Not every professional footballer comes directly through an academy. There are so many different routes into professional football, and everyone tells their own story. Everyone is unique, as is their journey to the top. This article looks at several different football players and how they made it to where they are today. With Ollie Watkins recently ‘fulfilling his dream’ of scoring for England, we look at his path to glory and how his story compares to others. The stories below have been categorised into similar pathways; however, it is vital we remember that everyone has their own story. Each pathway below has one main person for focus and three further similar stories.  

Football league pathway

Not all players naturally come through their academy straight into professional football. The Football league pyramid in England allows for great progression through the leagues. Because of this, so many players have climbed the ladder to becoming full international and premier league stars. Resilience, dedication, and hard work is what allows these players to flourish despite the setbacks they may have faced.

Ollie Watkins

  • Born in Newton Abbot
  • Joined Exeter U11, signed professionally for Exeter in league two when he was 19.
  • Frequent sub in 2014/15 but could not get a game so left on loan for Weston-super-mare in conference south.
  • Failed to be named in a squad for first few months back at Exeter, finally broke into the starting 11 by the end of the 2015/16 season.
  • First team regular 2016/17 aged 21 and won EFL young player of the year that season, however lost the League two playoff final.
  • Aged 22 he made a permanent transfer to Brentford in the championship. For the second time in his Career, Watkins lost the play off final.
  • Summer 2020, Watkins signed for Villa for a reported club record fee of 28million.
  • Scored a perfect hattrick against reigning champions Liverpool. Scored 10 goals in 28 appearances so far this season.
  • Called up to England in March 2021 for his good form shown. Watkins had never played for England at youth level.
  • Watkins came on as a second half substitute for England against San Marino, and ‘completed his dream’ of scoring for England on his debut.

Jamie Vardy

  • Released at Sheffield Wednesday aged 16.
  • Stocksbridge park steels – Halifax – Fleetwood – Leicester city
  • Has made 26 appearances for England scoring 7 goals.

Andy Robertson

  • Released by Celtic aged 15.
  • Queens Park – Dundee United – Hull city – Liverpool
  • Has made 42 appearances for Scotland and captains the side.

Tyrone Mings

  • Released by Southampton aged 16.
  • Yate town – Chippenham Town – Ipswich town – AFC Bournemouth – Villa
  • Has made 8 appearances for England thus far.

Top academy pathway

Despite not all players coming directly from their academy, some players are fortunate to do so. A select number of players grow through their academies and have the ‘typical’ journey to the first team. Modesty, patience and determination are key skills these players show to get to the top.

Phil Foden

  • Joined Manchester city aged 8.
  • Signing his academy scholarship in 2016.
  • December 2016 he was named as an unused sub in the champions league.
  • July 2017 Foden was included in a pre-season tour and performed well getting a few appearances.
  • Made his official debut in November 2017, becoming the fourth youngest Englishmen to make an appearance in the champions league.
  • December 2017 Foden became the youngest English player to start a champions league match.
  • Premier league debut also came in December 2017.
  • In May 2018 Foden became the youngest ever player to receive a premier league winners medal.
  • Over the consequent years Foden’s appearances for city have increased at a gradual pace, with him now being a key part of the first team squad, regularly starting big matches.
  • Internationally Foden has played at every youth level for England, winning the U17 world cup and being named player of the tournament.
  • August 2020 Foden was named in the senior England squad. He made his international debut against Iceland in September aged 20.

Trent Alexander-Arnold

  • Joined Liverpool aged 6.
  • Captained the sides at U16 and 18 level.
  • Converted from a winger to a full back as it was his clearest path to the first team.
  • 120 appearances for Liverpool, 12 for England.

Marcus Rashford

  • Joined united aged 7.
  • Youngest player to ever be selected for United’s scholar scheme, aged 11.
  • Injury crisis led to his debut, took his chance.
  • 171 appearances (53 goals) for Man U, 40 (11 goals) for England.

Harry Kane

  • Released by Arsenal aged 9.
  • Aged 11 signed for Watford. Before signing for Spurs after impressing.
  • Went out on loan to numerous clubs (Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich, Leicester)
  • Two premier league golden boots, one world cup golden boot.
  • 234 appearances (160 goals) for Spurs, 52 (33 goals) for England.

Club Movement Pathway

Some players will have to move about to make it as a professional. Often certain clubs are not a perfect fit and players must move around to find what club suits them. Resilience is key for these players to keep battling despite moving around. Some players may also leave their boyhood clubs to move onto bigger and better things, ambition and drive is what leads these players forward.

