Updated: Nov 1
Hey, it's James (founder of Matchfit Football) If it's cool with you, I'd like to share my personal story about how I went from 9 years at a pro club in England (and training with the 1st team at 16), told I would never player again, in rehab for almost 4 years…all the way back to facing the Australian Hyundai A League Champions in my first come-back season. I've got some valuable insights about the world of football and fitness that I really want to share with you, because:
I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did.
I can help you to save months if not years, accelerate your progress and avoid some serious pitfalls on your journey towards the top.
So few players know this stuff and it's my mission to increase awareness.
It started like this... As a youth player I spent 9 years at my local professional club in England, league one side Wycombe Wanderers FC. For the majority of those 9 years, I was always mentioned in the same breathe as one of the few players throughout the entire academy who had a serious chance of making it as a pro. I was always high in confidence, rarely got injured and consistently felt like I was one of the highest performers in my team, in fact I was often training and playing with the age group above me.
I was training relentlessly, and fully focused on fulfilling my potential, probably like you are now.
In my head, I had it that I would be signing on as a youth pro early and leaving school at 16 to train full time.
Since joining the academy at 9 years old, everyone at the club had big expectations for me and seemed to be following my progress closely. Whilst at Wycombe, I had turned down opportunities with Southampton and Watford, I was happy at Wycombe and progressing well, leaving was an unnecessary risk.
When I had just turned 16, I was given an opportunity to train with the 1st team (I’m a centre back by the way). I naturally was one of the sturdier players for my age and had always read the game well, so slotting into that 1st team session was pretty seamless, the main step up was the speed but I knew with time I would adjust to that. When I joined in with the 1st team, I was marking Nathan Tyson - an electric striker who was still in the England U21’s squad - and playing alongside Mike Williamson and Roger Johnson (who went on to play for Newcastle Utd and Wolves in the Premier League). The first team manager was ex Tottenham player (and England Assistant Manager) John Gorman. This was the perfect environment for me to learn my trade I thought...
After that first taste of 1st team pro football, I was hooked on doing everything I could to get their quicker. Full 1st team debut by the time I was 18, that was my aim. But… Things didn't work out how I had hoped. At the time I couldn’t understand why (now I know how I could have putthings right) but, the following season I seriously struggled to perform. My age group was combined with the year above, who had playing priority because they were on the verge of signing their youth pro contracts or being released. We had a new coach, who was old school (to say the least). Up until that season, I hadn’t been subbed once in 8 years and was always captain. My new coach couldn't have cared less, he didn’t know me back then. I was told to expect to be on the bench, my "turn" was next year. To make matters worse, he was what you would call a ‘meat head’ centre back in his playing days for Leicester city and he didn’t take well to the ball playing style that my previous coaches had instilled in me over the previous years. “Stop being on the ball so much and give it to a midfielder.” This was the message that was repeatedly yelled towards me in training sessions.
I felt totally lost and confused.
His instructions completely contrasted my past coaches, who had always encouraged and praised my ability to play my way out of trouble and remain calm under pressure. I can vividly remember him stopping a keep ball session as I received the ball and shouting at me for being "too involved in the play for a centre back". "STOP!!" He marched over to me, took the ball and played it to someone else before turning back to face me. "That's not your job, just win the ball back and give it to someone else. I've counted 8 times you've been on the ball in the last two minutes, you're a centre back”. My team mates watched in bewilderment... How was this guy coaching us? Should I start changing my style now to please him? After all, Wycombe Wanderers first team wasn’t my ultimate dream…that was just the closest pro club. Liverpool first team was my childhood dream, and to play at that level, "you need to be good on the ball" I kept re-assuring myself. Over the next 2-3 months I was (what can be best described as) 'bullied' into replicating my coaches style of play when he was a player.
My jobs were:
Hitting "percentage" long balls into areas
Heading clear everything that came my way
Giving the ball to other players as soon as I got it
My form started to dip significantly.
As I got less match time, I started to pick up injuries in training (I was rarely injured before).
My psychology completely changed too.
I was becoming less aggressive every week.
I feared being on the ball.
For the first time ever, I doubted my ability.
I was a shadow of my former self.
I never stopped giving 100%, but my edge was disappearing. Before I knew it, the following season I found myself competing for my pro contract with a new centre back that the coach had brought in from his previous club. He was average at best (in my opinion). I was now watching a player (who had been at the club for about 3 weeks) be in with a chance of taking my pro contract away from me. You can’t be serious? I had worked for 8 years for this. I knew I was better than him, but for many reasons I wasn’t able to prove that to my coach. And to make matters worse, the guy who had brought me into the club at 8 years old and given me that opportunity training with the first team – had just been fired. There now wasn't a single coach remaining at the club who had been involved in my progress over the last 9 years. I knew what was coming… Not quite what I expected, but in no way what I wanted. A ‘non-contract’ offer. i.e. Stay at school and come in and train with us during the week when you can. No thanks… It was time for a change. Maybe I should focus on my studies? And play semi-pro whilst I figured this out. Looking back… I still can’t believe how I fell from such heights at Wycombe. Was the new coach to blame? Absolutely, he played a huge part – there’s no doubt in my mind about that. There were 6 or 7 players in our squad who’s talent he had dismantled. But this was the real problem… I didn’t take responsibility for my own progression. I was expecting others to bring it out of me.
I was HOPING my previous form would come back.
I thought it was the coach’s fault if I wasn’t playing to my potential.
I was depending on the day that the coach would be replaced by someone better.
I was feeling sorry for myself. I clearly remember crying myself to sleep on more than one occasion. I left Wycombe with my self-belief at an all-time low. I have to be honest, I was very reluctant to take that step down to semi-professional football. Not only because I saw it as a step backwards, but because my entire identity at school growing up was ‘the guy who plays for a pro club’. I didn’t know how I would fit in anymore without that label. Although this was probably the lowest point in my football career so far, it actually ended up being the most important.
