When Neal Eardley was announced as a Lincoln player I think the response was underwhelming. Sam Habergham and Sean Long were considered first-choice full backs, and essentially Neal was providing nothing more than cover. After an influx of trialists didn’t make the grade, fans could have been forgiven for thinking Eardley was a panic signing just days ahead of the season opener against Wycombe.
Neal was born in Llandudno, and he began his career at Oldham Athletic. He had a trial at Oldham along with Micah Richards, and he was once quoted as saying “I can’t remember how he did and he shot off to Manchester City soon after. Lucky, because I might struggle to hold down the right-back slot if he’d stayed!” As it was he didn’t struggle, he made his first team debut in May 2006. He started the 2006/07 season in the first team picture, impressing with a series of great performances. He quickly became a regular first team player before being named in the 2008–09 League One PFA Team of the Year. He was attracting the attention of bigger clubs, and in 2009 he stepped up to the Championship.
He had already earned the first of his 16 Wales caps too, coming on as a sub in the 2007 win against Bulgaria. He played two games in the unsuccessful Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, and then featured in the 2010 World Cup Qualifying. His star was rising, and it was set to get better as he hit the top flight.
He was signed by Championship Blackpool for a reported £350,000, and within a year the Tangerines were promoted out of the Championship via the play-offs. Eardley became a Premier League player, making 31 top flight appearances in the 2010–11 relegation campaign. He spent a further two seasons at Blackpool, but the club was in chaos. Managers came and went, and in his final season he made just 26 appearances under Paul Ince and Michael Appleton.
He still secured a plum move to Birmingham City in July 2013, and was soon described as “fast emerging as a key player in Birmingham City’s new-look system”, as he started playing at wing-back under manager Lee Clark. This is just four years ago, and Eardley was a full back of immense promise, impressing in a side such as Birmingham City in the second tier. He was an international regular too, a million miles away from Sincil Bank.
Of course we know of his luck from there to now. Just half an hour into the match against Ipswich Town on 31st August he suffered a ruptured medial ligament and a partial tear to the anterior cruciate ligament. That kept him out of action for the rest of the season, a bitter blow to a full international and a Championship full back. He lost his spot in the Welsh team, he’s been called up once by Chris Coleman but was unable to play due to injury.
He was soon described as “fast emerging as a key player in Birmingham City’s new-look system”
He returned to fitness and to the Birmingham starting eleven on the opening day of the 2014–15 season, but was unable to establish himself in the first team. Following a short spell on loan at Orient, Eardley finally returned to Birmingham’s starting eleven eleven for the League Cup win at Bristol Rovers in August. It looked as though his injury hell was behind him, and he started to pressure regular right back Paul Caddis. Finally, he got a start in September against Ipswich. 44 minutes later he suffered a dislocation-type injury to his shoulder. Not a typical knock for a footballer, and another blow he had to contend with.
Again he fought back against the injuries and again he found his way back into the first team. Eardley proved he was resilient and determined, but luck was not on his side. He suffered more cruciate ligament damage against Bournemouth in January 2016 which effectively ended his time at Birmingham. It summed up the terrible luck he had throughout his three years at St Andrews. At the time Gary Rowett told the Birmingham Mail “Every time he seems to get an innocuous bang in a game you almost fear the worst, he seems to be the unluckiest player going.”
January 2016 was just 21 months ago, and at that point Neal Eardley was deemed Championship quality. Two games for Hibernian and ten for Northampton was the sum of his 2016/17 season, which brings us to the present day. In less than a year and a half he appears to have gone from Championship quality full back to underwhelming last-minute cover in the fourth tier.
He’s now six games into his Lincoln City career, and already on course to secure himself a longer deal when his six months expires. Considering his injury record and his lack of football last season, he’s been a revelation. He’s playing on his unfavoured left side, although in a recent interview he pointed out ‘a full back is a full back whichever side you play on’. No disrespect to Sean Long or any of our full backs recently, but that is not true. I wouldn’t consider Sean on the left after Barrow away last season, and I’m sure Sam would be uncomfortable on the right. A full back that is equally as comfortable on either side is not ‘run of the mill’ as Neal seems to think, certainly not in this division. It is a luxury, a vital weapon in our armoury and something to be cherished. He might have stumbled through the door after the majority of our pre-season business had been done, but in truth he’s had as much impact as any of the new signings, perhaps bar Matt Green.
Eardley doesn’t just show endeavour and willing, he has composure and a cool head. Aside from the mix-up between him and Sean Raggett against Luton, he’s barely put a foot wrong. He’s calm under pressure and has the sort of ball control you expect to see from a former international and Premier League player. Plus, at just 28-years old, he still has many years left in his legs. Some players come back a shadow of their former selves after serious injury, but I think Eardley has come back stronger and more determined to make his mark on the game.
Neal Eardley spent four seasons as a regular in a Premier League and Championship side. His signing might not have been heralded as a coup at the time, but there are not many League Two sides he wouldn’t walk straight into.
Instead of getting a washed-up player destined to spend his time falling down the leagues, I think we’ve struck gold. I think we’ve got a skilled defender that brings experiences as well as option to the management team. His arrival certainly negated the need for further cover, perhaps not the best of news for the other trial players such as Matthew Briggs or Bob Harris, but great news for Danny. The media seem to like the Phil Neville comparison, but that doesn’t adequately cover what Neal brings to Lincoln City. He is more than just a Mr Versatile, he is a real contender for a first team spot. Neal Eardley isn’t making up the numbers, he’s making up for lost time and it shows in his performances. He’s as sharp as ever, he reads the game superbly and frankly we couldn’t have gotten a better full back if we’d signed one for £75k. I really believe that too: A fit Neal Eardley was worth £350k seven years ago, and despite missing four years due to bad luck, he’s still every inch the quality player he was then.
Danny says having this selection dilemma is something they cherish, how does he accommodate Sam, Sean Long and Neal in the side? Will the improving Long be the odd one out? Will Sam struggle to get his place back? One advantage Neal has is he can play on either side, meaning he could dislodge either from the side. It may work against him though, having Neal on the bench offers options for change on either flank, whereas if he is starting we only have one-sided Sam or Sean to come off the bench.
My own personal preference would be for Neal to be used at right-back for now, despite Sean Long’s excellent start to the season. Sean is still young and learning, and if he were fighting for a place I think it would aid his development considerably. Having a player like Neal Eardley in the squad and not using him would be criminal to say the least. When we signed Michael Bostwick it was classed as the coup of the summer, based on last season’s performance and his Championship pedigree. Neal Eardley spent four seasons as a regular in a Premier League and Championship side, and broke back into the first team of another Championship side three years in a row. His signing might not have been heralded as a coup at the time, but there are not many League Two sides he wouldn’t walk straight into.
A real measure of his impact is that he has softened the blow of losing fan-favourite Bradley Wood, something that looked to be capable of having a massive impact on our season. He hasn’t replaced Brad, they’re different type of full back, but his arrival has stopped the rumblings of discontent that were heard all summer. That in itself is an achievement.
He might have arrived under the radar and at last-minute, but his contribution this season could be anything but second-rate. If he keeps his place and continues to perform to the levels he’s achieving now, he could go on to ensure he is spoken of as one of the best right backs we’ve had in an awful long time.