Neal Bishop went from pub football to the Championship and now he is targeting promotion with Mansfield at the age of 37. Adam Bate caught up with him to find out how he rediscovered his love for the game and why he plans to play on and on…
When Mansfield take on Lincoln on Monday night, the oldest player on the pitch will be the home side’s midfielder Neal Bishop. He is 37 now, a strong candidate to be their player of the year, and is chasing another promotion for his collection. Which makes it all the more remarkable to think what he was doing when he was the age of most of his team-mates.
Extraordinary as it might seem given that Bishop is such a fan favourite at Mansfield, just as he was at Notts County, Scunthorpe and others before this, he was once lost to the game. He didn’t make his Football League debut until he was 26. He had become disillusioned following his release by boyhood club Middlesbrough as a teenager.
“I just sort of drifted,” Bishop tells Sky Sports. “I grew up just down the road in Stockton so Boro was my club. Being released by the academy hit me hard at the time. Probably harder than I thought, to be honest. I ended up just going out with my mates. I still played football but I wasn’t really enjoying it. I was bumming around really.”
As the words tumble from his mouth, he seems surprised, almost not recognising the person he is describing. “It’s a strange thing for me to say,” he admits. “I went to other clubs and got released from there too and rightly so. The opportunities were still there, but I didn’t have the mindset to get my head down. My head just wasn’t right.”
To rediscover his love for the game, Bishop went back to basics.
“As daft as it sounds, I got the enjoyment back much later by playing pub football on a Sunday morning with my friends,” he says. “I played Saturdays too but I had to go back to ground zero, rock bottom, and work my way back up. I really look back on that time with fond memories. I wouldn’t change it for the world, how I came into the game.”
Not that it was easy.
“When I was playing for the likes of Whitby I was working for a window-fitting company and then going off and playing on the nights,” he recalls. “You could be off playing in Manchester and then be back in work at 6am in the morning.”
The job was well paid and it did – just about – allow him to play part-time. But something was eating away at him and he knew that he could not let his chance pass him by. Not again.
“It was a bit of a gamble actually because I had a mortgage,” he says. “But I knew deep down I had to give it a go. I knew I had to give it my all so I could look myself in the mirror. It would have been criminal to get that chance again and not give it my best. I was one of the fortunate ones because many don’t get that chance. That’s why I seized it with both hands.”
It’s the sort of resolve that has characterised Bishop’s career ever since. “I was a lot more mature when I came into it,” he says, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he’s a man making up for lost time. Since making his Football League debut for Barnet in 2007, he has played at least 35 league games every season, already achieving the feat this time around.
“I hate missing a training session,” he says. “I didn’t miss a day in pre-season. Maybe it’s because I feel like I missed out at the start of my career but I just love coming to work every day. I also find that if I miss games or sessions then I stiffen up. I think I have got the type of body where I just need to keep playing and keep going.
“I know I probably haven’t got many years left so I am having to look after myself off the pitch a little better now. It’s all about recovery time but I have played Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday and not missed games through injury. Maybe what I missed out on at the front end of my career, I am making up for on the back end.”
There have been many highlights along the way. He even had a season in the Championship with Blackpool, making his full debut at Middlesbrough of all places. “It’s crazy how football works. I got further than I dreamed of getting even when I was a kid. I’m just hoping there are a few more highlights to come because there’s a chance to do something special here.”
Mansfield are pushing hard to claim one of the three automatic promotion places in League One. It’s a division that Bishop knows well having spent seven of the previous eight seasons at that level, but the Stags have tasted it just once in a quarter of a century. There’s excitement in the town and it’s not just the supporters who are feeling the buzz.
“There is no shying away from it, people are talking about it,” he says. “This might be the best opportunity that we will get for a long time. We did a lot of work on shape and how we were going to play in the summer and we have stuck to that. We’ve got the best defensive record in the league, we have goals in the team, and we made good signings in January.
“We know that we drew too many games from winning positions at the start, but we have been up near the top of the league for most of the season now. So it’s all there for us, it’s just about seeing it out. It is probably going to go right up to the wire because there might be six teams thinking they can get automatic and anything less would be a disappointment.”
He describes Mansfield as “the perfect fit” and insists that the facilities are too good for a League Two club. There is backing from the board room, overnight trips to away games, and everything seems set up to get to the next level. Bishop even turned down offers from League One clubs to be here. By his own admission, he is too old for a long-term project.
“I’m impatient,” he says. “You don’t remember the seasons as a professional where you finish mid-table, you remember the ones where you are up there fighting for promotion. We have got a great opportunity to finish the job off. There are good people running this club and it would be great to get back to League One with Mansfield.”
Mansfield vs Lincoln
March 18, 2019, 7:30pm
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There are no plans for retirement just yet. Bishop’s wife Frances is a successful entrepreneur who came third on The Apprentice in 2016, but it’s not a career option for him any time soon. “That’s the last thing she wants, me working for her,” he laughs. “It’s bad enough for her seeing me around the house, I think. She wants me out of the house and keeping busy.”