In a career which has seen him represent nine different clubs in four different countries, Graham Stack has plenty of experience to draw upon in his current role as captain of Vanarama National League side Eastleigh.
At 36 years old, he has seen most of what the game has to offer, starting off as a prodigious youngster at Arsenal during the ‘Invincibles' era, earning caps for the Republic of Ireland at under-21 level, and competing for honours in England, Scotland and India.
Stack is able to reflect upon a fulfilling career, packed with life and footballing lessons learned from a wide range of sources.
However, the childhood Queens Park Rangers season ticket holder hadn't always dreamed of a career between the sticks. Indeed, it was only the happenstance of attending a summer camp run by former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson that set Stack on a path that would see him keep goal for the Gunners, Reading, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Hibernian, among others.
“I had a passion for football but not for goalkeeping,” Stack explained to Football Whispers. “At the time, I was captain of Surrey Schools and played for my borough, Hounslow Schools, as a centre-forward. But it was football so it was something I was still keen on going to do.
“I went [to the Bob Wilson training camp] and it was a four or five-day camp. At the end of the camp, I was presented with a signed Arsenal shirt by David Seaman and won Most Promising Goalkeeper. With that, Bob contacted Arsenal to say that there was a young boy here they should take a closer look at. At the time, I was on trial with Arsenal as a central midfielder, so it was all a little bit mad.
“I was training twice a week: I’d do a Tuesday session on the pitch and a Thursday session in goal with the goalkeeping coach. It got to a serious conversation where I had to make a decision. Arsenal were prepared to take me in either position, so it was up to me where I wanted to play. With the advice of Bob Wilson, as well as having a chat with my mum and dad, I decided to go down the goalkeeping route.”
These days, it is common for a top-level goalkeeper's remit to consist as much of duties with the ball at their feet as keeping it out of the net with their hands. Evolving from the introduction of the back-pass rule in 1992, keepers have gradually developed their balls skills to the degree many coaches, such as Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, now consider their shot-stoppers an extension of their outfield workforce.
For Stack, who was a gifted outfield player before ever considering goalkeeping, these developments were long foreseen and more than welcome.
“I was always very comfortable on the ball,” he says, “it was one of my biggest qualities. The modern goalkeeper is somebody who is capable of setting up play from deep, playing balls between the lines, behind the lines. You’re picking players out who are deep in the opposition half, starting counter-attacks.
“The position has changed massively. The starting positions have changed. The game has evolved a lot but passing is one of the biggest things goalkeepers have to work on continuously.”
And Stack, rather unexpectedly, employed his ball skills to great effect in his senior debut for Arsenal, netting a penalty in a League Cup shootout win over Rotherham United in October 2003.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” he remembers of his eventful Gunners bow. “It was very memorable. To save and score a penalty on my debut will live long in my memory. It was a special night.
“It was a memorable season, making my debut and being backed to play every game in the League Cup. Had we beat Boro [Arsenal lost to Middlesbrough in the semi-final], I would have played in the final; unfortunately, we didn’t go on to win the game.
“The boss clearly had a lot of faith in me to have me around that squad, which was so strong at the time. To play and train with players of that magnitude was really special. And it’s not really until you look back on it, years down the line, you realise what a special team that was.”
Although he never made a Premier League appearance for the Gunners, being part of the iconic ‘Invincibles' squad, who attained immortality by winning the 2003/04 title without tasting defeat, meant the young Stack was learning at the feet of some of the best in the business. Not least Jens Lehmann, Arsenal‘s eccentric German goalkeeper.
“Jens was a real strong character,” Stack says. “A big personality. An excellent goalkeeper.
“The way he trained, the way he prepared for games was a great insight for any young goalkeeper to work alongside. Just to see how professional he was and to see what was required to get to the top.
“He had his moments but he was someone I really enjoyed working with on a day-to-day basis. He certainly changed the way I trained and the way I prepared. When I left the club, I tried to take some of the things from his game and his way of preparing. It put me in good stead.”
Before leaving Arsenal on a permanent basis in 2006, when he signed for Reading, Stack was sent out on loan three times, including once to the Royals, in order to gain experience of senior football.
The most valuable of these loan moves was, in many ways, his switch to Belgian side Beveren, who enjoyed a feeder club-like arrangement with Arsenal, for the 2002/03 season.
As opportunities at first-team level in the Premier League become more and more scarce, the path to Europe is now one well trodden by English youngsters, and Stack is an advocate for young players testing themselves on the Continent.
“You can play in England, and you can play in the lower leagues, which is great, but you’re not seeing a different culture – you’re playing under coaches with different philosophies, you’re learning new ways of playing, different techniques and ways of training, a different environment outside of football.
“Young players now, they get so much done for them at their parent club, they’re almost lost when they do go out on loan. It’s a massive, massive change.
“But that was great for me. I went out their with Steve Sidwell, John Halls and Liam Chilvers. We went out as a four but it was only me really who played.
“I would advise anyone who’s not going to get a club over here, if they have an offer from Europe, they should definitely go and do that. It was a great opportunity for me to learn, not only on the field but also off it.”
After his switch to Reading, Stack bounced around various loans and a permanent move to Plymouth Argyle, but it wasn't until he moved north of the border, joining Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership in 2009, that he was truly able to establish himself as a No.1 at a club.
“I had three great years up in Scotland,” he recalls fondly of his spell with Hibs. “I played in the UEFA Cup for Hibs, played at Hampden, got to the Scottish Cup final. There were so many things I wanted to do when I signed for the club, and fortunately I was able to do almost all of them.
