“It is only my opinion. It isn’t fact. Go away and prove me wrong and no-one will be more delighted than me.” (Bruce Rioch – his regular line to youth footballers that he had to release)
In the past month I have read Chris Green’s Every Boy’s Dream, a book that explores the trials and tribulations ( and the rare triumphs) of youth football and development in this country. Green presents a quite bleak view of youth football, as he puts across the sheer lack of opportunity there is for a young player to succeed professionally in the game these days.
Coincidentally, whilst reading Green’s book, a parent got in contact with us regarding the tough times he had faced ensuring his son made it in the game. More relevant to our cause is that his son happens to be a Lost Boyo: Hibernian’s young Welsh goalkeeper Calum Antell.
Green paints a picture in his book of the negative effect of the football academies and Centre of Excellences in the country with their “recruitment of children on a massive scale”. The mass recruitment drive ultimately leads to mass rejection and thus a negative environment surrounding youth football in this country. Similar to the heartbreaking tales of dejected young footballers that Green chronicles in his book, a young Calum and his dad Andrew endured similar tests of resilience throughout the early stages of Calum’s quest to become a pro-footballer.
Calum Antell plays for Hibernian and has recently been playing on loan at East Stirlingshire in the Scottish Third Division, a team regularly mocked and pitied by the media. During 2004/2005 season, football writer Jeff Connor spent a season following the club and chronicled his time with the club in the harshly-named book, Pointless: A Season with Britain’s Worst Team. East Stirlingshire have finished bottom of the Scottish Third Division for the majority of the past decade (there is no direct relegation from the Scottish Third Division). Unsurprisingly, East Stirling finished last season bottom of the table again, 11 points adrift from Clyde, who finished the place above them in 9th place. Although, once again, the team struggled, one of the high points of their season was the capture of Antell on loan. Antell demonstrated tremendous form during his time at the club and had at times kept the Third Division team in games singlehandedly (well with both hands really). It was no surprise when Calum was awarded Players’ and Supporters’ Player of the Year at the club for his heroic efforts throughout the season.
Calum’s footballing path began in the small Welsh town of Ebbw Vale in South East Wales, just a couple of miles away from my hometown of Merthyr Tydfil. Calum played for his local team Waunlwyd under 8s and progressed through their various age groups, mainly playing as a striker (one season Calum ended the season with 52 goals!) Calum then started to play (still outfield) for the Blaenau Gwent Academy in 2006/07 season and he represented Newport schools, who would go onto to win their South Wales regional competition.
Calum’s goalkeeping career actually began whilst representing his school team; Calum opted to help out his school team, Glyncoed, and play between the sticks against their biggest rivals Brynmawr. Calum excelled in the game and he decided to switch his efforts away from becoming an outfield player to developing into a goalkeeper.
Calum’s academy team was coached at the time by Adrian Tucker, now Swansea’s goalkeeping coach (he also hails from Treharris, the village next to mine).Tucker is still one of only three goalkeeping coaches in Wales that hold the prestigious UEFA ‘A’ License. Tucker also had a playing stint at Calum’s hometown club, Ebbw Vale, as well as spells at Inter Cardiff, Merthyr Town and Aberystwyth following a stint at Torquay which was ended by a shoulder injury. Tucker spent many years working for the technical department of the Welsh Football Trust, primarily helping to enhance coaching education and youth development projects within Welsh football; Calum could not be training under a more well-qualified mentor.
Eventually, Cardiff and Swansea City came knocking at Antell’s door, with both offering him the chance to impress them on trial. After Swansea gave him two months to prove himself, he was released and soon Calum’s dad, Andrew, was on the phone to Cardiff, who eventually agreed to give him a chance with a trial; this was a dream come true for young Calum, with him being a big Cardiff City fan. After impressing in several games, Calum was even chosen as the club’s goalkeeper to play in a youth tournament in Northern Italy.
Following the death of Antell’s youth coach and the appointment of a new coach at Cardiff’s Academy, Antell completed 6 weeks of preseason training at the club before the new coach decided he was not good enough and released him. Once again, the young Welsh boy’s career was in limbo.
Calum, like many, many before him, thought his dream of playing professional football was over. Currently there are over 10,000 youth footballers playing in academies and Centre of Excellences up and down the country, all chasing ‘the dream’. The sad reality is that many will not get anyone near ‘the dream’ as over half of these will be culled with some even stating that they were only there in the first place to make up the numbers. Over 80% of these will be out of the professional game by the time they are 20-years old. Many do not recover from the rejection that comes from being turned out by an academy or Centre of Excellence and many struggle to settle back into the ‘real’ world outside of football. Some get so sucked into the idea of becoming a professional footballer that they completely dismiss their school work and education as they begin to believe their own hype; when these youngsters are released by their respective clubs, they are left with nothing to show for the best part of their teenage years.
Calum’s next move was to start playing for another local team and carry on playing football for enjoyment. Like many young players that are released by a club though, Calum found it difficult to settle back into such humble surroundings having now played in several academy environments.