(Setting off for my first game for Wycombe, age 9)
The logical thing to do was continue with my studies and try and make my way back up to professional level through joining my local semi-pro football team. I’d never contemplated being faced with this situation as I grew up, things were going so well just 18 months prior that I had envisaged quitting school and playing football full time. Not the other way around. To top it off my older cousin was about to break into the Blackburn Rovers first team and was an England prodigy throughout his teens... I was so hungry to follow in his footsteps.
I was determined to make it happen.
So I altered my mindset…
Semi-pro was a 'side step', not a step back.
By leaving Wycombe I could re-discover my old form in a fresh environment.
At the time, I was still ashamed to admit to people that things had fallen apart, they would inevitably be disappointed and think less of me.
But I put that to one side...this whole experience had actually ignited an even stronger fire within me to succeed and prove to myself that I could do it.
Semi-pro football started well, even in the first training session I started to feel like my old self again and the enjoyment of playing crept back in.
I was playing with freedom and dominating every attacker I came up against.
A few months in however...
It dawned on me that the intensity and structure of the training sessions was nowhere near what I was used to.
And the mindset was different, failure was more openly accepted and none of my team mates had ambitions of playing pro.
I was concerned...
This would have a negative affect over time and subconsciously, my engrained standards would begin to slip and widen the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be.
But I had no other club options at the time and only one year of school left…
I decided to ride it out until I had more freedom.
From there things really picked up.
Whilst captaining the county team in a cup final I was scouted by one of the England Schoolboys coaches.
He invited me to the first stage of England trials, a 7-day training camp in the summer of 2007. It’s not a route I had considered before, but I was excited to learn that Michael Owen, Ryan Giggs and Jermaine Defoe had all represented England Schoolboys as teenagers. I felt empowered, this was an opportunity to regain control of my career. I made a few important changes in order to prepare: 1) I started doing more training by myself. It was down to me to make sure I was as fit as Icould be and felt confident on the ball again, I couldn’t leave it to chance ‘hoping’ that my team sessions would do this for me. Every day after school I went into the sports hall by myself and trained my butt off. I knew I wasn’t as fit as I should be, because I knew how fit I was when I was at Wycombe. 2) I spent more time with the people who still believed I had time to become pro.
I realised that who I surrounded myself with was pivotal to my energy, confidence and drive to succeed. I needed to be around the people who ‘got it’ and had seen what I was capable of. 3) I started learning how to develop a stronger mindset, focusing on current sources of self-doubt.
This was a major one. I wanted to hit the trials all guns blazing, confidence was key. I couldn’t let my form deteriorate like before. I knew that the coaches would be analysing us 24/7. I knew that because they told us they would be. They watched our body language and every grain of food we put into our mouths. Especially as a centre back, displaying physical presence and leadership qualities is crucial. I already knew that acting confident in the face of a striker could put them off their game before a ball's even been kicked. These changes proved to be pivotal.
When day 1 of the training camp arrived…I felt more polished and ready to perform than I had in years.
There were about 60 players there, who had travelled from all over the country to attend. We all made our way to the reception area, suited and booted, towing our kit bags and suitcases - ready to be allocated a room each. No time was wasted... A quick introduction saw us split into four even groups. 45 minutes later we were out on the pitches warming up for our first training session. I instantly felt back at home. Training was structured, intense and the group I was in had been matched with a coach from Aston Villa. He made it clear from day one exactly what was expected. Aimless long balls and thoughtless play would not "cut the mustard." If anyone accidentally attempted such as thing, the session was instantly stopped and brought back. He’d then explain why such play was unacceptable and would hinder your progress: “You will never reach the top if you can’tremain composed under pressure and play your way out of trouble. Trust yourability to get on the ball and play. It's fine to fail if you are attempting todo the right thing. Leave the long ball stuff to the players who are happy toplay at a lower level, you won’t find them here.” This was the confirmation I had been looking forsince leaving Wycombe Wanderers. It reaffirmed my resistance to being moulded into a ‘meat head’ centre back. We had a class coach, a group of class players and I felt myself really thriving in this environment. Lesson 1: making sure you’re in the correct environment to thrive is pivotal to your success. Oddly, that week threw out another unexpected lesson which tied in with lesson 1 – but it didn’t reveal itself until a few years later. I won’t call him out… But there was one player in our group who had proven to be well off the mark. His performances and attitude were almost laughable at times. He was still a great guy - but it was as if he was there by mistake. The players knew it, the coach knew it and he most definitely clocked on to what everyone was thinking. By the end of the week he had almost lost complete interest, he knew his chances of progressing were zero. Why am I telling you this? Because he went on to play professionally and now captains a team in League One of English football, he has also represented his country at full international level. Lesson 2: Don’t ever think something is impossible, take your career into your own hands, not every player thrives in the same environment. Honestly, to this day I still think I’m seeing things when he’s playing on TV. But equally he will always have my upmost respect. To have an experience like that, turn it around and come out as a professional footballer on the other side, it's absolutely fantastic. Anyway… That week was a massive success for me. Not only was I in the best form I’d been in in years, the Villa coach personally pulled me aside at the end of the week to tell me how impressed he was and how he thought I had a "very bright future". I felt confident and assured that this was the pathway which would lead me back to playing professionally. Sure enough a week later, I received a letter to congratulate me on reaching the next stage of England trials – they had now whittled us down to 35 players.
I was delighted and immediately notified my close friends and family. Having been so focused preparing for that first week of trials, I had pretty much neglected any type of social life for the last few months.
My mates were eager to get me out again. So, against my best intentions, I agreed to come along to a house party for a short while one Saturday night...
I wouldn’t be persuaded into touching alcohol –I’d just show my face and let my hair down for a couple of hours to prove I was still ‘cool’. Whilst I didn’t drink, the party hosts had hired a huge inflatable assault course (a bit like the one below) for the back garden…and I did get roped into that, LITERALLY.
