Montgomery keeps it real
Gary Montgomery sums it up best when he says: “It’s been a crazy year.”
A little over 12 months ago Montgomery was a goalkeeper for Grimsby Town. Then came a phone call from Mike Newell, the manager, telling him he was being released with immediate effect.
The prospect of joining the dole queue suddenly became very real indeed, and remained so after trials with Warwickshire - for whom he played as a youngster - and Leicestershire proved fruitless.
Fortunately for Montgomery, Lancashire offered him a lifeline.
He took 11 wickets in his first two games for the second XI, helped them reach the final of both competitions and, six months on, was standing on the outfield as a fully-fledged member of a first-team squad containing the likes of Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson.
There is a hint of bewilderment in Montgomery’s voice as he looks back on what has surely been the most remarkable phase of a professional sporting career that began at Coventry in 1999 and included spells at Crewe, Kidderminster and Rotherham.
Although he made his professional debut against Chelsea and was part of the Rotherham side beaten 9-8 on penalties by Arsenal in the League Cup in 2003, Montgomery played barely 50 games in a decade, and he suspected his time was up at Grimsby.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get a contract at Grimsby; it wasn’t really a shock,” Montgomery tells ecb.co.uk. “The manager didn’t like me from the outset for whatever reason. I don’t know why.
“I went to Macclesfield on trial; nothing came of that. I had a couple of non-League offers but it didn’t interest me.
“I’d lost my passion for the game and I wasn’t enjoying my football. I wasn’t the most talented footballer - I just used to work my socks off and try and get the best out of what I had.
“When I could feel that my passion wasn’t there and I wasn’t going to work as hard, I’d have been selling myself short.”
He may have represented Warwickshire from the ages of 10-15 - when the inevitable choice between football and cricket forced his hand - but Montgomery is candid enough to admit his experience in whites has been limited to fewer than a dozen games for Leamington Spa second XI over the last decade before he earned a trial at Edgbaston.
“My dad was captain of the seconds, so I’d play the odd game here and there if they were short or if I was going home to see my folks. I wasn’t practising; I was just rocking up and playing.”
Montgomery showed what he could do with a little practice when he took 5-55 for Warwickshire against Lancashire in the Second XI Championship, and his sensational return of 7-29 for Lancashire against Nottinghamshire three months later was the single most important reason for his being handed a one-year contract.
There was plenty of swing that day, which Montgomery claims is his biggest weapon, particularly an ability to bring the ball back into the right-hander at a brisk pace.
Lancashire have a habit of plucking players out of relative obscurity. James Anderson went from Burnley seconds to the England team, via Old Trafford, in little more than a year, while Sajid Mahmood had not long since packed in stacking shelves at the local supermarket when he made the step up to the highest level.
The turnaround for Montgomery has been remarkable, so much so that he has had to shelve an Open University business course as he attempts to make the most of a second chance he never expected to come.
“If I hadn’t managed to sort out a contract for the cricket, I don’t know what I would have done,” he adds.
“I’d have been looking to get into something - anything - the same as anyone who is out of work. At that time last year I wouldn’t have been the only one unemployed, so it would have been really, really tough.
“It’s been a crazy year. It’s been stressful but really enjoyable. Last summer was highs and lows: being on trial at various counties; good performances; indifferent performances; always thinking, ‘Is that going to get me anywhere?’ or ‘Have a blown it?’”
While Montgomery admits life in the lower football leagues pales in comparison to the professional set-up and training facilities at Lancashire, he believes his background as a sportsman gives him an “added bonus”.
Indeed, having spared his body the rigours of bowling for much of the past 10 years, Montgomery is hoping he is in a better position physically than many of the youngsters who have pounded in relentlessly summer after summer.
Anderson, England’s leading pace bowler, saw enough in one net session with Montgomery to predict bigger things, although the man himself is well aware that winning a place in the first XI is probably the limit of his achievements this year.
“To have somebody of Jimmy’s class saying anything positive is a big booster,” he says. “But I have to go out there and back it up. It’s my responsibility.
“I want to be playing for the first team. But, realistically, I just want to be performing well whatever standard I’m playing.
“I want to make sure I’m ready if and when that chance comes. There’s no set target at the moment - just to get as far forward as I can as quick as I can.”
However rapid Montgomery’s progress, he will do well to match the speed of change in the past 12 months.