Grassroots football – the beginning
- Credit: Colin Lee
Looking back over my career it was grassroots football that gave me the platform to become a professional footballer.
As a youngster from Buckfastleigh, I spent many hours playing football in the road under a street light using the fence posts as the goalposts.
Scoring was made more difficult as we had to overcome the pavement so the skill was to shoot lifting the ball above the pavement height.
Every evening I had to be home at a certain time so the run home, having played out the football to the final second although at the time I wasn’t aware, became a race against time which forced me to push myself to the limit as I daren’t be late home.
This early training led me into playing for my local team Buckfastleigh Rangers and at the age of 11 or 12, I was playing in the first team in a men’s league which helped me developed my ability to move the ball quickly, to be aware of the players around me and to see the next pass before receiving the ball.
It was also a lesson in toughening up and competing for every ball when the odds were stacked against me.
I joined secondary school, Cuthbert Mayne School in Torquay, where I was very fortunate to have two really good and dedicated sports teachers.
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Colin Eagan was the rugby coach and Mike Walsh was the football coach.
They both spent many extra hours putting on training sessions during lunch breaks and rugby and football became very successful during my time at the school.
Following rugby trials, I was selected for Devon Schools, and while playing football for Torbay Schools I was also selected to play football for Devon Schools.
It was at this stage I decided to play my football with Torre Trojans Torquay which was made up of the majority of the Torbay Schools Team, allowing me to develop my game against teams of the same age.
It was here I believe my learning curve was taken to another level. I have always appreciated and respected the work the two guys who managed the team put into the players, installing confidence, and encouraging certain freedom of play with a high emphasis on a winning mentality.
They were a brilliant combination of manager and assistant manager/trainer. The late Dennis Penfold, the manager, and the late Les Pope, the trainer, I cannot thank enough for playing such a big part in my early football development. They were an inspiration to many young footballers in Torbay – I will always be grateful, rest in peace.
It was while playing for Torbay Schools against Plymouth Schools at Home Park in the round-robin - a competition between Torbay Schools, Plymouth Schools, and Exeter Schools - I was approached following the game by a scout from Bristol City who gave me his ID card to give to my Dad and following a phone call together, I was invited for a trial at Bristol City.
My Dad met the scout, Terry Griffin, at the return match against Plymouth Schools at Plainmoor and my trial date was confirmed.
My big career decision day came when I was selected to play rugby for Devon Schools on the same weekend I was due to start my week trial at Bristol City.
After talking over all the options with my Dad, we decided football gave me a better opportunity at the time and off I went to Bristol City.
Following the trial period, Mum and Dad were invited to meet Alan Dicks, manager, and John Sillett, assistant manager, and I was offered a two-year apprenticeship.
My Dad agreed to the offer of the apprenticeship providing I was able to have a back-up career option. At the time I was very interested in becoming a chef and join the Merchant Navy. At school I studied domestic science and during my spare time, I worked in a local pub/restaurant preparing basket meals and cooking in the restaurant.
It was agreed for me to attend Bristol Community College one day a week to continue my education in cooking and I signed the forms to become an apprentice footballer which was the first step on the ladder to become a professional football player.
After my two-year apprenticeship, I signed my first professional contract on £25 a week and my professional football career began.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my teammate Clint Boulton, who sadly unexpectedly passed away while playing golf. Clint was what I call a proper person and a player who gave everything for the team - a real warrior. My deepest sympathies to his family and close friends. Rest in peace.
Stay safe, we must work hard together to beat this pandemic.