That’s when it happened. I was standing on the platform at the top of the inflatable assault course with two guys from school, a rope ladder descended either side. Mid conversation, one of them thought it would be funny to push me backwards off the platform and onto the inflatable surface a few meters below. If only that had happened… Instead, mid-fall my foot became tangled in one of the rope ladders. "POP." That was the sound my knee made as my foot anchored and the rest of my body was flung downwards. I screamed in excruciating pain. I remained hanging in that position for about a minute as my mate attempted to free my foot. I didn’t know whether to be angry or sad. Tears filled my eyes as I attempted to walk. I knew this was bad.
One split-second of stupidity… The next day a physio confirmed I had torn the medial ligament in my right knee. What’s worse, I saw the guy who pushed me chuckling about it. He didn’t get it. But I couldn’t be angry at him, it was my fault really – I knew I shouldn’t have gone to the party and I knew I shouldn’t have stepped foot on that inflatable. But I still did it, I was trying to please everyone. Lesson 3: Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, ‘be boring’ and put yourself first. You can’t please everyone 100% of the time. You can’t expect everyone to care about your goals as much as you do. Act inaccordance with your goals and surround yourself with people who 'get it' and will keep you on track. This was a DISASTER. Not only did it mean I couldn’t train properly in preparation for the next trials (6 weeks later), the physio informed me that I would out for at least 10 weeks. Not possible. It just wasn’t an option. One way or another I had to make sure I was available for the trials. We were informed that they would only be cutting 5 players in the next trial as it would be a one off 90-minute match. The remaining 30 would then progress to a series of training camp weekends at Lilleshall. This was music to my ears! I just needed to get my injury to the point where I could get through 90 minutes... If I was successful in being selected for the next stage, I’d then have an extra 6 weeks to prepare for the intense training camp to follow. Fast forward 6 weeks... It was game day. I arrived at the ground excited, nervous and praying that my knee would hold out. I was named in the starting line-up. I looked up at the team sheet. 4 Donnelly, 5 Smalling. I looked around for “Smalling” - I was eager to discuss our game plan with him in the brief time we had before going out to warm up. He was nowhere to be seen. Time ticked on, still no Smalling. We couldn’t wait any longer and were instructed to get out onto the pitch to start warming up.
About 5 minutes before the warm up finished...a skinny guy with an afro hurried out onto the pitch, stuffing his shin pads down his socks as he approached the coach profusely apologising for being so late.
“Get yourself warmed up, you’re starting. Just…!”
I swear if he’d been another 10 seconds late, he’d have found himself sat on the bench for most of the match, if not all of it.
But I guess fate was on his side that day...
The match was a success.
My knee had just about held out, I was happy with my performance and best of all Chris and I formed a formidable centre back partnership pretty much from the get-go.
Our styles seemed to complement each other’s perfectly and we developed an almost telepathic understanding.
Why was I particularly happy about that...?
Because the coaches had noticed too.
The fact that we played alongside each other so well would give us both an advantage when it came to progressing – we would be first down on the team sheet, and the rest of the team could be built around our "classy" centre back partnership.
A week passed, the letter came.
BOOM! I’d made the cut – but they’d decided to cut down to 27 instead of 30.
Time to focus back on my knee rehab and prepare for the first training camp at Lilleshall in 6 weeks’ time.
As you probably know, “Smalling” went on to play for Man Utd and England.
He’s played in the World Cup, European Championships, won the Champions League and won the Premier League.
I say this not to 'brag' about playing with him - that is 100% not my intention, but to demonstrate the following point...
I first met Chris when he was 18. Up until that point he had never been at a professional club for much longer than a few weeks.
Was he a good player? Yes.
Was he clearly better than anybody else? No.
But, he was very confident on the ball and extremely fit.
I’m just demonstrating the point that you should never write off your chances, you don’t know what the world has planned for you, never give up and think that you’ve missed your chance, you’re not "good enough" or doubt your ability.
It’s up to you to discover what’s possible.
How is this for inspiration…it could be anyone, why not you?
Smalling (Left), Me (Right) November 2007
Just 2 years later. Never Write Yourself Off.
Just to recap… I had just made it down to the cut of 27 for the next stage of England Schoolboys trials at Lilleshall. If you’re not familiar with Lilleshall, for many years it was the national training centre for elite English sport. (Imagine Hogwarts surrounded with football pitches...) It’s also where the 1966 England team spent 2 weeks training in preparation for the world cup, so in many ways the equivalent of today’s more modern St. Georges Park. Despite managing 90 minutes in the trial match 6 weeks earlier, the stresses of that game had pretty much reset my medial ligament injury back to square one. And although I believed it was now at about 80%, I was increasingly concerned about my level of match fitness going into these trials. Even if my knee did hold out, I’d only managed to play 1 game in the last 12 weeks and the most recent one was 6 weeks ago. Not ideal preparation for an England trial. Furthermore, this wasn’t just a trial match like before… We had a gruelling schedule of fitness testing, training and multiple matches every day. As the 3 days progressed, I was able to manage my medial ligament injury pretty well.
Although it did affect some of what I felt I was able to do on the pitch, I realised that these were probably mental barriers. One thing I couldn’t ignore however, was my lack of match fitness. This trial was a step up in terms of the speed and relentless energy of the players I was marking. Much like myself, there were other players who had spent most of their career up to this point at a professional club... Everton, Tottenham, Arsenal and Leicester were just some of the clubs where these guys had learnt their trade. Although it may not have been apparent to anyone else, I was struggling BIG TIME. Every time the ball went out I wheezed and gasped for air, each time I received the ball I moved it on to someone else. Anything to buy a few more precious seconds of recovery time.
Despite that, I felt as though I had still performed well enough to progress to the final trial weekend – but it was glaringly obvious to me that my fitness must improve significantly within the next 4 weeks. There’s no two ways about it though, my performance level at this trial had definitely dented the reputation I’d built up from my previous trial performances. I felt as though even though I was technically better, my lack of match fitness was evident in comparison to my competition - which would raise question marks about my ability to compete at this level.
Sure enough, I got the nod to progress to the final stage of England trials. More players had been cut, now we were down to 24 – the final squad only had room for 20.
