It’s just turned 5am but already Peter Ramage is on the road.
The former Newcastle, QPR, Crystal Palace and Phoenix Rising defender is now assistant manager of the USL Championship side, which is the second division in the American footballing pyramid.
Peter joined the coaching staff shortly after the culmination of the 2018 season, which saw Rising win the Western Conference – but lose out to Louisville for the USL Championship title.
“The aim is for Phoenix Rising to be an MLS side,” admits Ramage, who was making the 430-mile journey to El Paso in Texas for a game which Rising would win 2-0 – their first win of the season having drawn all four previous league games.
“To get there you have to make the step up the ladder. It’s exciting not only for Phoenix Rising but the whole of Arizona. There’s a lot of emphasis on the structure, when I came out in 2016 it was just a boy’s club. They’re making great strides; the whole of Arizona is coming together to get players not only in the first team but into the national team too.”
As Ramage mentions, he was first brought to the club in 2016 by Marc Bircham, who was a coach at the then named Arizona United. Bircham, “a larger than life” character, was QPR’s U18s manager when Ramage played there.
The vision to become Phoenix Rising was already in place when Ramage joined and it became official before the beginning of the 2017 season. The name change was accompanied by top players in former Watford left-back Jordan Stewart and ex-Chelsea winger Shaun Wright-Phillips joining the club.
However, the key addition was Didier Drogba. As well as playing a leading role from the front, the Chelsea legend was also one of 17 new owners for the club, which also includes world-famous DJ Diplo.
With no promotion or relegation out of the MLS, to join the league you have to be accepted as a franchise team. So, how likely is that to happen at Phoenix?
“I’m driving in at half five and it’s already a hot day, it’s in the 70s and its 110, 120 degrees in the middle of the afternoon which is when MLS games are,” says Ramage.
“You have to have a stadium that’s going to be able to accommodate those kinds of soaring temperatures. There’s a lot that we have to do but Don Garver the MLS commissioner keeps coming over to have a look at us so he must be coming out for a reason!”
It’s clear that the former Newcastle defender is enjoying his time at the club. After he hung up his boots in 2017 and before joining the Phoenix coaching staff in late 2018 – Ramage went back to where it all started to keep himself involved.
“I went into Newcastle where Peter Beardsley and Ben Dawson were coaches of the U23 side. I asked if I could stay and keep fit and worked a lot with Ben, whose been a real mentor to me. I got a real buzz from it and helped out with the U13s, which I really enjoyed, and it’s a place I’d love to go back to work for in the future.”
It’s no surprise he wants to return. Ramage, now 35, was a boyhood Newcastle United fan who fulfilled every child from Tyneside’s dream – playing for the first team. He made his full debut at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Sunday, 24th April 2005. Although the Ramage household will always remember that game for Peter’s first start for Newcastle, the rest of the footballing world will remember it for THAT volley by Wayne Rooney, which sailed past Shay Given from 25-yards out after Ramage had headed the ball away.
Newcastle had taken the lead through Darren Ambrose, but Wes Brown scored a late winner following Rooney’s memorable strike. For Ramage, it was the start of a journey that would see him make 69 appearances for the Toon Army.
“I was a skinny little kid who got played everywhere and anywhere just to fill a hole! I was in-and-around the first team under Bobby Robson but it wasn’t until Graeme Souness took over that I was given that chance. I was lucky enough to make my debut at the Theatre of Dreams and everything from there was a kind of dream!”
In the following 2005/06 season, Ramage played 29 times in all competitions as a run of six wins in the final seven games saw Newcastle finish 7th and qualify for the UEFA Cup the following season.
“That season was probably the high point of my time at the club. Glenn Roeder came in midway through the season and we hit a purple patch of results which saw us make Europe. It was also Al’s (Alan Shearer) last season so it was a fitting way for him to finish. I really enjoyed that moment; I was playing a lot of games for Newcastle and it was a good time to be involved with the club.”
The 2006/07 season saw Ramage play 32 times for the club as they finished 13th in the Premier League, but it was the following season that ruined his chances of becoming a Newcastle stalwart.
“I hadn’t even heard of a cruciate ligament injury until we were playing away to Middlesbrough. I’d only come on for Stephen Carr in the sixth minute but midway through the second half I just went down with no-one around me, and I knew it was bad.”
It proved to signal the end of Ramage’s time at Newcastle. By now, Sam Allardyce was in charge and he’d signed a plethora of defensive reinforcements including the likes of David Rozenhal, Claudio Cacapa, Abdoulaye Faye and Habib Beye.
“When I came back Kevin Keegan was in charge of the side and he was brilliant for me. He and Terry Mac (Terry McDermott) would play head-tennis with me and really help with my recovery. Kev sat me down and offered me a contract, but was honest and told me I’d only be a squad player. It was a tough decision to make, but I went out to look for a club that would give me regular first-team football – knowing the offer was still on the table with Newcastle.”
Ramage left and moved south of the River Tyne for the first prolonged period of time in his life, moving to the big smoke to join QPR. After two solid seasons, Rangers won the Championship title in style during the 2010/11 season when Adel Taarabt excelled under Neil Warnock’s leadership – but Ramage was just a spectator.
“I did my cruciate again, this time in the other knee, but once again it was against Middlesbrough. You couldn’t have made it up really, and it was a difficult time for me. Luckily, Neil Warnock was similar to Keegan and was very open with me. He told me to head out on loan, which was difficult as I missed out on playing in the Premier League, but it was the best thing for me.”
He spent time with Birmingham City, but it was at his first loan club, Crystal Palace, where Ramage developed his “love-affair”.
“Dougie Freedman threw us all together and we were really unfancied. We were bottom or something after four games when I struck up a partnership with Damian Delaney. We had some top players in Wilfred Zaha, who at the time wasn’t really known outside Croydon, as well as Yannick Bolasie, Luka Milivojevic, Kagisho Dikgacoi and Glenn Murray.
The Eagles finished the 2012/13 season in 5th place and eventually went up through the play-offs, beating Watford 1-0 in the final after knocking out arch rivals Brighton in the semis.
“In my opinion, we should have gone up automatically, but we made it eventually. It was a special feeling for the fans, but for me, it was probably the highlight of my career. We became robots, completely focused every weekend.”
After Palace went up, Ramage was never given the opportunity to play in the Premier League.
Instead he was loaned out to Barnsley, where he played for them during their relegation from the Championship and the subsequent season in League One.
Stints at Kerala Blasters, Coventry and Leyton Orient followed, but it was at Arizona United where he fell back in love with the game.
Now in full swing in his coaching role, Ramage outlined what his dream for the future is.
“I want to see a team full of Geordies! John Hall was around when I was coming through the youth team and we played Ipswich in the U17 Cup final. He came to watch both games and it was his big dream to make it happen so I’d still love to see a team full of Geordies!”
It may seem like a pipe dream, but for the Ashington-born Toon fan, he’s only saying what every Newcastle fan dreams about – but the difference is, he lived that dream.