Saturday, 25 June 2022

Freddy Jeffreys

A look at some of the best players I’ve seen in the past few years at either U18s or U23s level or currently playing in non-league who've either left a really positive impression or whose careers I follow with genuine interest to see how they're doing every week.

Player: Freddy Jeffreys
Age: 16
Position: Midfielder
Club: Bradford City

Along with Bobby Pointon and Cole Roberts, another player who left a positive and lasting impression once he broke into Bradford's youth team last season was Freddy Jeffreys.
His appearances were scattered during the first part of the campaign but post the FA Youth Cup defeat to Oldham in November, despite being the youngest scholar, he managed to establish himself as a regular in the starting xi - and he didn't half do so in a phenomenal way!

Freddy pulling the strings in one of many games where he played well (Photo: Unknown).

The game I saw where he first stood out was at Grimsby in April on the day when the Bantams won to clinch the league title. In any other year, Grimsby themselves would have been worthy champions because they're a good team with some decent players/philosophies, but in this game they were carved apart by Freddy's composure and quality on the ball.
From his deep-lying midfield position, his accuracy of passing was superb; the weight of it was good, he dictated the play, set up chances and there was a broad identity in how he went about the game as an individual and moved around to make space on the pitch from which to dominate matters. Even in tight pockets and being put under pressure, he still managed to retain the ball owing to clever footwork and there were just lots of very bright qualities on show which I can remember well.
Fast-forward exactly one month to the last game of the North-East Youth Alliance season and it was a privilege to be sat up high in the stands at Valley Parade (from where you can see EVERYTHING what happens on the pitch), and witness another display where his energy, effort and class shone through again. Very similar to what he did at Grimsby, he got into the right areas to receive possession and then made things look effortless; picking off piercing passes and through balls left, right and centre from the first to last minute which almost always found a team-mate. He was just an instigator of so many problems along with the aforementioned Messers Pointon and Cole who wreaked their own plethora of havoc on Doncaster's defence.
Undoubtedly the scariest thing, given all his ability already, is that Freddy is only 16 and doesn't actually turn 17 until the end of August - so much so that if he'd been born just a few days later, then he'd be in the younger year group preparing to start their scholarships in the next few days.

Just doing his thing in the game at Grimsby on the day the top spot was secured.

Having seen Oliver Arblaster at Sheffield United, there's comparisons in playing style which I can draw between them both - and likewise with Will McGowan who is the most technically-gifted player I've ever seen in the academy ranks at Doncaster (and ironically has a late August birthday too).
It's testament to Freddy that he established himself as a key player in such a talented group and contributed a significant part in their title success. Along with all the assists he got to his name, he weighed in with goals such as a late winner against Huddersfield just before Christmas, two against Scunthorpe, one against Harrogate and then another in a walloping of Rotherham.
I've got no doubt he'll be able to recall each of those goals with the same enthusiasm he showed when he was helping to tear opponents to pieces; especially the Huddersfield one which I imagine was a very sweet moment (for a few reasons) to finally tap the ball home after it hit both posts initially.

It didn't surprise me one iota to see a few pieces in national papers recently linking him with a move to either Fulham or Southampton. When a player shows the quality in games which Freddy has (and, importantly, when that quality is on a consistent enough basis) then it's naturally going to attract admirers.
That speculation is for another time so well done on having a good impact last season. 
You've earned my respect for playing a big part in the title success and creating good memories which you and the lads will be able to recall instantly when you're having a reunion in years to come. Every player, even the big dogs at the top level, recall their YT days with fondness and when you've got a title winners medal as a memento, the feeling is even better!
Keep focused, stay level-headed, keep working hard to make your family proud and remember you've still got lots more to achieve.

I look forward to seeing you giving it your best effort next year.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

George Alexander

A look at some of the best players I’ve seen in the past few years at either U18s or U23s level or currently playing in non-league who've either left a really positive impression or whose careers I follow with genuine interest to see how they're doing every week.

