Trial of nerves

Premiership superstars swap cubs for millions but down in the lower divisions the picture is rather different. Tom Findlay reports from the twilight world of pre-season trialists

In the summer months, when football is supposed to take a break, thousands of ‘free agents’ trawl around the smaller playing fields of England desperate to find a club. Loanees, refugees and YTSs trying to fulfil their dream. It’s not a pretty business. Cambridge United, who have spent the last two seasons bobbing round the nether regions of Division 3, played some twenty games through August featuring a small army of trialists. The first game of the shopping season featured 22 players the club had never seen before – none survived.

Quite simply, with almost no money available for players wages and none for fees, Cambridge will give anyone a game. As local journalist, Trevor Lord, explained: “Trying everyone and anyone becomes a pain, but you’re frightened to death that you might miss someone.” Who knows, he might be the next Ian Wright – a famous late-starter in football. In fact Cambridge really aren’t that choosy – the next Iain Dowie would do.

Down in Billericay, the Essex commuter town, Cambridge have come to play the latest in their warm-up games – their sixth this week. Tommy Taylor will expect to beat the local ICIS League side with their mix of local lads and seasoned former pros.

On a brilliant August day the club fielded an extraordinary line up of footballing wannabes: Billy Hudson, once of Tottenham, Crewe and Crawley and nephew of Alan; a Czech, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Spirov; Brixton’s Franklyn Dixon; and a man who’d played England just three months before, Otis Roberts, once of the Hong Kong Select XI and for twenty gruesome minutes a Cambridge United player: aged pros, cocky youths and exotic internationals all chasing Cambridge’s £200 per week. Sasha Spirov turns up half an hour before kick off. He claims to be a former Czech U-21 keeper, who played with Peter Kouba (“he was my understudy”). After military service, Spirov is now importing pink sparkling wines into the UK, living in Croydon and using his “friends and business partners” to get him a club in England. He warms up in his Pavel gear – dark tracksuit tucked neatly into his socks – bouncing and rolling, Grobbelaar-fashion.

He’s given the first half – though no-one realizes who he is or what he can do – least of all Tommy Taylor. Still, there is a buzz on the sidelines: it’s a good time to be a footballing Czech. A couple of skidding kicks, one fine save and a floodlit threatening throw later, his half and his Cambridge career is over.

Tommy Taylor is not impressed, and it is clear that Sasha has some pretty radical work to do on his distribution. Sasha’s response to his first and last half with the Amber Army: “I need to know every people, every man, what they like, what they want, what they are doing, which are their names – it’s very difficult.” Hard to imagine Shearer talking about his debut like that.

Others starting their careers have found out a bit about marketing and self-promotion. Franklyn Dixon, a 20 year old striker, has adopted Chris Bailey as his ‘advisor’. Bailey, who is currently performing a similar role for Dalian Atkinson, is also a writer and producer of Manchester United’s FA Cup songs and retains an infectious confidence: “I’ve got a bit of a name, I’ve got a network of managers,” he confides, adding: “This lad’s the first person to score 6 goals for Crystal Palace in one game since 1933.” He then blows it all by confessing the opponents were Croydon in the FA Youth Cup. As for his pedigree: “He’s better at his age than Dalian Atkinson was.” On Franklyn Dixon’s first half showing, he wouldn’t look too good in a head-to-head with Jason Lee. But with the connected Bailey on his side, Dixon will at least have enough opportunities to try and shine.

Apart from those trying to make their first mark, these desperate exhibitions are full of names you nearly remember. Every year, every League club releases an average of ten players – very few others choose to leave. The result is thousands of former pros trying to get reconnected at the end of every season. The axed player has to fill in a ‘disengaged player’s card’ (a pink form full of statistics), which is circulated round the country and to a number of lesser clubs abroad.

The PFA are also able to offer professional advice, some personal counselling and, in many cases, a great deal of practical help. Currently their education department has just under 1,000 former pros and over 1,500 former YTS players taking on a wide range of courses – NVQs in Leisure Management, working HGV licences, or just learning a bit of basic financial awareness.

Alex Dyer, once of Watford, Blackpool, Crystal Palace and Charlton, is one of football’s definitive journeymen. Three years ago, he turned down a new contract with Barnet, hoping to return to a higher level. He is a free agent, who, with just two weeks until the new season, is getting more than a little anxious. The expected offers from the Nationwide League’s bigger clubs never came, and with his pink form doing the rounds he’s been “waiting all summer, just waiting for the phone to ring”. For a man who moved to Palace for £250,000, it’s hard to step back into such an atavistic arena: “It’s tough when you’ve played over 400 games and someone takes you on a trial down here like you’ve just come out of school – that’s the most heartbreaking thing about it.” Dyer has no security, no contract – a highly-talented player now reliant on the opinion of an unproven Third Division manager. If asked, he will probably sign for a basic wage of some £250 a week.

Football is different from any other part of the entertainment industry. Everybody would love to do it, but so few can, and the majority of those struggle on for very little reward. Tommy Taylor has less than £1,000 a week in total to spend on wages for his two or three signings.

Paul de Luca, a local trialist with a degree in ‘Hospitality Management’ that strikes awe into his colleagues, spent three months at Lincoln with John Beck: “He was really complimentary . . . over complimentary really, in fact he told me that I had the best left foot that he had ever seen.” But after a brief, if hardly headline-grabbing, tug-of-war between Lincoln and Cambridge, neither manager wanted him: “You get to the stage when you think, for God’s sake just speak the truth.”

Keith Oliver, a 20-year-old axed from Hartlepool, looks better than all his short-term team mates, but he’s a midfielder and United have loads of them. He’s left without a club, and worse still the prospect of pursuing a career in Sweden – “where everyone forgets you”.

The PFA can only do their best, but there is no formalized system in place that would support players as they look for work. Against this background Shearer’s £15 million, or even Mike Newell’s £750,000, looks more than a bit obscene. Lacking professional representation the vast majority of trialists rely on tenuous connections, the ‘good men’ of football, and a huge dose of luck. And if it all fails? In the words of Billy Hudson: “If nothing’s happening, I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

From WSC 116 October 1996. What was happening this month