Former Pompey player turns professional boxer
As a teenager he lived the footballing dream at Pompey.
Now in his mid-thirties, David Birmingham is fighting a very different sporting battle.
The former Blues trainee, who earned man-of-the-match honours in a 1-0 win at Ipswich on his full debut in March 2000, has traded boots for gloves after being granted his UK boxing license.
And after a career spent in a team environment, Birmingham is ready for the added responsibilities encountered by going it alone in the professional ranks.
He said: ‘On a football pitch, if you are having a bad time, you can hide.
‘You have 10 other players who can get you out of trouble, if needs be.
‘In the boxing ring, the difference is your cornermen leave as soon as the bell sounds.
‘You walk into the middle and there is no hiding place – you, and you alone, are there to fight.
‘You are in there to hit and be hit. To me it’s like a game of chess – I view it as a tactical battle.
‘But the buzz comes from when you are walking out to your own music blaring out and you have all of your fans travelling with you.
‘That takes me back to that special day at Portman Road when I was coming out of the tunnel.
‘It is in those little moments where football and boxing coincide – and the feeling is just unreal.’
For Birmingham, his first senior start for Pompey, 15 years ago, proved to be his best.
By his own admission, though, it was one of too few for the Blues as he failed to beat the count at Fratton Park.
A series of untimely injuries curtailed a promising start to life under Tony Pulis, which saw the home-grown full-back in action against Bolton, Ipswich and Blackburn.
It was a case of three strikes and out, however, as Birmingham was released by under-pressure player-boss Steve Claridge the following campaign, having failed to regain form after undergoing an operation on his broken leg.
There is no bitterness in Portsmouth-born man, though.
Birmingham said: ‘I made my debut at Bolton and came on after an hour against a very good side.
‘That season they made it to the FA Cup semi-finals and division one play-offs.
‘Eidur Gudjohnsen, Michael Johansen and Jussi Jaaskelainen all played for them.
‘I just remember walking into the Reebok Stadium and it being completely different to Fratton Park – to the point there was an Astroturf bit at the side where you could do your warm-up.
‘We lost 3-0 that day but wow it was a great experience.
‘After Bolton, though, I got left out next game against Tranmere.
‘But the gaffer came and saw me and told me I was travelling to Ipswich a few days later.
‘I just thought I would be sitting on the bench but when we were training the day before, Tony gave me the yellow bib and I thought: “Hold on, what’s going on here?”
‘I was in the starting XI and playing as a wing-back.
‘It’s hard work as a wing-back at the best of times but especially against an Ipswich side who were absolutely flying at the time.
‘All the lads gathered round me – Dave Waterman, Scott Hiley, Linvoy Primus and Darren Moore – and they were a massive help.
‘But on the day of the game I had never been so nervous in my whole life.’
However anxious he felt beforehand, though, Birmingham didn’t show it on the field of play.
The teenager put in a stellar showing in a shock 1-0 win for the Blues, which alleviated growing relegation concerns and sent the visiting fans wild with delight.
‘During the warm-up I clocked my dad in the stands which were empty then,’ said Birmingham.
‘It was the first time he had come to watch me play in a long time.
‘And as we came in for the team talk the nerves really kicked in.
‘When we lined up in the tunnel, Matthew Holland, who was the Bournemouth captain when I was an apprentice there before joining Pompey’s youth team, started chatting to me.
‘But with that, Dave Waterman gave me a cuff around the back of the head and told me to get my mind on the game.
‘When we came out the tunnel the place erupted.
‘There were more than 20,000 people there and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up – it was an unbelievable feeling.
‘I remember getting booked for a bit of a harsh tackle on Jermaine Wright which earned me some flack off their fans – but that only served to fire me up even more!
‘I loved it and felt like I belonged.
‘After the game we all celebrated like we had won the FA Cup – our fans wouldn’t leave the ground!
‘The whole day was so enjoyable.’
Next up for Birmingham was a League Cup tie with Blackburn, which proved to be his last game for Pompey at the age of 19.
He joked: ‘The gaffer looked after me, didn’t he? Bolton, Ipswich and Blackburn – three great clubs!
‘I was playing directly up against Jason McAteer and Graeme Souness was their manager.
‘I grew up watching Jason playing for Ireland at the 1994 World Cup and there he was pulling my shirt, trying to trip me up and having a bit of banter.
‘It was all a bit surreal. One minute I was this kid playing an under-21s game at Fratton Park in the Youth Cup and the next minute the gaffer had pulled me over, given me a professional contract and told me I was in the first-team squad.’
But Birmingham, who put his breakthrough down to the coaching of Neil McNab, was rocked by injury as his promising Pompey career stalled and he was shown the door less than a year later.
‘It was in my contract that if I made another three appearances I would win a new deal but unfortunately I had to have my leg operated on,’ said Birmingham.
‘I came back but struggled with injury – I had shin splints, then problems with my ankles and it was just one thing after another.
‘I simply didn’t pick up the form I had shown the year before.
‘Claridge had just taken over and needed results fast, so chose to favour experience and part with me, which was his call.
‘My performances weren’t great, though, and he was truthful.
‘I suppose it was just one of those things but that’s football.’
Boxing, though, is the new focus for Birmingham.
And after a career that also saw him play for Bournemouth under Sean O’Driscoll and in non-league for Bognor with brother Michael before falling out of love for the game, the 34-year-old is happy to be getting a second chance to show his worth in the ring.
‘I boxed years and years ago as a schoolboy but I had to give it up for football,’ said Birmingham.
‘Dave Waterman approached me after setting up the Oakley Waterman foundation in memory of his son and told me he was putting on a charity boxing show – without hesitation I agreed.
‘I got bang into it and won my first fight so the coach asked if I wanted to do some more boxing.
‘The next thing he is asking me if I want to turn professional.
‘Having been a pro footballer I just thought wow, why not?
‘It’s all happened so fast – I just got my professional license through last month after meeting the boxing board in London.
‘I had an assessment spar at Peacock Gym, which is where Frank Bruno and lots of famous boxers learned their trade.
‘And I am now in my first week of training camp at Ballys Gym for my first professional fight in March which will be at either lightweight or super featherweight.
‘Danny O’Reilly, Gavin Jones and Paul Miles are just three people who have helped me out massively over the past year.’
Now a courier for Interlink Express, Birmingham has dismissed concerns he is entering into the noble art too late.
He said: ‘When I was younger I was a bit hot-headed but I am older and wiser now.
‘My sparring and training is going well and there is no reason why I can’t fight on for a number of years and see how I go.’