Although Calum had perhaps come to terms with his release, one person that was determined to make one last play for Calum’s career was his dad, Andrew Antell. Andrew always believed in his son’s ability and was desperate to make his son’s dream work out. It is a running theme throughout Green’s critique of youth football, the sheer endurance and commitment of the parents of the budding young players. Calum’s dad is a perfect example of one of these highly determined parents that was willing to do anything to support his son’s aspirations. The tour to Northern Italy that Calum went on with Cardiff City was also attended by his dad, who was the only parent that went along. There was no provision provided by Cardiff City, so Andrew spent 4 days travelling solo around Northern Italy – just to watch his son play football. Calum’s parents made huge sacrifices in regards to time and finance in aid of Calum’s career.
Andrew Antell fought for his son’s career to get back on track and, just like many young players, all that was really needed to go alongside the hard work was a slice of good fortune – something that was eventually delivered to Andrew in the shape of a new boss at his workplace, Llanwern Steelworks in Newport. Andrew’s new boss was from Swindon and happened to know a football scout from Swindon. Calum eventually got himself a trial at Swindon and after a very good game against Exeter, Calum was signed up to Swindon’s academy. Swindon’s U-16 team were even coached by Welsh international Paul Bodin, most remembered these days for THAT penalty miss in 1993 that cost Wales a place at the World Cup (he did manage to score it 16 years later though with Malcolm Allen plaing the part of Romanian goalkeeper Florian Prunea).
The Antells were delighted that Calum was back at a club, but after the initial hysteria it soon dawned on the family that Calum, and Dad, would have to make the 180 mile journey from Ebbw Vale to Swindon and back 2-3 times a week. This is where many youth players’ (and their parents’) patience and commitment are put to the test, especially when you consider so many youth players will still have school commitments meaning early wake up calls after late nights; the long journeys, the coming home late from training and the intense training sessions themselves are the main causes to why so many youth footballers go to school the next morning in zombie-like states and why they struggle with their school work. It is great testament to Calum that he was not only playing with confidence in Swindon’s academy but Calum also worked hard on the academic side of things and incredibly attained 10 GCSEs – a brilliant achievement for any wannabe footballer.
Eventually, Calum earned his scholarship at Swindon, after featuring in for the academy throughout the season, one reserve team game (at 15 years old) and just about making it through to the end of the academy season after a niggling groin injury kept him out for 8 weeks towards the end of the season and almost hindered his chances of gaining his scholarship at the club. Now that Calum had made it onto the first rung of the professional football ladder, living in Ebbw Vale was no an longer option and Calum had no choice but to leave home, a tough time for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old boy who clearly had a close bond with his parents.
Calum’s first season in Swindon was tough going as the youngster struggled to cope with his new environment, something which wasn’t helped by Calum’s lack of time on the playing field, as he frequented the second choice goalkeeper role throughout the season. Once again, Calum’s parents, now 90 miles away, worked tirelessly to keep Calum’s morale up and keep him battling. A starting place in the U18s soon came Calum’s way after an injury to their number 1 and Calum started several games, culminating in a victory against Plymouth U18s to win the League Cup; Calum saved a shot from Joe Mason, now much-loved by Cardiff City fans, in the last minute to ensure Swindon sealed the victory.
The following season, Calum’s Swindon experience improved dramatically on and off the pitch. Firstly Calum moved in with a local family, who he instantly clicked with and secondly he was now playing regularly for the U18s. Unfortunately for Calum, there were 7 other keepers at the club, all vying for limited places in the senior squad. When the call had to be made whether to give Calum a pro-contract, it was decided he would not get one. Once again, Calum was left in the lurch and as always his parents were there to pick him up.
The next step for Calum was a move down to Yeovil to train with their first team, before going to Sherborne Town to help them stave off relegation. Calum returned to Yeovil to carry on training when it suddenly emerged there were several interested parties in him, all offering Calum the chance to become a Lost Boyo.
As we know, the young Welshman eventually headed north of the border to Edinburgh to earn his Lost Boyo status, but as both Edinburgh clubs were toying with an offer for Calum, there was also interest from Southern Spain with Glenn Hoddle’s Academy. Hoddle’s Academy was beginning to form an excellent reputation out in Spain as a sanctuary for young footballers that had been released by British clubs, with the main aim of the Academy being to develop and train them so they were ready to re-enter into the professional game; the academy was there to help players have one last stab at making it. Many of the players were also placed on the books of Spanish Fourth Division side, Jerez Industrial, helping to give the players a club to showcase their talents, whilst the small town club benefitted by having many talented youth players on their books. Hoddle’s academy departed Spain following an altercation over money in 2011 and the academy now links up with Hyde FC in South-east Manchester; the club has just become Conference North Champions.