During the following 4-week gap, what do you think I did? I wanted to absolutely smash myself, cram as much training in as I could. (Bear in mind that I knew little about fitness training for football at this point.) To the best of my knowledge, it was working. With a week to go, I reached level 17 in the beep test – the best score I had ever achieved. I remembered however, that when my centre back partner “Smalling” had submitted his fitness test scores before the previous trial, his score was… “I completed it”. Completely straight faced and almost embarrassed to admit it to the other players. And the funny thing was, although that score was way above average in comparison to everyone else…not one person doubted his score for a second. There wasn’t one player who thought “yeah right…!” It was 100% believable. In the words of Sir Alex Ferguson, it was as if he had "an extra set of lungs" watching him play at times. Anyway…
I decided that my fitness crash course would conclude with an epic 15-mile run... Then I would give myself 3 days to fully rest up before the final set of trials. I still vividly remember my Dad dropping me at the ‘start line’ in his car and telling me where he would pick me up from. It was absolutely freezing that day, and I soon found myself running in the snow. The icy air took my breathe away and made my lungs ache, but I ploughed on and began to gather some momentum as I warmed up.
I reached the finish line utterly exhausted, tears streaming down my cheeks from the biting cold which made my eyes water. Had that run really been a good idea? I started to feel groggy… I wasn’t feeling too sharp, I thought I’d get an early night – just what I needed. The next morning, I awoke with a terrifying realisation. This was an all but too familiar feeling. FLU. I was bedridden for the next 3 days… The decision to go on that run still haunts me to this day. Not only was it a wholly inappropriate way to train for football, I arrived at the final stage of trials scrawny and feeling as sick as a dog.
But I guess that’s the power of hindsight... At the time, I didn’t know any better. In defiance of that, I managed to revamp my situation and went onto perform very well. I was able to play with more freedom than before and Chris and I further cemented our centre back partnership.
A fixture had been organised for the final day against the Royal Navy first XI.
(That's me age 18 - top right, number 6)
The coaches saw this as the perfect final test, putting us up against a team of extremely physical, ruthlessly conditioned grown men.
I’ll never forget the buzz of that whole day…
Walking into the changing room with our England kits fully laid out, wired to compete after a spectacular team talk.
“Today you are representing England, no matter what happens to you, nobody can ever take that away from you. This is a day that you’ll tell your grandchildren about, now go out there and do your country proud.”
I was PUMPED…
And went on to have what was (in my opinion) my best performance of the whole process so far.
In my head I’d certainly redeemed the reputation I felt was dented after the previous trial.
There were 5 centre backs to choose from, and I felt that by some distance myself and Chris were the top performers, whether we played alongside each other or not.
I left the trials feeling quietly confident and relieved that I had made up for my lacklustre performance at the previous trial.
They would let us know by Thursday who had made the final squad of 20 players to go on and face Ireland, Wales, Australia and Scotland at Wembley in the Centenary Shield.
I spent the rest of the week nervous, excited, anxious, hopeful, unsure – every emotion you can possibly think of, I felt it.
The day my entire football career and reputation in school would hinge upon.
Every minute that passed felt like an hour, I just wanted to know if I had made it into the final squad one way or the other.
Until it happened…
I had just arrived home from school, a new post on my Facebook wall from one of the other players.
I opened it, my fingers were tingling.
The post read: “Congratulations mate! Buzzing to be in the squad with you!”
I punched the air exhilarated and ran to the phone to call my Dad.
Mid phone call, I refreshed the page – the post was gone...
I hit refresh again
The post had been deleted...
My heart suddenly sunk, thinking “that can’t be a good sign…”
Maybe he just wasn’t sure if he was supposed to share it around?
Maybe he had accidentally hit ‘delete’?
As time went on, I slowly came to the realization that something was up, my letter still hadn’t arrived and the player who had posted on my wall wasn’t responding to me.
Sure enough, about an hour later it was confirmed that I had in fact missed out on the final squad of 20 to play at Wembley.
I was on standby instead – which was really just a nicer way of breaking the bad news to me I thought.
The player had mistakenly posted on my wall, thinking I was on the squad list.
I’ve never felt emotions like it.
Pure elation to complete devastation.
I went to my room and locked myself away for the rest of the evening.
There was nothing anyone could say to make me feel better, my parents knew that.
They’d need to just leave me be to ride this one out.
That was one of the most character-building days of my life.
As it turned out, one of the midfielders who could also ‘fill in’ at centre back had taken my spot, as the manager planned on playing only 3 at the back in the international matches.
I want to link you back to when I was at Wycombe Wanderers and the coach was adamant that I cannot be a ‘ball playing’ centre back.
As I said I began to find my old form again when I left, but there’s no doubt that irreversible damage was done during that period.
I was forever self-conscious about running with the ball into midfield, and now more often than not opted for the less risky passing option...
I was still the same defender, but in terms of being on the ball I was reluctant to bring the ball forwards even though I still had the ability to.
That dilution of what was once of my key strengths proved to be the difference for me, this is the real feedback from the England Schoolboys manager my school received after not making the squad:
"James made an impression immediately with his dominant performances as a very effective central defender. His attitude to coaching sessions was exemplary, and he established himself at an early stage as a contender for International Selection.
This promise was borne out through the various trials, he acquitted himself extremely well again, and had a solid game against The Royal Navy, helping his squad to a 3 - 1 win.
To say he missed selection for the final 20 by a whisker would be accurate, and he certainly would have been selected in a number of previous squads in the years I have been involved.
"He was unfortunate that in this particular season he was up against three other excellent central defenders who, in our opinion, just had an edge on him in terms of comfort on the ball and the ability to bring the ball out from the back third. (One of these players has subsequently signed a 3-year contract for Fulham, so James certainly had competition)."
I couldn't believe it.
The very thing that I was told to stop doing at Wycombe, was now the very reason why I had missed out.
And I couldn't argue with it, they were right.
I was more cautious about bringing the ball out of defence, whereas before I relished the challenge.
Before I'd look to do it almost every time I got the ball, it was my key strength.
As it turned out, Chris went on to play for Man Utd & England as I said before, Aaron also went on to play in the Premier League for Southampton and Johnny (the midfielder/defender) went on to play for Leeds United before suffering a career ending injury.
