By Keith Brookman
The Academies of every Football League Club and, I daresay, those non league clubs that have a youth system as well, are full of young hopefuls who dream of making it through to the pro ranks.
However, only a select few make it and those who don’t, in my experience, either give up the game altogether once told that their dream is over or play part time and get themselves a job and keep their dream alive; for a while, at least.
I was reminded of this when Matt Hill recently got in touch with me to see if I had any photos of his time as a scholar with the club and I was surprised that I had quite a few, which were duly sent on to him.
Looking at those photos made me realise just how difficult it is for any youngster to progress from schoolboy to scholar to first team and a look at the team photos here, I think, only goes to prove that.
The first of the photos to feature Matt was taken at Bath University, when he was 12 years old, with coach Andy Eisentrager. Standing next to Andy is one of the lads he was coaching, Kyle Hendy; ‘He was a big lad even at that age,’ says Matt.
Yes, that is the same Chris Lines who would go on to win three promotions with Rovers, appear in over 500 first class games and who is still playing, for Northampton Town.
Moving forward a few years and we see two more team photos, the first of which was taken before an FA Youth Cup tie against Cambridge United at The Mem in October 2001. Matt was still training with the Centre of Excellence and had not, at that point, been offered a scholarship. The result? Rovers were 4-2 winners.
‘Myself, Sam Jones and Chris Lines were all in Secondary School, Year 11 at the time that photo was taken,’ says Matt, adding ‘Neil Arndale and Tony Davis were second year scholars and the rest of the lads were first year scholars.’
We know about the career ‘Linesy’ has had, but what of the others?
To be honest, I don’t know about most of them, including Kershaw and Wilson. Weisberg had been with Aston Villa and Southampton as a schoolboy and won international honours, at U-19 level for Northern Ireland. He left Rovers in 2004.
Greaves had quite a career with local non league clubs in the area following his departure from the Mem. He played for Mangotsfield United, Clevedon Town and Cirencester Town amongst others, and is currently manager of Frome Town who were in second place in Division One South of the Southern League, and looking good for promotion, until it was decided to expunge this season’s league record in view of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Hobbs made two substitute appearances in the league for Rovers in the 2003/04 campaign but left the club at the end of that season after turning down the offer of a new six month contract.
Jones, along with Matt, was offered a scholarship in 2002. He was offered a third year as a scholar in 2004 but never graduated to the pro ranks. He still lives in the Bristol area and there will be more about him and Davis, who was already a second year scholar when the photo was taken in this article.
I’m pretty sure that Webb went to the USA on a football scholarship, though I believe he has returned to this area in recent years.
That leaves Arndale, also a second year scholar at the time of this photo. He would go on to appear in four league games and one Football League Trophy tie before his release. He also won seven England U-16 caps and has enjoyed a long career in local non league football, most notably with Mangotsfield United. He is currently with Larkhall Athletic, assisting manager Phil Bater, whom he knows very well from his time at the Gas.
The second team photo was also taken in the same season, with manager Phil Bater in middle of the back row. The complete lineup is as follows; Back (L-R): Chris Lines, Tony Davis, Danny Greaves, Dene Wilson, Phil Bater, Ryan Weisberg, Kevin Kershaw, Victor Webb, Neil Arndale. Front (L-R): Jermaine Wright, Twayne Plummer, Ben Wiltshire, Darren O’Neill, Mat Hill, Sam Jones, Shane Hobbs.
Of the three additional players in this photo, I‘m not sure what happened to Jermaine Wright and Twayne Plummer, though the latter was the third member of his family to play for the club; Dwayne and Neikell were the other two.
Wiltshire was later offered a scholarship, as was O’Neill, who was one of five young hopefuls to be taken on in the summer of 2002.
Defender Matt was released before the end of his scholarship, but says this of his time with the club; ‘After I’d been released from Rovers I had a good trial at Swansea but, obviously, not good enough as I didn’t get a call back, although I received some very good feedback from the coaches there at the time! ‘
‘I then played non league football for Brislington and Frome before deciding, at the age of 20, that I’d had enough.‘
‘The last five years have been quite busy, really, as I’ve retaken my FA Level One and Two Coaching Qualifications, having previously completed them when I was a scholar some years ago!‘
‘I resumed my studies to complete a Sports Science HE Diploma and recently completed a BSc Sports Coaching degree and am currently on the UEFA ‘B’ qualification.‘
‘I actually coach at Bristol City with their Pre-Academy, having managed to obtain a work placement as part of my studies. I often see former Rovers defender Trevor Challis when I’m at City as he’s coached there for a number of years and is a great guy.‘
‘I also teach PE and run my own Futsal club where I go into schools and teach technical skills to youngsters between the ages of 5-11 through the game of Futsal, which uses a smaller ball with reduced bounce, which is ideal for the younger age groups.‘
‘I also have a young family, two boys and a daughter, so there isn’t an awful lot of spare time, though I’m still very close with Lewis Haldane, Sam Jones and Rob Sheriton. We’re all best mates and meet up regularly.’
Tony Davis, another who features in many of the photos above, was one of only two players taken on as scholars in 2000, the other was Neil Arndale and the two of them are pictured here.
