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Irish Hammer 9:16 Mon Sep 6
Article about Soldier A, Professional Footballer.
This ones a bit from left field lads ! NS will like it though :)

I enjoyed it, something different I suppose.

Soldier A: From professional footballer to Royal Marine Commando

The wall behind Soldier A is completely bare, except for a dartboard over his shoulder. He is based somewhere down south. In a week or so, he is due to be deployed abroad with a group of his colleagues.

There is a reason for the non-disclosure of specific details and his nondescript backdrop.

In November, Soldier A passed out as a Royal Marines Commando, making the grade after 32 weeks of training. He is speaking to The Athletic from the military base where he is stationed. Being a marine is like living as a sportsperson, he jokes — minus the massages, the nutritional supplements and the physios on tap.

“You need the stamina of a professional athlete,” Soldier A says, “but when you perform as a marine, you’re performing to a certain level while you’re cold, wet, lacking sleep and when you’ve maybe not eaten for a while. In football, I was used to the physios and the massages, all of that stuff. In the marines, you’re sleeping in a wood block and surviving on rations. It’s a big contrast.”

His qualification course started with what people in the forces call “shock of capture”; the early days where you step off the train and into military life. Beds must be made a certain way. Clothes ironed a certain way. Rules are rules and recruits are stripped down, ready to be rebuilt the way the marines need them to be. Soldier A had days when he wondered if he would come out the other end — “I think everyone goes through that” — but he talks about his new career infectiously.

Is it in any way enjoyable, suffering the cold, the wet and the lack of sleep? “Massively,” he says. “I’m doing something that means something. It’s a fresh start and it’s done me the world of good.”

In his previous life, he was a professional footballer who made national headlines before he had kicked a ball for any first team of note. He was the teenager who, around 2012, became a focus of attention at Leeds United, the prospect richer clubs (of which there were many) fought to poach. His is a tale of hype, European adventures, severe illness and latterly, a complete change of direction.

At the end of his interview, it makes sense to hear him speaking about starting “a second life”.

A career in the military has always appealed to Soldier A, even while football was doing its best to seduce him.

When he applied to join the marines, he made the conscious decision to cut himself off from most of the world. “Nobody knows I’m in the military, apart from my family and a few close friends,” he says. “I literally dropped off the face of the earth when I decided to do this.

“I came off all social media — Twitter, Facebook. I’ve got none of that and it’s quite refreshing. Because of COVID-19, people weren’t really able to come to my passing out, so it’s been a bit like one big secret. It does feel a bit like I’ve had two lives.”

Soldier A, who grew up near Huddersfield, was back in Leeds a fortnight ago and bumped into Ben Parker, a former Leeds team-mate. Parker is a little older than Soldier A and Soldier A remembers him as someone who made the effort to look after him. Soldier A needed guidance. He was barely 15 when he trained with Leeds’ senior squad for the first time and marginally older when he started receiving offers to sign for other clubs.

Parker took a while to recognise a changed and grown-up Soldier A, not least because of his Commando physique. Parker took part in a charity walk for Prostate Cancer UK earlier this week and got chatting to me about Soldier A. Was Soldier A a good player? Or really that good? “Oh, yeah,” Parker says. “He honestly was. He was one of the academy players people talked about.”

Soldier A has not forgotten the hype either. He was a kid who could play anywhere across the back four and further forward too. In his head, at 14 or 15 he was as good as any other prospect in England. “That’s not me being unrealistic,” he says. “I was good at knowing where I was at and I’ll admit that, further down the line, I wasn’t anywhere near as good as other players. But when I was 14 or 15 (Soldier A was capped by England Under-16s, so mixed with the elite in that age group), I’d compare myself and feel like I was as good as anyone.” The question he asks himself is not whether the hype around him was too intense but whether or not he received the right advice.

Manchester United liked Soldier A and tried to sign him. Everton got involved too. Barcelona stepped in and asked to take him on trial, a carrot he could not resist. The decision to head to Catalonia would ultimately lead to a permanent transfer to Atletico Madrid. In Leeds, Soldier A was virtually unknown beyond the confines of Thorp Arch but before long he was appearing in the sports pages, the young sensation other teams were striving to pinch. And gradually the temptations grew.

“There are so many moving parts at a time like that, so much going on, so it’s difficult to say if leaving was the wrong decision,” Soldier A says. “With hindsight, I probably know that the most enjoyable part of my career was my time at Leeds. That would be true. But there was turbulence there and you know what it’s like. You can get your head turned.

