MK Dons U16
My Journey to Professional Football first began at 14 whilst playing for MK Dons U16 under the mentorship of Dan Micciche, a modern, forward-thinking coach who put emphasis on the development of the individual. Dele Ali, Brendon Galloway, Seji Ojo, Kevin Danso and Callum Brittain are just a few successful players who I trained with and have relished under Dan Micchie’s guidance.
Despite the physical disparity between myself and other lads of my age, my technical ability, composure and intelligent defending resulted in impressive performances during my first U16 season. Much of my success at MK Dons can be attributed to the incredible Coaches I worked under. Paul Reed helped during my early development, James Nash worked closely with me on mental strength and personal well being and Eduardo Rubio helped develop a continental perspective of football. Their efforts, combined with the hard work and sacrifices I made during the early stages of my career soon paid dividends as I received my first England call up.
England Call Up
Amongst my fellow England teammates, I was the only player representing a club outside the Premier League. I made my England U16 debut in a 1-0 victory against Wales featuring for the final 20 minutes. I impressed enough to warrant a full debut in the final game of the Victory Shield against Scotland which was the first of 11 memorable appearances I made for England that season. The most memorable of which was against Portugal where I captained the England U16 side to a 1-0 win at the Montaigu Tournament in France.
1st Team Experience
My early success at international level ran parallel at Club level. At the beginning of March 2014, Carl Robinson (Ex MK Dons Manager) awarded me a place on the bench for 3 consecutive League 1 fixtures. Only 15 at the time, I gained invaluable experience training alongside and analyzing experienced professionals, the most noteworthy of which being Dele Ali. I recall watching on from the bench as the now Tottenham, and Senior England international scored his first professional Hattrick away to Notts County. Dele was a big role model for me and a tough opponent in training. Playing alongside Dele and other experienced professionals at 15 was great for my early development and progress towards professional football.
The 2013/14 season, from a footballing standpoint, was my most successful yet. However, I regard my academic achievements that year even higher.
- 1 A*^
- 6 A*s
- 3 A s
More than highlighting my academic ability, I am proud of my GCSE results because they challenge the stereotype that footballers lack intelligence. It also highlights that there is more to every footballer than what you see on the pitch and in the media. Despite my success in my GCSE’s, I was not going to stop there. I wanted to pursue further education and this became an important factor when deciding the next step of my journey.
VfB Stuttgart U17
On the 18th July 2014 aged 16, I made the decision to move to Germany and sign for VfB Stuttgart. A move, which at the time was rarely considered by young footballers. I left my family and friends for an environment with a new language, culture, and style of football. When people asked me, ‘why did you move to Germany?’. I answered: “I relish a challenge, and I saw Germany as an opportunity to develop on and off the pitch, personally and academically”.
Signing for VfB Stuttgart offered not only excellent training and facilities but the opportunity to complete the IB (International Baccalaureate), regarded as one of the most vigorous higher education courses around the world. This opportunity was not available in England. Completing my IB meant I remained in full-time education, studying 7 hours a day, 5 days a week at the International School of Stuttgart. My commitment to both my academic studies and football career meant I made a lot of sacrifices during my first two seasons in Stuttgart to ensure I maintained the high standards I set myself.
Successful 1st Season
During my 1st year in Germany, I worked under the supervision of Domenico Tedesco (former Schalke manager) and Andreas Hinkel (former VfB Stuttgart, Celtic and FC Freiburg professional footballer). Both were influential figures in helping me settle, develop and improve the tactical side of my game. We had an extremely successful season together finishing top of the U17 Southern Bundesliga above teams such as Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim. This meant we qualified as 1 of 4 teams across Germany to compete for the Deutscher Meisterschaft.
Meanwhile, in a new season with England U17, I continued to build on my 11 caps as I set my sights towards the U17 European Championships. I aimed to bring what I was learning in Germany to the National Team, offering a different footballing style and perspective. Memorable experiences included captaining England to a 4-3 victory over Italy, a nation which has close relations to me due to my Italian Heritage. However, my most memorable achievement during that season was my first England goal against Norway which helped to secure qualification for the U17 European Championship later that year.
The U17 European Championships was an invaluable experience, representing my country in high stake games and in front of big crowds. We topped our group, which featured Italy, Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. After a great start, we suffered a cruel defeat to Russia in the quarterfinal, putting a premature end to a promising campaign. However, the tournament would end on a positive note as we secured a spot at the U17 World cup after defeating Spain in a qualifying match.
U17 German Championship
Returning from International duty, my focus turned to the climax of my first season with VfB Stuttgart. The prospect of becoming German Champion was only 3 games away and after a commanding 3-1 victory over 2 legs against Hanover we were only 1 victory away. Sadly, defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the final cut our dreams short. Nonetheless, it marked the end of an incredible first year in Germany.
The proceeding summer, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an England FA coaching event “The Player is the Syllabus” to speak alongside MBE Kelly Smith about my first year in Germany. It was a privilege to deliver a small speech and answer questions about my experiences in front of hundreds of coaches.