A victim of a massive clearout of players by new manager Ray Graydon, Tony did continue playing for a while.
‘When I left, I joined Weston-super-Mare for the 2003/04 season. Their manager at the time was Frank Gregan, with David ‘Boris’ Mehew as his assistant.‘
‘Also in the squad that year were Billy Clark, Justin Skinner, Jon French and Mark McKeever, so there was quite a former Rovers contingent; the Western Daily Press even dubbed us ‘Rovers Reserves’!’
‘We did really well in the FA Cup that season, getting to the Third Round, where we eventually lost to 4-1 away to Northampton Town; our cause wasn’t helped when ‘Macca’ (Mark McKeever) saw red after about 36 minutes for a diving save in the top corner!‘
‘I played a fair amount during the first half of that season but, as the youngest player in the squad, I was possibly the easy option for being put on the bench over some of the more experienced players at the level.‘
‘I grew a little frustrated with my lack of game time and at the end of that season departed in seek of more football (which I think any 19 year old probably would have done). However, looking back on it now that’s possibly my biggest regret, leaving so soon, as perhaps my non-league career would have progressed had I stayed.‘
‘When I left Weston I went on trial at Paulton Rovers, and agreed terms before Mangotsfield United came in for me at the last minute and I went there instead (under Martyn Grimshaw, who had coached the youth team at Rovers for a short while during my scholarship).‘
‘Unfortunately, I didn’t feature much there either, I seem to recall. Neil Arndale was first choice right back at the time, which is the position I was vying for. Therefore, I found myself on the move again, this time to Brislington in what was then the Screwfix Premier Division. I spent a season there before I was asked to join Bitton, where I spent a few successful seasons.‘
‘After that I became a bit of a Toolstation/Hellenic League nomad. I followed the Bitton manager to Almondsbury Town (now defunct), and when he left, I found myself at Hallen, then back at Almondsbury, before finishing off at Brislington.‘
‘I finished playing competitively in 2013 (when I was 30) as a few niggly injuries and other aspects of my life took over. I had recently purchased my first property which needed a full renovation and therefore I spent my weekends undertaking DIY!‘
‘That said, I did get back into the game recently. In 2018 I managed to gain my Level Two Coaching Badge and was coaching Keynsham Town U-15’s. I then applied for a coaching internship at Rovers Academy when Gerard Jones was Head of the Academy, and was offered a placement before managing to rupture my Achilles which put paid to that, sadly, as I would have loved going back to where it began for me and helping the next generation.‘
‘I then had a chance encounter with former Rovers goalkeeper Ray Johnston, in B&Q of all places, and he’d just taken over as manager at Hallen. He invited me to be his assistant, and I spent the majority of the 2018/19 season with him, even coming off the bench, at a mere 34 years of age, for a few cameo appearances (I even liked to think I was probably still fitter than some of the young lads!). My season assisting Ray ended prematurely, though, as family commitments meant I had to stand down just over a month before the end of the season.‘
‘I’ve spent the last year being a family man but would love nothing more than to get back into coaching again, possibly management of some description and also look to gain my UEFA ‘B’ Licence. That dream is on hold at the moment, though, not only due to the coronavirus pandemic but also as my wife has returned to work on Saturdays. Maybe when our children are older, I can get back into it again.’
Matt Hill, Tony Davis, Sam Jones and Chris Lines [Photo Credit for all – Alan Marshall]
Sam Jones, meanwhile, continues to play locally and is still enjoying his football.
He said; ‘After leaving Rovers at the end of my third year as a scholar, I joined Chippenham Town.‘
‘I had actually been playing for them during my third year after Tony Ricketts arranged for me to go there on loan/work experience as the reserve team games at Rovers were few and far between at that point.‘
‘The manager at Chippenham at the time was Steve White, the ex Rovers striker and I enjoyed a couple of seasons there as they pushed for promotion to the Conference South, playing quite regularly under Steve and then Darren Perrin, another well known local football manager.‘
‘I then moved to Taunton Town and had another couple of seasons there which were good fun, but became stop/start after I broke my leg in two places during a game.‘
‘Next stop was Clevedon Town when Wayne Powell, another ex Rovers player then youth coach, was the manager. Unfortunately, he left soon after I signed for them and then I broke my leg for a second time.‘
‘Over the last few seasons I’ve been playing locally in the Somerset leagues, which I still really enjoy. Injury and age have taken their toll, but I still manage to have a run out on a Saturday afternoon.‘
‘I have a young son now and still live and work in Bristol and I am still good friends with Matt Hill and Lewis Haldane from our youth team days as well!‘
‘I’m trying to get them both to come and play with me for the last of our playing days, but neither has come back to me yet!’
I would like to thank Matt, Tony and Sam for their contributions to this article; It was good to catch up with them again after all this time and I’m pleased that they retain an involvement in the game (even though Tony’s is on the back burner for the time being).
It would be great if any of the other players featured in this article let us know whether or not they are still involved in the game, or if I’ve got any of my facts wrong, then please get in touch.
Hopefully there will be more in this series of articles in the near future.