Patrick Bamford

  • Signed for Nottingham forest youth aged 8.
  • 2012 aged 19 signed for Chelsea for 1.5million.
  • Bamford was loaned to numerous clubs at his time at Chelsea, never breaking into the first team. Bamford did spells at; MK dons, Derby, Middlesbrough, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Burnley.
  • Bamford rejoined premier league Middlesbrough in 2017 on a permanent deal worth 5.5 million.
  • Due to an injury to Rudy Gestede Bamford was moved to a lone striker role and flourished.
  • In 2018, Bamford signed for Leeds United for a reported 7 million pounds.
  • Bamford suffered a cruciate ligament injury at the start of the 2018/19 season putting him out for 4 months. After a difficult season including suspension and injury Bamford lost the play off semi-final with Leeds.
  • Leeds reached promotion to the premier league the following season with Bamford as their main striker netting 16 goals.
  • Bamford scored his first premier league hattrick against Aston Villa, and currently sits as 4th top goal scorer in the league with 14 goals.
  • Bamford is yet to be called up for the England senior squad but has represented England from U18 level.

Rhian Brewster

  • Played for Chelsea at youth level from U8-14 when he left to join rivals Liverpool.
  • Was loaned out at Swansea for 6 months, scoring 10 in 20 in the championship.
  • Signed a permanent deal with Sheffield United, reportedly worth 23.5 million.

Adam Lallana

  • Joined Southampton aged 12 and progressed all the way to captaining the first team.
  • Left his boyhood club for Liverpool in reported 25 million transfer.
  • Left Liverpool for Brighton after 5 years at Liverpool.
  • Lallana made 34 appearances for England.

Ethan Ampadu

  • Joined Exeter aged 8 and became their youngest ever player aged 15.
  • Signed for Chelsea aged 16. Ampadu has so far made sporadic appearances for Chelsea in between loans at different clubs.
  • Ampadu went abroad to play for RB Leipzig and is now currently on loan at Sheffield United.
  • Ampadu has made 22 appearances for Wales and debuted aged 17.

Going abroad

Sometimes the English pyramid is not quite right for some players. Confident and resilient players often search abroad for better opportunities to flourish. Experiencing a new culture and different styles can often help a player develop their skills. Bravery, confidence and communication are key skills for anyone plying their trade abroad.

Jadon Sancho

  • Joined Watford aged 7, before moving to Manchester city aged 14.
  • Sancho was omitted from the club’s pre-season tour aged 17 and began to engineer a move away from Manchester City.
  • Sancho joined Borussia Dortmund for a reported 8 million pounds.
  • Sancho was immediately included in the first team at Dortmund, making 12 appearances in his first season.
  • By the following season Sancho was a regular starter, playing 34 games for the club. He was named in the Bundesliga team of the season at the age of just 19.
  • Sancho scored 12 goals and provided 14 assists in a remarkable second season at the club.
  • Sancho played for England at numerous youth levels and made his debut for the senior team aged 18.
  • Sancho has made 99 appearances for Dortmund, scoring 36 goals, and assisting 43.
  • Sancho has made 18 appearances for England as of now.

Rabbi Matondo

  • Raised in Tremorfa, Cardiff, Rabbi played for Cardiff at youth level before transferring to Manchester City aged 16.
  • Rabbi never made an appearance for Manchester City and moved to Schalke to attempt to gain game time. Which in the following seasons he achieved.
  • Rabbi is spending the end of the 20/21 season on loan at Stoke City.
  • Rabbi has made 8 appearances for Wales at time of writing.

Reiss Nelson

  • Reiss played for Arsenal from the age of 9, signing professionally on his 17th birthday.
  • After struggling to break into the arsenal first team, Nelson went on loan to Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. Playing 23 times and scoring 7 goals at the club.
  • Reiss has since returned to Arsenal and was part of the squad that won the fa cup in 2020.

Fikayo Tomori

  • Tomori was born in Canada, but by the age of 8 was playing for Chelsea at youth level.
  • Tomori spent time on loan at numerous EFL clubs, Brighton, Hull, and Derby, before returning to Chelsea.
  • Tomori returned and had a good run in the side at Chelsea, before falling out of favour in the 2020/21 season. To revive his career Tomori accepted a loan move to AC Milan where he is currently aiding the team in their first serious title challenge in years.

Bouncing back

Sometimes a player’s career does not always go as planned. Whether this be through injuries, or perhaps just bad luck, some players must show great resilience to be where they are today. Some of these players may have seen a knockback in their career, but their dedication, hard work and drive have allowed them to be successful in their own right.

