Rebuilding Bridges at home...

THE ENGLISH Premiership is one of the biggest football leagues in the world - and everything about it is big.

Big paycheques for big players, big cars for big garages, big spending for big lifestyles and on a football scale - big pressure to perform to keep being, well, big.
Having once been top goal scorer for Leeds United and, as his Twitter Bio describes him as 'having more clubs than Tiger Woods', Michael Bridges - Newcastle Jets striker and proud token Novacastrian - knows all about the pressure to survive in the big leagues of England.
"I was with Sunderland at the time and we were playing Wimbledon in the last game of the season," he says. "We had to win to survive relegation.
"We drew. All the fans are shouting and screaming at us and we had to listen on the radio to see if Coventry City had won. They had delayed their kick off by 15 minutes to hear our result.
"So we were on this radio thing for 15 minutes and when they scored a goal, we had 30,000 people shouting at us because we had cost the club."
With his head in his hands, Michael describes relegation in the big European leagues as not a particularly easy thing to endure: "I experienced three promotions and three relegations in my career, - and I much, much prefer promotions."
Michael has had some amazing highs in his career. Having been named in Sven Goran Eriksson's 2002 World Cup Squad, he was among talent such as Michael Owen and now teammate Emile Heskey coming through the ranks, and after a huge debut season with Leeds, was hailed as England's 'next big thing'.
The look on Michael's face speaks volumes when he's asked about the devastating injury that stopped his flourishing career in its tracks - and it's obvious he has been asked this question a million times over.
"People ask me if the injury against Besiktas was the one thing I would change in my career and I used to always say yes," he admits.
"But now an older, wiser me never looks back and regrets anything. I look at my life now - I met my wife Kate during the period I was injured and now we have two beautiful kids.
"How can I be miserable about 'what could have been' when there are people dying in the world? We are entertainers, we are lucky to do what we do."
But it wasn't all sunshine for a younger, hungry, passionate and football-mad Michael Bridges, and as many professional sportspeople can relate, injury can plague not only your body, but also your mind.
"I worked damn hard for 14 months to recover from what I was told by the club doctor was a career ending injury," he says. "And I got myself fit and playing again, against all odds.
"But injury struck again - only two months after my comeback - and I was told I would be out for another eight months.
"And that's when I hit depression."
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Michael's wife Kate recalls watching the exact moment that injury occurred. After frantically searching among the standing players for his shirt number, her heart sank when she realised it was her man that was down.
"It was so tough", Kate explains. "I immediately burst into tears and worried for him - I could tell the injury wasn't good. And I wondered - how in the world was I going to pick him up from this?
"But before I went to see him after the game, I composed myself, put a brave face on, and told him what he needed to hear.
"That he has been told his career was over before, and it wasn't. That yes, it was horrendous but let's deal with it and get through it."  
It's clear that Kate has always been a positive influence on Michael's life, so much so that he credits her support as a large part of getting through the darkest days of his career.
"Kate would always take the piss out of me and bring me down to earth when I needed it," he says. "And she never showed when she was hurting - even though I think she was - she always stayed strong for me."
Kate interrupts Michael in a charming, sarcastic Northern English tone and says, "Yes, when he is injured and miserable, I am the dream wife.
"You want a cup of tea? Of course I'll make it for you! But when he's fit and healthy? Make it yourself!" Kate teases.
It's clear this twosome have a beautiful rapport with one another with playful jokes - at each other's expense - being thrown back and forth for the entire duration of our chat. 
Michael recalls how he and Kate met at a time when a serious relationship was the last thing on his mind.
"I remember early into my recovery with my ankle injury, my mate rang and told me he has found the woman for me," he said.
"She was a professional Irish Dancer and she was on dance break in the UK from Vegas where she starred in Lord of the Dance.
"I was only 21 and I laughed it off and told him he was ridiculous. But he insisted I meet her because she had the same sick and twisted sense of humour as I do.
"And the rest is history."
Looking at Kate, she has Irish Dancer written all over her. She jokes she was partly selected to star in the show because she was the only one that didn't need a wild, curly wig.
"I fell into Irish dancing, really", Kate says. "My Mum had practised it, and after some Irish Dancers came to a friends party when I was younger, I really enjoyed it.
"But it wasn't a career aspiration of mine - it was a case of right place at the right time and before you know it, I auditioned and found myself on the way to Vegas at 17 years old."
Moving away from home for any 17 year old would seem like a daunting prospect, but living in Las Vegas was an opportunity the girl from Northern England couldn't pass up.
"I grew up a lot in Vegas - I was there nearly three years," she says. "And looking back, I probably didn't make as much out of it as I could of, but I was young and home sick for a lot of the time.
"Of course there were some amazing elements of living that lifestyle. After Vegas, we toured Europe with our show and the experience was priceless.
"But I fell out of love with dancing - even though it was a fantastic part of my life."
It was not long after she gave up dancing that she embarked on a new, completely foreign role altogether, that of a WAG.
We Football WAGS in Australia, well, we are just that - Wives and Girlfriends. In my experience anyway, it's not a competition amongst the girls for most coveted handbag or most spectacular house. We are just normal chicks that happen to be partnered up with guys that ply their trade in sport. 
But being a WAG in England is a different story.
"What you see on Footballers Wives - the TV Show - is pretty much the lifestyle, without the incest." Michael says. "If you don't have a Range Rover Sport, you haven't made it.
"The cars, the houses, the lifestyle - it's very glitzy.
"But at Leeds, we had a great group of guys - and girls - and so while we enjoyed a great night out and cash was splashed around, we stayed pretty down to earth amongst it all."
And while for the most part being part of such a lifestyle was fun and exciting, the first thing Kate noticed when she came to Australia was how relaxed people in football were in comparison.
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"There was no pressure - no catwalk to walk down when you entered the players lounge", Kate jokes.
"And even though on the whole my experience with WAGS in the Premiership was generally great - I did feel a bit inferior when Michael first signed with Newcastle United.
"I actually felt like I was being scrutinised from top to toe at my first game. There is of course none of that over here."
Michael agrees that even for him, as a footballer, there is less pressure to keep up appearances.
"It's refreshing because people like you for who are and not what you have," he says.
It's a good thing for Michael, who jokingly calls himself the worst dressed footballer in the game's history. In fact, he has even disturbingly admitted to wearing what is considered one of the greatest fashion faux pas; Triple Denim.
"We Pommies are known to love our denim so at one stage it was denim shoes, denim jeans, denim shirts," he reveals. (Seriously? Denim shoes??! - Ed)
"So I remember how good it was to see boys come to training in boardies and T-shirts."

