What Happens To The Unlikely Lads?

Former youth professional footballer Jason Lampkin (Aston Villa and Manchester United), gives us an honest and fantastic account of his experiences and shares his thoughts on the ‘unlikely lads’ that don’t make it in football

At some stage in life, most people will find themselves with a moment to spare and imagine what might’ve been. Having had my professional sporting career cut short through injury, it’s fair to say that I’ve found myself pondering many-a-time where I’d be now had I not caught my blades in the turf at Villa Park on a cold, wet night almost seven years ago.

It was a week before my 18th birthday and I was progressing well at the club. A cameo appearance as a first team substitute in a pre-season friendly against Oxford United was the only action I had seen so far at the top level, but in the academy I felt I could claim to be a valuable member of a talented side.

Aston Villa Youth Team 2008/09. I’m fourth from left on the bottom row

Aston Villa have always had highly successful youth teams and our group more than lived up to the reputation. We had progressed to the semi-final of the 2009/10 FA Youth Cup and were sitting second in our Barclays u’18 Youth League; from which we were coming off the back of an impressive 10-1 home win against MK Dons, yours truly bagging four. (To watch, follow this link and skip to 6:20)

High off the confidence of that victory, we headed out of the tunnel at Villa Park raring to go and send the Toon Army marching back up the M1. Despite going a goal down, we replied early in the second half, which gave us the momentum and belief that we could go and snatch the winner. Typically a winger, I was pushed upfront with less than 20 minutes to go to try and exploit the Geordie’s tiring back four with my pace.

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Playing in an earlier round of the FA Youth Cup versus Millwall

Tussling against Paul Dummett for a through ball, I stretched out my leg to try and get in front of the man and head towards goal. Yet with a little clip of my heel and a lot of a twist of my knee, I was sent tumbling to the ground, clutching my shin in agony. I knew from the immediate pain that it was serious and, looking back, that was probably the night I not only said goodbye to my right ACL, but also to my chances at the club.

During my year of rehabilitation following the injury, there was a quick turnover of three first team managers. Such disruption causes even the most gifted senior players to wonder whether they’ll fit into the plans of the new man in charge; so imagine how I felt as an injured youth player with virtually no experience or pedigree at the highest level. I’d say I was shaking in my boots, but I wouldn’t be slipping into them for quite a while.

Upon returning to fitness, I was told I was surplus to requirements and I then began looking for alternatives. It was then that I decided to continue with further education in the United States, as that way I could construct a contingency plan whilst still keeping the dream alive by playing college ‘soccer’. I would say that it has gone well so far as I have earned accolades on-and-off the field, but there is still a lingering thought in the back of my mind that the final whistle has not yet blown on my professional sporting career.

As for the other Villains who took to the field in claret and blue with me that night; some went on to make it, most did not. Among those who made it, only two are still contracted to the club and neither has played a single minute for the first team so far this season. Two others ply their trade in the Championship and are getting significant game time. A handful of others play non-league or abroad. As far as I know, I’m the only one playing in the United States, but I am not the only one studying.

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The team celebrating the equalizer against Chelsea in the 2009/10 FA Youth Cup Final

My closest friend from those days (a stocky, powerful farmer’s boy), is currently studying towards a Pharmacology degree at the University of Manchester in England. In true footballer fashion, when I first heard the news I simply presumed he was going into the family business. Over time it dawned on me that he was actually learning about a branch of medicine and biology concerned with the study of drugs and their actions.

Another one of my closest friends from those days now works as a teller in a hospital. Being the victim of multiple ACL tears, I’d’ve thought a hospital would be the last place he would want to spend his days, but with his immense mental strength and will to succeed, I’m sure he will go on to greater things. Being so close to achieving our dreams and now seemingly being so far away has in fact instilled that one trait in all of us; the will to succeed and prove to ourselves and others that just because we didn’t quite make it in football, it doesn’t mean that we wont make it doing something else.