They were all scouted whilst playing in the matches that followed the final trial.
I'm going to reveal what happened after I failed to make the final England Schoolboys squad of 20. During our trials a representative from the USA college football system had been trying to convince us all to consider a future career playing in America… That was never really too appealing to me, the season was short and I felt like I would be kind of settling for second best – I still wanted to play pro in England. In saying that, there were a couple of the lads who took that path and went onto play in the MLS, but all too often I had heard about players going there only to return a couple of months later. I was ofcourse still playing for my local semi-pro team and there were only a few months of the season left – then I would be free of school as well. I decided my best bet was to complete the season and then buckle down fully on getting back into pro football once school was finished and the season was over. Almost all of my mates had applied to go to university, but I was ‘all-in’ on taking a gap year to figure this out. I looked at a number of football training camps in various countries to get myself back in shape whilst contacting clubs to organise trials, that seemed like a logical plan. And that was the plan… Until it all came crashing down, and this time it was for real. I can remember the moment so vividly… It was a mid-week evening match, there was a bit of zip on the surface from the rain earlier that day – I love that, perfect football conditions. In the second half I found myself in a head on 1v1 with one of the oppositions midfielders, he was an absolute unit! Dashing towards me with the ball, I started to position my body side on (showing him down the line). As he approached, he attempted to knock the ball passed me and run onto it, however as we matched strides I had actually managed to block the ball from beneath him with my left foot. The ball stopped… But he didn’t. Full speed he crashed into the inside of my left thigh, jolting my leg open before landing with all of his weight on top of my left knee. Straight away I felt a deep and unfamiliar pain tear through my left hip. The sensation of how deep it felt had me immediately concerned. I played on…thinking it was probably just a knock, but after about 10 minutes it was clear I couldn’t continue. I went to see the physio, who immediately put my mind at rest. He assured me that it looked very much like a groin strain. Nothing too serious. This triggered a cycle of events that spelt the end of my football career. I rested for a week, started the next game, came off injured. …Rested for a week, started the next game, came off injured. …Rested for a week, started the next game, came off injured. …Rested for a week, started the next game, came off injured. This cycle of disaster repeated about another 10 times. Every week my coach would convince me I was fit enough to play… Piling pressure on me to just ‘do what I could’. The physio meanwhile was still convinced that it was a groin strain. He began to question whether I was in fact following the rehab exercises he had suggested. So much so that eventually my coach requested to see me in private and then accused me of faking the injury. He had it in his head that I was making up excuses so that I didn't have to play. I couldn’t believe it. I was outraged, furious… But he was right in a way, being continually forced to play when I knew full well I was injured was about as enjoyable as a kick in the head. I was sick of playing at 60%, it was ruining people’s perception of me as a player. I battled it out until the end of the season, it was a disaster. 10 minutes into one game, whilst still carrying my “groin injury”… POW! As I struck the ball, I felt my right quad tear. Pain stabbed through my thigh every time I tried to strike the ball. This was hopeless. I couldn’t move and now I couldn’t pass. Lost and disillusioned, I took things into my own hands and booked an MRI scan. What followed was nothing short of cruel. The doctor sat me down, X-ray and MRI in hand, and bluntly told me… "You should have chosen something like art or writing as a career, because there's no way you're playing football again. You’ll be in a wheelchair within 5 years if you continue." The results had revealed a labral tear in my left hip (caused by that tackle) and cartilage levels “lower than that of a 50 year old man”. The pain I was experiencing in my hip was a combination of friction and swelling caused by the labral tear and the onset of osteoarthritis. Most of the wear and tear was as a result of years of training, but the osteoarthritis had been triggered by repeatedly continuing to play on the injury for such a long time, aggravating the area again and again. Surgery would leave my hip too unstable to play and continuing would just worsen the problem. I had no way out. “I’m sorry, but your football career is over. There's nothing that can be done.” I turned and looked blankly at my mum…eyes glazed over with an expressionless face. She stared back, her eyes began to well. That day was a huge turning point in my life, but not in the way you probably think... The blunt, care-free way the doctor revealed the news to me annoyed me so much, that a burning desire to prove him wrong ignited within me. At the time I couldn't even jog without this grinding, pinching pain in my hip- it didn't show any signs of letting up… But in that moment in the hospital I made a decision. "I'm going to find a way of proving this doctor wrong and playing again, and not only that - when I do, I'm going to get paid for it." I knew my gap year plans were out of the window. And so grudgingly, I applied to go to university and study Sports Science about a day before the UCAS cut-off date. If I had any chance of overcoming this, I needed a deeper understanding of my body. I wouldn’t be able to play football next year anyway. And so, as soon as the first semester commenced, I began relating every assignment I possibly could to my injury. Important lesson: Playing on with injuries is a HUGE problem. I made two colossal errors that I want you to learn from. 1. At Wycombe Wanderers we regularly did strength and mobility work in and alongside our training sessions, even from a young age we were doing bodyweight exercises. At my semi-pro club we did ZERO – nobody understood it, it wasn’t seen as important. I picked up about 2 injuries in 9 years at Wycombe Wanderers. At my semi-pro club, myself and my team mates were riddled with them. 2. When you continue to play on an injury, not only do you make it worse – your movement mechanics start to change without you even noticing... Other muscle groups start overworking to compensate for the injured area and huge strength imbalances develop. Some muscles switch off altogether, whilst others become over-active. If you avoid strength work and you’re constantly playing whilst carrying niggles, you are a ticking time bomb – just like I was. An injury waiting to happen.
So, I had just enrolled in a sports science course at university to get a better understanding of my body.
I’m ashamed to admit it now, but even at that point I was still trying to play football with my injury, even after the doctor had told me to stop.
I was 100% in denial.
I realised that if I managed my training and took a potion of anti-inflammatories and supplements every day, I could just about get through training.
I wasn’t the same player, but playing once a week was better than not playing at all…right?
Plus, I was determined to still be known as ‘the football guy’ – I was addicted to having that identity.
