Almost 15 years ago a group of aspiring young professional footballers began a journey at the Nottingham Forest Academy. Our team would produce premiership stars of the future in Michael Dawson and Wes Morgan. It also produced players such as myself, Eugene Bopp and Craig Westcarr, who would go on to experience a slightly less glamorous career in the lower leagues of the English game.
But there were many more young players of rich promise back then – players whose careers were cut short before they ever really got off the ground. This is the story of a few of them, and how football influenced the rest of their lives.
Back in 2002, the Nottingham Post’s back pages picked out who might be next to make the step up from the hugely fruitful Reds academy to the Nottingham Forest first team. For four of those young men – James Biggins, Andy Haskins, Richard Jeffery and Tom Groves – their football careers were on the rise.
All were regulars for Forest’s Under 19s and reserves, and Tom Groves – then an England international – describes how it felt to be a young pro full of the optimism they felt at that time:
“It didn’t feel like a job at all until you got your first pay packet, and then it kicked in a bit,” said Groves, brought up in Wollaton. “More than anything it was fun, and you were having a laugh with people you had grown up with. Things were going really well for me with Forest and England, and I got the sense that this was going to be my career in life. We played in the European Championships with England and Wayne Rooney got player of the tournament. A few weeks later he scored that goal against Arsenal to really arrive on the scene, and as I saw it, there was no reason why that couldn’t happen to me.”
Although luck, injury and managerial opinion played a part in each of their stories, the all-important next step of challenging for a regular place in the first team never materialised for any of them. Football is a difficult world to progress in at the best of times, so it helps if circumstance is kind to you.
For Haskins, having midfielders of the calibre of Eugene Bopp and Jermaine Jenas in his pathway made progression at Forest all the more difficult. Groves believes that the departure of long-time mentor Paul Hart in the final few months of his contract proved to be a hugely influential moment in his career, while Biggins and Jeffery both endured an injury-ravaged end to their time at the club.
Nevertheless, after showing huge promise, all four were released by Nottingham Forest and their futures were suddenly thrown up in the air.
With the benefit of hindsight, each man now admits they naïvely thought finding another club would be easy. Waiting for the phone to ring, unsuccessful trials and a slow realisation of the reality before you is a story that is all too familiar.
But what we hear less about is the limbo these young men are left in, still harbouring hope of a career in football, but needing to move on with life and in truth, earn a living.
After trials at Raith Rovers and Chesterfield, Haskins took a job at the Nestle Factory where his mum worked, collecting and distributing dirty laundry, while playing semi-pro football for several teams across Yorkshire.
“Coming out of a factory in my uniform all of a sudden was difficult,” said Haskins, 31, now married with a one year-old daughter. “The plan was to work there for a couple of months until I got a club, but I ended up working there for two years. That two years was the worst two years of my life – you don’t know what’s going on. I was always convinced I was going to be a footballer, and suddenly the reality was that I was 22, and now I wasn’t going to be. I was trying to come to terms with that, and thinking what the hell am I going to do with my life.”
After a trial with Kidderminster, and still struggling for fitness after a double hernia operation, Biggins felt that he had to “stop chasing the dream”. He took his first of several jobs in hospitality, working behind the bar at the Waltons Hotel in Nottingham, and signed for Hucknall Town to earn some extra cash.
Groves took a job at Nottingham fashion store Flannels – having regularly shopped there in the past – and with his hopes of resurrecting his football career fading quickly, he too signed for Hucknall Town, meaning that within the space of a year, he had gone from being an England international to playing in non-league football.
“You shouldn’t be embarrassed – because you don’t have to prove anything to anyone, and I’d achieved more than most – but I did feel a bit embarrassed at that time,” he said. “When people asked me about football, I didn’t want to talk about it. Football was all I’d known – and what I was known for – but I had to get a normal job and I felt embarrassed, which looking back now is stupid. Then I started to do the things I missed out on like going out for a drink and letting my hair down a bit, and that’s when you start to lose a sense of direction. About a year later I was offered a football scholarship in America, but I ruptured my cruciate ligament playing in a local game and that was that.”
When Jeffery left the club he says he knew his “body had had enough”. So almost immediately, he took up an invitation by a former academy coach at Forest, Richard Weston, to fly to Denver, Colorado, and try his hand at some coaching. He enjoyed almost two years there, away from the world of professional football he had left behind, before returning home to Ripley, Derbyshire, where he got a job selling packaging to earn some much-needed money. But despite his travels, the change of status felt by all of these former footballers had not escaped him.
“One day I was trying to sell some boxes and I bumped into someone I knew,” said Jeffery, 31.
“They said ‘what’s happened you used to be a footballer and now you’re selling boxes?’ I felt like Superman who’d lost all his powers. I suppose there is a level of arrogance when you’re a footballer, so there are always people there ready to shoot you down when it goes wrong. It hurt, and it still hurts today actually.”
