HOW SET BACKS CAN MAKE YOU STRONGER

Wycombe Wanderers Youth Team class of 2010/11: Where are they now?

Knockbacks are part and parcel of professional sport. I don’t believe for one second that there’s a professional footballer out there that has never been told he/she is not good enough. But it’s how we deal with these knockbacks which moulds us as players and more importantly as human beings. Resilience is key.

Like most footballers, I was scouted by numerous clubs when I was younger. I trialled at Arsenal and Chelsea, both unsuccessful – I was very small and slight. Although technically gifted, there were other attributes scouts and academy directors were looking for; strength, pace and power. It didn’t suit me. But eventually I was scouted by Southampton when I was 10 years old. An incredible schooling for any young player. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played in my age group for a year with the year below me containing a plethora of talent including Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers, James Ward-Prowse and Harrison Reed.

Five years later at the age of 14, I was released from Southampton. I remember crying that night uncontrollably and being teased at school a little for my failure. But it wasn’t failure. One club had told me ‘no thanks’ but another could tell me the opposite. Wycombe Wanderers did just that. They took a chance on me. I went along for a trial that following summer and it was clear after the first training session that they were keen to sign me. After half a season with the Under 16s I was offered a Youth Training Scheme (YTS contract) at Christmas with my mother crying with tears of joy in our meeting with the academy director Richard Dobson. It’s a cliché but football really is a game of opinions.

My Southampton days

Perhaps the most devastating time to be told no in football is at 18 years old. “Sorry you’re not one of the ones we are giving a professional contract to.” We were told in the Football League that 90% of academy players won’t make it into the YTS scheme. Of those who do, another 80% will be culled to finally get the players who earn their first professional contract. The odds are incredibly slim.

But having your lifelong dreams be crushed at such a young and important age can truly be devastating at the time. But when looking back now, you realise that it’s just the beginning and the players who were told ‘no’ can be successful in any field they wish. Football seems the be all and end all at the time, but there’s a lot more to life.

I was inspired to write this piece by a former professional footballer Fraser Franks and I urge you to read his ‘Where are they now? Brentford Youth Team Class of 2007’. I hope both pieces of writing can show how knockbacks can make you and not break you.

Wycombe Wanderers Youth Team

Wycombe Wanderers Youth Team 2010/11

With predominantly 2nd year scholars making up our squad, our team was very strong. We finished 3rd in the league, behind much bigger clubs Queens Park Rangers and Millwall and won the Football League Youth Alliance Cup (essentially a cup competition for all the clubs in England below academy level). A great team with an abnormal number of players earning professional contracts. I lived in accommodation with several of these guys for a whole year and in some cases more. I look back now to those days as some of the best days of my life. I want to show you some of the journeys they’ve gone on since that cup final win and what some of them are up to now…

Matt Ingram

Matt Ingram – The best goalkeeper I’ve ever played with, Matt was offered a professional contract which was extended to 3 years such was his ability. He racked up 100 league appearance before he was 21, an incredible achievement for a goalkeeper. In 2016, he moved to QPR on a four-and-a-half-year deal. After a few loan moves, he then moved to Hull City where he’s currently playing. Matt is planning to study sports psychology, a subject that has always interested him.

David Styles

David Styles – A consistent left back with great set-piece delivery. David played for Selsey FC for six months following his release. He then moved to America to play football and study Business Administration. He played for Hartwick College in Oneonta for four years gaining a BA Hons degree in the process. Following two successful internships in New York and Dubai, David began studying for a MBA degree in Sports Management at Franklin Pierce University where he also started coaching the women’s soccer team. Having graduated in 2018, he now teaches Principles of Management in the Business Department.

Oliver Duffy

Oliver Duffy – A ball playing defender and my best friend in the team. Oliver lost his love for football during his apprenticeship and decided to leave Wycombe despite being offered a professional contract. I’ve always admired him for this bravery in doing this. He initially went away and worked with his father, painting and decorating. Football came back into his life again though, with spells at Hanwell Town, Wealdstone and Chertsey Town. Alongside football, Oliver is now a successful groundsman working on many sports sights in and around London including Wealdstone and Chertsey Town’s pitches. He has ambitions to grow in the business and one day ultimately run his own company.

