What happens when you are released as an 18-year-old and feel like your world has ended?
I’ve always been fascinated by the different journeys people go on after being dedicated to playing football for so long. The two years that are spent as a youth team player are often the best two years of your life. You leave school and it’s your first real taste of independence and a big couple of years in adulthood. For us we were now living our dream and were now being paid to play full-time football (Even if it was a minimal amount). I absolutely loved it. Back then it was brutal at times and a tough environment, but the bond you share with your fellow teammates is nothing like I have ever witnessed before. Two of the players were best men at my wedding and I had over ten of them with me on the day. We still have a Christmas get together after all these years and made memories in those two years together to last a lifetime.
I used to be incredibly narrow minded and only saw success as becoming a professional footballer. I look at some of these lads now and what they have gone on to achieve in other fields and feel incredibly proud. Youth team players all over the country will have their decisions soon and I just wanted to show them that success can come in so many different forms. Just because you may not make it as a professional and feel like your world has ended, doesn’t mean you cannot bounce back, whether that is in or out of football. During this blog I am going to show some of the journeys my ex-teammates went on and what they are up to now, I’m sure a few of them will surprise you!
*Images may appear slightly distorted when viewing on a mobile device
Robin Nicholls – Assistant Academy Manager at Southampton FC (@RobinNicholls)
After being released aged 18, Robin decided to leave home and was accepted to Bath University where he studied for a sports performance degree. Whilst at Bath, Robin continued to play football for Weymouth in the national league south. He also played for the University and maintained training full time. During his time at Bath he was also named ‘Head of sports recruitment’ where he would visit professional clubs and encourage players being released to apply for the University. After three years he graduated with a first class honours degree. He then faced a tough decision at the end of the three years. His performances in non-league had been spotted by league one club Bristol Rovers, but Robin had applied to continue his education in the USA on a scholarship in San Antonio and chose to persue the latter. He flew to Texas and studied for a degree in sports management and also played for the University soccer team, where he helped them reach a top 5 ranking across the USA. After completing his masters degree Robin was asked to become assistant manager of the mens soccer team. He was also playing in the third tier of American soccer with Corinthians FC. After returning to the UK, he began working in a restaurant whilst looking for the right opportunity, which soon came when Southampton FC recognised his credentials. Having been at Southampton for three years, he has progressed to assistant academy manager and is set for a big future. He is also still playing at a good level with AFC Totton. Robin is one of the most intelligent, dedicated people i know and someone i always go to for advice. A great friend as well as a great player, he has had some incredible life experiences after being released from Brentford. (middle row, far right)
Stephen Hendry – International Model & Business owner (@whoiselijah)
Stephen James as he is now known to most people, was released as an 18 year old by Brentford. After being released he had spells playing football abroad in Cyprus and Greece before being scouted by a modelling agency whilst in Barcelona. With over 2.4 million followers on Instagram and best known for his tattoos, he is now one of the most famous male models on the planet. Has modeled for Calvin Klein, Diesel, GQ amongst others. He also owns a barber & tattoo shop called ‘Elijah’ in Barcelona. Was a very talented winger with plenty of flair in our youth team and looked at one stage a player that would break through and go on to have a professional career. A Scotland U’18 international but struggled with injuries. Wasn’t afraid of being different and always did his own thing. Once remember him being sent home by first team manager Terry Butcher for wearing an Argentina shirt with Maradonna on the back… Terry Butcher was in the England side on the receiving end of the famous ‘hand of God’ incident. (Middle row, far left)
Thomas Duffy – Business owner (@Greenblades)
After being released aged 18, Tom went travelling and spent time in Africa and Asia. On his return to England he returned to Brentford and became assistant kit man, after having a brilliant relationship with kit man Dave Carter, who is sadly no longer with us. Tom carried on playing football for Kingstonion and most notably Hanwell Town where he also began working as a groundsman. After completing his level 3 in turf management he set up his own business, before taking a job as groundsman for Arsenal FC. Tom left Arsenal in 2017 to focus on his own business and now runs a successful company called GreenBlades. Still a very close friend of mine and my centre back partner in the youth team. (Bottom row, far left)
Lewis Ferrell – Semi-Professional footballer & Business owner (@ThinkSportLTD)
