The Fulfillment of a Dream
I was 15 years old, naïve and in-love with a fascination that had enamoured me since the age of 5 – football.
It was summer in Birmingham, United Kingdom and I had just completed an Aston Villa Football Academy where I earned MVP honours and consequently had been offered a schoolboy trial at West Bromwich Albion Football Club. The kangaroo leather on my Puma’s had been exhausted to the point of being permeable to whatever they came in contact with, therefore my Dad and I spent the day prior to commencement of the trial roaming the High Street in the City Centre looking for a new pair. I chose the Pony’s.
Throughout my youth, I used to spend almost every summer on Heath Street in Birmingham, United Kingdom as my parents were both brought up there and was still where our extended family resided. My cousin and I were football fanatics and he was a hardened Liverpool supporter. His favourite player was John Barnes or 'Digger' as the Anfield faithful affectionately knew him. Each morning or afternoon (dependant upon ‘schedule’) we would slowly ascend to a conscious state, walk up to Dudley Road to pick up the latest SHOOT magazine and whip through the pages to find pictures and articles of our favorite footballers: John Barnes, Tony Daley, David Rocastle and Alan Shearer to name a few. We would cut out the pictures and stick them on the wall dreaming of emulating their abilities and possibly carving out a future in the game. Coming from Canada I wasn't incredibly particular to which players we'd blue tack onto the wall, as I loved football in general. My cousin on the other hand had a wall full of red cormorants (the bird of Liverpool Football club) and Carlsberg kit wearing Scousers. Our differing views on bedroom aesthetics eventually escalated into heated arguments and finally being dictated half of the room each by my Uncle. The obvious victor in this dispute was myself as it wasn't actually my room in the first place and I’d just been granted 50% - #winning.
After our morning read we would have a late breakfast usually consisting of pork sausages, fried egg and baked beans and would advance 15 steps to the back yard and play one versus one; one goal being a white chalk outline on the brick wall furthest from the house and two old, fluorescent pylons just in-front of the sliding glass entry door (usually left open) being the other. I should rephrase the composition of our teams as there were other players on the pitch such as the tilted, wooden clothesline poles, the odd wilted plant, the laundry basket my Aunt had left out and maybe a tire here or there. You may be laughing but these players had a variety of attributes, particularly in defending. Some were tall and lanky with an Inspector Gadget type reach and others short and stalky ‘who’ were never fooled by a Cruyff turn or a Ronaldo double scissor - the challenge was real.
Two, three and sometimes even four hours would pass of non-stop football before we realised that our bellies were rumbling, our jeans were ripped and grass stained and our hands filthy from the sweeper-keeper moments - remarkably, the others hadn't broke a sweat. We would head inside for a snack and wait for our neighbours to get home; two older kids who used to spend the days working at their Dad’s factory throughout the summer.
The meeting point was the next-door factory parking lot that had been cleared of all the Lorries there by day, and the event was always a ‘Cup Final.’ Three solid brick walls formed the majority of the pitch we likened to the Camp Nou; two walls creating the touchlines and one the end line. Beyond the other end line were an expansive lot of trailers but we preferred to look upon them as a view of the crystal clear Mediterranean Sea. The winner of the coin toss wasn’t concerned about the direction of the wind or who had the sun in their eyes. Rather it was the avoidance of having to crawl under a trailer with an outstretched arm extending as far as possible while the prolongation of your ribs, arms and fingertips caused considerable discomfort, just to get a firm enough grip on the ball to bring it back into play. When the pre-game formalities were completed, our battles would commence with no other obstructions on the pitch that could distract the flow of the match. My cousin and I were quite a formidable force. He was the tall, lanky defender who always got a touch on the ball no matter how confident the attacker was that a shoulder drop would throw him in the opposite direction. I was the short, skilful attacker who would repeatedly beat the opposition until they came flying in feet first at my ankle, just after I laid the ball into open space for my partner to fill the lot of trailers with an unnecessary head down, toe pointed, on the laces blast. Granted, the four-hour training session we used to prepare provided some leverage for our victories, especially considering our opposition had just spent an eight-hour day at a paper factory. The game would go on until dark and sometimes beyond until the degeneration of light made our vision of the football descend to the feeling of attempting control of a ping-pong ball – it definitely led to some mistimed challenges. Eventually the final whistle blew, we shook hands with the brothers and set a time and place for the next match – “same time, same place tomorrow?”
The Trial .. My Dad dropped me off in the parking lot at the West Bromwich Albion Training Ground on Monday morning bright and early. The first thing I noticed is that the kids arriving for training were all coming off the bus which stopped just outside the facility. Hardly any of them were dropped off by a family member or friend except for the odd one in their brothers lowered Peugeot with music blaring from the sub-par speakers. I entered the gates and went to the guesthouse where the youth team coach greeted me and proceeded to lead me to the dressing room. I was introduced to the U-15 squad and was met with a very ordinary reception as if to say, ‘another kid trying to take my position,’ and a Canadian to boot. I quickly realised the mentality of young English footballers that have usually been raised in middle class working families. They’re fighters with a passion for the game and subconsciously understand that football may be their only chance to earn a reputable living; the alternative is as anti-climactic as a Hollywood actor auditioning for a B-rated movie.
