For so many in youth academies up and down the country, now is the time that they will be told whether they are at the standard required to continue playing; many of those not fortunate enough to earn a contract will therefore decide to give up the dream and pursue alternative career paths, writes Thomas Jobson.
This was not the case for Thomas Cleaver. His decision was made for him.
One bad turn, one click of his knee, and his promising career was effectively over; just as it should have been beginning.
“I knew it was bad,” he said.
“I was in severe pain and my knee went the other way, I just hoped it was only a dislocation, but to then find out then there was more to it was heart breaking news for me.”
A year on from suffering his injury, a meniscus tear and subsequent ligament damage, Tom knew his hopes of making it professionally were fading, but this did not stop him doing everything in his power to continue playing the game.
“After a year of physio and frustration trying to get back on the pitch as soon as possible just to fail medicals all the time and watch the other lads do well, I knew my chance had gone.
“I got introduced to Alvechurch football club where I played for a couple of years before then signing to Earlswood Town FC.
“In between the years of having more knee problems and operations, I realised I would never be able to play at a higher level than semi-professional with the injury which was hard to handle.
“The dream was dead, and I was devastated.”
Tom was hitting his best patch of form just before picking up his injury and was scoring in practically every game he was playing in, giving him great hope that he would be one of the lucky ones given a contract at the end of the season.
Despite being out for a long time with his initial injury, he still held out hope that he could make it and was eager to show what he could do on his first game back, until that too was cut short.
“Within 15 minutes in my first game back I felt my knee again – it had dislocated.
“I will always remember that day, for me, that was when it was over.
“I had a lot of treatment, but with that injury, my time at the academy was effectively over.
“Wherever I have tried to play since, I have always had issues with that knee. I think I have had 10 operations on it too this day, including key hole surgery recently, but nothing could rectify it.”
Tom’s foray into the world of football began long before this, as a boy listening to stories of Aston Villa’s glory days from his father before joining him on the terrace’s years later.
Keen to be a striker from a young age and to replicate his heroes in claret and blue; Tom’s journey would eventually come to a sudden and devastating end on the cold turf at Wast Hills representing the blue half of Birmingham, just like his father before him, years later.
“I was brought up on football from an early age, as my family were all Aston Villa supporters.
“My father used to follow Villa home and away, including going to the 1982 European Cup final win against Bayern Munich.
“As soon as I could walk, I had a season ticket in the Holte End and my favourite memory was our 3-1 League Cup win over Manchester United with my childhood hero Dean Saunders scoring.
“I watched that game with my dad, who also played for Birmingham City in their academy and won a cap for the England school boys as a goalkeeper; before his career was too was cut short by an injury.
“Looking back, it is quite funny to think that we were both mad Villa fans playing for our arch rivals!”
Tom considered staying in the game in a coaching capacity after his injury, but at the time he could not face finishing the badges he had started during his time at Birmingham.
“I should have finished my coaching badges but perhaps stupidly I decided not to at the time.
“I went in to a totally different job sector then I should have, hence the reason I should have paid more attention to the academic side of the game.
“I have to admit I enjoyed coaching the children and earning the coaching badges but the other aspects of the national diploma in sport I was doing I wasn’t as interested in as I should be.
“I was young, and football was always the only option I wanted to pursue.
“I had the blinkers on, I wish I had the knowledge back then to realise I should have taken it more seriously academically too.”
He concedes that he should have taken some aspects of the game more seriously in the academy; but also thinks clubs can do more to help youngsters in this regard.
Despite succumbing to an injury, Tom admits that there are things that he could have done to try and protect himself more as a young player.
“I have a lot of regrets,” he said.
“I feel I should of took the football a bit more serious, diet, nutrition, hunger for the game, I was always good I feel but I could have been better.
“Maybe I could have avoided the big injury I sustained if I wasn’t trying to be over skilful on the pitch when not needed, I was a bit cocky on the ball at times and I think karma bit me.
“I should definitely have taken the academic side a bit more seriously too, football was my focus and I didn’t put 100 percent into the academic side, which is a big regret now.”
Despite having some regrets, Tom looks back at his time at Birmingham with fondness and remembers a youth game in particular in which he was up against future first team Aston Villa striker.
“My favourite memory, playing wise, was when I was 14 and we played Aston Villa.
“I scored to make it 1-0 with a 25-yard free kick, being a Villa fan myself I didn’t know whether to laugh or celebrate!
“Then Luke Moore scored a ten-minute hat-trick. He was 14 too back then and I remember thinking he was going to make it, he was a class act at that age.”
Although he was at the academy for three years, Tom’s most vivid memory game whilst on ball boy duty for the Birmingham first team.
“We had to ball boy Birmingham City first team matches at youth level and I will always remember on game on sky sports Birmingham at home to Middlesbrough.
“Danny Mills and Robbie Savage had a massive row and both teams ran in and it was absolute chaos.
“If you look back at the game, I’m on Sky Sports in the centre of the screen laughing in the background whilst this fight is breaking out!”
Despite facing his own struggles and having to come to terms with knowing that his chance had been swiped away from him in the cruelest way possible; Tom was eager to offer up advice for any young player who is going through what he did as a result of that cold afternoon in 2003.
“I went about my injury in the wrong way.
“I started to socialise too much, going out drinking and things like that, and not paying too much attention to the academic side of the game.
“I only really cared about playing football so the whole process of going through the injury really depressed me. It took me a while to get over it.
“I would advise anyone who goes through something like this to still believe.
“You can get over the injury and if it means football is not the answer then coaching and working within football can be.
“If I could change my path, I definitely would have gone this route and would most likely be happy in a coaching role or at least working within football and doing what I love the most.”