Making the most of the football CV I had built up over the years, I was one of a handful of athletes at the university to be accepted onto a strength and conditioning scholarship.
I hugely underplayed my injury when applying. Nonetheless they agreed that they would help me overcome the injury and get back to form.
The scholarship basically involved 1-1 training with the head of strength and conditioning at the university, a tailored programme and a bursary to fund equipment and travel to matches whilst studying worth £10,000.
I learnt a huge amount about training and my body throughout the scholarship.
I made gains in strength and speed I didn’t think were possible.
One thing remained however…
The horrible grinding and pinching in my hip would not let up.
I felt the strongest and weakest I’d ever felt, all at the same time.
Still I persisted to play in vain.
Just “getting through” every session I could.
I was training and playing for Eastleigh FC whilst at university and actually made my first team debut (English Conference National) at the end of my second year of university.
They were aware of my condition but were happy to help me manage it so that I could keep playing. To be honest, I wish they had told me they weren’t interested and to stop being an idiot. By the end of that season, I had broken into the first team – but I was in more pain than ever. I knew I had no choice but to hang my boots up. Sure enough in the off-season that followed, the doctor confirmed that my condition had worsened since the previous year. Still I wanted to ignore him, but this time I had no choice. I could barely move. What do I do now? I racked my brains for answers… Then it came to me... “What if there was a way to feel what footballers feel, without being a footballer?” The only thing I had ever found nearly as fulfilling as actually playing, was the strength and conditioning training I had done during my scholarship. I found the benefits of it almost mind-blowing. To me, it immediately served two purposes:
It would enable me to remain in an elite football environment.
The more I understood, the higher the chance I would have of making any kind of return to football in the future.
I was sold, I went all in. After graduating with my Sports Science Degree, I did my personal training qualification, level 4 strength and conditioning certification and an international diploma in football specific strength and conditioning. I wasn't concerned with any other sport… My focus was 100% football. I had zero intention of working with athletes from other sports, I saw that as time I could be spending deepening my knowledge in football fitness training. If I ever looked at other sports, it was only to see what I could apply to myself as a footballer. So… With my new-found knowledge, I got started on creating my come-back training plan. I didn’t know if it would lead me to ever making a comeback, but I had to try. Fast forward 2 and a half years… Still no comeback. I was leaner and stronger, but still my hip caused me grief when I ran for any longer than 10 minutes. I needed a break. I'd heard about the fruits of travelling Australia, how their sports science facilities were more advanced and how there were more opportunities to work in elite sport. So, I decided to move there for a year and check it out. I immediately fell in love with it.
But more importantly, I had THE breakthrough moment. The air was dryer and much warmer… That's obvious enough. But this one factor would change my life forever. It significantly reduced my level of joint pain and swelling. I was able to move more freely and last longer, pain-free. I re-structured my training programme. As I was constantly on the move, I could only do bodyweight training. Another break-through. Week after week I noticed improvements. Improvements that had not been possible in the UK. The cold, damp air was a constant issue. I was forced into mastering my strength and challenging my movement using only my bodyweight. I knew I was onto something here…but I was running out of time. My visa would soon expire, and I’d be shipped back to England. Now you may or may not be familiar with this, but in Australia the only way to get a second-year visa is to do 3 months of regional work i.e. work on a farm. I found this rule to be ridiculous, but I knew I had to do whatever it took to secure that second year. And so, I gritted my teeth and accepted a 3-month post working on a pig farm… Working in the most gut-wrenching, filth you can possibly imagine. It was hell on earth. To make things worse, the farm was called “dead horse gully.” You can't make this up, it was the stuff of nightmares!!
(My final day on the farm)
I still look back on that time in disbelief now. How did I go from pro football to working on a pig farm?! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that because I think I’m too good for the job… But because my eyes were opened to the pure gruesomeness that exists in the world of farming. But that’s a story for another day. Honestly though, I wouldn’t have wished that experience upon my worst enemy. Nevertheless, as soon as I clocked off every afternoon, I headed straight for either the gym or the local football pitches to continue working on my comeback.
(I relied on all if this to get through training and help myself recover quicker)
As the weeks passed I felt good, I felt mobile – but you know as well as I do that “feeling good” when you’re coming back from injury is rarely a strong indicator of how you’re actually going to fair in a match situation. I knew I had to find a way of testing myself in a competitive environment… So, I contacted Young Lions FC (my new local football club…) A team made up of some of the friendliest, most accommodating guys I had ever met. The coach immediately empathised with my situation and agreed to help me return from injury by letting me train and play with them as and when I could. If I pulled up and needed to sit out half way through a training session, that was no problem.
He fully supported and understood what I was trying to achieve. To be honest, I doubt if my comeback would ever have happened without those guys… Being able to test myself in matches without additional pressure was a crucial part of my recovery. I am forever grateful to them.
By continuing to follow my own programme whilst managing my game time with Young Lions FC, my body slowly began to unlock… After about 10 matches, for the first time in over 4 years - I found myself being able to train and play regularly 100% pain free.
The grinding sensation in my hip had greatly reduced
Rigid pelvic muscles had released
Swelling was no longer building up to the point where I had to sit out
My body had finally been liberated. And then… As fate would have it… After a quick Google search...I discovered that one of my coaches from Wycombe Wanderers was now living in Australia - coaching in the National Premier League. This was the coach that I really excelled under during my time at Wycombe. He had been a huge advocate for my playing style and potential to become a pro. I contacted him, and he invited me for a trial as soon as I completed my regional work. The minute my time on the pig farm was up, I packed my bags and got myself on a flight to Brisbane. The National Premier League is the second tier of football in Australia, which feeds into the Hyundai A League. I knew that if it could stay fit (and get signed), it would be a great stepping stone which could lead to getting signed by an A league team.
I arrived at that trial feeling nervous, excited, confident and more at home than I’d ever felt.
I was introduced to the rest of the squad, and was immediately overwhelmed by the number of English players who were on exactly the same mission as me…
The squad was made up of players who had previously represented: Man Utd, Celtic, Anderlecht and Australia, combined with local rising talent.