Anthony Stewart

Anthony Stewart – Our captain. Anthony signed professional papers in 2011 and made his debut against Preston North End in 2012. After leaving Wycombe for a season to Crewe Alexander, he re-joined the Chairboys a year later. With well over 200 professional appearances and a League 2 promotion to his name, Anthony is having a great footballing career.

Charles Dunne

Charles Dunne – A talented and incredibly physical defender. Charles joined the apprentice scheme at Wycombe quite late but improved rapidly with full-time football. After breaking into the first team at Wycombe, he signed for Blackpool in 2013 whilst being loaned back to Wycombe for the season. Such were his performances; Charles was called up for the Republic of Ireland at under 21s level. After brief loan spells with Oldham Athletic and Crawley Town, Charles signed for Scottish Premiership side Motherwell where he has been a constant fixture in their backline.

Jesse Kewley-Graham

Jesse Kewley-Graham – A technically gifted holding midfielder. Jesse was a mainstay in the midfield of our team. He left Wycombe in 2014 after making over 20 appearances for the club. He went on to play football in non-league with Staines Town, Havant & Waterlooville and Hampton & Richmond among others. Jesse works in recruitment and has gained five years experience in the industry which has allowed him to move to Melbourne, Australia as a skilled worker. He’s currently working on a exciting project setting up a division ‘down under’ within software development.

Josh Scowen

Josh Scowen – A fantastic, aggressive midfielder. Josh didn’t immediately break into the first team but when he did get his opportunity, he grabbed it with both hands. After a few seasons with Wycombe, he moved to Barnsley. After achieving promotion and winning the Johnston’s Paint Trophy, he moved to Queen’s Park Rangers in the Championship. He’s currently focussing on his footballing career at Sunderland now as well as looking after his young family.

Kadeem Harris

Kadeem Harris – Our best player and winner of the Football League 2 Apprentice of the Year Award. Kadeem was the first to break though at Wycombe  (16 years old) such was his talent and moved to Championship side Cardiff City after only a handful of appearances. After loan spells with Brentford and Barnsley, he began to feature more regularly at Cardiff. He’s now currently playing in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday and is enjoying family life with two children.

Nathan Olukanmi

Nathan Olukanmi – A lightning quick winger. Nathan studied psychology at Siena College in New York where he graduated with a BA Hons degree. Having graduated, Nathan returned to England and played for numerous non-league clubs including Worcester City, Dunstable and Cambridge City. He continues to play in non-league and currently works in business systems support at Network Rail alongside his football.

Jordon Ibe

Jordon Ibe – The best young player I’ve ever seen. Jordon was playing under 18 football when he was just 14 years old and was often the best player on the pitch. Scouts from all over the country were coming to our games to watch him every week. He became the youngest ever player to appear in the Football League for Wycombe Wanderers at the tender age of 15 years and 244 days and scored on his first start against Sheffield Wednesday weeks later. In 2011, Jordon signed for Liverpool and scored his first goal in 2015 against Rubin Kazan in the Europa League . He later moved to Bournemouth for a record transfer fee of £15 million and has represented England at all youth levels.

Rob Desport

Rob Desport – A quick striker. Rob was unfortunately injured for the back end of his scholarship and spent a lot of time in the gym. This allowed his transition away from football to be smoother than most. After spells at Hayes & Yeading, and Havant & Waterlooville, it was no surprise that Rob became a successful personal trainer. He has over 50, 000 followers on Instagram @rob.desport and has numerous sponsors. In addition, Rob is happily married with two children.

Oliver Taylor

Oliver Taylor – 

A tall, powerful striker. Oliver was my roommate for a year. Scored plenty of goals over his scholarship with Wycombe and later made his professional debut in 2012 against Chesterfield in League 2. After making a handful of appearances in the Football League, he played in non-league for Woking, Frome Town and Chippenham Town. Away from football, Oliver has worked hard to become a Principle Consultant at Ranstad – a huge recruitment agency. He also boxes and hopes to have his first amateur fight after lockdown.

Lee Weemes

Lee Weemes – A clinical number 9. Lee was our top goalscorer in the 2010/11 season with 20+ goals. After leaving Wycombe, Lee continued to score goals across Steps 1, 2 and 3 in non- league for clubs including Tamworth, Eastwood Town and Farnborough. Lee was in the match day squad for Tamworth in 2012 when they were defeated by Everton 2-0 at Goodison Park in the FA Cup Third Round. Lee currently works for a successful company fitting windows and panels on new buildings in London such as Hilton Hotel’s. After an absence of three years thanks to a couple of serious knee injuries, Lee is looking to return to football next season.