Signed a one-year professional contract with Brentford before being released aged 19. After this he carried on playing full time football with Hayes & Yeading United in the National League and then on to a successful non league career with the likes of Staines Town, Hampton & Richmond, Farnborough and currently Biggleswade Town. In 2015 he set up a sports coaching business called Think Sport in Hertfordshire & Bedfordshire. Now has a team of over 14 members of staff working in 16 primary schools. Also runs a grassroots football club which has created a pathway for players to join academy football. Signed as a right back from Stevenage and became a massive part of the group. He was Best man at my wedding, which says a lot about the bond we made during those youth team days. (Middle row, third from left)
Lloyd Anderson – Semi professional footballer & London Underground Authorised Person
Lloyd made his debut for Brentford whilst still a 17 year old as a substitute in a televised FA Cup game. Despite being in numerous squads as a youth team player, he wasn’t offered a professional contract and was released. After Brentford Lloyd continued playing in non-league for Dagenham & Redbridge, Bromley, Aveley and most recently Grays Athletic and began working as a painter & decorator (Which he said he hated every minute of). After a year of this Lloyd began working on the London Underground and has done numerous courses to become qualified to be a senior member of the London Underground staff and an authorised person. Lloyd was our number one and the hero in our youth cup run, when he scored and then saved a penalty in a sudden death shoot-out. In my opinion deserved a professional contract after making his first team debut at such a young age. Big, commanding keeper and another player who has become a top friend over the years. (Middle row, fourth from right)
Charlie Allen – Semi-Professional footballer & Account Lead (@CharlieAllen)
Charlie was released aged 18 and dropped into non-league football with Dagenham & Redbridge and Billericay Town before bouncing back and becoming a professional for Notts County. After spending a season at Notts County, he joined Gillingham, where he won the league 2 title. After two seasons with Gillingham he dropped back into non league with Margate and began to explore other interests. He began modelling for sports brands and also exploring travelling. He took a break from football and has worked at a Skiing resort as well as Ocean beach club in Ibiza (which came in handy on my stag do). Now back in England and playing semi-professionally for Cray Wanderers, he works as an account lead for recruitment firm Spencer Ogden. Charlie loved a tackle and was a very outgoing lad. Bounced back really well in football after being released and also explored lots of different avenues. (Bottom row, third from right)
Bilal Butt – England 6-aside international & business owner (@KB.Academy)
After being released aged 18 Bilal fell out of love with football and wanted to take time out. After a while he decided to get back involved in football but didn’t find non league 11 aside football enjoyable, so he began to play a lot of 5-aside football with friends and fell back in love with the game. After playing in local tournaments he was spotted and asked to represent England. He has gone on to represent the country in tournaments all around the world including Dubai, Brazil and South Africa. Now runs his own football academy in west London and has built the business up over the last three years. Bilal was extremely laid back but was a very good player. Technically very good and did a lot that other centre backs couldn’t do which suits him in small sided games. (Bottom row, second from right)
Ricky Valentine – TV Producer (@RickyValentine)
Having been at Brentford since the age of 11, Ricky was a player Brentford highlighted as a standout at a young age and a potential first team player. During a tackle aged 16 Ricky suffered a horrific injury when he tore has cartilage in his knee. Despite this he had shown enough in his previous years to be offered a scholarship. Having started being injured he came back to full fitness but it was another bad tackle and the injury reoccurred. Having been massively unlucky he was released at 18 and had a realisation that his future may not be in football. After leaving Brentford Ricky became a ‘runner’ at the BBC. He had seen a lot of people struggle in the job and he was starting at the bottom but felt his grounding in football made him capable of dealing with tough environments and big bosses. Ricky progressed quickly and became a researcher, assistant producer, DV director and has now been promoted to producer director where he also operates cameras. Ricky has worked in the TV industry for 10 years now on shows such as X-factor, Dancing on ice and the Late Late show with James Corden, to name a few. Ricky was a massive talent but one of the unluckiest players with injury i have seen. A real good centre back and another who is still a very good friend of mine.(Bottom row, third from left)
Lewis Ochoa – Personal Trainer & Disability Carer
Made his professional debut for Brentford aged 17 but was released within 6 months of this, still aged 17. After spending time at Wycombe Wanderers he went into non-league football with Maidenhead United. Lewis became a personal trainer aged 19 and went on to have spells with Harrow Borough and Hanwell Town before moving to Australia to play at state level with Altona City. Still residing in Australia he works at a disability care home as well as an instructor at F45 boot camps in Melbourne. Lewis was joint best man at my wedding and we have been best mates since we met aged 15. I can honestly say he was the best player we had and should have gone on to have a long career in the professional game. A central midfielder who was technically very gifted. Still hard to work out how he was released so young after making his debut for the club aged 17, but definitely would have benefited from having an U’23 set up and time to develop. (Top row, far left)