I discovered that other teams in the NPL had a similar set up, with players who had been released by clubs such as Liverpool, here attempting to forge a career in the A League.
The standard was great, the training and environment was fantastic.
Under the watchful eyes of my old coach, I seamlessly slipped back into my old playing style – bringing the ball out from the back with confidence and belief.
I was delighted to receive good news and get offered a contract.
I felt like I was dreaming.
Me (Left) Reunited With Ex Wycombe Wanderers FC Coach (Right)
I remember only 12 months before this very moment thinking I would need a miracle to ever play again, and now I was signing a contract to get paid to play. There are no words to describe how that felt.
I had my identity back and I was hungrier than ever.
Fortune again fell my way… As I had trialled just before the final match of their season – I now had the entire off-season to prepare my body for the season to come. The first month of matches included fixtures against the A League Champions Brisbane Roar and an international fixture against the Malaysian National Team. To go from nothing to this in the space of just a few months…I WAS PUMPED. I was now:
Training on the pitch 3-4 times per week
Playing 1-2 matches per week
Training in the gym 4-5 x per week
Getting paid to play
Pain-free 95% of the time
I was in dreamland. I was living in Australia, training on a pitch that looked like a snooker table and getting paid to do it. Tears still fill my eyes when I look back and remember how I was once praying for a miracle, hoping that somehow the universe might one day allow something like this to be possible… And now it was reality. I used to pinch myself just to make sure it wasn’t all an elaborate, cruel dream. Now don’t get me wrong… I know we aren’t talking about a debut for Real Madrid here... But from the position I had been in just 18 months earlier, I may as well have been about to line up alongside Messi and Ronaldo. The chances of me pulling off a comeback with this injury really were that remote. To be able to play competitive football again, I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. The odds and everyone’s opinions were hugely stacked against me. And again, I don’t say this to brag in the slightest. The points I want to demonstrate to you are this:
It’s not up to anyone else to decide what is possible for you.
Nobody can predict what your future holds (not even you)
Crazier things have happened than what your ultimate dream probably is right now!
So much of this is to do with mindset, persistence, and trusting that if you follow your passion then things will work out just fine one way or another. Don’t chase success. Put yourself in the best possible position for success to flow to you. Success is a consequence of your daily habits and your beliefs. Did Chris Smalling know that he was going to play for Manchester United and England when he was 18 and had still never been part of a professional football club? Not a chance. But he made dam sure he was as fit as he possibly could be and looked after himself even when he was playing for Maidstone Utd. Did I ever think I was going to end up making a living captaining a team in the Australian NPL? Not in a million years could I have predicted that. We simply put ourselves in the best possible position to make something like that possible. I was made captain 5 games after signing, not because I was desperate to be captain… But because I simply put myself in the way of where I thought success would flow to. So many young players think that world class players only start training hard once they ‘make it’ and then things get serious. No. They’ve been doing it for years, behind the scenes, off their own backs. Those habits (along with talent) placed them in the best position for that level of success to flow to them. There are many highly talented players who do not understand this CRITICAL factor. Your daily habits must be congruent with the level of success you’re aiming to achieve. When I faced Brisbane Roar (A League Champions) in my first season back, we lost 3-0. It was actually a tight game, which fell out of our grasp as the difference in fitness levels became apparent in the final 10 minutes, conceding twice. (The game was played behind closed doors as it was a pre-season friendly, but I've actually found an amateur recording of some of that game on YouTube below.)
In the changing room after the match, I looked around at my team mates and 95% of them had smiles on their faces – myself included. Why on earth where we smiling after losing? It was because everyone had suddenly realised that there was zero difference in technical ability, the difference on the night was purely physical. Any one of us had the ability to slot right into their team if we were just a little bit fitter. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that things are unattainable when we aren’t there yet, but so often the difference is only millimetres. The pivotal difference is that the players currently playing where you want to be have had a head start. The longer you leave it to start training in a way that is congruent with where you want to be, the wider the gap is getting every single day. Can you really expect to keep up with a player who is of the same standard as you technically, but has an extra 5 years of conditioning on top of you? Maybe over a few matches sure, but over a longer period there’s only going to be one winner, your body won’t be able to keep up with constant stresses suddenly being placed on it. The worst thing for me is when I come across a driven player, who’s training their socks off and is determined to reach their goal… But they’re doing the wrong type of training. That’s heart-breaking for me. Because it reminds me of myself when I was younger, trying to figure it all out on my own – thinking I was doing the right thing, damaging myself and wasting precious time.