* I was unable to get in touch with Archie Lloyd, Ryan Ware, Miles Smith and Lee Wright who all contributed to a the fantastic 2010/11 season.

Richard Dobson (Youth Team Manager) and David Wates (Youth Team Sports Scientist) – Having managed our youth team brilliantly, ‘Dobbo’ became assistant manager to Gary Waddock at Wycombe Wanderers in 2011 and continued in the role under new manager Gareth Ainsworth. He was at the heart of the youth produce and moulded for the first team over the next nine years. In May 2017, ‘Dobbo’ received the ‘Outstanding Contribution Award’ from the club celebrating his previous ten years work. In 2018, he achieved promotion from League 2.

David Wates left Wycombe when the academy was closed down. He spent a brief spell at Oxford United before returning to the Chairboys as Head of Sports Science for the first team. He has been a big part of the coaching team enjoying success in the form of League 2 promotion too.

Here’s some highlights of mine from my two years as an apprentice at Wycombe Wanderers:

COVID-19: HOW I’M STAYING FIT IN ISOLATION

Following the disappointment of our National League season being suspended, I enjoyed the first couple of weeks recuperating and reflecting on what a season we had at Woking. But after that initial period wore off, I was desperate to get back into football as I was missing the dressing room and adrenaline of match days. In these tough and uncertain times, our mental and physical welfare have never been more important. Stuck in doors day after day is tough for everyone so I feel it’s very important to get outside every day. 

From a professional point of view, I do feel it’s impossible to maintain ‘match fitness’. Personally, I feel match fit after five or six full matches in a row. I can sprint easily and readily in matches and recover quickly. As a midfielder, I’m able to close players down with intensity and when we win the ball back burst into the opposition’s box late (to hopefully score goals). This is what match fitness means to me.

So, with us all in isolation, this kind of fitness is just simply not possible. The limited facilities in non-league makes keeping fit hard without matches taking place but with the addition of having to isolate, things have been made harder.

We have seen a huge surge in people running on the roads which has been fantastic to see. 5 km runs have been very popular on social media with everyone showing their times. At Woking, we were set a few challenges to compete with each other over. The first, a 3-mile sprint and the next a much longer 10km run. The competition was good for us players and gave us motivation to build our fitness back up.

However, I don’t feel these long runs are actually successful in preparing players to hit the ground running whenever we go back. I’m sure old school coaches swear by bleep tests, hill runs and trying to mentally test their players, but the game has moved on. Football is a game of repeated, short, sharp sprints. Breaking, turning and stopping and the highest intensity. How can long runs at a constant speed prepare players fully? The simple answer, they don’t.

This isn’t to say long runs are useless. They can build a good base for fitness and a give an individual an idea as where their fitness is at. Small sided games and sharp 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 drills are what I find the most useful in getting my fitness up when training with Woking. The competitive nature of players will always demand that you run that extra yard. 

Of course, right now we are unable to train with others due to isolation. But, a lot of the fitness I’m doing now is with a ball. There’s two reason for this; firstly, it is very tiring and hard on the legs when you are doing fitness with a ball. The concentration on your touches and the smaller stride lengths ensure that your legs work harder than normal. Second of all and more crucially, I find it mentally easier to motivate myself to do fitness when a ball is involved. It’s the joy of the game, the excitement to put on new football boots. It feels easier. Here’s some drills I’ve been doing. Let’s see if you can give them a go: 

For strength training, I’ve changed my normal routine as I’m unable to use my gym. Woking striker and personal trainer Jake Hyde showed me how he trains in circuits this season. I’ve been aware of circuit training for years, but I’ve never really tried it. The idea is to complete exercises with high repetitions but with minimum rest. Franky, I’m terrible at it. Put me on a football pitch and I can run for hours, but circuit training has been knackered with minutes. 

However, one of my coaching philosophies is to encourage players, children, whoever to not be scared to make mistakes or try things you’re not good at. No one is born a genius at any sport. They work hard, make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It’s a constant process which ensures improvement. So, I’m giving this circuit training a real go. Here’s my last workout if you want to try it:

Find more isolation workouts on Jake Hyde’s Instagram account: @pryde_training

Stay safe everyone!

COVID-19: WHAT NOW FOR NON-LEAGUE FOOTBALL?