Player: George Alexander
Age: 21
Position: Forward
Club: Bromley

It's Saturday 19th November 2016. 
Reigning champions Leicester City are struggling to replicate their heroics from the previous season in the Premier League; Antonio Conte is creating headlines with his passionate touchline tantrums at Stamford Bridge, and Gareth Southgate is in temporary charge of England after the infamous Sam Allardyce debacle.
At one of Southgate's former clubs, meanwhile, Crystal Palace's Under 18s are playing Millwall in a local derby on a freezing cold morning; the kind where long sleeves, gritted teeth and gloves are required.

In his YT days donning the infamous 'Huski Chocolate' sponsored shirt.
(Photo: Unknown).

The Lions have just exited the FA Youth Cup to Cambridge United and are fielding a younger than usual team because they’ve got an U23s game on the following Monday.
At Palace's training ground in Beckenham, it's goalless with over an hour played and both teams have missed chances when George Alexander is told to ‘get ready’ because he's going on to make his youth team debut.
Possibly nervous but pumped up with excitement and just hoping to do well, he replaces Matt Neary on 65 minutes although the game stays 0-0 and with just a few minutes to go, it seems that a point apiece will be the likely outcome.
But then, in the blink of an eye, the 15-year-old latches onto Rob Strachan’s pass, holds off a defender and slips the ball past an advancing 'keeper from a tight angle and into the net before sprinting off towards the corner to celebrate.
He's only gone and scored the match-winner on his debut!

Granted, that last-gasp strike might not quite have been the same as when his dad, Gary, scored that goal in the Play-Off Final for Millwall, but the emotions, joy and buzzing adrenaline rush immediately afterwards will have still felt exactly the same. It's a moment he'll remember for the rest of his life! 

In the context of football, it wasn't much but for George it was everything and it proves to be a springboard because, despite having nearly been let go at the end of his U15s year (the coaching staff were 50/50 and he was given the benefit of the doubt), he soon kicks on, establishes himself as a talisman in the U18s over the next two years, and eventually earns a pro contract through his sheer drive, dedication, determination and commitment to just give everything he's got and be the best that he possibly can.
The memories continue to rack up as he's part of Millwall's youth team wearing an awful grey kit that plays against Real Madrid's U17s and visits the Santiago Bernabeu, before he reaches another landmark with his senior debut on the final day of the 2018/19 season against Wigan Athletic; doubling up with Billy Mitchell to make themselves known to Reece James (the nowadays England left-back and Champions League winner) and then presenting his ‘Alexander 50’ to his little brother afterwards. 

Shortly afterwards, just a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday, there was also his inclusion in the ‘LFE XI’ which recognised his achievements and progress.
It's not bad for a lad who was once criticised by some of his peers who claimed he was ‘only at Millwall because of his dad’ when the reality was he joined the academy as a six-year-old whereas his old man didn't arrive until a little bit later on under WIllie Donachie.

George Alexander (yellow boots, far left) lining up before playing against Real Madrid.
(Photo: Millwall FC).

Fast-forward to the present day and, after two years playing in Millwall’s U23s up to last summer (plus an appearance on the first team bench for an FA Cup game against Everton), George has just completed his ‘proper’ breakthrough season in men’s football at Bromley in the National League.
He joined the Ravens permanently at the start of the season and, although niggly injuries hampered his progress towards the end, he still managed six goals, made 32 appearances, had a good pre-season under the ‘Trialist A, B, C’ pseudonym, weighed in with several assists, created a good impression, and learnt loads from being in the company of experienced players with stories to tell on a daily basis, as well as coming up against hardened opponents on matchdays!
Although he didn't play in the FA Trophy Final against Wrexham, he'll cherish his winners medal - knowing he contributed during that run (such as scoring versus Aldershot and breaking a few York hearts in the Semi-Final). The memories made whilst out celebrating with the lads in the days afterwards will always be ‘good times’ to look back upon in years to come as well.
What I've liked with George is his attitude. There’s no ego; he’s just a lovely down to earth lad, striving to make his mum, dad, brother and sister proud of him every day. Fans don't always see the sacrifices which players make in order to give themselves the best chance of having a career yet George is one of the most dedicated, driven and committed people that a gaffer could wish to have in their team. He'll be sensible, professional, will still chip in with decent banter and have a laugh when it’s right to do so and he's just a good lad who has been brought up the right way. 