I learnt so much during my comeback about how to prime my body to perform, that I felt an urgent need to start passing this little-known knowledge onto other players. So alongside playing, I started doing 1-1 football conditioning sessions with the youth team players... ...showing them how being 'Matchfit' is a lifestyle. But...I eventually hit a wall. Have you ever felt like there's a glass ceiling above you, hindering your progress? That's exactly how I began to feel in Australia. For me, the enjoyment from football comes from the possibility of where it can take me and the fulfilment which comes from that. I've never been the type of guy who would behappy to play at Sunday league level for the pure enjoyment of playing football. For me the enjoyment comes from trying to perfect a skill and pursue playing at the highest possible level. It sounds brash, but I've always believed to either do something properly or don't bother doing it at all. There's no room for dabblers if you want to be successful. On the contrary I absolutely respect players whoare the total opposite! It's just not the way I've been wired over the years. I was in Australia to get into the A league, not just to make up the numbers at NPL Level. Over time it began to dawn on me that ability alone might not be enough to generate interest from the A league if you were an overseas player. There were complications involved surrounding visas and there also seemed to be a disconnect between the NPL and the A league. I'm not saying I should have been given an opportunity, but I definitely felt as though I was better than many of the centre backs currently playing in that league. There was neither a sniff of an opportunity on the horizon or a clear pathway between the club I was at and the A league to make that journey a possibility. You have to trust your gut, even though things were going great a NPL level after 2 seasons - I felt as though it was probably time to take action and make a change. Time to stop "dabbling" with Matchfit Football and take things to the next level. That was always the plan, but I felt the time was NOW to take action. I realised Matchfit was addressing an area which struck both:
A cultural problem in football
Something that was missing which I felt I desperately needed as a younger player
I've heard it all: "Footballers don't need muscle, it slows them down." "Technical skill is far more important than strength" "Strength training stunts a players growth." "It makes their muscles too sore to be able to play." "I don't want my son/daughter doing that, it's not safe for them." I could go on! Unfortunately when it comes to things like fitness, every man and his dog has an opinion despite being completely unqualified to comment. So...in my eagerness to prove them wrong, I set about finding as much evidenceas I could that, behind closed doors - strength training is an integral part of every top professional players training schedule. I scoured the internet for hours each day trying to collect video evidence of the world's top players training in the gym. I believed this would open people's eyes to what really goes on at the highest level. But more importantly, if more players saw footballers like Ronaldo and Messi training in the gym, it would inspire them to start following that behaviour! If I wanted to change the cultural attitude towards strength and conditioningin football around the world, I had to find of way of making fitness for footballers 'cool' rather than a complete drag. This was how the Matchfit Football Instagram page was born. A page where I shared videos of world class footballers strength training, and then explained in the caption the benefits of the exercise being performed to on-pitch performance. I wanted my own clients to see this stuff every single day even when I wasn't with them to keep them driven, motivated and learning. But my hope was that this would have a ripple effect to reach footballers around the world. And that's exactly what started to happen, thanks to the power of social media. Matchfit Football was the first and only page anywhere online where footballers of all levels could get an insight into elite level football strength and conditioning. How do I know that?... Because I was the person who had spent years searching for such a page and couldn't find anything. So after a truly life-changing journey from 9 years at a professional club, being out of the game injured with no hope of a return in sight for almost 4 years...all the way back to getting paid to play in Australia... I was now faced with a life-changing decision.
Do I continue to play football with an ever-slimming opportunity of progressing to a higher level? Or is it time to thank the universe for what I've been able to achieve and go all-in with Matchfit? I had reached a point where both areas of my life had reached capacity. I was training and playing as much as I possibly could, and I didn't have the time to take on any more players. I realised this was a problem...and to be honest I had anticipated that this day would come. Now, having gotten to know me a little by now, you mightthink that the option of ending my playing career was an uncharacteristically defeatist mindset... After-all, the chance of reaching the A league might have been slimming, but that's not to say it's impossible? It's 100% impossible if you don't continue to pursue it at all, right? Correct. However I knew there were a number of other factors which I needed to take into account in my situation.
Despite being mostly pain-free, my hip cartilage was still deteriorating and playing for the sake of playing was edging me closer to an early hip replacement. I was willing to make that sacrifice to become full-time pro, but not for the current level I was playing at.
Before signing pro the club obviously do a medical. One scan of my hips would have instantly highlighted that my playing years at an elite level were extremely numbered.
Can you expect a pro club to sign a high-risk player in his mid-20's with a history of injury when they have the option of investing further into a healthy, younger player who has progressed through the youth system at the club? I certainly wouldn't.
Matchfit Football would enable me to stay in elite football and be involved at a level which is higher than my playing career could now take me.
The feeling I got from passing my knowledge onto other players was the nail in the coffin... I actually got as much of a buzz from the results I was getting with the players I was coaching as I did actually playing. Plus, positive feedback from elite players all around the world was flooding in on a daily basis. I found the whole world of football conditioning incredibly stimulating. There had been a telling shift in my behaviour over the last couple of months. Every spare second I had I was obsessed with working on Matchfit, whereas before it was optimising myself to perform on the pitch. I saw a problem in the culture of football which I had been a victim of...and I was now obsessed about helping other players around the world not only avoid the issues I had encountered, but also take their performance to a level they never thought possible. My mind was made up...any time spent playing, was time that was being taken away from solving a much more important issue. I had made my decision, it was time to dedicate 100% of myself to Matchfit. And so, I nervously sat down with my coach and broke the news that I would be moving back to England. He was saddened by the news, after all it marked the end of a bizarre journey where completely by chance (or fate) we had re-united 10 years after he first coached me at Wycombe Wanderers, but he was also completely supportive. Fast forward a few months... I was now back in England, coaching players 1-1 full time at my own facility whilst continuing my football strength & conditioning education. Every day's a learning day, never think you're the finished product, there's always something new to be learned. Things were going great, but I hit another wall. I found I was repeating myself ALOT and the number of players I could coach was limited, there's only so many hours in aday... That's when it dawned on me. The problem I want to solve in the culture of football wasn't being answered with 1-1 sessions. Players were relying on a session with me each week to ensure their progress...that's an issue. How could I have more impact long term? By educating players how they can train to an elite level completely by themselves. That way I could help players at scale all around the world. And it would separate those elite players whoare really hungry for success from those who think it should be served on a plate to them. I could reach and serve my perfect player, no matter where they were in the world. And so, I began packaging all of my experience and knowledge into a format that could be accessed all over the world. Speed, stamina, strength, mobility, confidence, injury, nutrition, fitness testing - my team and I have got it all covered so that you can save yourself YEARS of trial and error and accelerate your journey to the very top. This is the same stuff that world class professionals use to stay in peak physical and mental condition. These principles of training remain true no matter what level you are currently at, what matters is where you want to go and understanding how to apply them. We're now at a stage where Matchfit Football has helped tens of thousands of players, from over 70 countries.
In case you were wondering...I do really miss playing football, it sucks that I can't continue playing at times. Especially with all the knowledge that I have now, which could have completely changed the course of my life if I knew this stuff at age 16 (or even younger). But that's in the past, what really matters now is helping players just like you reach the highest level, and that's a pretty cool goal to be working towards every single day. It's incredibly rare that anyone can achieve something special 100% off their own back. If you know you've got what it takes to be playing at a higher level but you're just lacking the guidance and being held back by a lack of self-belief, stamina, speed, strength or injuries, then click the link at the bottom of this page and reach out. Thank you for reading :) James