x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A second chance in sixth division

Several footballers not good enough to play in English Premier League have redeemed themselves at Hyde FC.

Hyde FC players get ready to step on to the pitch to play a game of football.
Hyde FC players get ready to step on to the pitch to play a game of football.

Some see it coming, others never forget the rejection, these talented young footballers with genuine hopes of reaching the top.

They grow up as the best footballers in their street, their school, their area. Everyone talks about them. They are spotted by a English Premier League club and progress through the youth ranks. Contracts are signed and football becomes their full-time job. Everyone tells them how great they are, how lucky they are.

They cannot help but think that stardom is imminent. And then they get called to see the manager.

"Steve Bruce told me that he couldn't see me breaking into the first team," says Andrew Pearson, who had been at Wigan Athletic on a professional contract. "He said that I wouldn't be getting a new deal."

And that was that. Goodbye. Close the door behind you.

"I'd been with Bolton since 14 and then Wigan, where I was captain of the reserves," Pearson says. "I trained with the first team. Then I was 21 without a club and without a clue what to do next. It was awful."

Pearson waited for the phone to ring.

"I thought other Football League clubs would be interested," he says, "but the phone didn't ring.

"I lost my fitness and went from playing with top internationals to playing with my mates. My confidence was hammered and I drifted into non-league football. I didn't enjoy it."

Pearson got a job in an air-conditioning company.

Then he ended up at Hyde FC.

Scott Spencer was a teenage wonder kid, for whom Everton paid £220,000 (Dh1.2m) in 2006. He was 17 and had been with third tier Oldham Athletic since 10.

"I was scoring lots of goals in the youth team at Oldham, and there was interest from Spurs and Bolton [Wanderers]," says Spencer, now 22. "Then I went to Everton. The move blew my mind. I was training with top-class players and working under David Moyes. I thought I was going to be a Premier League footballer, but there's a big problem at Premier League clubs – if you're not in the first team then there are not enough games for the other players.

"I went from playing twice a week at Oldham to playing a reserve game every two weeks at Everton. You need to be playing far more than that at 17 and 18. Maybe I needed to be mentally stronger, but you need to be developing and getting game experience. I didn't and suffered.

"I was loaned to Yeovil and Macclesfield. I could see that I wasn't going to be kept on at Everton and one day David Moyes called me into his office. I was half expecting it."

Spencer picked up the phone and called managers. He had trials at Swindon and was about to sign for Hereford when he got offered a deal with Rochdale which was closer to his Manchester home. Unfortunately, that coincided with Rochdale's best season for decades and he could not get in the team. He signed for Southend United and did well, but a change of manager saw his position worsen.

"The manager [Paul Sturrock] wrote me a handwritten letter on two sides of A4 saying why I wasn't good enough," he says. "He only outlined my flaws. How's that for helping your confidence?"

He finished last season at Lincoln City, where Southend refused to pay his release fee, claiming that he had broken a clause in his contract not to talk about the club when he left. Lincoln were relegated and Spencer deactivated his Twitter account, such was the abuse he got from Lincoln fans.

Then he found his way to Hyde FC.

Ryan Crowther started out with his local club Stockport County and made two appearances before moving to Liverpool in 2007 for an undisclosed fee thought to be £400,000. He was hailed as one of the most exciting young players in Britain. After two years he left the club "by mutual consent".

He was later sentenced to four months in prison for a drunken attack on a taxi driver in Watford. He was picked up by Hyde FC where he was paid less than £200 a week like the other players – before moving on recently, back into the world of full-time football with all that entails.

Hyde FC, based in the foothills of the Pennine hills 10 miles east of Manchester, play in England's sixth division. Manchester City use their smart, 4,200-capacity Ewen Fields home for reserve matches. With average gates of just over 300, Hyde United were on the verge of going out of business in 2009 and owed £120,000 to the Britain's tax authorities.

The fans, local businesses and the footballing community contributed to their survival. In 2010, Manchester City got involved. The word 'United' was dropped from their name, their red stadium was painted blue and City paid them around £1,000 a week - not the millions green-eyed rivals suspect. Hyde have spent £17,000 of that money bringing the pitch up to Premier League standard. It's conducive to the football they play.

