Looking to make the grade

Valentine looks back at his early playing days

Our Whitecaps FC are back on the field this Monday, January 24, at Empire Field. Players will be entering this preseason with different goals in mind. The players that are already contracted to the club will be looking to impress the coaching staff and win a spot in the first XI for our opening game March 19th against Toronto FC.

And then there are the players that are looking to win a contract in preseason. Is this the time for them, can they avoid injuries, will their form be good enough for the coaches to take a chance on them? Will they be able to overcome their nerves and play to their full capacity?

I am now thinking about my trials and tribulations as a youngster trying to make a professional club in England. My first attempt was a trial at Stockport County FC, who were in the old Fourth Division (now English League Two). In the summer of 1975, I went to Stockport with a friend of mine called Steve Massey. We tried out for most of that summer, and at the end of the trial, I was let go. My friend Steve, meanwhile, was offered a contract and came off the bench against Darlington FC to become Stockport’s youngest goalscorer at the age of 16.

As a 16-year-old myself, I could have left school and got a job. However, I decided to go back to school, having thought my dream of playing professionally was over. The following summer, another friend of mine (yes, I had two friends) Gary Reilly, invited me to join him for training at Oldham Athletic FC, who were then in the old Second Division (now League Championship). The youth coach at Oldham, Billy Urmston, must have liked Gary, as he allowed me to join Oldham's 'B' team for training that summer.

Near the end of the summer, we played a few games against other 'B' teams. My first chance to impress came as a substitute, where to my dismay, Urmston put me on the left wing. Now, if any of you have seen me play, my left foot is mostly for standing on. It seemed obvious to me at the time that Urmston really did not fancy me as a player. I have no way to explain what happened next, other than to tell you that every time I was on the field that summer, I played a blinder. Everything that could go right, did go right, including scoring with my left foot!

At the end of the summer, before I was to start back at school, I was contacted by the scout at Oldham, who wanted to meet myself, together with my mum and dad. We met at my parents house, where the scout proceeded to offer me a contract with the club at the semi-professional level. My first contract was £16-a-week ($25 CAD), with half going to my parents. We now know what the outcome of that meeting was.

Sad part of this story was my friend Gary was let go after training for four years with Oldham. He went on to play at the semi-pro level, while I went on to play for three years with Oldham before moving on to Whitecaps FC. Being in the right place at the right time, luck coming your way is a reality when trying to make the game at the professional level. So when it happens, you have to be ready.