Zak Dearnley may not quite be one in a million - but he isn’t far off.
The 17-year-old, first spotted by Manchester United at just seven years of age, has beaten the odds to sign a professional deal at Old Trafford.
But Dearnley’s story is not one of luck; rather, one of a boy born in Sheffield and raised in Penistone, with both a footballing talent and a mental strength which helped him cope with moving to Manchester aged just 13.
Every lonely night in digs, every double training session and every moment of doubt was vindicated in July, when a three-year professional deal was inked.
But Zak’s story won’t end there. As he says, the hard work begins now.
“My aim is to make the first team,” Zak tells The Star.
“Within the next 15 to 18 months. That’s the aim. I’d also like to go out on loan at some point to get some experience; I’d love to play for Sheffield Wednesday if possible, my uncle’s team.
“If not, then I’d settle for a year or so abroad, in Italy, France or Spain. The prospect of learning another language, seeing a different way of life, excites me.
“There’s still a long way to go, of course, and I’m not getting ahead of myself just yet. But my absolute, number one aim is to play for Manchester United.”
We meet in a quiet Sheffield city centre cafe, Zak accompanied by father, Ian, on a visit back to the city from Manchester, where they now live.
Zak, dressed casually and thoughtfully sipping on an orange juice, blends in with the crowd but, with a ball at his feet, this boy stands out. Ian, a concierge by trade, brings up YouTube footage on his mobile phone of his son scoring at Old Trafford, in the FA Youth Cup against Bury.
Zak’s electric pace sees him race onto a through-ball between the centre-half and left-back, and he slots the ball calmly into the top corner. Another highlight is a goal for England’s U16s against Denmark at St George’s Park, finishing calmly with his left foot after another defence-splitting pass.
“He’s got loads of pace,” Ian smiles, proudly. “A bit of skill, too,” adds Zak, modestly.
“I’ve scored more with my left foot than my right in my career,” the youngster continues.
I moved to Manchester at 13, and it was tough - I almost quit at one point. I couldn’t handle being away from home, living with different people, training all the time. I was at a new school, making new friends, away from my family. I’m used to it now, of course, but it’s tough at the time. It makes you appreciate the sacrifices players make to get to the top; I’m a much more confident person because of it. And, to get to where I want to be, it’s just what needs to be done.Zak Dearnley, Manchester United
“Being two-footed and being able to play on both wings, as well as up-front, is a real advantage for me. I’ve been likened to Andrei Kanchelskis by a few people, but my role model is Cristiano Ronaldo.”
No pressure there, then?
“There’s always pressure, every time you pull on the Manchester United jersey,” Zak admits.
“But you have to learn to deal with that, being at a club this size. If you can’t handle it, then you won’t last at United.
“I look at players like Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Neymar... but more than anything, I’d like to make my own path and not follow anyone else’s.
“I’m a kind of pacy, tricky winger. But I want to be myself.”
Zak was first spotted while playing for Penistone Church U7s, managed by his father.
“They won just about every trophy, every competition they entered,” Ian remembers.
“We were playing a game at Dodworth when a gentleman, who I later found out was Garry Carr, tapped me on the shoulder and asked who our number seven was. I told him it was my son, and he invited him for trials for Manchester United.
“I felt ten feet tall; it’s every parent’s dream, isn’t it?”
Zak impressed during trials at Stocksbridge, and quickly progressed to the advanced group at Huddersfield College.
From there he progressed to The Cliffe, onto Littleton Road, and finally to Carrington. Although the ride was far from smooth.
“We were told early on that this was Manchester United, and we’d be lucky if one boy from our group became a professional,” Zak said.
“There were 30 boys there. It was basically one-in-a-million, they said.
“I moved to Manchester at 13, and it was tough - I almost quit at one point. I couldn’t handle being away from home, living with different people, training all the time. I was at a new school, making new friends, away from my family. I’m used to it now, of course, but it’s tough at the time. It makes you appreciate the sacrifices players make to get to the top; I’m a much more confident person because of it. And, to get to where I want to be, it’s just what needs to be done.”
Ian spoke to his son three times a day - morning, noon and night - following his move to Manchester. Zak cried every night for the first month or so, but didn’t let on.
“He told me a few months later,” Ian added.
“I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me? I’d have come and got you straight away’.
“And he said, ‘That’s why I didn’t tell you, dad. I knew you’d have come and got me’.
“All credit to him for sticking it out. It’s looking promising and, fingers crossed, that will continue.”
Nick Levett, Talent Identification Manager at the Football Association, shares a remarkable stat which suggests that 96 per cent of scholars signed at professional clubs when they are 16 are no longer playing there when they are 18.
Just two per cent of players that get a professional contract at 18, are still playing professionally past the age of 21.
“A lot of guys do fall by the wayside,” Ian concurs.
“They discover girls, or beer, or a different way of life. Even after all that, it’s not for everyone.
“The mental and physical discipline is so important, and the biggest thing is just to enjoy the game.
“If you don’t enjoy it, then there’s no point doing anything in life. I’ve said that to Zak since the age of seven... play the game with a smile on your face. Go out there and enjoy it.
“If you can’t do that, then why bother?”