February 2015 – a time that is etched in the mind of Cecil Jee Thomas.
It was then that the former Crawley Town player had his childhood dreams of being a professional footballer dashed when he was told that he was not good enough to make the grade.
This time of year, all across the country, young players from U9s all the way up to the U18s will be sweating to find out if they will have a similar fate to Thomas; or if they will be one of the exceptional few that achieve their dream.
For teenagers in Britain, there are very few more intensely competitive journeys to embark on than aiming for a professional contract at a football club.
The official number of those rejected at every stage along the way in academy football can only be estimated due to the vast number of changes that occur, but it has been approximated that less than 0.5% of youth academy players go on to make a living from the game.
The Professional Footballers’ Association offers an online database for those out of contract or released players to upload their CVs in an attempt of finding a way back into the game, hoping to catching the eye of club scouts. However, this platform is only available to those who have achieved scholarship or professional contracts.
Speaking of his time at Crawley, Thomas, 21, says, “My thoughts are very up and down with my time at Crawley, I came in very confident and played well throughout my first year, playing with the reserve team.
“And then at the end of my first year it all changed. My youth team manager had a massive effect on my football and me as a person and I lost a lot of confidence.
I started my second year really well but once again my manager put me down. Overall the club was just not stable, we had four chief executives and five first-team managers come and go which meant you never knew where you stood and it created a toxic environment at times.”
There are thousands of players who fall out of the system between the ages of nine and 16 and attempt to find another path. Having had two years of full-time training as a scholar, Thomas is now back in full-time training, but not in the field you would think.
Before signing his football scholarship, Thomas was offered the chance to study the art of dance at the renowned Italia Conti Arts Centre in Guildford but the lure of the chance to follow in his older brother George’s footsteps, and become a professional footballer was too strong.
After his release from Crawley, he decided to rekindle his passion for his other talent and was offered a very rare full scholarship to attend Italia Conti.
“When I left full-time football, I was aware I needed a job. So, I decided to go to London and go to some dance classes. Luckily, I was tagged in a post on Facebook asking for dancers for a music video and then I ended up getting a feature part. From then the ball just kept rolling and I haven’t looked back.”
This is a very unusual story, and rarely will you find a young footballer who has been cast aside by the system only to be able to fall back on a second talent.
His career is going from strength to strength with the connections he made in football opening new doorways in the sport.
He is often used as a body double for Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford in commercial shoots where contact time with the athlete is limited.
Thomas is also using his story to go to football academies and conduct what he calls the ‘Talent Transfer Talk.’ During this time with the U18s he encourages them to do what he did, and remember that although you have one dream, don’t limit yourself to just football; instead follow, and do, everything you enjoy.
“I think it’s vitally important that players have another option, not a back-up plan but another option. Something they enjoy doing and that they maintain because football is only a very small chapter in our lives.”
It is refreshing to speak to a young player who clearly has his head screwed on and is also trying to help others in the process of developing himself. Knowing what he now knows about football, does he regret not taking up the dance scholarship first time round?
“No! I don’t regret going into football, it was always a dream of mine to live that life and I did. And now with my new chapter I get to travel all over the country doing amazing shoots and entertain people so I’m living the dream really.”