Featured Image: An aerial view of a football pitch in London. Photo courtesy of Josh Wilde.
Target publication and audience: ‘Four Four Two’, a consumer magazine which goes beyond the headlines and explores key football issues in-depth.
A typical reader is aged 18-34 and can be a football supporter or player.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning at Johnson Park in Yeovil, Somerset. Young children, no older than seven or eight, run around playing football in front of proud parents.
For Josh Williams, 19, this is where it all began. 13 years ago, he took to that pitch to play for local youth side Pen Mill.
It seems poignant that Josh chose to meet here, with his career having now come full circle.
The Early Days
“I’ve always been brought up around football since I can remember”
Football was always part of Josh’s life.
“I’ve been brought up around football since I can remember,” he said. “My family made everything possible.”
As David Beckham was scoring for England against Wales in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, Josh was captivated.
“It was always David Beckham,” he added. “Beckham was the player I looked up to when I was young. I even had his boots.”
Signing for the Saints
“It was a shock, it all happened so quickly”
Although some might expect football to be Josh’s dream career, it wasn’t always his ambition.
“It was only when I first got signed by Southampton’s Academy that I thought this is what I want to do,” he explained. “I was 12 when I got spotted. It was a shock, it all happened so quickly.”
The First Day of Training
“It was really hard to get used to the speed, strength and pace of professional football”
Stepping onto Southampton’s training ground for the first time is a big deal, especially when most people Josh’s age were still being made packed lunches by their parents.
“I was nervous,” he admitted. “Players from all age groups were there. I looked at them, knowing I needed to be like that.
“It was really hard to get used to the speed, strength and pace of professional football.”
Moving up North
“They actually wanted me back but due to privacy between clubs, I didn’t know this until I’d signed a contract with Stoke”
Family is very important to Josh, so living and playing in Southampton, while trying to keep up with schoolwork, made it hard to see loved ones.
It was about to get a lot harder. 100 miles harder.
“Stoke were watching one of my games and contacted Southampton to ask about me,” Josh explained. “Southampton said they were releasing me.
“They actually wanted me back but due to privacy between clubs, I didn’t know this until I’d signed a contract with Stoke. I would have gone back, Stoke’s a lot further from home.”
The youngster quickly established himself for the Potters, winning a tournament in America and captaining the under-18s side.
Aged 17, the defender was included in Stoke’s under-21 squad.
He faced another stern challenge, “playing kids who were stronger, faster and bigger. It was another step up”.
Playing years above his age group, tasting victory overseas, leading his team… then dealing with rejection. Again.
Dealing with hard realities
Back at Johnson Park and the kids have gone now, at least that’s the assumption as their high-pitched shouts have stopped.
A quick glance towards the pitch below would confirm this, but it’s hard to look away from the boy whose just revealed the crushing reality many young players face.
His eyes glistening, Josh spoke of his shock after he was released for a second time.
“Out of 15 players, they only tried to sign two”
“It was difficult to take,” Josh revealed, with a slight tremor in his voice. “I don’t know what happened. Out of 15 players, they only tried to sign two.”
Josh didn’t look to join another club, instead deciding to spend time back home. He’s now working with his Dad as a window fitter.
Still only 19, the centre-back won’t rule out a return.
“I have thought about getting back into it professionally,” Josh added. “I’ve had a bit of an injury so I had to get that sorted first.”
Josh’s experiences reflect the cut throat world of youth football. Speaking about the England national team’s stuttering performances at major tournaments, the 19-year-old believes more needs to be done to encourage homegrown players.
“They’re just not getting the chance to play. Something’s got to change”
“I’ve seen it myself, there’s lots of good English players out there, they’re just not getting the chance to play,” he said. “Something’s got to change.”
BBC Sports Journalist and former football coach Alistair Magowan agrees.
“The days when you join one of the big clubs and make it through to the first-team are very rare now,” he said.
“Gary Neville said in the past he had the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them, kids of a similar age today just aren’t getting those chances in Premier League first-teams.”
Dave Byrne, now Head of Recruitment at Hartlepool United FC, previously worked at Yeovil Town FC as a youth coach when they re-established their Academy in 2015.
“It’s all about the manager,” he said. “They’ve got to have the ambition and foresight to use kids as and when they’re ready.
“There’s a fear factor. Managers worry that they’ll get slaughtered by the supporters if they put the kids in. It’s the opposite, Ollie Bassett made two appearances for Yeovil and the crowd were singing ‘he’s one of our own’.”
Dave believes England’s youth system has now reached the point of no return.
“There’s too many people who can beat Barcelona with a powerpoint presentation”
“Our youth systems have gone away from those core values,” he added. “There’s too many people who can beat Barcelona with a powerpoint presentation.”
Away from the glamour of pristine pitches and sports science, two boys kick a ball about in their back garden, using jumpers as goalposts. Maybe it’s time we got back to basics.