"It was a dream come true" - Charlie Wakefield on his Chesterfield debut at 16, being released and what next for the young midfielder
You can’t help but wonder what might have happened for young Charlie Wakefield at Chesterfield if the club had not been on such a downward spiral.
Three years on from making his debut for the Spireites against Scunthorpe United in League One when he was just 16, he will become a free agent at the end of this month after being told his contract will not be renewed.
It didn’t come as a surprise to him, he says, because he’s struggled to get any regular game time in the first team for the last couple of seasons.
The midfielder has spent 10 years at the Blues after coming through the academy and made seven appearances in total.
During his time at Town they have tumbled from League One to the National League and almost down again.
Managers often turn to experience when it comes to relegation battles, so perhaps Wakefield’s Chesterfield career could have taken a different path had they not been struggling.
Gary Caldwell gave him his debut at Glanford Park at the end of the 2016/17 season when relegation had already been confirmed and his first professional contract soon followed.
“Breaking into the first team was obviously a dream come true,” Wakefield told the Derbyshire Times. “It meant the world. That is what you dream of as a kid to be able to play in the first team wherever you are at. I was still 16 at the time. I did not think I would make my debut that early but I did. It was a great achievement for me to be able to do that.
“He (Caldwell) believed in me a lot which helps massively because if you have got a manager who believes in you it gives you so much more confidence as a player to do what you do best.”
The Scot liked what he saw of Wakefield and took him on the pre-season tour to Spain in 2017.
Following a friendly against Sheffield United, Caldwell described Wakefield as an “outstanding player.”
“He set up the goal and he did some great things, I’m delighted with him and really looking forward to working with him and developing him over the next few years,” he said.
Such was Caldwell’s belief in Wakefield that he started the first match of the 2017/18 League Two campaign in the defeat against Grimsby Town.
But Caldwell was sacked just a month later after the Spireites dropped into the relegation zone with just one win in their opening 10 games.
From this point appearances for Wakefield in a Blues shirt were few and far between and there was no reserve team for him to get any minutes under his belt.
Jack Lester came in and Wakefield was reduced to a couple of outings in the EFL Trophy, while Martin Allen sent him on loan to Sheffield FC.
Like Caldwell, John Sheridan was another manager who liked the look of Wakefield but with Town struggling once again he was overlooked for older heads.
This season he came on as a substitute in the opening day defeat to Dover Athletic and in the win against Aldershot Town. His one start was against Notts County in the FA Trophy back in December, which turned out to be his last appearance for the club.
Under John Pemberton, Wakefield, now 20, was loaned out to Matlock Town in March before the pandemic struck.
When asked if he was given enough chances to prove himself Wakefield said not but has no bad feelings about what happened.
“The position we have been in has not helped over the last three or four seasons,” he said. “It is difficult when the team has been struggling to bring youngsters through.”
Pemberton arrived in January and although he likes to blood young players he too was wary of chucking teenagers into a relegation scrap, although Jamie Sharman and Regan Hutchinson featured later on.
“It was difficult because he (Pemberton) came in and we weren’t doing well at all,” Wakefield said. “You probably look more to experience rather than young players (in that situation.) That is what he had to do and he did it well. He kept us up which at the time when he came in it looked like we could be going down because we were in the relegation zone not doing well at all.”
At the moment the Derby County fan is biding his time and ticking over his fitness for when an opportunity presents itself.
It was no big shock to hear that his contract was not going to be extended but he is excited for what the future might bring when football returns.
“I was expecting it to happen to be honest,” he told the DT. “It wasn’t working out as well as I wanted to for the past couple of seasons. It came to an end and...new start.
“From where I go next I don’t know at the moment because of the situation it is difficult for anyone who is out of contract to say. There isn’t a lot of stuff coming about right now but once stuff becomes clearer with everything then I am sure there will.
“I have been thinking about under-23 teams to develop and play games regularly but then there is the National League North which I think is a very good level.
“When I did play this season I thought I did well. The games that I have played I thought I proved I can play in the league. It's just that I have not had enough of that game time and experience to be able to show people enough of what I am about which is obviously frustrating but that is just how it is.”
There is going to be as many as 1,400 Football League players out of contract this summer and a lot of uncertainty for clubs surrounding finances but Wakefield is remaining positive.
“I have not really been worrying about it because worrying about something is not going to fix the situation or anything like that,” he said.
“I am very much focused on football but obviously you do need to have a back-up plan of what you might have to do if football has not restarted by a certain point but like I say I am focused on football. That’s all I have known since I left school. My focus won’t ever come away from it at all.”
There are a number of high profile players who have been released at a young age and gone onto play in the Football League and Premier League so there could still be a way back for Wakefield and that is what he is taking inspiration from.
“That is what I was thinking really because over the past three seasons I have hardly played so if it does mean I need to drop down a level or two to play more games I am sure that will help me in the long run,” he said. “I would rather drop down a level or two and play a full season and get a lot more experience.
“Over the past four years I have learnt so much about football. It is all about opinion. Someone might not like you but another person will. I am sure someone is going to come along and they will like me as a footballer. I have got to stay positive, stay level-headed, stay fit and things will definitely come back.”
When Wakefield announced his departure from Chesterfield on social media he received a lot of nice messages which he is very grateful for.
The youngster says he will always keep a look out for Chesterfield’s results and believes they will achieve success under Pemberton.
He added: “They (the fans) said nice things on Twitter about me leaving and I can’t thank them enough for the times when I have played for their support. I think a lot of fans have liked me as a player so it is just about going somewhere else now and proving that.
“I am staying fit and as soon as I get a call I will be ready to take my chance.”