Michael Kightly on the injury hell that left him depressed, Mick McCarthy and the tears that accompanied his Wolves exit


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It’s March 2009. Michael Kightly is preparing for what should be one of the highlights of his career.

Injury, however, quickly turned it into the toughest period of his life.

Kightly is playing for Wolves at the time and having the best season of his career, with eight goals and a staggering 19 assists helping Mick McCarthy’s side cement their position at the top of the Championship table.

His form captured the attention of Stuart Pearce and England’s Under-21s, only for Kightly to pull out of the squad due to a slight problem to ensure he was ready for the season run-in.

As a result, the winger agreed to take part in a behind closed doors friendly during the international break at McCarthy’s request to maintain his fitness. That decision, unfortunately, would haunt Kightly for the rest of his professional career.

Injuries caused havoc in Michael Kightly’s professional career

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Injuries caused havoc in Michael Kightly’s professional career

“I broke my metatarsal in that game,” Kightly tells talkSPORT in an exclusive interview.

“That hit me hard because I could have gone away with England and got two more Under-21 caps and I missed the last part of the promotion winning season. Although I’d played in 40 games, it felt like I wasn’t really part of it. I found that really hard.

“I had my foot repaired and while I had my foot repaired, I had my hip repaired in America. I had all the off season working hard trying to get back for pre-season or just after pre-season and from nowhere, I had chronic tendonitis in my knees. I couldn’t walk up the stairs it was that bad. I had to walk down the stairs sideways.

“I tried to come back and I literally couldn’t run because of my knees. I honestly felt I wasn’t going to play again – that’s how bad it was.

“Tendonitis was an injury where no one knew any timescales and I really struggled. It just ate me up within a season or a season-and-a-half. Looking back, I was definitely depressed. Unless it’s happened to you, you don’t realise how much it affects you mentally.”

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Such chronic problems wrecked Kightly’s hopes of playing regular Premier League football for the first time and he made just fourteen appearances across the following two seasons.

It was Wolves, though, who resurrected the winger’s career, after Kightly came close to walking away from football altogether having left Tottenham Hotspur in 2001, where he was a youth player, after finding the pressure ‘too much.’

Thankfully, he decided to give football another crack with Southend, only to be released for a second time and consequently joined Non-League Grays Athletic in 2005 where he became known as the Ryan Giggs of non-league football.

McCarthy, though, had a habit of unearthing rough diamonds and it was that which made the promotion winning Wolves side of 2008/09 so successful, Kightly feels.

At Grays, Kightly, right, earned the nickname the Ryan Giggs of non-league football

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At Grays, Kightly, right, earned the nickname the Ryan Giggs of non-league football

“Mick McCarthy was top draw. He was as honest as they come. If he was going to drop you, he’d pull you before and treat you like a human being.

“That made me so comfortable and it allowed me to express myself when I played because I never feared that he might bring me off if I gave the ball away or put in a bad cross.

“[The Wolves team] didn’t realise how good we were because we were a similar group of lads, in that we’d all come from the lower leagues. That was what Mick McCarthy was great at as he signed these lads who were young, hungry and hadn’t played at that level, so they were out to prove themselves.

“I honestly feel we didn’t just have eleven players like that – we had 20. Everyone wanted the team to win. We had a lot of ability and a lot of goals. It was a top team.”

Given his affection for Wolves, the way he left Molineux to join Stoke City following the club’s relegation from the Premier League in 2012 is still something he struggles with.

“I loved Wolves and never wanted to leave,” the 33-year-old explains.

Kightly left Wolves for Stoke in 2012 and spent two years at the club

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Kightly left Wolves for Stoke in 2012 and spent two years at the club

“But the Chairman brought in Stale Solbakken. He was a really nice guy and I got on well with him, but he just had a different look on what he wanted to do with the club, players he wanted to bring in and the way he wanted to play and I just felt, for me, that wasn’t going to work.

“I had a year left on my contract and had a good six to eight months before that. I had a little bit of interest from Stoke and West Ham. I didn’t want to go and if Wolves had turned round to me and said: ‘We don’t want you to go, we want you to stay and here’s a contract,’ I think I’d have stayed.

“But they didn’t do that. Although I didn’t feel pushed, I didn’t feel they were too bothered about losing me. They paid £25,000 for me from Grays Athletic, I’d been injured for 18 months or two seasons really and I think they got £2m from Stoke for me.

“That’s the only club I’ve ever left that I’ve cried. I loved that club.”

Leaving Wolves reduced Kightly to tears, telling talkSPORT he loves the club

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Leaving Wolves reduced Kightly to tears, telling talkSPORT he loves the club

Following a stint with Stoke, Kightly then went on to enjoy a successful spell with Burnley, winning two promotions with the Clarets, before the lure of returning  to his roots to resolve some ‘unfinished business’ with Southend in 2017 proved to be too much, despite interest from MLS.

It was a surprise, therefore, when the 33-year-old announced his sudden retirement from the game earlier this summer and in a brutally honest assessment, Kightly admitted it was an easy decision to hang up the boots.

“The last couple of years, I’ve just stopped enjoying playing to be honest,” he explained.

“I found it hard to stay as professional as I was in the past and stepping down doesn’t help that. I’ve got a family and they live in Birmingham and I was down south and if you lose a game and you get told you’re in on a Sunday when you’ve planned to see your children, those little things just affect you and your family life.

“I felt my body wasn’t quite what it used to be and I found that quite frustrating. You’ve got these young lads coming through and they’re all strong and quick and they’re getting even quicker and I was getting even slower.”

Kightly’s last Premier League side was Burnley and he ended his career at Southend in 2019

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Kightly’s last Premier League side was Burnley and he ended his career at Southend in 2019

A career as an agent is now on the cards for the former Stoke, Wolves and Burnley winger.

He added: “I think I’ve got a lot of experience to help youngsters in the game. I feel like I can help them on the pitch with their game and off the pitch and that [working as an agent] is something I’m going to look towards to do. I feel like I have a passion about that when I talk about it and a passion to help others.”


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