Everything he's achieved in football, he's worked hard to get!

As a player, he's always had an uncanny ability to score goals, find and exploit pockets of space and then get shots off quickly (such as against Aldershot or Wealdstone last season) and it makes him a pain in the arse for opposition defenders. He'll make runs, weigh in with assists, contribute in other ways and show loads of energy and commitment. He earned the respect of Grimsby's defenders when he scored the equaliser against them in January and he's earned my respect over a longer period.
As he becomes accustomed to the physical demands of real football, he'll hopefully get better, refine and improve certain aspects of his game, and I'll always check each week to see if he's starting, how he's playing (when I can find out) and follow his career with genuine interest.
 Signing for Bromley last summer (Photo: Bromley FC).

At present, George has had three memorable trips to Wembley in his lifetime!
As a little seven-year-old, he watched his dad score twice in the League One Play-Off Final (with one goal always being shown on Sky Sports News for years afterwards). Last year, he watched England lose on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 Final. And just last month, he was part of the Bromley squad (albeit not in the team due to injury) which won the FA Trophy.
Furthermore, he also helped Concord Rangers book a trip to Wembley during a spell on loan from Millwall in September only for pandemic restrictions to kibosh his chances of playing for them when the Final eventually got arranged.
Despite all that, George still hasn't played under the arch yet and my biggest hope is that one day, he gets the opportunity to follow in his dad's footsteps and do it... and if the ball drops to him about 30-35 yards out with the possibility for a half-volley, everyone will be able to have a wry smile.
So keep going, keep being who you are, keep believing in yourself, keep showing your quality characteristics which make you a great lad, don't change, and just keep being the lad who makes your family feel so proud of who you are every day.

Pop up anytime if you need anything!
And enjoy what’s left of your 21st birthday!

On his debut wearing the shirt he later gave to his brother (Photo: Unknown).

Monday, 20 June 2022

Jason Sraha

A look at some of the best players I’ve seen in the past few years at either U18s or U23s level or currently playing in non-league who've either left a really positive impression or whose careers I follow with genuine interest to see how they're doing every week.

Player: Jason Sraha
Age: 19
Position: Centre-Back
Club: Barnsley

A defender who made a really good impression whenever I watched him last season was Jason Sraha.

Signed by Barnsley this time last year and unveiled alongside David Bremang (a powerful forward who made a similarly notable contribution in games which I saw), it didn't take very long whatsoever for Sraha's quality and composure to stand out.

Jason Sraha after arriving at Oakwell (Photo: Barnsley FC). 

Predominantly left-footed (although good with both feet), intelligent at reading a game and analysing the danger, possessing decent athleticism and with height also in his favour, he put in a decent display as Barnsley's U23s won at Sheffield Wednesday in October - memorable due to a massive thunderstorm just before the full-time whistle. He then followed that up in a defeat to Hull about a month later where he demonstrated enough quality to be remembered for a second time.
I've tracked his progress since those games, spoken to a few others about him, and when he went on loan to Guiseley in February, it didn't surprise me one iota that he made an immediate impact on his debut (versus Darlington) and even got straight into the National League North ‘Team Of The Week’; certainly not a bad way to mark your first ever appearance in men's football.
He appeared 13 times at Guiseley during which he played a part in keeping four clean-sheets - including one against Telford where Owen Mason (the best ‘keeper I've seen at North East Youth Alliance level) lost his water bottle at full-time and, overall, Jason again created that positive impression where he consolidated a place in the team, played every minute whilst he was there, and had people talking well about him.
Recalled by Barnsley when Martin Devaney took caretaker charge for the final few games of the Championship season, he was thrust into first team action and had two 90-minute outings in the defeats to Preston and West Brom.
He'll cherish the memories of pulling on the ‘Sraha 32’ shirt for the first time and walking out at Oakwell and the Hawthorns infront of thousands of fans and, with those little landmarks being the cherry on top of his other achievements over the past 12 months, it's fair to say he's progressing quite well.