English football will be suspended until at least 30 April because of the continued spread of coronavirus.

The Football Association has also agreed that the current season can be “extended indefinitely”. For clubs in the Premier League, this doesn’t pose too much of a problem. The sums of money earned through sponsorships and broadcasting deals, dwarf that of the money made on a matchday.

But towards the bottom of the English footballing pyramid, the contrast couldn’t be harsher. Matchday income is the heartbeat of any non-league club. For most, it is essential to survive. That’s why these unprecedented times could be devastating for teams throughout non-league. We are stepping into the unknown…

2020 has been a tough year thus far. At Woking Football Club, the awful weather has meant our training ground at Kingston University has been flooded for months. To counteract the weather, we’ve had to find 3G pitches amongst the community and train however we can. To compound matters further, there’s numerous players in our squad who have previous injuries and have been advised by surgeons and physiotherapists to not play on the plastic surface. Not ideal to say the least. Despite these challenges, the coaching and playing staff have responded well to our shaky Christmas period and have collected a healthy number of points leaving us 3 points off the playoff spots heading into the closing fixtures. But with the intervention of COVID-19 and the suspension of all football in England, will the remaining fixtures ever be played?

It’s impossible to say right now. With so many unknowns and nature of the virus unpredictable, I think it’s a waste of time to discuss these matters. But what we can do is call upon the FA to help clubs navigate the treacherous waters they find themselves in. One hopes that the pools of money the FA and the Premier League have accumulated over these past decades, can fall through the system to save and sustain the smaller clubs. But why does this strike me as possibly naïve and over ambitious?

The player’s view:

Like the rest of the working population, part-time players who are self-employed are going to find it really tough over the next few months. Personally, the coaching work I do in schools has dried up now since Boris Johnson called for them to be closed. The FA has advised all youth football to be suspended too. This has halted the coaching I’ve been doing with the Woking youth team (something which I’ve really enjoyed).

The coaching staff at Woking have given the players some football specific training which we can do on our own. No doubt this is proactive, but there’s no way we can replicate the intensity of our group training sessions, let alone match sharpness we gather on weekends. However, it is important us players keep fit none the less.

In response, I’m seeking to coach 1-2-1 football sessions for players/children who also want to stay sharp over this ‘early off season’. Details for these are on my social media accounts.

Non-league is so special to many because it’s unique. The sense of community at the clubs is unparalleled and it’s this community spirit which we must harness in these unnerving months ahead. I know our manager Alan Dowson has voiced this opinion online and I concur with everything he said. It’s important that everyone becomes closer together when facing this adversity (even if some of us remain in isolation). Be sure to follow government guidelines and stay safe. 

But to the big football chiefs who run our game, I plead. Make sure the clubs who need this money the most receive it first before… it’s too late.

COACHING DEBATE: SHOULD WE BAN OUR CHILDREN FROM HEADING FOOTBALLS?

Last week, it was revealed that the Scottish Football Association are set to ban heading footballs in training for children under the age of 12. This comes as a result of a study by the University of Glasgow which found that former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia or other neurological diseases. Are these the suitable measures to take and should the English FA follow suit or are the SFA being over cautious?

For the past four years, I’ve coached football for children from the ages of 5-16 in Surrey. Specific sessions based around heading has always been something the company I work for have avoided. Any sort of head trauma, big or small for a child is dangerous, so, designing football sessions which would increase the odds of these sorts of permutations would be ridiculous. Parents would know however, that any sort of heading is quite rare in youth football. When the ball is in the air, players normally avoid heading it and let the ball bounce instead. On the odd occasion when a young player does head the ball, I have found myself celebrating it and congratulating the child audibly. Is this the right thing to be doing if there’s research out there suggesting it could be potentially harmful?

Unfortunately, the findings from the University of Glasgow could not attribute the increased chances of dementia to heading footballs specifically. Repeated concussions and old fashioned, heavy leather balls could have also been factors. Balls have certainly become lighter nowadays, so you would assume the risks are less, but why let there be a risk at all?

I’ve not scored too many headers in my career

I think coaching for Under 12s should be technique orientated with the ball on the floor. The most improvement and learning can be made in these early years, in my opinion. All my sessions at this age, focus on technique, ball skills, passing, shooting, left foot, right foot. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. If you make the sessions enjoyable the kids love it and improve rapidly.

