‘Like somebody flipped the table’ – Former Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield Wednesday youngster Charlie Hayford lifts lid on the brutality of academy football
“That group of U23 players was wicked… To the point that we were sometimes beating the senior team when we played them,” said Charlie Hayford of his time at Sheffield Wednesday.
He wasn’t there for that long, but Hayford played his part in helping the Owls win a U23 Professional Development League Northern and National double in 2016/17, however soon found himself on a plane to South Africa – the country of his father’s birth – in pursuit of first team football.
Premier Soccer League outfit, Platinum Stars, wanted to sign him after he impressed former West Ham United man, Peter Butler, who was manager at the time – but work permit issues put paid to that dream.
“It’s like you’re building a jigsaw puzzle… You’ve been building it for years and are starting to piece together the final bits – then it’s like somebody flipped the table,” he told The Star.
“You have to restart, and you rebuild, but then bits are taken away. It’s a constant up and down path, and it’s short, so you have a limited amount of time. I’ve seen so many players give up.”
Now 23, Hayford is playing for Biggleswade United - the team owned by high-profile Spanish journalist, Guillem Balagué - and he’s not given up on his dream of getting back up to the Premier League at some point… The story of Ollie Watkins gives him hope in that sense.
He joined Wednesday in July 2016 at the age of 19 after leaving Tottenham Hotspur following a 15-year affiliation with the club, seeing the Owls as a viable route to first team football.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing, and he admits that – after leaving home for the first time – he battled with homesickness.
He confessed, “For the first month or so I struggled, I was driving back and forth to London all the time, but I just don’t really understand what happened in the end.
“In such a short period it went from ‘yeah, we want you’ to ‘oh, we can’t do that anymore’. It’s cut-throat.”
Many of his Wednesday teammates from that period have gone on to play for the first team since, with the likes of Alex Hunt, Liam Shaw and Matt Penney still vying for places in Darren Moore’s current Owls outfit.
But it doesn’t work out for everyone. It was reported a couple of years ago that less than 1% of players who are registered at football clubs go on to eventually make their debuts at professional level. It’s tough to be part of that 1%.
And Hayford knows all too well how things can go… He was at Spurs from four-years-old, but picked up an injury in his first year of a two-year scholarship that allowed others to get ahead of him.
“As soon as you start getting a bit of money in your account…,” he said. “That’s when mens football turns up. They start sniffing at like 15, but when you hit 16 it gets brutal.
“I was injured for seven months of my first year scholarship, which is awful because then you’re playing catch-up.
“If you can stay fit and play games for those two years of a scholarship, that sets you up.”
He joined Wednesday because the situation at the time gave him optimism of climbing up through the ranks, but conversations with Neil Thompson in the months that followed suggested that that may no longer be the case.
So he sucked it up and moved on – he wanted to be playing senior football, even if that meant venturing even further afield…
He explained, “When I signed they said there was a really good pathway for the first team, and that’s what I needed, so that’s why I signed.
“Come October though, they’d signed more first team players after me and I was pushed a bit further down the pecking order.
“I was told they couldn’t guarantee me what they’d said at the start, and said they wouldn’t hold me back if I wanted to go elsewhere.
“And to be honest, I’d had enough of England. The English game now is very brutal - when you’re breaking through you’re battling against people teams have spent millions on.
“If you’re a club owner and you’ve spent money on a youngster, you don’t want others overtaking them. You want them to play to justify the spending. It’s a business.
“People with kids in the system will realise what it’s like when they get older.”
Now though, he’s finding his love again at Biggleswade under a manager - Cristian Colas – that won’t tell him he’s too small, and who believes in his technical ability rather than turning him away just by looking at his stature.
And the current climate could open up a doorway for players like him, players battling it in England’s non-league.
His hopes are that, with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions due to Brexit, English Football League clubs will be forced to look down the ladder.
At 23 he’s got time, but he’s had the rug pulled out from underneath him enough times to know that it’ll be a slog.
At one point he was talking to former South Africa national team manager, Stuart Baxter, about representing the country of his father’s birth one day, but circumstances now see him waiting for the restart of regional football and the chance to realise the potential that many have seen in him. It’s time to try and rebuild the jigsaw again.
“One of my old coaches at Spurs (John McDermott, now at the English FA) had a saying,” he explained. “He always said, ‘Just stay on the train’. He was trying to warn us about what happens in football. That always sticks with me.”
And that’s what he’s trying to do. Stay on the train. Even if there are a few stops he didn’t expect to make.