I'm sure he was personally pleased with how things went after upping sticks from London to become ‘c/o Grove Street’ a year ago; I'm sure his family are immensely proud of his progress in the past 12 months - especially after his injury-hit season in his last year at Arsenal, and he's made a good impression upon quite a lot of people.

I still believe there's scope for Jason to become more physically imposing (something which will happen over time through lots of gym work, etc), but everything I've seen up to now suggests he's got the skill-set, technical intelligence and talent to do alright and become an established defender in the game. The fact he also had spells at both Arsenal and Chelsea in his academy days before joining Barnsley is also another little pointer towards that.
So stay humble, keep striving for more, maintain a good attitude and congratulations on a good season and I'm looking forward to watching you make another positive impression next year.

Sunday, 19 June 2022

Tom Owen-Evans

A look at some of the best players I’ve seen in the past few years at either U18s or U23s level or currently playing in non-league who've either left a really positive impression or whose careers I follow with genuine interest to see how they're doing every week.

Player: Tom Owen-Evans 
Age: 25
Position: Midfielder
Club: Kidderminster Harriers

He's the most laid back character in a dressing room, one of the best players in the National League North and above everything, he's just a thoroughly top guy.

Tom Owen-Evans will add so many qualities at Kidderminster Harriers!

Looking rather serious on his signing day at Kidderminster.
(Photo: Kidderminster Harriers FC).

Recently signed from Hereford, 'King.Toey' (as was his old MSN username back in the day) will add a particular flair and creativity on the pitch. Possessing a nifty technique and an ability to glide past opponents - as the Blyth Spartans defence will no doubt testify because he ALWAYS scores against them, the 2021/22 campaign was the best of his career to date. He delivered the goods as frequently as he used to shift parcels around his home city by scoring 15 goals and claiming eight assists in 42 appearances.

Not your usual No.10, he can operate either on the right-hand side or through the middle and he'll connect with supporters at Aggborough who'll love his style, charisma, energy and the excitement he causes with his attack-minded displays. Kids on the terraces will love his constant beaming smile, knee-slide celebrations infront of them and a few 'high-fives' after each win.

Deep down, TOE is still a big kid who is just buzzing to be doing what he loves. It was evident during his 'sprint the length of the pitch' celebration after scoring at Wembley in the FA Trophy Final last year and it's evident in how he plays the game.

The best thing is that doesn't have any ego. He's genuine, down to earth, approachable, loves coaching the kids in North Somerset whenever he can, and he's just a great person to be around.

The iconic Tom Owen-Evans knee slide (Photo: Steve Niblett).

It's away from the pitch where TOE's personality shines even more.

In every good dressing room there's often a skipper and three or four natural 'leaders' who people will respect and TOE's welcoming personality will instantly win people over.

Not one for sloppy standards or slacking, he's caring enough to know when a team-mate needs an arm round the shoulder or a boot up the backside, and witty enough to come out with good 'one-liners' and join in the banter. He can hold a decent conversation; knows his NFL, still loves the Arsenal (despite the fact they frustrate him every year without fail), has delved into his own fashion brand in the past (L'Avenir London), created online megamixes such as TOEVID-19, spent many hours playing Call Of Duty and streaming it live on Twitch TV, and at one point during the pandemic he even got bullied into making YouTube videos by Paige, his long-term girlfriend which will probably make his rosy cheeks go even more red if his team-mates were ever to get hold of them!

When it comes to Grand National weekend, he'll be the 'go to guy' for tips and the person who'll bring a sweepstake kit into the building and get everyone involved. He knows his 'Tiger Roll' from his three-legged donkey (which I'm more likely to back), loves his Horse Racing, and knows how to create that brilliant sense of unity.

They're just some of the reasons why he'll add quality to the Aggborough dressing room.

Having TOE around, just being TOE and adding such a positive vibe and fresh energy through his presence should put everyone in a good mood. 