But how do you stop children from heading the ball in the back garden or in the park with their friends? For example, if their idol Cristiano Ronaldo scores a fantastic header (which we know he’s more than capable of) and they wish to emulate him in the garden, how do you police it? Shade has now been cast on what was originally an innocent thing.

Cristiano Ronaldo with a trademark header

I’ve played with many players (normally centre backs) who’s whole game is based around being a leader in defence with physicality and winning you individual duels. Winning your headers is a huge part of that. I’m sure we all can think of players who spring to mind with these attributes. Would we see a decrease in these types of players and the overall standard of heading if a heading ban was introduced? Would players like Peter Crouch (the all-time Premier League record holder for headed goals), Andy Carroll and Tim Cahill become a rarity? 

It will be interesting to see whether the English FA will follow suit. If they did, it would be a huge change in the youth game as we know it. As a coach, a ban wouldn’t affect my sessions too much. But I’m not a parent. How would this ban on heading 12 affect you or your coaching?

IS THE JUMP FROM NON-LEAGUE PART-TIMER TO PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALLER BECOMING MORE COMMON?

For millions of children across the globe, playing professional football in the English Premier League remains the ultimate goal. With money pouring into the English game and at an exponential rate, the elite clubs now possess scouting networks which can discover any young talent, from every corner of the earth. In fact, clubs like Chelsea have since ran into trouble by using this method of player recruitment so much.

 In 2017, the Premier League had the highest percentage of foreign players of any European League which was an obvious worry for the England manager Gareth Southgate.

So, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the old fashion, ‘rag to riches’ route of non-league part timer to Premier League football star is a thing of the past. But you’d be wrong.

Of course, Jamie Vardy’s remarkable rise from Stockbridge Park Steels to Leicester City and England is the most documented example. Vardy had a deadly scoring record in non-league football scoring just under a goal per game for Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before securing a non-league record transfer to then Championship side Leicester City for £1 million. He since has become an England international and right now it’s hard to argue that he’s the most in-form striker in the Premier League with eleven league goals this campaign.

But Vardy is not alone in climbing the football pyramid from base to summit. Troy Deeney, Charlie Austin and Chris Smalling are just a few who have made the same journey and are now plying their trades in top divisions across Europe.

So, with all this money sloshing around and foreign managers dominating the Premier League hotseats, are these clubs in fact neglecting local, homegrown talent and missing the ‘diamonds in the rough’ lurking down the divisions?

Troy Deeney earns his stripes in non-league football.

I’ve recognised the amount of non-league players transferring to Football League clubs is increasing. I’ve played against many of them. Managers in the Football League now are realising that players from non-league are honest, hungry and experienced in playing men’s football. Three vital attributes that managers want. I’ve never been a big believer of the U23’s leagues which are meant to mould elite young players into becoming professionals. Matches are often slow, lack competitiveness and a hard watch.  Admittedly, they can help the young, potential superstars develop and the teams offer mirror their first team counterparts, but the cold reality is that very few youngsters at these Premier League clubs ever make their debuts.

It’s a stark contrast when looking at the top of the non-league pyramid. The matches are fast and furious. Yes, the style of matches may be less aesthetically pleasing to the football purist, but passion and full commitment are always apparent. 

So, what am I suggesting? It’s a double-edged sword. I think there has never been a better time to be playing non-league football. If you consistently play well and impress, then there is ample chance you’ll get the offer to play higher and turn professional. Some players receive this opportunity but decide to remain part-time rather than become a full-time professional.

It’s understandable because a player can often earn more money for his/her family if they play non-league football and have a regular day job. But I would implore players to take a chance and become the best player you can be. 

On the other hand, if you’re a young professional in the Football League, sitting on the bench for the first team or playing in the 23’s league every week, I would strongly suggest you go on loan to a lower league side. Play adult football, play in front of passionate non-league crowds and fight for the three points every week which means so much to them. 

When at Wycombe Wanderer’s I often sat on the bench as a youngster getting thirty minutes here and the odd start there. I would often make good impacts but overall it was very difficult to play my best football because I was never in a rhythm. I was twenty-four years old when I played my first full season (fifty plus games for Hampton & Richmond). It was the most enjoyable season I had had albeit and a lower level than Wycombe. I learnt a huge amount and played some of my best football. But looking back, I probably left it too late. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Go play week in, week out and enjoy your football!

Being rotated in and out of the starting XI is always tough, I should’ve gone out on loan sooner.