Up until the day I signed for Bournemouth, I had been having the same conversation over and over again. Question: "Are you retired?" Answer: "No, just in between clubs." It was the truth, but it still felt weird to say. At first I tried to laugh it off. Then I saw Michael Owen had signed for Stoke.
It was Richard Hughes who threw me the lifeline and told me about Bournemouth. Everyone assumes it was Harry Redknapp who put in the call. But it was Hughesy, not Harry. And I'm grateful to him. Life without a club, not knowing what was coming next, had brought some melancholy moments. Those closest to me said I was becoming intolerable. I didn't know my arse from my elbow.
Some days I wondered if I had in fact retired and just could not bring myself to admit it. When my family wanted to go on holiday, right at the start of the football season, I said no. How could I go on holiday? They pointed out that I didn't have a club to play for, but somehow I felt I should be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring – just in case. The thing is, you get institutionalised in football. You have a routine, same thing every year. Sitting in a bar drinking beer in the Spanish mountains does not fit that picture. I kept thinking: "Shouldn't someone be stopping me from doing this?"
But the phone didn't ring. So I went on holiday. I played golf. I made new friends. I went to watch live sport. I tried to keep myself busy on a Saturday. I trained with Exeter for a while – I was grateful they would have me after several other clubs turned me down, fearing, I was later told, that I would undermine their goalkeeping set up.
Three weeks ago I flew out to Abu Dhabi to do some punditry and bumped into my old goalkeeping coach from Portsmouth, David Coles. I had reached a bit of a mental low by then. In all honesty, I think I was totally delusional. I said: "You know what's funny, Colesy? I'm not actually missing it." But he must have misheard me because he said: "Yeah, I still miss playing every day." He retired 18 years ago.
I suppose it's that old football joke. "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "David James." "David James who?" "That's football." At the highest level of football you easily develop delusions of grandeur. It is a difficult adjustment to become Mr Replaceable. But even the most legendary of club players – Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes at Manchester United, or Steve Fletcher at Bournemouth, now in his 20th year for the club, with a stand named after him and still on the playing staff – are replaceable eventually.
There are generally three reasons why a player retires: not being physically capable, not being technically capable, or not having anyone to sign you. Increasingly it looked like the third reason would finish me off. You can't help but feel frustrated then. I can't say I did not have – or consider – offers. To travel long distances, to be a second- or even third-choice goalkeeper, I was open-minded. But nothing seemed to fit.
So when I got a call saying Bournemouth were interested, it was a great feeling. I knew Grovesy [Paul Groves] from my Portsmouth days, when he was on the coaching staff. He remembered me well, perhaps a little too well. I suppose you could say I have a bit of a reputation as a ball-breaker. I demand the best from everyone, including the manager. It reminds me of something Pete Waterman, the music producer, once said – as soon as a boy band start writing their own songs, you know it's game over. Well, when a player wants to orchestrate his own set plays … same thing. That was me. I wasn't able to toe the line.
This time, though, I said: "Grovesy, I'm a changed man." And I am. I've learned to think more before I open my mouth. I was taught by a legendary coach on my A-licence course, Dickie Bates. He said a good coach should never use the word "but"; instead they should use the word "and". So, rather than saying, "great effort but…" you say, "great effort and ...". I signed for Bournemouth to learn, not just to be a dictator.
Since then, everything has happened in a whirl. After a day's training I was on the team sheet for the first XI – not having played a competitive match in five months. Just five days later and the manager was sacked –the second time in a row that has happened to me. Am I the managerial kiss of death? When I signed for Bristol City, Steve Coppell lasted only two games. So here I am, another south-coast club, a familiar commute to work, similar personnel. Even so, it has still been a bit of a culture shock. At Crawley Town, on Tuesday night, they announced the attendance as just short of 2,500. At Portsmouth, 2,500 was the fluctuation between a good and a bad crowd.
It is moments such as those that have often prompted me to ask myself whether I should have stayed in the Premier League rather than join Bristol City. Life would have been very different, but would it have been good different or bad different? All I know is that the experiences I'm having in the lower leagues are providing a richer, more holistic view of life outside of the Premier League bubble. Those experiences, I hope, will help me to become a better manager.
David James has donated his fee for this column to charity