I got dressed while being silently gaga at the opportunity to wear ‘official’ club training gear. I was given a navy blue sweatshirt with a hand-stitched number patch on my chest just under the Patrick logo and on the opposite side was the club crest. Just under was an emblem of the club sponsor: West Bromwich Building Society. Complimented by navy blue shorts and socks, I officially felt like a professional. After taking a moment to contain myself, I headed onto the pitch and did my warm up laps with the squad. There was only one other player who chatted with me which was incredibly welcome as I had felt like Shrek at a beauty pageant until that point. We did some drills, got into a scrimmage and I felt that I represented myself very well. I was an outside fullback who attacked a lot better than I defended. My frame was slight and therefore being a typical 1990's British defender wasn't my forte. I was more comparable to a South American full-back who joined the attack whenever possible with the ability to whip in crosses with direction and pace. My tackling was average at best but I could be eccentrically intimidating due to the (mis)timing of my attempts to win the ball. My style was a welcome sight for the coaches, which left me somewhat bemused considering I was in Birmingham and not Brazil. By the end of training I had won over some of the squad who I chatted with in the dressing room. My physique even got heartwarmingly compared to Paul Peschisolido, one of the best professional players at the club and a fellow Canadian.
Eager to continue my accession into Baggies folklore, I started the second day enthused and by the time we got into the scrimmage my motivation meter was reaching exponential levels. I was again darting up and down the touchline doing my best impression of Cafu. Then came the moment when I realised I wasn’t within a band of brothers but rather on a battlefield. I had beaten the left back and was approaching the end-line to get a cross in when I was clattered by a scissor tackle and sent flying into the corner flag. As I tried to get up an elbow whacked me on the side of my head followed by a whisper in my ear that was a combination of words not suitable to express on this forum. A summation would be, ‘you’re not welcome here.’ It’s something I will never forget but also something that didn’t faze me whatsoever largely due to the toughness and mental strength that had been instilled in me by my family. A little row ensued between some players after the tackle, which to my surprise demonstrated that I had attained some cohorts. As the dust settled, we got on with the game and I continued to exude an emphasis on the pitch.
Eventually, the trial ended and my father and I entered the coach’s office for a meeting to discuss the direction of my career. It was a cold room with four barren, white brick walls, a desk with a directors chair on one side and two school chairs on the other. I can’t remember most of the conversation but do remember being offered the opportunity to sign a schoolboy contract dependant on various requirements that were more fit for a lawyer to comprehend than a 15 year old. Ultimately, my family and I decided that it wouldn’t be a wise life choice to abandon High School to take this opportunity. I departed Birmingham for Vancouver at the end of August, just as I did after most summers to arrive home in time for the commencement of the school year. The consolation was that I had lived my dream regardless of how short of a time it was.
My experiences in England exposed me to many lessons such as the desire to succeed, the passion for the game and most of all the desperation to fulfil a dream. Kids don’t only play for the love of the game in certain parts of the world, they play to survive and if another tries to intervene on their journey they won’t back down from the challenge. I am not condoning dirty play or a bad attitude on the football pitch but what I am encouraging is the desire to be the very best through continuous dedication and improvement. You must aim to exude this attitude because only then will you identify your true potential. Not only will this benefit your football but will filter into other parts of your life such as your school, job and other activities. In aiming to achieve your aspirations, ensure you respect your peers and competitors, be fair and attain greatness through your own desire and not by degrading or harming your competition. Focus on yourself and not the man trying to compete against you.
In Canada, we are blessed with so many luxuries that create a comfortable lifestyle and an optimistic outlook on the future, which is preferable to the alternative. However, as a nation that is ranked #103 in the men's FIFA football rankings there is a substantial mountain to climb to achieve an objective of reaching a World Cup and consequently rising in the rankings. We can really improve our grassroots development however we should not be fooled that this only is going to garner progress in the sport. The definition of grassroots is ‘the most basic level of an activity or organisation’ and our issues run deeper into further realms of football. If I’m being completely honest, the grassroots talent in this country of 35 million is sufficient to be developed into a ranking higher than #103. What we need to do is exploit our strengths such as the physical conditioning of players, the influence of demographic diversity (approximately 80% of our population have roots from major footballing nations) and the fact that the most popular sport amongst children aged 5-14 years of age is football. We also need to improve our weaknesses such as the technical knowledge of footballers, coaching development and the inclusion of ALL players rather than creating a hierarchical pecking order from a young age. Finally, we need to create a succession plan for footballers beyond the age of 18 whether it be becoming a professional, obtaining a University/College scholarship, entering the coaching domain etc. What must be avoided is the defection of footballers to other sports or activities due to a lack of opportunities in the wider scope of the game. I’m aware that a solution to the issue runs deeper than putting pen to paper on developmental philosophies but this is the only way to begin. By including knowledgeable minds from different walks of life such as sport, psychology, business, strategy and infrastructure to develop an overarching football philosophy will initiate the improvement of Canada football.
The collaboration of talented individuals can yield a vision that can be elaborated into action and ultimately garner success.