Brad Halliday made the difficult decision to leave his hometown and boyhood club Middlesbrough last summer, but the defender believes his choice to join Cambridge United is paying off and hasn’t ruled out The U’s capping off his debut season with promotion.
The 21-year-old, who joined Premier League side Boro’s youth academy back in 2010, left the Riverside Stadium last August to sign a long-term contract with the League Two outfit, who currently sit four points adrift of the top seven in a fierce fight for the end-of-season play-off campaign.
Halliday, who is still recovering from a knee injury sustained back in January, is set to make his first-team return for Shaun Derry’s side away to Barnet on Saturday as Cambridge prepare for their final 15-game run-in.
Shoot! visited Halliday this week to see how the right-back has settled in at Cambridge, set out his goals for the remainder of the 2016-17 season, talk about his relationship with manager Derry and team-mate Piero Mingoia and much more…
It has been almost six months since you first arrived at Cambridge. When did you first hear of the club’s interest?
“I heard late last year when I was playing at Accrington [Stanley] (loan), so maybe halfway through the season. I heard they were interested and I had played them a few times. In the summer, my agent actually told me that he thought I would be moving in pre-season time, and at the start of pre-season, I don’t think Middlesbrough were letting me go, not right at the start.
“Then I was involved with the first-team at Middlesbrough, played a few games against Doncaster [Rovers] and York [City] for the first-team, and then bodies started coming in, obviously paying money for experienced players and that probably dropped me down the pecking order a bit.
“So, the opportunity came up that I could leave. I think the club mentioned that I was alright to go, obviously Cambridge were interested for a long time, and there were a few other clubs sniffing about, but I chose Cambridge.”
Were Accrington not interested in re-signing you?
“Yeah, they were and I really enjoyed my time at Accrington as well, got along with the manager John [Coleman], Jimmy [Bell] the assistant and even the chairman. I had a great time there, good experience, but I just thought Cambridge was a better move for myself, so I was a little bit selfish in that way.
“It was just the fact that it is quite a big club and within the city, there is only really Cambridge that is a football club.”
Having grown up and played for your boyhood club, Middlesbrough, how have you settled in Cambridge following your first permanent move?
“When it came up, I was a bit scared, not going to lie. The thought of moving away from home and moving away from Middlesbrough, which I have known all of my life and played football there, the easy thing to do was to stay and wait for something else to come up. It was hard for me to make the decision to come down.
“But now I have moved down, I feel settled in. It has probably took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I have settled in now and have been for a while. And I’ve started doing well.
“When I first moved down, and people were asking me have you settled in, I sort of didn’t know, but I was answering the questions yes, I have settled in, but that was probably out of politeness even though I hadn’t. But now I definitely feel I have.
“It was scary [to leave Middlesbrough], even the day when I signed, I was a bit 50-50 and then I met the manager, the chairman and the people at the club, my agent said it was going to be a good move for me, don’t be scared, it’ll help you.”
Cambridge are currently sat 13th in the League Two standings, four points adrift of the play-off pack. How would you sum up the season so far?
“I joined about five or six games into the season and even when I first came, we were struggling to get points on the board, so it has been a roller coaster really.
“We were really down towards the start of the season, then we had a high where we were doing really well, picking up a lot of points, winning a lot of games on a good run. As that run sort of came to an end, I became injured and we are sort of down a bit now. But we will be alright and our challenge is the play-offs this season.”
You left Middlesbrough last summer without a first-team appearance to your name. Is that a disappointment for you personally? Any regrets in leaving the Riverside?
“My aim was to always play for Middlesbrough and break through there, but I suppose the position they were in, when they just got promoted back into the Premier League, it was going to be more of a challenge for me to break through. It was the right move to move away and start afresh. No [regrets], none at all.”
Were there any discussions with manager Aitor Karanka over your progression at Boro before your departure?
“So I was training with the first-team in pre-season and they signed [Antonio] Barragan the day before they went to Marbella, and as that deal must have went through, [Steve] Agnew, the assistant at Middlesbrough, pulled me aside and said we’ve heard there are a few teams interested in taking you, you can go ahead and leave if you want to.”
You enjoyed loan spells at York City, Hartlepool United and Accrington before your permanent switch to Cambridge. Do you think those previous experiences have helped you settle quickly into United’s set-up?
“The main thing is experience, playing Under-21 and Under-23 football is good and when you are younger, it is what you want to strive to play for.
“But you don’t really get challenged on the physical side, as well as the technical side. You want to push yourself, you want to be playing against men who are playing for points, playing for their mortgages and who are playing for their lives.”
Would you recommend other youngsters at Premier League or Championship clubs going out on loan to experience senior football?
