The Most Wanted Footballers in England

“The rain may be coming down but keep your heads up boys,” booms out the voice across the astroturf pitch as a group of young men trudge towards the goal at one end of the pitch. Except this goal is a little different from the type you’d normally expect on an inner-city rubber crumb pitch – it’s full size with a training ground dummy in the middle, while there are extra posts to shape out four corners on the net. Behind these are the numbers 10 for the top left and right hand corners, while the bottom corners have the number 5 behind them.

Welcome, then, to the world of Nike’s Most Wanted, a scheme that aims to find 22 of the country’s best as-yet undiscovered players, casting the net from parks to semi-professional level.

The nationwide search

The sports manufacturer has been running the scheme around the country over the summer, taking the sessions around Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Glasgow, Newcastle and London, among others. Anybody can register to turn up but Nike also invite several amateur and semi-pro players along. These players will have come to the company’s attention through their network of contacts at grassroots level, often released from Premier League academies in their teens. Nike considers these players good enough to still make the grade and much of Most Wanted is about putting these players back in front of the scouts.

The first sign that the kickaround on the astroturf in a less-than-attractive part of Islington isn’t your usual set of five-a-side games comes with the banners that adorn every side of the pitch. Along with giant swooshes everywhere, Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard’s faces stare down at the 188 hopefuls. By lunchtime they’ll have been whittled down to just 30. At the end of the day, just two will go through, joining twenty others for a coaching session with Sir Alex Ferguson and Liverpool legend Ian Rush.

“We’re not promising these guys a pro contract,” says Nike’s Event Co-ordinator Ben Loney. “But it’s the chance to give them a day, maybe more, of the professional experience. It’s also a chance to get the players back into the game.”

Success stories

Loney, who oversees the Most Wanted days, has already had a few success stories. “There was this young kid who’d been released by Liverpool. He’d not kicked a ball for three years but saw his mates from the academy starting to push for first team places, so he signed up to our event and our coaches spotted he had something special. We’ve placed him with Southport for the time being – it’s a chance for him to get his fitness and touch back, but he’s certainly got what it takes.”

It’s no wonder several teams from Premiership downwards have sent scouts along. The whole setup of the day is professional, from the tests to evaluate the skill levels of the players through to the coaching staff, who include David Dodds from the Watford Academy and Corey Donaghue from Leyton Orient’s staff.

The wannabe stars of the future are put through a grueling regime as soon as they arrive. There’s coaching sessions on one pitch led by Dodds and a couple of other UEFA A badge holders that look both challenging and intensive. On the other astroturf pitch are five different skill assessments, including shooting – the aforementioned specially designed goals that see points awarded if you can hit the top or bottom corners.

In addition to this there’s speed – a slalom course designed with the help of Gabriel Abonglahor that sees the players weave their way through, with ball attached to feet, in the quickest time possible. There’s also passing, which sees the men trying to fire footballs at differently positioned circular nets, and mental agility – a test involving dummies and traffic lights that confuses the hell out of me and, judging by their reactions, a fair few of the players.

The final challenge, not including the hellish bleep test, is control, which involves players having to control and return balls being thrown at them from all directions. When we arrive, a small Asian boy expertly deals with ten balls. The next players is a gangly lad who can’t trap a ball if his life depended on it and sees at least one ball fly off after bouncing off his knee.

Hopefuls – young and old

“It’s a lot harder than it seems,” says 16-year-old Rohit Rona from Hounslow. He’s just successfully hit a couple of balls into the top corner in the shooting test, and seen another couple of balls bounce off the post.

But Rohit’s not one of those players who’ve been released from an academy at a young age. “I just like to play as much as I can,” says the youngster. “I thought it’d be fun and I’ll take it as far as it goes. I’m not sure what’ll happen, the standard here is pretty high. I might look for a club at the end of it.”

Rohit’s relaxed attitude is in contrast to Adam Thomas. The 25-year-old from Hammersmith is one of the older players at Most Wanted and, astonishingly, has only just started playing football, having initially trained as a tennis player before having to give up the sport due to a shoulder injury. But Adam kept up his fitness and “missed the competitiveness of sport” so just over a year ago he decided to strike out as a semi-pro. Until recently, he was training with Ilford and has played for a host of other non-league clubs.

The Londoner attended the Liverpool trial the week before and came close to making the final two, helped in no small part by doing the bleep test in 16.10, which is better than many professional footballers.

“I’ve made a few contacts in the game and I’ve always kept myself fit,” he says.”I’ve been getting in shape and decided to sign up for this. I’m hoping to get to know a few scouts and get picked up.”

Sadly for Adam, today proves another near miss as he finishes joint third on the leaderboard, but he retains a hope he’s done enough for a league scout to take a chance on him. Rohit finishes halfway down the back in 98th and doesn’t get called back for the afternoon session.

But Adam and Rohit are perfect examples of the range of ages, experience and abilities on show during the day and there’s no guarantee for either of them that, come lunchtime, they’ll be in the 30 who’ll come back for a game and more coaching in the afternoon – those will be the top 25 on the leaderboard after the morning of skills, plus 5 wildcards. Many of those will have already had experience at a higher level – we’re told one player has already played for Portsmouth reserves.

But with Championship and League One scouts also in attendance, not to mention Nike’s connections with many non-league sides, it’s a second chance for a lot of these players. It may be easy to be cynical about this event and there may be no guarantee of glory at the end of it but it’s an opportunity most players wouldn’t ordinarily have got, and it shows Nike’s commitment to the grassroots and non-league side of the game that many lower-level teams get tipped off towards the more talented players.

But for some it’s simply an opportunity to evaluate their skills under the watchful eye of a professional coach, even if the never get anywhere near the professional game. In the park across the road, a group of teenagers are playing with rucksacks for goalposts. Judging by the enthusiasm on display on the astroturf, you suspect that many of the 150 in Islington on this wet Sunday would be happy to play football, be it in the Premier League or their local park.

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