By Will Unwin
On and off the pitch Nathan Eccleston is a self-confessed risk-taker, something that has now seen the former Liverpool striker make the bold move to Hungary’s bottom club Békéscsaba.
Sitting on the Romanian border, the town is not known for its football prowess, with the club picking up one piece of silverware in their 114-year history when they won the Hungarian Cup in 1988.
Since leaving Kilmarnock last summer Eccleston has received a number of offers from all over the world, ranging from the lower leagues in England to Australia but he didn’t feel any of them were right for him until Békéscsaba came along.
“One of my former team-mates at Liverpool and Kilmarnock got approached by an agent asking if he knew of any players who wanted to move abroad. It’s something I’d wanted for a long time, so he got in touch with the guy and he made me aware there was interest in me from a team in Hungary.
“I did some research on Google and looked up the team to see what I could find out about them, and it was better than the other options I had at the time, so I thought “why not?”
“When I Googled it I didn’t check where it was on the map, to be honest; I checked about the club, players and ground but didn’t see where it was, so it was a bit of a surprise when I got off the plane at Budapest and had to drive for maybe three hours.
“I think a lot of people were surprised, even my only family were. I'm the type of person who thinks life is for living so if the type of opportunities come about and I think I can benefit from them, then I take them. It’s only three hours from Budapest to Manchester so it’s the same as being in Scotland, which is how I like to look at it.”
Having arrived five weeks ago, Eccleston is building up his fitness and form, netting his first goal in a rare 2-0 win over Paksi on Saturday. The former Liverpool man is having to learn a new style of play and completely new culture off it.
“On the pitch it’s been fine, I’ve been picking up some of the football jargon, but it’s a very difficult language so I think it would take me many years to fully understand it. The people at the football club have made me feel very welcome; I’m staying in a country hotel, which is very nice. It’s completely different way of living from back home; they don’t have some of the luxuries we take from granted, but I’m adjusting pretty well, I’d say. I’m enjoying it.
“I didn’t play a competitive game for seven months, so I’ve got to get used to playing again. I got my first start as a striker on Saturday and scored in a good win against the team who are sixth in the league. Wins have been few and far between here this season so it was good to get on the scoresheet and help the team win.”
Eccleston was given his professional debut at Liverpool by Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson gave him a Premier League chance at Anfield, but once Kenny Dalglish returned as manager the Manchester-born striker was never seen in the first-team again.
The forward spent three spells out on loan at Huddersfield, Charlton and Rochdale clocking up almost 40 games, before being allowed to join Blackpool in the Championship in the summer following a play-off final loss to West Ham at Wembley.
Time at Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock once his two years at Bloomfield Road followed, a period his enjoyment of the game was subdued due to a lack of time on the pitch as he appeared just 20 times in two years north of the border.
A lot of soul searching took place during his time out of the game, including debating whether he wanted to play the game professionally again but he’s back and finding the game enjoyable once more.
“I’ve had a long time off and I’ve started thinking about football differently. I’m not the same nine-year-old boy who played in the park with no responsibility - this is people’s lives. It got to the stage with me and football where it wasn’t making me happy; I’d train Monday to Friday and it would come to the weekend and I wouldn’t always start so my game time wasn’t regular, which was frustrating.
“Being away from it has allowed me to re-evaluate my life. Even in times when I’ve had offers I was still going to play five-a-side with my mates, people I went to school with, putting in your five pound to play, as I’ve always loved football.
"I didn't know if I wanted to get back into the environment but in the four to five weeks I’ve been here, it’s been great. It’s a different mentality here than it is in England and that was a key factor for me to come here.”
Eccleston endured a tough spell at Blackpool as the club’s struggles really began, which has seen three calamitous seasons at Bloomfield Road, consisting of losses, fan protests against the owners and frequent laughable events on and off the pitch, something which caused the 25-year-old to question if he had the desire to carry on playing the sport he loves professionally.
“There were times where I was under contract at Blackpool and my two previous clubs where I considered not playing and that’s coming from the heart. I was there doing something I loved but at the end of the week I wasn’t playing. There are players who are happy to pick up their wages when they’re not playing, but I’m not that type of person, I’m very ambitious. It’s on record that if I’m not playing, I’m upset, I show my emotions in a different way. I always went into training and tried my hardest, but got to the stage where it was really frustrating.
“There have been periods in the last seven months where I came to terms with the fact if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen. The offers I was getting from the lower leagues weren’t ideal. It was a difficult time but it was a good time to get to know myself and what I want as a person rather than needing a job.”
After some flashes of his ability in the Nemzeti Bajnokság, Eccleston has re-found the joy he first had playing as a kid and is hoping what he learned at Melwood can aid him in Hungary, which he describes as being a more technical style than England.
“The fun side of it for me has now come back after being out for seven months, just playing five-a-side with my mates and now here where I’m allowed to play in a natural structure. All professional players play five-a-side together in pre-season and they will always coming off having enjoyed it, as it’s more fun.
“My dad used to say to me “don’t ever become a robot, don’t let them coach your instincts out of you”. I’ve always said I’d rather fail being me rather than a carbon copy of someone else, that’s not who I am. As a youngster there were a lot of foreign coaches and managers at Liverpool, so we were often taught how Spanish and Dutch players were taught, which should help me now playing in Europe.
Eccleston scores his first goal for his new club
“I’ve come here to play here to play football, as once you’re not playing no amount of money can bring you that feeling that football brings you, the feeling you had as a kid on the park.
“Being at Blackpool has taught me a lot about life and about how strong I’ve become because of that adversity of not playing for such a long time. I still have the chance to play and a lot of people don’t get that opportunity and I’m forever grateful for that.”
Eccleston has come a long way since the nine-year-old boy running around the muddy fields of north Manchester to rediscover the joy of football now he knows it's up to him prove his undeniable talents.