“Yeah, definitely. I think that is the thing that has helped me the most, going out on loan and getting games. I think Under-21 and Under-23 football doesn’t get you prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.”
You mentioned a chat with the manager helped sway your decision to put pen to paper on a deal with Cambridge. What is Shaun Derry like to work with?
“He is spot on. He started giving me his thoughts on myself in the summer, just before I moved, he told me that he wanted me to be part of his team, told me the way he wanted to play and it was ideal for me.
“He is a joy to work with, I get on with him and I couldn’t ask for much more in a manager really.”
And what about your knee injury. How did it happen and when will you be back in action?
“It happened on December 31, that was against Leyton Orient. I have gone in for a challenge and the inside of my knee has just opened up and I have torn a few fibres in my medial ligament. It is not too bad, it is maybe a three or four week injury.
“The physio went well and we got some prolotherapy on my knee, which is basically a sugar injection to speed up the process in helping the ligament repair, which really helped the progress ahead of the Luton [Town] game.
“Then I played against Luton, and 80 minutes through, I was fine. Then I had a tackle at the end which opened it up a bit and it did hurt at the time, but the pain went away, probably the adrenaline. I have had a few more injections since then, so it is feeling a lot better.”
In just your seventh outing for Cambridge, you were lining up against your former club, Middlesbrough, in the EFL Trophy. How was it going head-to-head with your ex-team-mates so soon after leaving?
“It was weird. As I said, I don’t think I had fully settled in at that moment. But seeing all of my mates, it was a bit surreal, I had been training with them and then a few months later I was playing against them, but it was really good and I enjoyed it.”
And you played a key role in sealing a 2-1 win for Cambridge at the Abbey Stadium..
“Yeah, so I have crossed it from deep into the box and unfortunately it was Matty [Elsdon], he has headed it back into his goal. I knew everyone from the team, so it was just an unfortunate thing.”
The competition has come under heavy criticism this season following the introduction of Premier League and Championship academy sides. As a player, what do you make of the fans boycotting EFL Trophy matches?
“The fans are a big part of any club, they kind of pay our wages and come to watch the games. But at the end of the day, for us it is a competition and everyone within the squad is really competitive and wants to win every game, so for us we love it.”
With 25 appearances under your belt, you are yet to score your first goal for Cambridge, yet. Have you got a special celebration lined up?
“I think it will just be relief at the time. I haven’t scored for a few years now, back at York, during my first season on loan, so it has been a while since I have scored.
“I think it will just be relief and hopefully it will get the ball rolling.”
Tell us a bit more about your friendship with Piero Mingoia. He also joined Cambridge last summer from Accrington and I believe he played a major role in helping bring you to the Abbey Stadium?
“He was sort of the middle man, he was letting Cambridge know my thoughts and Cambridge were trying to get onto him to persuade me to come. We played a lot of games together for Accrington and formed a good bond, a good partnership and Cambridge liked the look of both of us.
“His contract was up in the summer with Accrington and he felt it was easier for him to move closer to home, he is from London. That was more beneficial for him.
“I think he is a big reason why I did moved down, knowing somebody already in the changing rooms to settle down with. We already had that partnership, so when I came back into the team, it just left off from where we were last season really.”
You describe yourself as a modern full-back, what would you say are your strengths and weaknesses? Do you base your game on anyone in particular?
“I would say my strengths are my energy levels, I do like to get up and down, drive forward with the ball. My weakness is probably to be a bit better defensively.
“When I was growing up, Paul Scholes was my idol and growing up I used to play centre-half, I did play centre midfield for a while. I signed for Middlesbrough as a central midfielder. But now being a right-back, maybe Cafu.
“I just remember playing a game for Middlesbrough’s Under-21 [side] and I started the game in midfield and our right-back got injured, so we didn’t have any right-backs on the bench, so he dropped me back and brought another central midfielder on and it was probably one of the best games I played for Middlesbrough.
“I settled in instantly and sort of made the position my own.”
Finally, key player, Barry Corr, has returned to action after a long injury lay-off. What have you made of the striker’s presence at the club and how much do you think Corr can contribute towards Cambridge’s run-in?
“Yeah, I have been injured too, so I have made a good relationship with Barry and he is a top bloke. He has a lot of experience from the game and he has scored a lot of goals, played a lot of games, so he is sort of filtering it all down to the lads.
“Now he is back fit, it is probably a relief really, just someone else to score goals, so we are not just relying on a certain few. We have got options on the field and on the bench if needs be.
“We have got such a big squad, at the minute we are carrying a few injuries, but once everyone is back fit, we have got a squad where everyone is fighting for a shirt, which can only help the team.
“If you are not going to perform, there is going to be someone sat on the bench who is going to come in and take your shirt.”