Adam Bernard – Singer/Actor (@AdamJBernard)
Adam was slightly older than our group but was kept on as a third year scholar. Released by the club just after turning 18, he then went into non league football with the likes of Maidenhead United and Marlow Town. Adam had a second passion which was performing arts. He studied drama, starred on the x-factor and appeared on TV show ‘Doctors’ before becoming a star in the west end. Won a Laurence Olivier Award for best supporting actor for his performance in Dreamgirls. A right winger in his youth team days. He Was always forced by players and staff to stand up in front of the group and show off his singing voice, no matter how reluctant he would be. (Absent for team photo)
Tom Davis – Recruitment Consultant (@TomDavis)
Came to the club from Stevenage but left Brentford as an 18 year old. Tom had spells in non-league with Hitchin Town, Potters Bar and Harlow Town but became frustrated at a lack of playing time being a young player in non-league and began work in retail. After retail Tom went on to become a bar manager and then a plumber. (Its a running joke that he changes career like the weather) Tom is now a successful recruitment officer working in London. A top striker at youth level at Brentford and is to this day one of my best friends. Was only at the club for one season but the boys absolutely loved him when he signed and was a big part in our youth cup success that season. (Middle row, third from right)
George Davis – Transport Manager
George was another who fell out of love with the game after failing to earn a professional contract at Brentford. His time at the club was hampered by injury and he stopped playing after being released. He began earning a living soon after in the waste industry and worked for Westminster Council. After 5 years without touching a football, he joined Hanwell Town, where a number of ex Brentford youth team players were playing their football. The club went on to win the Spartan South Premier league in 2014. George left Hanwell Town on a high and is now transport manager for a skip company. George was a technical midfielder who was signed by Brentford after being released by Watford. Was one of the stars of pre-season when he featured regularly for the first team but struggled with injury after that. One of the funniest lads we had in the team and a real good friend. (Middle row, second from the left)
Ryan Blake – Carpenter & working in the family business as a fencer
A northern Ireland U’21 international and signed a professional contract with Brentford aged 17 and made his league debut as an 18 year old. Was loaned out to Woking and Ebbsfleet in non-league before being released aged 20. He then signed a permanent deal with Ebbsfleet in the National league. After spells at Chertsey Town and Kingstonion, he fell out of love with football and says years of expectation and pressure had taken its toll. Now wanted to focus on his next stage in life, he completed a course in carpentry and is now working in his dads business where he is a fencer. Someone i still speak to and a great lad. A Brentford fan which made it even better for him when he made his debut in league 1 for the club. Very good left back and could run all day. (Middle row, fourth from left)
Darren Sarll – Yeovil Town Manager (@DarrenSarll)
Unbelievably he was only 25 years old when he became our youth team manager during the second year of our scholarship. After three years at Brentford he went on to head up the academy at Rotherham United before being named Head of youth at Stevenage. After being promoted to first team coach, Darren took over as caretaker manager before being named permanent first team manager in 2016. After saving the club from relegation, he took Stevenage to finishing 2 points outside of the playoffs in the following season before leaving the club in 2018. After going back into the academy set up at Watford, he became manager of Yeovil Town in 2019. A tough task master but one of the best coaches i worked with. As a team we had our fair share of tough days and plenty of highs and lows in that period but I feel a lot of the boys would have benefited from the club having an U’23 set up and being coached by him for another couple of years. Times were different then and if you weren’t ready to step in to the first team aged 18, you were let go. Personally did a lot for me during my playing days and we ended up working together again at Stevenage almost 10 years after those youth team days. (Bottom row, Middle)
The main purpose of this was to show young lads that success comes in lots of different forms. There are a million different pathways for players young and old and i wanted to highlight some of the different routes that my group took. All of these lads would have gone through tough times and would be willing to share any advice or tips to what has helped them over the years. I think its important for players to see evidence of life after football and the transferable skills you have as footballers that can be used in other industries. The best thing for me is that we have managed to stay such a close group after all these years and although not everyone went on to have a professional career, football brought us all together.
Thank you for reading.