By Sam Carroll
It’s the opening day of the season away at West Bromwich Albion. I’d been at Everton for almost five years by this point, and there was one thing you knew to expect when facing the Baggies: giants.
Pure, unbridled giants who, at the tender age of fourteen, had beards growing down their neck and voices deeper than our dads. It was always intimidating and always difficult, especially away from home. In what must have been an attempt to use their facilities to their advantage, the game was to be staged on a small-sided pitch. There were eleven of our boys cramped into an 8-a-side field while their eleven men licked their lips delightedly at the sight of our tiny, pre-pubescent limbs.
Gary Lewis gathered us around for our first team-talk under his management.
“Right, lads, you know why I’m here. I went the whole of last season unbeaten with Derby County, and I want that to happen again!” he said, somewhat aloofly.
“Just play your football and you’ll run rings around these!”
We lost 4-0.
Jordan and I had shipped an even amount of goals, and neither of us had particularly done anything wrong. They were just bigger and stronger in every department. Nothing to worry about, I thought. It was the beginning of the season and a lot of football was to be played.
Lewis, on the other hand, had seen it differently. I didn’t start a game for weeks. I was still getting even game time, but the effect of not starting matches was starting to sap my confidence.
What was I doing wrong? Was it in matches? Was I not commanding enough? Was I not doing enough in training? Or did he just not like me?
The questions kept me up at night.
It all came to a head at Blackburn on a slippery winter morning. As half time approached, Gary took me to one side.
“You’re not coming on at half-time,” he said.
“What?” I replied, aghast.
“You’re not coming on at half-time. You need to show me why you deserve to play.”
I stared at him unbelievingly. I resisted the urge to give him a few choice words and walked dejectedly over to where a few of the other substitutes were congregated.
“What did he say?” asked one.
“He said I’m not coming on, what a joke,” I retorted, before hearing someone approaching over my shoulder. I rotated and seen Lewis standing before me, eyeing me up.
“No point crying about it, is there? Just get on with it but don’t be talking about it behind my back,” he said, clearly flustered. I stood there in a shocked silence. What was this guy’s problem?
Then the improbable happened.
A ball was played over the top and Jordan came flying out to clear. He was caught by their striker and went down in a heap. He signalled to the bench. I was on!
I ran towards the goal with determination rumbling fiercely in my belly. Perhaps, in hindsight, this was Lewis’ ambition all along. Maybe he wanted to see some fight from me. But the way he’d spoken to me earlier made me want to impress out of pure spite.
I played my heart out for the rest of the game and kept a clean sheet. In training the following week, I was possessed. I slid, dived and bazooka-d myself towards any ball that was aimed at my goal. Anything that did manage to pass me was greeted with wild screams. I didn’t want to be beaten, and I didn’t ever want to experience humiliation like I had at Blackburn.
The next game was away at Manchester United. In the dressing room beforehand, our mercurial forward Chris Long comically zipped himself snugly into the kitbag. As he completed his escape, Gary beckoned me outside.
“You’re starting today. You’ve been really good in training and it was just the reaction I wanted to see from you,” he said.
“Thanks, I won’t let you down,” I replied, vindicated.
“It’s not me you want to worry about,” he said. “Just don’t let yourself down.”
We played brilliantly, and so did I. When I left the field we were winning 2-0. I was given backslaps and high-fives as I watched the second period from the touchline. We ended up winning 2-1, and I was jubilant on the coach home.
Around this time we had some exciting news. The club was to start taking us out of school on a Tuesday afternoon for a full day of training. The only thing we had to do was bring along some schoolwork that would be completed in a two-hour lesson after dinner.
I was so proud during the first week when I took my massive kitbag- complete with gloves, training kit, towel, packed lunch and all the other accessories- into the school office. It eventually became the weekly routine and I made good friends with the women in the office.
It was a bright, late-summers afternoon when we first stepped out onto the training pitch. I remember looking at the clock and feeling like a professional footballer. I was out here, training, while my friends were in maths! I stood on the steps at Netherton and looked out over the pitches. They were a glossy green, and I could feel each of my teammates walking out past me with a sense of pride. It really was a picturesque scene.
When it came to the schoolwork side of things, I can say with great certainty that online gaming websites and YouTube were probably accessed a lot more than any of the websites our teachers had asked us to visit. But it was there, in those classrooms, that I would hone my writing skills.
If the schoolwork my teachers gave me weren’t too strenuous, I’d finish it off as quickly as I could and then make a false entry into my planner, adding in that I had some creative writing homework. Then I’d sit happily and type or write out a story. Too embarrassed to save it to the club computers and risk having a teammate read it, I always deleted my work at the end of the session after I’d been signed off.
While the football trundled on, it was during this period that I started to realise differences in terms of social lives, personalities and out-of-football lives in general.
I’d been lucky during my time at the academy to make friends with several players who had beautiful homes and luxuries, and it’s fair to say that compared to most I had a fantastic home life. But during the coach ride to training on a Tuesday afternoon, as we went to each school to pick everybody in the Liverpool area up, there was a distinct switch in conversation to what I had experienced.
The changing-rooms had always been a very basic place in terms of the discussions that went on. It was come in, discuss training or make plans for a sleepover with a friend, train or play your match, talk about that and head home. Sometimes there was a stray reference to a dramatic FIFA victory or maybe some local school gossip. But apart from that, behind-the-scenes was an innocently juvenile area.
On the coach, however, it was different. Girls, drinking and the latest clothes and technology were suddenly on the agenda. I’d sit at the back of the bus quietly listening into stories and revelations, impressed at how everybody found the time to have all these friends and indulge in these late nights. I wasn’t even allowed to stay up for Match of the Day.