“What I’d say is that I went to very big clubs with poor guidance. My agent at the time, I don’t know if he necessarily had my best interests at heart. But what do you do? Do you say ‘No’ when Barcelona ask you to go on trial?”

At 17, he bit the bullet and went to Catalonia. Leeds were digging their heels in over compensation but were long since past the point of thinking they could convince Soldier A to stay. “That was Barcelona at their absolute best, Guardiola’s Barcelona,” he says. “It was phenomenal to be there and I felt like I was in with players who were on the same sort of wavelength with me. I didn’t feel it was a step too far. I thought I was good enough.”

During his trial, he played for Barcelona in a tournament in Madrid involving Corinthians from Brazil, Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Atletico. His performance against the latter sowed the seed of his transfer to the Vicente Calderon Stadium in 2012. A picture taken of him on the day he signed shows him holding an Atletico shirt, looking incredibly young. He trained regularly with the first team, in a squad featuring Radamel Falcao. “He was so good at that stage that any type of ball you put into the box, he was sticking in the net,” Soldier A says. “He was absolutely sensational, right at his peak.”

If the football made him happy, life in Spain generally was harder to cope with. He was isolated and, looking back, he feels that promises about the support he would receive — about the visits he would have from members of his family or the number of times he would be able to fly back to England — were not kept. He tried hard to learn Spanish but found Madrid, as a city, was intolerant of his inability to immediately speak it fluently.

“Personal support was a massive issue for me,” he says. “Spain was a pretty lonely time. It was fantastic on the football side but the network I needed, that I should have had — it wasn’t there. Barcelona was quite a multi-cultural city. Madrid was much more traditional. I’d go into shops there and be struggling to find things. Even though they knew I couldn’t really speak Spanish, they’d refuse to speak any English with me.

“I kind of understood that — you’re in someone else’s country and you should try and speak their language. It made me work hard to learn, so in that respect it was a good thing. But on days when you need a little help, when you’re a kid on your own, it was tough.”

Soldier A thinks the stress of that period contributed to what happened next and, in effect, contributed to the premature end of his career (or at the very least, his chances of having one at a very high level). After playing for Atletico’s reserve sides, he was sent on loan to Scotland, joining Rangers in the summer of 2012. It struck him as a good move but, unknown to Soldier A, he had contracted the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) — an acute form of glandular fever.

It was three years before he would play properly again.

The mistake Soldier A made was thinking he had nothing more than a little bout of flu. He was back home in Yorkshire before the start of the 2012-13 season and, despite feeling poorly, carried on with his fitness work. “I was thinking I’d get through it in a few weeks,” he says. “But I started to deteriorate quickly. I kept pushing myself because I didn’t think it was a problem. My immune system just didn’t know what to do.”

That transfer to Rangers was a wash-out. Soldier A did not play one game and after a couple of training sessions, he collapsed. He was hospitalised and spent two months in a wheelchair, chronically fatigued. “I’d gone from the pinnacle of my fitness at Atletico to being in a wheelchair in no time at all,” he says. “The mental impact was really hard. I don’t dwell on it but I know that if it hadn’t been for the glandular fever, I’d have been at Atletico far longer. You can’t say for sure but I might still be there because I thought I was doing well.”

When discussions about a contract extension came around, he and Atletico decided to go their separate ways. EBV was affecting his coordination and his digestion, and it took a while for specialists to provide an accurate diagnosis. He was out of the game for 18 months and when it came to finding a new club, he had the problem of convincing them that he was likely to make a full recovery. Very few wanted to touch him but in 2014 he was signed by Hull City, then in the Premier League with Steve Bruce as manager.

“On paper, it was a great move,” he says, “but I went there too early. I wasn’t ready. They liked what they saw of me but I’d play in a game and be knackered for a couple of days afterwards. That’s what chronic fatigue syndrome does to you.”

When he looks back, Soldier A says it was only when he linked up with Salford City, then a non-League side, in 2015 that he felt as if EBV was no longer affecting him. “With something like glandular fever, you can never be sure if you’ll fully recover,” he says. “Some people never do.”

Passing the entrance process for the Royal Marines Commandos is probably the best test of that? “Yes,” he laughs. “It’s one way to find out.”