He's a total one-off with so many qualities; like Del Boy, Rodney Trotter and 'Mr Happy' from the Mr Men books rolled into one! It's hard for the gloom not to lift when he swaggers along in a baseball cap covering his immaculate 'Barnet FC' with an infectious smile.

People can feed off those characteristics and that energy and it's why he's loved by so many people!

Surviving relegation TOE style (Photo: Athena Pictures).

Born on the day when 'Who Do You Think You Are?' by the Spice Girls topped the UK charts, I've always maintained TOE will also one day be the answer to a pub quiz question. 

Why? Well it's because he's got his own unique piece of football history by being the only player (to my knowledge at least) who scored his FIRST and ONLY goal in the Football League on two separate occasions. His 'first' in a game against Morecambe in December 2016 was wiped out at half-time when that game was abandoned and he only scored once more (in a win at Exeter) four months later.

Ironically, it wasn't his only goal at St James' Park because he did once bag there in the FA Youth Cup for Newport which probably played a part in him earning his pro contract.

In total, he made 61 outings for Newport's first team and the memories of being hoisted aloft on that utter quagmire of a pitch at Rodney Parade after helping them beat Notts County and pull off arguably the greatest of 'Great Escapes' to avoid relegation (they were 11 points adrift at one point), is something which will be lodged in his mind forever.

Those type of moments don't come around too often in football and, like any player, TOE hasn't always had things nice and straightforward.

Rejected by Bristol City at 16, a 400-mile move to Falkirk five years later didn't quite work out as hoped after Ray McKinnon replaced Paul Hartley as manager and TOE found himself twiddling thumbs at 3.00pm on a Saturday rather than kicking a ball around. 

And despite everything he achieved by the time he left Hereford a few weeks ago, there was actually a period which people might forget when he was out of favour and disregarded by Russell Slade.

There'll have been both some genuine and anxious moments of self-doubt and worry about what the future held during his loan at Chippenham in late 2019 and a few bars from that bittersweet Christmas classic 'Fairytale Of New York' may well have resonated with deeper emotions at that time.

TOE, going rather red, after signing for Falkirk (Photo: Falkirk FC).

But TOE being TOE, he came through it.

Just like in the music charts, Slade wasn't around for very long after the festivities and TOE was recalled by Hereford which paved the way for him to make the memories such as THAT GOAL at Wembley a year later which left his entire family bursting with pride, emotion, joy and unparalleled delight - and probably a few tears as well.

Sadly, the result didn't go to plan because that annoying 'Horne, Horne, Horne' tune played aloud over the PA system three times before the final whistle but in those single few moments when the ball left his right foot and flew into the net, every sacrifice, every setback, every rejection (and possibly even every elongated gym session with Graham Westley) will have felt worth it.

Scoring at Wembley is something he'll always have on his CV forever now.

There's also so many more memories which TOE will be able to recall in an instant as well. 

Replacing Adam Chapman in the 89th minute at Bootham Crescent. Playing at Molineux. The BBC feature about the 90s with Aaron Collins, Regan Poole and Kieran Parselle (they'd be the worst boy band ever). The 'paperwork' fiasco leading up to the loan spell at Gloucester and the race to get it done before the bus left for the away game. The goal at FC United just a few weeks later. The inflatable mannequin incident which went viral. Long trips everywhere with Truro (because Truro is a long way from anywhere). Seeing the Kelpies almost every day up in Scotland for those few months in the summer/autumn.

And of course the goals, moments and memories at Edgar Street, plus the managers he's played under, plus the dressing rooms trials and tribulations from both the good and bad times.

One thing TOE hasn't achieved yet is getting a promotion on his CV.

So good luck at Kidderminster. You've earned the right to be back playing full-time football every day, and it's a perfect chance to go and create some more memories - and it would be brilliant to see you perched on top of a lamp-post in roughly 11 months time like some lunatic who has been mentioned elsewhere in this article (and on this blog before).

It really would be a crowning moment for 'King.Toey'.

A genuine guy. A genuine player. A genuine delight to write this article.

Good luck!

That celebration after THAT goal (Photo: Tom Dulat).