“I played against Celtic at Celtic Park, I played at a packed-out Ibrox, I played in the Edinburgh derby on numerous occasions. There were so many positives that came out of it. Edinburgh is a wonderful City and Hibs are a cracking club, great people involved at the club and great supporters. It was one of the best times of my career.
“But the league itself, at the time, had [Victor] Wanyama, [Virgil] van Dijk, Robbie Keane, [Nikica] Jelavić. I personally believe that was when it was at its strongest in the last ten years. It was very competitive. Now, it’s not so much. Even the top two, they’d challenge for the Championship but I think they’d struggle every year if they were in the Premier League.”
With a young family to consider and feeling the need to “put down some roots”, Stack retuned to England upon leaving Hibs in 2012, joining Barnet, the side for whom he has made more appearances than any other, and where he soon found an unlikely rival for the No.1 shirt; Edgar Davids.
“He came in and it was a massive lift for the club. He was someone I got on extremely well with.
“We sat down over lunch together. He said, ‘What number did you wear last year?’ – bearing in mind I’d won Player of the Year that year. I think I’d worn number 26. He said, ‘What number would you like to wear this year?’ And I said, ‘I’m not bothered about numbers.’
“Mick McCarthy said to me when we played Ipswich in pre-season and I’d told him Edgar wanted the number one shirt, ‘Stacky, I know plenty of number ones who sit behind me on a Saturday; it doesn’t matter what number you wear.’ And he was absolutely right.
“I’d just had a fantastic season and I was more than happy to wear 26 again. It was no issue for me at all. And the fact that he asked me… he didn’t have to ask me, he was the manager.
“Within a few months of him being in charge I was offered a long-term deal. I wanted to stay there. There were other clubs interested – we were in League Two at the time and some League One clubs wanted me – but I just wanted to settle.
“I ended up going on to coach at the club – I was goalkeeper coach and first-team coach. I won the National League with the club, got Player of the Season for the club. I’ve got so many great memories of Barnet. I saved a penalty in the last-ever game at Underhill, which the fans often remind me of.”
After three seasons with Barnet, including a 2014/15 Conference title win to earn promotion back into the Football League, Stack was on the move again, this time to the fledgling Indian Super League, joining Kerala Blasters.
“Over the summer, while I was at Barnet, it was a bit of a frustrating time for me because my contract had come to an end,” he says. “I’d missed part of the season previously and the chairman wanted me to come in and prove my fitness for the following season before I was offered a new contract, which was a little bit disappointing.
“I had a conversation with Steve Coppell, who had taken a job at Kerala and was my manager Reading. It was a very honest and open discussion. He said ‘Would you be interested in coming to Kerala to be player-coach?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I want to go; I’d love the opportunity.’ I wanted to work with Steve and to play in India – another life experience, playing in front of 80,000 at home.
“We ended up getting to the final with Kerala; we lost on sudden-death spot kicks. Another amazing experience. I absolutely loved it and, financially, the package I was offered was more than I was offered at Barnet, so that was something that helped make my mind up. But it wasn’t the only reason – it wasn’t all about money; it was a combination of all things.
In January 2017, after a single season with the Blasters, Stack was brought back to England and to Eastleigh, the club he currently captains, by a familiar face: Martin Allen, who he'd won the Conference under with Barnet.
“While I was in India, Martin was offered the job at Eastleigh. I had a conversation with Martin on the phone about two or three weeks before I was due to be coming back to England. I had one or two offers from Football League clubs but, having worked with Martin before and getting on well together, I felt it was a great opportunity.
“They offered me a two-and-a-half-year deal. I was 34 at the time, which makes a big difference, that bit of stability. So I went to Eastleigh and I’ve been there since, I’ve captained the club since. We haven’t had great success on the pitch but we’re trying our utmost to change that at the moment.”
Indeed, Stack's commitment to improving Eastleigh's fortunes is such that he claimed a goal for the club last season in a fixture against Wrexham, even if the official scoresheet says differently.
“We had been awful in the first half and we had a bust-up at half-time, me and a couple of players,” Stack recalls. “It got us going really. We got back in the game in the second half at 2-1. We’re banging in the door but just can’t quite get another back.
“Then I’ve come up for a corner late on and it was a diving header that has gone over the line, come back from over the line and we tapped it in. I’ve run off celebrating, so has the centre-half. And we were the two who had one or two words at half-time, so it was nice in the end that the bust-up felt worth it, because we’d got ourselves back in it and our performance was much improved.
“I wasn’t credited with the goal, which was a shame, but I am known for coming up for corners and causing havoc when I do; I’ve hit the outside of the post already this season, against Sutton.”
Although captaining Eastleigh, currently 19th in the National League, remains Stack's primary focus, at 36, he wisely has one eye on life after football.
“I’ve got a real passion for coaching,” he admits. “I’ve got a football academy that we run through the school holidays. We get over 100 kids a day. I run a specialist goalkeeping clinic and a striking clinic over the holidays as well. I love working with young players.
“I really enjoy the media stuff as well. I’m doing a degree at the moment; I’ve got a year left before I finish that, which is Broadcasting & Sports Writing. I’m doing some work with Arsenal Media TV, with their matchday teams and doing some writing for the Non-League Paper.
“I’m spinning a lot of plates but I’m staying busy. Who knows what the future holds?”