Throughout his early 20s, Soldier A wanted his playing career to start up again. He went to Norway in 2017 and joined Sandefjord. It was a happy spell but short-lived. His partner at the time fell pregnant and Soldier A became a father. Sandefjord were unable to organise Norwegian residency for his family, so he left and returned to England. The timing was unfortunate. Most Football League clubs were already fixed for a right-back, the position Soldier A was playing in, and he had very few options.

Then out of the blue, he received a message on LinkedIn.

“It was from the CEO of Billericay Town,” he says. “I didn’t know what to make of it because I didn’t really know who Billericay Town were, but he told me the owner there was interested in signing me. He said they were going to sign Paul Konchesky, Jamie O’Hara and Jermaine Pennant too. It was made to sound like a big project.

“I told him, ‘Listen, I’m not sure. I’m not sure I want to do this’.’ I was dropping down from the Norwegian top flight (Billericay were in the Ryman Premier, the seventh tier of English football) but he asked me to look at the offer and seriously, it was ridiculous. After tax, I was taking home about three grand a week. I think Pennant was on eight grand a week. I’ve read a few newspaper articles talking about how crazy it was but the figures they wrote about were lower than what I was actually getting. The real numbers were higher.

“Obviously, to begin with, we were just battering teams. Then a few weeks later, the owner took me, Konchesky and Pennant into one of the changing rooms and told us he needed us to take a pay cut. We had contracts and we told him the only reason we’d signed was because of what he was offering. It all escalated and it all got silly but they paid me out eventually. I took legal action and we settled. Totally bizarre.”

In its own way, it was a line in the sand.

For most of his adult life, Soldier A had been friends with Floyd Woodrow, a performance coach who’d served in the SAS.

Woodrow knew Soldier A liked the idea of joining the military and, when the dalliance with Billericay ended, told him he should consider it.

Soldier A listened to him and took the plunge. He became an army reservist and then transferred to Royal Marines full time. In the months that followed, he began thinking about moving into the Future Commando Force and littoral-strikes field that the Royal Marines occupied; to embrace the shock of capture. “It was the right time to take a leap of faith,” he says.

As he talks, Soldier A looks and sounds enthused.

The military has been good for him, an environment where past adversity is useful to draw on. He does not use social media, bar messaging services WhatsApp and Signal. He is comfortable in his own regimented bubble. He can’t bring himself to regret much about his career in football because at this stage, what point is there in stewing on it?

“I enjoyed aspects of it,” he says. “But there were things that went on behind the scenes that didn’t make me happy — all the politics. I wouldn’t say I’d fallen out of love with football totally but there was something in life that was better for me. That started to make sense.

“In football, you talk all the time about a team environment where everyone supports each other and it can look like that on the surface. But below the surface? I’m not so sure. Not always.

“I need something else, and I feel like I’ve found it.”

Replies - Newest Posts First (Show In Chronological Order)

Thanks Irish 7:34 Thu Sep 9
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Thanks Irish

epsom 6:53 Thu Sep 9
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Thanks Irish

riosleftsock 3:57 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.

Not sure how you find these, but keep them coming. You have an eye for a good story.

Moncurs Putting Iron 3:18 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Good article, interesting.

As some have said the mystique was, to a certain extent artistic licence, not Security necessity but times have changed and soldiers are encouraged to keep a low profile in daily life.

When I was kid you fatigues being worn into town (Colchester) was common occurance as those from the garrison went about their daily business, now it is extremely rare.

chim chim cha boo 3:04 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Thanks Irish.

bruuuno 2:09 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
How refreshing. As well as the reasons you describe ludo I think this would give them an edge in terms of mental resilience, so vital in the armed forces

ludo21 1:32 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
cholo, bruuuno... I think you'll find that the vast majority of Royal Marines keep a very low profile on social media. 70-80% of them attempt SF selection at some stage (though only a small percentage succeed) and the last thing they want is the world knowing who they are / what they do.

bruuuno 9:06 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Interesting to hear he spurns social media, highly unusual for someone his age

cholo 8:55 Tue Sep 7
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
I think the writer hid the man's identity to add a bit of mystique, he's in the royal marines not mi6 or special forces.

Crassus 11:39 Mon Sep 6
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Another good article that mate

Steady 11:24 Mon Sep 6
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
That was a good read Irish

mallard 10:00 Mon Sep 6
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Yes, I was thinking the same - why call him Soldier A but leave ridiculous clues.

Thanks Irish

slartibartfast 9:30 Mon Sep 6
Re: Article about Solider A, Professional Footballer.
Thanks Irish.

Not much anonymity given how many clubs were mentioned ...


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