VfB Stuttgart U19
Shortly after, my first season at U19 level with Stuttgart began. I played a CB role in a side which conceded only 17 goals in the league. A figure not matched by any other team in Germany. Alongside our defensive success, I made big developments tactically and technically. My range of passing improved and I felt more comfortable than ever before with the ball at my feet.
U17 World Cup
At international level, I made my 30th cap in a 2-0 win away to the Netherlands and was named in the 2015 U17 World Cup Squad in Chile. Despite what was a disappointing tournament for the team and individually, I would take away many invaluable experiences, including playing in a pre-tournament friendly against Chile in front of 10,000 vocal Chilean fans. Later that season I travelled to South Korea to play in a doubleheader, which added to my international footballing experiences.
The conclusion of my second Season in Germany also marked the end of my time at the International School of Stuttgart. In spite of missing months of school hours due to my footballing commitments, I achieved a commendable 34 points. Completing the IB was the hardest challenge I have ever faced. The spectrum of knowledge and amount of work the IB demands was exhausting. Balancing it alongside my footballing commitments was at times near impossible. Nevertheless, I met many incredible individuals, learned many invaluable life lessons, and ultimately achieved an accolade that will support me for life after football.
Ups and Downs
I took the momentum from last season into my third season at VfB Stuttgart and began preseason with the U23s. I felt comfortable at this level. However, whilst away at a training camp, I tore two ligaments in my ankle, putting a halt to my progress for the time being. It was the first time I had suffered an injury of that severity. Although I was fortunate to be out of action for only 10 weeks, I hated not being out on the pitch. I missed a concession of league fixtures at the start of the U19 season but made a successful return and was soon rewarded with a contract extension until 2019. Regular opportunities to train with the first team under Johannes Wolf followed and I was involved in friendly fixtures for the remainder of the season.
With no more School commitments during my third season at Stuttgart, I embarked on a new challenge. I began working closely on the physical aspects of my game to prepare for the following U23 season and men’s football. With the guidance of Wolfgang Unsold (world-renowned strength and conditioning coach) and implementing an exercise, nutrition and supplement plan, within 6 months my body fat dropped to 5% and I gained over 7kg of lean muscle mass. More importantly, I began to feel faster, stronger and mentally sharper than ever before.
In conjunction with this new challenge, I wanted to keep pushing myself mentally outside of football. I approached the International School of Stuttgart to discuss my options. Completing a university degree was a strong ambition of mine. However, due to the lack of flexibility and choice of English programmes at local universities, it would not be feasible alongside my football schedule. Although native courses were possible given my competent German ability, I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to succeed. In the end, I was offered the opportunity to tutor students at the school in Chemistry and Biology and I began promptly soon after. It gave me a great sense of fulfilment to give back to the school which did so much to help me during my time there. I tutored students for the remaining duration of my time at Stuttgart and attained more than 100 hours of 1 to1 tuition.
VfB Stuttgart U23
An Early Introduction
As my third season came to a close, I made my debut for the U23 against Waldorf Manheim in Germany’s fourth tier of professional football. After a slightly nervy start, I grew into the game and almost scored a memorable debut goal, glancing a header narrowly wide of the far post. The game ended in a cruel 1-0 defeat, but nonetheless, at 19 it was my first taste of men’s football and a reminder of why I moved to Germany.
Men’s football became the norm as I entered the U23 the following Season. It was a chance to prove myself against young aspiring footballers playing for their respective U23 sides but also against experienced professionals who had played at the highest level.
My manager for that season was Andreas Hinkel, who had previously worked with me in my successful 1st season in Germany. Aware of my technical ability, game understanding, and versatility he played me in a wide midfield role in a 4-4-2 diamond. Despite having played in midfield before, it took a good succession of games before I was fulfilling my vision of how to play that role. However, injuries would intervene and disrupt my rhythm up until the new year. As a result, I made just 15 appearances that season. In hindsight, I probably demanded too much from myself given the new role. Nevertheless, there was a lot to be proud of. Playing in midfield meant I widened my understanding of the game and adapted to the different technical and defensive demands of the role.
The season ended with a nomination for the “Tutto Sports Top 100 U21 Players”, won eventually by Kylian Mbappé.
On the 31st of January 2019, I made the decision to leave VfB Stuttgart. The decision was not easy given the successful 4 years I had at the club. However, with their agreement, it was best for my continued development and path in professional football. I will be forever grateful of all the staff and players at VfB Stuttgart for welcoming me to Germany and helping me develop into the player/person I am today. I made many unforgettable memories and had many unbelievable experiences, all which I will remember for a lifetime.
Back in the UK
On the 1st of July 2019, I signed for Colchester United. The move was driven by my will to play and train amongst men in a 1st team environment which facilitated the development and trust in young professionals. Colchester United ticked all these boxes.