BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Frank Fielding has described last season as “an absolute nightmare” – but that has only increased his appetite to make a big impression at Millwall.
The 31-year-old goalkeeper signed for the Lions at the end of last week following his release by Bristol City.
But Blackburn-born Fielding, a former England U21 international, went from playing 46 games for the Robins in the 2017-18 campaign to featuring just five times in the Championship last season.
City won four of those five matches before the stopper decided to have surgery on his right hand.
“I had an absolute nightmare really,” said Fielding. “I pulled a tendon in pre-season in my hip flexor. I was out for nearly three months with that and then I got viral meningitis.
“Then I got back in the team and I was playing well – but I dislocated my thumb and cracked a bit of bone off it in the warm-up at Blackburn.
“I carried on for a month playing with it. I was in agony, I’m not going to lie. But because I had been trying to catch up all season and had been doing really well at the time – and the team was doing really well – I carried on as long as I could.”
So what made Fielding, who has played 172 Championship matches and 431 first-team games, decide to go down the surgery route?
“It was a number of things,” he said. “I was coming out of contract, time was ticking and I needed to either be offered something by Bristol City – so I could get it sorted – or I needed to get the injury sorted. Because no-one would have signed me in the summer with a broken thumb and a dislocation.
“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I have taken, to be fair. I knocked on Lee Johnson’s door and said: ‘What’s going on next season? I can’t keep playing like this’. I was wearing a cast between games.
“He was quite honest and said: ‘I can’t guarantee you anything – get it sorted’. So I got it sorted.
“I had surgery. They put pins in it. I was in a cast for six weeks and then it was about strengthening my wrist and my thumb.
“I got a great hand physio from Bristol and he did my rehab with me at night.”
Fielding made his debut while on loan at Wycombe, then in League Two, in September 2007 as a 19-year-old.
He has so much experience behind him but feels he has just entered his peak.
“I thought the games I played for Bristol City last season were really good,” said Fielding. “The season before that I had a really good season as well and I played 46 games the previous season.
“For whatever reason I just couldn’t get going last year.
“I’m a bit ring rusty but I’ve really enjoyed the last three days with LT [Lee Turner, goalkeeping coach] and I’m getting my eye back in.”
Fielding cites Scott Carson and Tom Heaton as examples of goalkeepers who have kicked on in their 30s.
And he is ready to hand out advice to Ryan Sandford, 20.
“I’ll pass everything on to Ryan,” said Fielding. “At that age you have got to be a sponge and absorb as much as you can.
“I was quite lucky because I had Brad Friedel after I left school – going straight into Blackburn’s youth team.
“I was training with Brad on a daily basis – along with Peter Enckelman and Paul Robinson.
“Brad was quite a humble person. I like to think I’m a bit of a humble guy. I keep my feet on the ground. I don’t get too high or too low with good times or bad times.
“Much of that came from Brad Friedel, he never got carried away if the team were playing well or didn’t do too well.
“He was an unbelievable trainer and you could see that in his performances on a matchday.”
Millwall will bring in another shotstopper to battle it out with Fielding, but he has been handed the number one jersey.
“I’m here to play, I want to play,” he said. “I’m going to give it everything I have got every single training session and what will be, will be – won’t it? I’ll give everything for this shirt.
“I’ve not come here not to play.
“At the end of the season I met the gaffer. These things take time, don’t they? It was a big move for me personally because of coming down to London – which is quite a big thing for a Northerner, even though I’ve not lived up there for a good few years.
“It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I wanted to put all my thought into it.
“Bristol City is a great club. I was there a long time and played quite a lot of games.
“I did the double in 2015 [League One title and EFL Trophy]. Both of my kids were born in Bristol. It will always be a special place. I had good memories there, but I’m on to the next chapter now and it’s all about Millwall.
“I spoke to the gaffer here about his intentions – we just want an improvement on last season. Otherwise we are not doing our jobs here. Get some wins on the board and make the Den a fortress.”
Fielding has done his UEFA B coaching licence but will not start the A version until the end of this season.
“This summer was so hectic,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing. And I was still doing bits of rehab in early May.
“I don’t know what I want to do after playing. I’ll keep all my options open. I’ve still got a few years left of playing yet.
“Because I missed a lot of last season I am itching and ready to go. Fire in the belly, as such.”
Fielding barely hesitates when asked if the Den is an intimidating place for opposition players.
“Simple answer – yeah.
“I went on loan to Derby when I was 21 or 22 and it was about my fourth game here. It was intimidating and we got beaten.
“I did alright but I’ve never had a result here – I think 0-0 is the best it has been when I signed for Derby the season after. And I ended up with stitches after the game.
“Big Darius Henderson elbowed me on a cross at the end. I was Terry Butcher [bandaged up] at the end for 10 minutes.
“It depends what kind of character you are. I’ve always enjoyed it there.
“But I can imagine some players don’t like it. We’ve got to use that to our advantage.”
Fielding should get his first minutes for Millwall in tomorrow’s pre-season friendly opener at Concord Rangers.
“I’ll be looking forward to it but the bigger picture is August 3 when we play Preston,” he said. “But it’s one step towards then, I suppose.”
“I’ve looked at the first block of matches. I like to look at blocks. I don’t look too far ahead. I take it a game at a time and the most important one is Saturday when we start pre-season.
“You’ll get fed up of me saying that I take it game by game.”
PICTURES BY BRIAN TONKS