Regan Poole

  • Regan was born in Cardiff and joined Newport County as a scholar in 2014.
  • Regan made his debut for Newport at the age of 16, making him the youngest player to ever appear for the club at the time (Since broken by Sonny Lewis).
  • Regan made numerous appearances for Newport over a two-year period aged 16/17.
  • In 2015 Regan signed for Manchester United.
  • Regan made his debut for Man United in February 2016 as a substitute during a Europa league tie.
  • For a chance at first team football, Regan joined Northampton on loan. Regan got the chance to play first team football starting 18 games in league one.
  • Regan returned to United from Northampton and again tried to push his way into the first team. Again, he was unsuccessful.
  • Regan subsequently rejoined Newport County on loan for the remainder of the 2018/19 season.
  • Regan was part of the Newport team that lost the play-off final that year.
  • Regan was then released by Man United. Regan signed for MK dons and was a regular for two seasons at the club.
  • Regan now plays for Lincoln City fighting for promotion in League One.

Mohamed Salah

  • Salah only played for local youth teams until the age of 14. He then signed for Al Mokawloon and went on to be a regular in their side.
  • Al Mokawloon – Basel – Chelsea – Fiorentina – Roma – Liverpool
  • Salah has gone on to win multiple trophies with Liverpool, as well as two golden boots, and the PFA player of the year award. Salah also captains his county of Egypt.

Danny Ings

  • Ings was released from Southampton for being too small. He consequently signed for Bournemouth.
  • Bournemouth – Dorchester town – Burnley – Liverpool – Southampton
  • Ings’ career at Liverpool was blighted by injury to both his knees. Only making 14 appearances over 4 years at the club.
  • Despite this Danny ings battled back to score 22 goals in one season at Southampton.
  • Ings has made 3 appearances for England, scoring once as of writing.

Romelu Lukaku

  • Lukaku played for numerous youth clubs before signing for Anderlecht aged 13.
  • Anderlecht – Chelsea – West Brom – Everton – Man United – Inter Milan.
  • Lukaku particularly struggled for game time during his time at Chelsea and struggled to become a fan favourite at Man united.
  • Despite this Lukaku was the youngest overseas player to ever score 100 Premier league goals and has gone on to thrive with Inter Milan in their recent title bid.
  • Lukaku has also made 91 appearances for Belgium, scoring 59 goals.

Something Different

Professional football is such a difficult area to break into. Many ex-youth players go on to complete different careers to keep their place within professional football. Within the modern game there are so many ways to be involved with elite sport, it is about being resilient and brave to try new things.

Jose Mourinho

  • Mourinho failed to have a stellar professional career having played for Belenenses youth team.
  • Jose decided to focus on becoming a coach rather than a professional.
  • Mourinho looked for a path into management and began by coaching a local youth team.
  • Mourinho began scouting as a way into professional football.
  • He then spotted a chance to work with a top coach in Bobby Robson as a translator. He began to talk tactics and coaching with Robson and built a great relationship following him to Porto.
  • Mourinho again followed Robson to Barcelona where he later worked under Louis Van Gaal.
  • Mourinho then became the first team manager of Benfica, before going on to manage many notable teams, including, Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and currently Tottenham Hotspur.
  • Mourinho managed to forge a career as one of the most successful coaches ever in football despite having a mediocre playing career.

Jurgen Klopp

  • Klopp had an average career as a professional, stating that he always preferred management and felt he was more suited to do so.
  • Klopp spent his whole playing career at Mainz, and then became manager of them following his retirement from playing.
  • Klopp then moved on to manage Borussia Dortmund and currently Liverpool to great success.

Jonathon Moss

  • Moss played for Sunderland at youth level, before joining Millwall also at youth level.
  • Moss never made it as a professional but continued playing as long as he could.
  • Following he retirement from playing football he took up refereeing to stay involved in the game.
  • Moss had been a PE teacher prior to refereeing.
  • Moss worked his way up the football leagues and now referees in the premier league.


There are so many other pathways into professional sport nowadays. Numerous examples include coaching, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning, analysis, sport psychology, kit man, grounds man and many more. Football is such a wide-ranging sport now that there are countless ways to get involved in the sport we love. Having a plan B for the chance of not making it as a professional is a sensible thing to have. It does not mean you have to leave football completely, but it means you have a plan in case you cannot play. Resilience and hard work are key skills shown by all the successful players mentioned in this document.

This document is a reminder that everyone’s journey is different and we each have our own story to tell. Being released from an academy or getting an injury doesn’t have to be the end. Players have shown this is numerous different cases. Please take time to look further into each of the players mentioned in this document and ask about the stories of those around you. Everyone has a unique story to tell and it is important we listen to them.


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