Hyde only just survived relegation to the seventh tier last season and started this term with the fifth lowest wage bill in the league, their semi-professional players earning around £150 a week. They appointed Gary Lowe, an experienced and ambitious non-league manager, who lives locally, together with assistant Martyn Booty. They have been a revelation.

Relegation favourites, Hyde won their first 10 games of the season, play 4-3-3 attacking football, which belies their level and currently top the league by eight points from local rivals Stalybridge Celtic, who are full-time.

Spencer is the top scorer with 18 goals from 15 league starts, Crowther did so well that he earned a move and full-time contract with big-spending Fleetwood in November, while Andy Pearson is a defensive mainstay. Hyde have caught these still youthful falling stars and let them play football alongside other rejects from professional clubs and hardened non-league stalwarts. All of them are once again loving the game they had learnt to hate.

"These lads don't lose the ability which once attracted the bigger clubs who signed them," Lowe says. "I look at their personality and try and work out their make-up, their level of fitness and desire to succeed. Some of them just need confidence, regular football or a bit of freedom on the pitch.

"They have lost focus, fallen out of love with football or found themselves lost in a club which has 100 professionals. They're angry and bitter with the game and themselves. They're either adrift after time in the wilderness or maybe they've had a moment of madness like Ryan, which has cost them dearly."

Lowe cannot offer riches, "but we can offer very good football on a beautiful pitch", he says.

That is more than enough for the players.

"I'm playing men's football regularly for the first time in my life," Spencer says. "I love it and the team spirit is amazing. Training was cancelled the other night, but the lads got together to arrange our own session. Of course, I want to be full-time again in football, but I'm happy here and it would have to be the right move before I'd consider moving. I'm not going to the other end of the country to sit on a bench."

"I didn't think I could get back into full-time football a year ago, but I do now," Pearson says. "Hyde have given me a big lift."

Not every discarded pro gets back playing. The three-year-old daughter of one such reject should not have opened the letter which was addressed to her father, but she did.

Then she passed it to her mum, who was appalled by the contents.

It was a demand from a debt collection agency. She quickly leaned that her long-term partner was in debt to the tune of £30,000, a huge amount of money which amounted to more than either of them earned in a year. She knew nothing of this.

Paul Mitten had been a footballer. The grandson of the Manchester United legend Charlie Mitten (and a second cousin of this reporter), he started out at Manchester United, a year below David Beckham.

"I joined United at 11 and was kept on at 16 for another two years," he says. "I was a year below the famous class of '92 and players like Beckham, Nicky Butt, the Neville brothers and Paul Scholes. Several of the lads in my year had very good careers and one, Michael Appleton, is now manager of Portsmouth. He's still one of my best mates."

Mitten ruptured his cruciate ligament at 16. Then he damaged his Achilles. He was not surprised to be released from United at 18. He then spent eight months trying his luck at Bury, Crewe, Stoke and Burnley before Premier League Coventry City took him on trial. He impressed sufficiently to earn an 18-month professional contract earning £175 a week.

Eight games into that, he ruptured his right cruciate ligament. He was already low on confidence when manager Ron Atkinson, publicly, in front of the first-team players, said: "Why are you here at this club? You're no use to me injured."

That comment shattered what confidence remained.

Mitten was released and moved to non-league Southport. He got fit, then broke his leg after four games. He went to Stalybridge in England's fifth division, but fell out of football and started gambling heavily because, "I needed the buzz which football had given me. I would bet on anything for that buzz".

He reached his nadir when his little daughter opened the letter. Luckily, his partner stuck with him on the condition that he confronted his problem with professional help.

"I didn't do it through football," he says, "but I've turned my life around and qualified as a fireman three years ago. I'm paying my debts back and life's good again, but it took me 10 years to get over that rejection."

Hyde FC were not an option for him 12 years ago. It is a blessing that they are around now for players such as Pearson, Crowther and Spencer. Professional football sweeps what it calls its "wastage rate" under the carpet, and for thousands of discarded young men whose dreams are shattered, there is little help.


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