The lives of these four men were turned upside down in the space of a year, and not making the grade in professional football made moving on with their lives an arduous experience.
But a decade after they fell out of football, has the experience made them fall out of love with football too? And what, if any, regrets do they have?
“You come to terms with it and accept it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be over it,” said Haskins, who became a personal trainer until he qualified as a Physiotherapist in 2013.
“You’re always thinking about what if, or what could have been. There are things I would have done differently – I would see people banging doors down if they were left out the team, but I think I was sometimes too nice. I do feel that I deserved more of a career than I got for the effort and commitment I put in as a youngster, but that’s life I suppose.”
After working in customer services with Eon and Lovell Homes in Nottingham, Biggins and his fiancé made the big move to Melbourne, Australia in 2013, where they continue to live and work today. Both he and Jeffery, now working as principal commercial manager for Suez Environment, do not miss the politics involved in professional football, but it hasn’t diminished their love of the game.
“I just liked getting the ball on the ground, and playing football, and I still love doing that today,” said Biggins, 29.
“I have one regret and that is that I probably could have done more than I did – that little bit extra to give myself a better chance. I think I had the ability, but I probably didn’t want it enough.”
Jeffery said: “People say never look back, but there’s always that little feeling of what could have been. I left home at 16 to do the thing I loved, and it’d just have been nice to have been able to do that for a little bit longer. Even though it was a short time I made some happy memories, and the experience built my character and me stronger today.”
Tom Groves, 29 – now working in Paul Smith’s flagship Willoughby House store in Nottingham – still enjoys playing football locally, but the professional game is something that he resented for quite some time.
“Football is a very structured and blanketed world, but after I came out of the game, I didn’t have any of that,” he said. “Up until a couple of years ago, I think subconsciously I still hadn’t really got over it. I maybe wasn’t satisfied with my life and I still thought what if? I would see my mates playing week in week out, and I was pleased for them, but there was a little bit of jealousy. The likes of Wayne Rooney, who I captained, is now the captain of England and fulfilling all of the dreams that I and every young footballer had. I couldn’t help thinking that I’d failed. I’m still only 29 and I’m glad I’ve clicked out of that now. I’ve still got my whole life to live and I’m looking forward to doing that. I still get that same excitement putting my boots on though, shaking hands, and when the whistle goes – that’s it. It might sound cheesy, but when I’m playing I don’t think about anything else.”
The difficulty in coming to terms with the end of what you always dreamt of doing with your life is obvious. Coming so close to achieving your dream, and getting a glimpse of the lifestyle and adulation that goes along with a career in football makes it all the harder.
Although their love for the game was strongly tested, in all four men it still endures today. And in some ways, because of that, it seems the lingering feeling of ‘what might have been’, is one that may never truly leave them.
A diminutive, hard working midfielder with excellent technical ability, Haskins joined the Reds Academy from York at 14. A regular for the Under 19 and reserve teams, Haskins was released by Joe Kinnear in 2004.
“When I got released I knew it was coming but I was absolutely heartbroken. I was at Nottingham Forest from 14 to 20, and in that time you grow from boy to man. Your team mates are like your brothers and all I wanted to do was succeed at Forest. I naively thought I’d probably drop down a couple of leagues, prove myself for a year or so then get back into the championship and maybe even the premiership.”
Hugely talented right back from Eastwood joined the Forest Academy at ten years old. ‘Biggsy’ was an England schoolboy and a regular in the under 19 and reserve teams at 16. Made his one and only appearance for Forest in August 2003, starting a first round Carling Cup tie away at Port Vale. Was released in 2005 as part of Gary Megson’s clear out.
“It was a great feeling, I’m from Nottingham and I played for Nottingham Forest. All my family came to watch my debut and it was a great day that I will never forget. I was in first team squads after that but it just never really kicked on from there for me.”
Joined the Forest Academy aged eleven from Wollaton Boys Club. A talented and versatile player, ‘Grovesy’ was playing regularly for the under 19s at 14 whilst still at school. Groves played for, and often captained England from under 14s to 19s, playing alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney and Wayne Routledge. He was released by Joe Kinnear in 2004.
“I had just been selected for the England U19s, had captained my country and had won about 30 odd caps. When I got released I was shocked, it didn’t really sink in. I just thought I’d go and get another club.”
Joined Forest’s Under 14s after scoring a hat trick against the Reds for Mansfield Town. Although a regular scorer for the Under 19 and reserve teams, ‘Jeffers’ full time football career was punctuated by injuries. A confident, powerful striker with a great work ethic and an eye for goal, Jeffery left Forest in 2005 after several operations on a persistent pelvic injury.
“We played a reserve game against West Ham, and I was tackled by Anton Ferdinand and fell awkwardly and had to come off. The following week I travelled with the first team for the first time to Crystal Palace, and then a few days later I was on a hospital bed having the first of several procedures on my pelvis. That’s how quickly you could go from a high to a low in football.”