And while the family has now come to think of Australia - and Newcastle - as their second home, it wasn't the easiest of transitions for Mrs Bridges.
"When Michael first got the opportunity to come on loan to play for Sydney FC, I had mixed emotions." Kate recalls.
"We had twin babies who weren't even one year old and just the thought of living 24 hours away from any family or help was difficult.
"But how can you say no to such an opportunity? It was another adventure for us."
And while the little family was put up in hotel-style accommodation in the middle of Darling Harbour, Kate really struggled with being on her own on the other side of the world.
"Darling Harbour is a gorgeous place to live." says Kate. "But it was a high rise, so of course balconies are out of bounds with newborn babies and everything was made of glass.
"That experience would have been magnificent for a young couple but with a small family it was difficult."
And Michael is well aware of the challenges Kate faced as a new mum on the other side of the world.
"Of course it's good fun for us footballers", Michael explains. "We get to go to training with the lads, attend events, dinners, away games.
"Kate was often alone at the apartment with our twin babies and it understandably got to her after a while."
The three month loan spell could not end soon enough for Kate with her deciding adamantly on the flight home that any future move would have to be within an hour's drive from their family in the UK.
"And look at us now," she laughs. "We have been here  years we are just finalising our citizenship.
"Australia is quite literally our second home."
Ironically enough, the couple admits had it not been for the less than perfect first move to Sydney, they may have not got the opportunity to live in Newcastle - a place where Michael has been embraced by the fans as one of their own.
"Kate was understandably hesitant to come the second time round, but when I got here I knew immediately it was going to be a different experience entirely," says Michael.
"I got on the phone to her and said the people are amazing, the town is beautiful, get on that plane ASAP."
Signing for the Newcastle Jets in 2009 proved to be a fruitful decision for the experienced striker both on and off the field. After being signed by Branko Culina for the 2009-10 season, he went from player to captain in less than a year. 
But it wasn't long before the fan favourite made a shock announcement following a knee injury.

"In April 2011 I announced my retirement from professional football," he recalls. "After receiving the injury I thought maybe my run was over and it was time to pursue other areas of football.
"And the club were amazing - they asked me to hang around and help out with the coaching and strikers as well as be involved in Corporate Hospitality.
"But it was during the periods of coaching when I was fitter than ever that I had this feeling of wanting to play again.
"And when Kasey Wehrman at the time suggested I give it another crack, I knew I had to - but didn't know how to go back on my word.
"All I knew was that I still had more to offer."
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Michael credits the amazing support of Jets CEO Robbie Middleby, Hunter Sports Group CEO Troy Palmer and Coach Gary Van Eggmond in giving him his chance to continue playing football.
Kate adds: "He just wasn't ready to finish playing."
Today, Michael and Kate Bridges - along with children Sadie and Riley - are settled in Valentine, a suburb in beautiful Lake Macquarie where they both continue to dream for what a future in Newcastle can bring.
"I just want to work in football", Michael says. "Whether its coaching, management or media - it just has to be football.
"I have 20 years of experience in this wonderful game, I want to be able to give back where I can."
And as for how the game is progressing in Australia, Michael cannot speak highly enough of how far our country has come in both standard and world recognition for its domestic league.
"I get phone calls all the time from players dying to come out here," he reveals.
"It's the Dwight Yorkes, the Emile Heskeys, the Del Pieros of the league - they are the perfect marketing tools in attracting quality players to Australia.
"And the standard is so good now that these players don't come just to finish off their career and have a holiday - they come because it is seen as a competitive league and they want to make a difference."
Michael singles out coaching as the main ingredient in what has made the A-League as strong as it is today.
"The expectations of coaches is higher, they have to do their B- and A- licences - and you can see the results in the kids coming through."
And while you may have already seen Michael in the commentary box on TV, he hopes to further his career in media simply because talking about football just comes so naturally to him.
"Of course it was nerve-wracking at first," he admits. "But once I got the hang of it, it became second nature."
And as for Kate, she now speaks of her days as a dancer as 'a previous life' and has recently started working as a Teacher's Aid - where she assists children with Special Needs at Primary School level.
"It was the first thing in my life I picked out for myself," she reveals.
"And it sounds like a cliché but I chose it so I could make a difference."
So for Family Bridges - who have another guaranteed year in "Newie" while Michael continues to do what he loves - the rollercoaster ride of football seems to have finally slowed down and they now find themselves settled and content.
And while Michael occasionally reflects on his days in the big leagues, he keeps it all into perspective.
"At 21, I was told I would never play again," he adds.
"And here I am today, just turned 35, and still playing Professional Football in a magnificent country like Australia.
"I'm blessed."
  •  Kat Caravella is a journalist and wonderWAG as the other half of Newcastle Jets star Zenon Caravella, who gives her unique insight to the lives of A-League families. In addition to her own blog at, she is also co-owner of online wine merchants You can follow her on Twitter on @KatCaravella