Before the start of the 2007/08 season, one man was ready to quit playing football on the Non-League circuit to pursue a career in sport and exercise science by starting a degree at Southampton Solent University. You may wonder what the significance of this is, but the man in question ended that year by celebrating promotion to the second tier of English football, rather than celebrating his exam results.
The player I speak about is Nottingham Forest’s speedy winger Garath McCleary. The former Oxford United trainee has bounced back from being released by his hometown club to forge a career in professional football with the former back to back European Cup winners. What is more impressive is the fact that Forest and McCleary are so close to plying their trade with the countries elite next season, as the Reds fashion an impressive promotion charge with some fantastic displays which saw them go unbeaten away from home for a longer period of time than any other team in English football this campaign. McCleary’s rise is a far cry from his days playing part-time for Slough Town and Bromley FC. Even the man himself is in shock with the rate he has soared through the leagues.
Said McCleary: “It is amazing to think that I could be playing at the top level of English football, just two and a half years since coming from the Conference South. It’s what dreams are made of and would be an amazing achievement, but we know we aren’t there yet.”
It is that level headedness that sets McCleary above from the rest who fail to make the step up to league football, let alone the chance of Premiership football. Whilst the transfer of Chris Smalling from Fulham to Manchester United for £8 million has created a host of media attention, as the defender used to play for Maidstone United, it is McCleary who has had the most success since entering league football as he helped Nottingham Forest into the Championship after just eight appearances in the professional game.
And McCleary believes it is the experience he gained from playing in Non-League football with the Lillies that has helped him take to the professional game like a duck to water.
McCleary said: “There is not a lot I miss about Non-League, but I would be a different player if I had not had that experience under my belt. My perseverance was key for me getting here and knowing what I came from will give me the hunger to never let this go.”
The day McCleary was told he wasn’t needed at hometown club Oxford hit the 22 year old hard. But that disappointment made him more determined than ever before to forge a career in the professional game.
“I was very disappointed to be released by Oxford, especially as it is my hometown team. I was never really given the chance with the first team. I had a minutes worth of game time, and that was in a friendly against Leicester City which I felt was unfair. At the time I was mainly playing now and then with the reserve squad, but obviously now when I look back I’m happy things turned out for the best.”
“It made me more determined though. The coaches at Oxford told me as I was coming to the end of my scholarship, that if I wasn’t offered a contract then I should take it as an indication that football perhaps wasn’t for me. But that right there made me want it even more. I have always been confident in my ability so I knew if the chance came along again I would grab it, I’ve been like that since a very young age.”
But McCleary smartly decided that he did need a back up plan, just in case his dream of playing professional football never materialised, and so he set up a place at Southampton Solent University for the following September.
“The previous year I was on the verge of quitting and then going to University. Obviously I’m glad I stuck with it for one last go in football, but I made sure I had a back up plan just in case.”
Critics were surprised to see McCleary given his chance in the Forest team so quickly, making his debut in front of the Sky Cameras after coming off the bench against Carlisle United just over a month after first joining Forest. But the winger feels that he is getting better all the time and can prove the doubters wrong.
Said McCleary: “People asked the same thing when I first came into League One. I think my game has improved since joining, and when you think I have only been in pro football for over two years I would say I can only get better. Playing against the best team’s week in week out is sure to improve your game massively.”
And McCleary believes that the current squad at Forest can make the step up to the top flight, just two seasons on from promotion from League One to the Championship.
“You have to think your good enough to make the step up, or there is no point in competing. We had a tough season last year just avoiding relegation, so to think of what we have done in a year is brilliant. But there are a lot of good contenders in the league that are just as good as us.”
It is refreshing to hear a player who was close to giving up the game speak about not fearing the step up to the elite level of English football, arguably the best league in the world. But that is a million miles away from the day the Forest scouting team first saw the potential in the flying winger.
McCleary explains: “I can’t actually remember who I was playing against when I first got spotted by Forest, but I do know that they were actually watching the opposition’s right winger. Luckily for me, I had a good game and we went from there.”
That certainly proved to be Oxford’s loss and Forest’s gain, and with the season fast approaching its climax, McCleary will be hoping he and the Reds can reach the promise land and prove to the doubters that he was right to turn his back on education in this unbelievable story.
And without question thousands of the Forest faithful will be eager to complete the amazing journey with him.
Written By Jonathon Ogle