Instead, Calum turned down the sunny shores of Southern Spain for the tropics of Scotland. Three clubs were reported to be interested in Calum’s signature: Motherwell, Hearts and Hibernian. Motherwell made the first move and secured Calum on a five day trial; Well were impressed enough to offer Calum a 1-year contract playing for their u19s. With interest coming from Hibs and Hearts, Calum opted to go check them out and eventually ended up on a 5 day trial at Hibs. First team coach, Alistair Stevenson was the one that alerted then Hibs manager John Hughes to make an offer for the young Welshman. Hibs took the offer up another level from Motherwell’s by offering Calum a 2-year pro contract. Despite Motherwell also improving their contract offer to 2-years, Calum was set on Hibs and did not even bother heading over to Tynecastle.
It is amazing to think of all the various up and downs Calum had gone through and when he finally signed professional for Hibs he was still only 17! Antell stepped up to become the first choice goalkeeper for the U19s in his debut season, before being promoted to the first team squad and becoming the senior team’s third choice behind Mark Brown and the experienced Graham Stack. Despite competing with the two goalkeepers, Antell hails the impact the two goalkeepers have had on him:
“I learn so much from them in training every day and they’ve both been at big clubs like Arsenal, Rangers and Celtic so its definitely been a good experience and an experience I probably wouldn’t get at most SPL clubs.”
Hibs clearly rate Calum very highly, but there were always going to be limited opportunities for Calum with two other goalkeepers blocking his path to the number 1 jersey, which lead to manager Colin Calderwood (who was sacked in November) pushing for Calum to go out on loan to gain more experience at the start of the season; as a goalkeeper you don’t get much more experience than going to East Stirling!
At the beginning of the 2011/2012 season, having looked around the place, Calum was more than happy to sign up with the club. Despite some absolute wallopings (7-1 defeat to Clyde, 6-0 defeat to Stranraer) that may have wrecked many young players’ morale, Calum saw himself improving consistently throughout the season, learning from his mistakes and most importantly for a young player, enjoying himself – something he stated in an interview with awayend.net:
“My game has improved so much, I honestly didn’t think I could play the way I have this season and to have kept the standard up has been fantastic.
I’m playing every week, I feel welcome at the club and my game is coming on so much because of it.”
As mentioned earlier, despite the club another season at the foot of the table, Calum had a fantastic season with his manner both on and off the pitch standing him in good stead for the future. Calum even got to captain the club at Hampden Park when they took on Queens Park, a great achievement for one so young.
It is clear that the Welshman certainly does have a future at Hibernian, especially with speculation around the fans that Calum is to be imminently offered a new contract. With Hibernian struggling in the Scottish Premier League this season and being on the end of a 5-1 Scottish Cup Final defeat to arch-rivals Hearts, many fans are now looking for the club to begin rebuilding. Following Pat Fenlon’s appointment as manager in November, he steadied the ship by making 7 loan signings; with none of those expected tos ing permanently and with several players out of contract, there could well be a brand new look to the Hibs squad next season. Notably, both experienced goalkeepers, Brown and Stack are now out of contract leaving only Antell and Paul Grant as the only two goalkeepers at the club. Although it is expected that the club will offer either Stack or Brown a new contract, many fans have begun to see Calum as a key part of the club’s long-term future with many hoping that Calum could be the club’s number 2 goalkeeper next season and start battling for the number 1 jersey.
If Calum can carry on with his steady professional progress, who’s to say that Calum cannot be challenging for a place in Wales’ U21 squad in the near future and maybe even in the senior squad a few years down the line; besides Hennessey, we are not exactly blessed with goalkeepers at the moment. Calum has had very limited contact with the Welsh setup but he has expressed his strong passion for his country and his desire to feature for his nation at some point.
“I’m very passionate about my country and it would be an honour to get my first cap as there would be no better feeling. My family would be so proud. I won’t give up thinking that I could play for Wales but I think I’m some way down the pecking order at the minute, but I am still young and have plenty of time to fulfil my ambition.”
Calum has made an excellent start to his professional career, but he will know better than anyone that you never know what is around the corner and that he’ll have to maintain his excellent work so far, especially if he aspires to be a Welsh international some day. I’ll finish with what I think is an excellent quote from the man himself, on the rollercoaster ride of a youth footballer and some good advice for anybody that opts to brave the path to become a professional footballer. Any young footballer who is chasing a dream can take a lot of heart from Calum’s story. Calum took as many knocks as anyone, but he kept fighting back and eventually achieved his dream.
“It’s been a long journey since I started playing football at 8 years of age; there have been plenty of ups and downs and unless your one of the chosen few who seem to fly through the system it’s a hard life. You need to be physically fit ,technically sound and more importantly mentally strong to deal with the many ups and down. You also need to remember football is all about opinions – just because someone doesn’t like you it doesn’t mean you won’t make it, just keep your head up and move on. With plenty of support you can remain strong and keep your dreams of playing professional football alive.” (Calum Antell)
You can follow Calum Antell on Twitter at @CalumAntell