One of the class of ’09 runs his own soccer training company with his brother (another former Villain). Another set up his own personal training company. Through ups and downs, our time in the academy instilled in us several values that will stand us in good stead should we decide to follow a different path than that of out of the tunnel and onto the pitch: teamwork, dedication, and persistence to mention a few.

In any case, just because we might’ve stumbled at the first hurdle, it doesn’t mean that we cant recover and still win the race: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There are countless cases of soccer players having been rejected at youth level before going on to blossom a couple of years down the line.

From working in a beetroot factory to leading England’s front line: as “rags-to-riches” tales go, Rickie Lambert’s is right up there. The Liverpudlian completed his rise from unwanted lower-league striker to international forward when he was capped for England for the first time as a 31 year old in August 2013 in a remarkable career that saw him dropped by his beloved Liverpool as a youngster and then released again by Blackpool as a teenager.

Unperturbed, Lambert embarked upon on a remarkable route back to the top via Macclesfield Town, Stockport County, Rochdale, Bristol Rovers and Southampton, proving his goalscoring pedigree, and all his doubters wrong, before eventually completing a £4.5m move back to boyhood club Liverpool to put the cherry on the icing on top of the cake. Then it seems he ate the cake, got fat, slow and cumbersome and eventually faded into obscurity.

Rickie Lambert
Rickie Lambert: far from a princess, but a fairytale story nonetheless

OK, so Lambert was hardly going to set the footballing world alight, and £4.5m is a relative drop in the ocean for a club like Liverpool that boasts such fierce financial clout. So could you imagine any financially-stricken team rejecting the chance to sign Lionel Messi for a measly $1,000/month? Well that’s exactly what River Plate did in his native Argentina.

When Los Millionarios discovered that little Lionel had been diagnosed with a deficiency and they might need to pay for his monthly growth hormone treatment, they passed up the opportunity of investing in the future five-time winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or. In the end, it was European giants Barcelona that took a gamble on the wiry but wickedly talented wonder-kid, and relocated the entire Messi family to Catalonia where they also helped complete his treatment.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Even those who make it can sometimes struggle to make much of a first impression. Turning back the cock-up clock to 1995, Blackburn Rovers’ then manager Kenny Dalglish asked club chairman Jack Walker about making a move for a prodigious French talent who went by the moniker “Zizou”. Walker reportedly replied “Why do you want to sign Zinedine Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?”. One went on to become known as the most gifted player of his generation, the other for his insistence on wearing a gilet; described by Wikipedia as a sleeveless jacket resembling a waistcoat or blouse.

There are countless reasons why aspiring soccer hopefuls don’t make it at the first attempt, but instead of trying, trying and trying again, some prefer to try something new. You’d think I was shurely mishtaken if I told you that former Bond star Sean Connery was given a license to thrill at Old Trafford, but rejected Sir Matt Busby’s offer to join the club.

Had things not worked out so well, Connery might’ve wished he’d Never Say Never Again, given he obviously had the magic touch with his Goldfinger and his uncanny ability to unleash a Thunderball strike at any given moment. However, the future 007 realized that although Diamonds Are Forever, a professional sportsman’s career is not, and instead opted to forge his fortune with a decades-long career on the silver-screen.

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A team consisting of Sean Connery and George Best would’ve surely attracted a firm female following

One hopeful who found divine intervention after failing to reach soccer heaven was a young Polish goalkeeper named Karol Jozef Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, who played between the posts for his home town side in Wadowice. The popular Pontiff practiced religiously in his formative years, and with a little more luck, he might’ve beaten Maradona to channelling the hand(s) of God.

Although his soccer prayers weren’t answered, Wojtyla remained a devout follower of the beautiful game, worshiping goalkeepers in particular: he gave Irishman Shay Given a Papal Blessing when the Aston Villa shot-stopper got married in 2001.

Now although I can’t ever envisage a future where I look up to see white smoke billowing out of my new residence in the Vatican City, it just goes to show that for any young hopeful, Plan A going up in flames can sometimes fuel the fire for a bigger and better Plan B. Just because you might not see those ‘likely lads’ on the back page of the newspapers in the future, doesn’t mean you won’t be seeing them on the front.

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