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HomeSportBoot Dreams: 16 footballers' last chance to make it

Boot Dreams: 16 footballers’ last chance to make it


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‘Tipped to go pro but rejected by their clubs, it’s their last chance to make it in the beautiful game’ – watch all six episodes of Boot Dreams now on BBC iPlayer”I could have been a professional footballer if it wasn’t for injury.” How many times have you heard that line from friends, Sunday League veterans or five-a-side team-mates? Well for Jake Flannigan, it is actually the truth.But being released from boyhood club Southampton after three ACL knee surgeries has not deterred Jake from making one last attempt to achieve his dream of becoming a professional footballer as part of a new BBC Three documentary called Boot Dreams: Now or Never..Despite those setbacks – and against the backdrop of media coverage about the jeopardy of the Premier League academy journey – Jake is one of 16 young men aged 18-26 to sign up for the series which involves a four-week camp aimed at regaining the dream career they thought they had lost.The squad compete in matches under the guidance of manager Gifton Noel-Williams, a former Premier League and Championship striker, with the pressure of scouts watching.The six episodes highlight how talent alone is not enough to secure a professional contract as confidence, self-belief and discipline issues are tested. Viewers get to know the personal journeys of the players and will be rooting for their success.Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes, England defender Millie Bright, ex-Football League striker Adebayo Akinfenwa and former QPR defender Anton Ferdinand are also called in as mentors to offer advice as the young men battle their emotions.BBC Sport spoke to some of those involved. All episodes are available on BBC iPlayer now. ‘Some never bounce back from the heartbreak’Here’s those cold, often-shared statistics again:It is estimated that, of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time, around 180 – or 0.012% – will make it as a Premier League professional. More than three-quarters of academy players are dropped between the ages of 13 and 16.For anyone, feeling your dream slipping away can be crushing, but when it is down to the bad luck of a freak injury, it can break some people.In the series, former Watford, Stoke and Burnley striker Noel-Williams is the manager of the aspiring professionals and knows the curse of injury all too well. The 43-year-old had a flying start to life at Watford as a teenage striker banging in the goals. But, on the day he received his first call-up for England Under-21s, he shattered his kneecap in a career-altering injury. Noel-Williams played the rest of his career through the pain of arthritis but was still able to make 382 appearances.These days, most professional players fully recover from even the most serious of knee injuries, but Boot Dreams’ Jake was released by Saints after three years in the treatment room. In the documentary, the 26-year-old dislocates his shoulder in the first match and those familiar feelings of physical pain, frustration and mental anguish reignite.On Jake’s misfortune in the series, Noel-Williams told BBC Sport: “It’s always hard when you see someone who has a similar work rate, love for the game, passion… He’s a player that could play in the football league with his ability but unfortunately, his body lets him down and he can never get the run he needs to climb the ladder.””It was gutting,” Jake told BBC Sport about his earlier rejection. “I walked around like I had a chip on my shoulder for a while. I looked at my friends living a nice lifestyle and thought to myself how it could have been me.”It was something out of my control but I used that to cope better. I knew I had the talent and I knew I always worked hard. I was just unlucky.”‘I felt like I left a family’Today, many footballers speak openly about their mental health and encourage other young men to do the same.Jake recalls his feelings when he was let go. “You have the initial day or two when the injury hits, but then I got into the frame of mind where I need to be strong and go again.”I was always told how mentally strong I am and that convinced me I didn’t need to speak about my feelings. I was always very level headed – I had trained myself not to get too excited because I always felt something was coming up around the corner. It’s a shame because you can’t enjoy the highs as much.”Jake praised Southampton for the way they looked after him during his injuries and continue to do so even now: “It got to the point where my contract was ending but they made sure they didn’t release me when I was injured.”The welfare team still send emails to check in and I message physios I’ve worked with if I need any help. It’s a family club and that’s why it was so hard leaving them, I felt like I was part of the family.”Jake, who realises his dream of being a footballer may be over as he currently awaits further surgery, is also pursuing an acting career.’I want to bring my family out of poverty’Cameroonian Jordan Fankwe’s heart-warming rise on the show illustrates how hard work and determination can reap rewards.In the series, he grows from changing room joker to being a midfield ‘destroyer’, with scouts impressed by the energetic player’s all-action displays and, towards the end of the series, trials come his way.Viewers see tearful Jordan, 20, speak of how he felt he’d let his family down after being released from Nottingham Forest earlier in his career.After a 12-month deal with Watford, Jordan is now at League Two side Salford City. He told BBC Sport: “I’m very close to my family and when things weren’t going so well, they told me every day to keep working as hard as I can and something would come for me. They help me a lot.”I work every single day to help my family. I want to bring my mother out of poverty and give them a better life. That is a huge motivation for me.”In Boot Dreams, the relationship between Jordan and manager Noel-Williams grows from a rocky start. In one clash, Noel-Williams tells Jordan: “I’ve had enough of you son. Fix up and fix up fast”.However, by the end of the series, the full-blooded midfielder is impressing on trials with professional clubs and is extremely thankful to his “gaffer” for showing him tough love.”To be honest, it upset me how I was being treated by Gifton at times but now I am so grateful to him and I sometimes think back to the advice he gave me and I use it. He was a huge help for me.”Noel-Williams told BBC Sport: “I liked Jordan from the beginning because he was the best runner. They’re all young men and have things that they need to work on, both on and off the pitch. Once Jordan and I had an understanding and he realised that I cared, everything was great. He’s a really good lad and a big character.”On taking part in the series, Noel-Williams reflects that the support for players who drop out of the professional game still lacks consistency, alongside “unrealistic” expectations around football.He said: “The problem is that some clubs do a wonderful job and help players with their next steps. I know some clubs that bring players back to work in the academy to coach. But some clubs do nothing and leave the player hung out to dry.”I also believe that education around the facts and data would be good for players and parents to allow them to understand the realistic odds around making it as a pro footballer. I believe that parents and players have an unrealistic view on the academy system because they don’t realise the odds.”

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