to Kristian Brymora, Millwall’s goal-scoring centre-forward with the under-23s who left Australia last summer.
Fortunately for Meredith, around the time he was on the verge of giving up, he was staying with Sheila and Larry, the Derby couple who provided digs when he first arrived from Australia aged 16.
He had impressed on a trial with Derby to earn a deal, but didn’t make a first-team appearance for the Rams. And after two years abroad he had started just six senior games: one for Cambridge United and Chesterfield and four for Sligo.
He had to sink far – to the sixth tier of English football – to get back to where he is now.
“I was spotted in Australia and then spent a few years with Derby,” Meredith explains. “I signed professionally and was doing really well but then management changed and I ended up dwindling down the leagues a bit.
“I had to work my way back up. Just after Ireland, when I came back, I couldn’t find a club for months. I was literally just training by myself in a park. My old digs people let me live back with them for a couple of months. It was really difficult. You have no money, you’re struggling, no club really wants you.
“I was just about to pack it in, I thought it was time to go home. At that time you’re pretty much going under, you’re just trying to get by. You realise how fortunate you are to have facilities like these after times like that. I remember it very clearly actually. It was in the December/January period, it was very cold and the parks were f***ing full of mud. It was really difficult.
“I did a lot of runs on the pitch and went to the gym when I could. You’re just playing football on your own, dribbling between the lines.
“The couple always looked after me, and sadly one of them has passed away since. They always told me to stick it out, you’ll eventually get there. My family are coming over and we’ll probably drop in to see their family before Christmas, when we play Derby on December 23. After the game I’ll stop at theirs and say hello, make sure they’re okay.
“It’s really difficult when you come over first, you’ve got to be put with a good family because when you arrive you’re in digs. They’ve got to make you feel really welcome and then it’s down to you to work really hard and take your opportunity.
“It makes you really tough, it makes you grow up really quickly. I’m good friends with Kristian and help him out where I can. He’s doing really well and getting used to the environment. Even he has said it’s made him grow up really quickly.
“I don’t know how I ended up in Ireland in terms of the connection but I really enjoyed my time in Sligo. That was a lot of fun and good experience. It was my first proper experience of regular first-team football. It was a bit different.
“[Current Wigan boss] Paul Cook was the manager and he’s gone on to do really well, I got on with him. Sligo did quite well that year as well. It was a different kind of culture, you could have a beer after training, that was accepted. It helps you relax.
“If I’m being honest, at that point I didn’t have many options. I was released from Derby and finding it very difficult. I think a lot of players at that age with not a lot of experience find it nearly impossible.
“It was then I got a call from Telford in the Conference North (now National League North). It was a bit of luck. Their left-back got injured so they needed one and took a chance on me.
“Then once you’re given the foundation to show your quality the cream always tends to rise to the top.
“I remember being ruthless back then, I didn’t mind hurting people and standing on toes because it was pretty much dog-eat-dog; kill or be killed.
“I went to York and got promoted there and then went to Bradford and got promoted with them and just missed out on the promotion again with Bradford and that’s how I ended up at Millwall.
“I’ve got no problem hurting people. I’m nice to people face to face but underneath I’m very ruthless.”
That quality will be very evident to Lions fans who have seen Meredith make the left-back spot his own this season, keeping out club captain Tony Craig.
“I love playing at this level now and will do everything I can to keep playing at this level,” Meredith continues. “When I got released from Derby they were in the Championship.
“When you’re young you always think, ‘I reckon I can play at this level’. It’s taken eight or so years of building back up to it and I’ve proved to myself I can play at this level.
“Tony Craig is a club legend and a very good player, and I’m very respectful of that. I just get my head down and work hard to try to be the better player. If the manager picks me then brilliant, if he doesn’t pick me then I’ll go away and work harder to get better at whatever he wants me to get better at.
“I love the facilities here and we’re really fortunate to have them. They’re a lot better than Bradford’s, and I thought they were great.
“You’ve got to make the most of it and enjoy every moment.”
Meredith is determined that will be in the Championship, with Millwall looking like they will be one of the sides in the lower reaches of the table battling for survival this season.
The Lions haven’t won away from home yet, but that doesn’t unduly worry Meredith.
They have another chance to change that statistic this weekend when they play Fulham at Craven Cottage.
“They’re excellent at keeping the ball, their possession stats are so good,” Meredith says. “I watched them on TV the other night, they were excellent. They move the ball really well and we have to be solid in our shape and try to break them down.
“It’s good to have an away game in London, it’ll be a derby and a really good atmosphere.
“I feel comfortable, I feel it’s my sort of league. I love the challenge every week. The wingers are really good, they don’t sit off you, they fly at you and take you on. The players are a lot better to play with and it also puts you in the shop window for international football.
“It’s difficult, teams are so good at home in this league, so competitive and strong. I think the away win will come. We’ve got a good record keeping clean sheets and being solid this season.”
Image: Millwall FC