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
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.|
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).|