He attracted interest from some of the biggest domestic clubs and would spend time at international level alongside a number of names featuring this summer for England and Wales at Euro 2020. He was also part of the same Norwich City crop as current Canaries mainstay Max Aarons to sign as first-year scholars in summer 2016. Like so many footballing prospects, though, the dejection and the ‘what now?’ that comes with being let go by a professional club at a young age is one that Fergal Hale-Brown can speak about with vivid familiarity. What do you do when a lifelong love turns to something you suddenly cannot stand?
He has a story to share, and at 21, finds himself not only back enjoying his football with Wingate & Finchley, alongside studying sports journalism at the University of East London, but he has already found a way to use his experiences in the game for better. So, in his own words…
My football career took me from a Premier League academy and an international set-up to now fighting my way through the non-league system whilst balancing a degree. Growing up in North East London – South Woodford, Redbridge – football is almost part of your identity from birth; it was almost inevitable that my first word was going to be ‘ball’. My dad being a passionate Luton fan, and my grandad a former footballer for Shamrock Rovers, if it wasn’t going to be the nature of growing up in East London to trap me inside the footballing world, it was going to be my family.
By the age of seven, I had entered the academy system, signing for my local side West Ham United. After a year or two with the Hammers, my dad decided to remove me from the pressures of academy-level football, and took me back to Sunday league. I rejoined the side where my career started, Aldersbrook Athletic, run by former QPR goalkeeper Peter Hucker, before signing for my boyhood club Luton Town. An offer not only me but my family were in an impossible position to reject.
After two years of travelling round the M25 three times a week to Bedfordshire, I was offered a four-year contract, taking me from U13 to U16. I signed my deal on the Kenilworth Road pitch in front of 7000 fans, in a stadium which holds some of my most memorable moments as a fan and as a player. At the start of my U13s season, I was pulled into a meeting with the academy manager, and I was told they had received four offers from Premier League clubs to sign me: Fulham, Arsenal, Tottenham and Norwich.
For me, it was a whirlwind of emotions; a moment of confusion, with a hidden sense of pride. Confusion because football wasn’t just a game I loved, football was just my happy place. I didn’t understand transfers, I didn’t understand the process of becoming a professional footballer, all I understood was the game itself. The slight sense of pride came from the realisation that these sorts of moments don’t usually occur for boys from East London, but I was very fortunate it happened to me. After a period of family discussions and debates, I decided to venture to East Anglia, joining the yellow and green of Norwich City.
That move took me up five divisions, from the Conference Premier to English football’s pinnacle – the Premier League. Entering year 9, I made the difficult decision to leave home and take my journey to boarding school, Wymondham College. Changing cars for tractors, housing estates for farms, the River Thames for the Norfolk Broads. Similarities between London and Norfolk come at a premium, but all that was on my mind was football and doing my family proud.
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Moving to Norfolk as a 13-year-old threw up challenges I never thought I would ever have to overcome. I remember the first night in my dorm, a room shared with four other students, lights out at 9pm and all forms of technology confiscated. From the moment the matron turned out the lights, until one minute before the bell ordering everyone to get up, I twisted, I turned, and I questioned constantly whether I had made the right decision.
The right decision, I had, and I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. I formed friendships with some of my closest friends, I failed in difficult situations, which allowed me to grow. I ultimately found myself and made memories which I treasure so sacredly. The major difficulty I faced was balancing my education with my football. When I moved to Norwich, I pretty much became a full-time footballer as a 13-year-old. We would train four times a week, missing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday afternoons and all day Thursdays, and then we would play on Saturday or Sunday.
We sacrificed two hours every evening catching up with key subjects, which was difficult, especially after training for two hours in an elite environment pushing you to the extreme both physically and emotionally. It was tough, but like I’ve said previously, it’s these tough situations which allowed me to develop a resilient, determined mentality. Signing for Norwich gave me an opportunity to exploit my attributes against some of the country’s toughest opponents, in world-class facilities. These were opportunities Luton were in no position to match.
My personal life, my education and my football were going incredibly. I made my U16 debut in my first year with the club as an U14, against Liverpool away, before making my U18s debut as an U15 against Blackburn. I remember John Ruddy once saying to me when I was in year 10: “I haven’t seen anyone this good at this age before.” That was just before I first received international recognition. The Republic of Ireland had requested for me to play for them in a friendly against Reading before the U17 Euros. The squad was crammed with exceptional talent, the most notable individual being Declan Rice. We faced Reading on a cold, miserable Tuesday evening, winning 3-0. I was then called up for the Euros, but due to complications with getting an Irish passport, I was unable to attend. These issues continued, which resulted in me missing two more camps before my dreams of representing Ireland faded.
During my U16 year, I received an invitation to train with England’s U18 squad, a team with the likes of Phil Foden, Reiss Nelson and Mason Mount. I guess you could say that was every kid’s footballing dream, and I was living it. I felt blessed and exceptionally lucky to be training in one of the most mesmerising facilities in world football, St George’s Park, to be playing with some of the most talented footballers in the country, and living one of my childhood fantasies. After returning from my England camp, I continued to perform well back at NCFC. This inevitably resulted in gaining a new two-year contract and signing my first professional deal with the club. The transition from U16s football to U18s is major; you move from academy football to youth-team football, where winning holds importance.
In my first year in full-time football as a U17, I was listed in the Wales U19 squad to play in the European qualifiers; it was an experience which was mind-blowing. Pulling on the Welsh jersey, wearing the dragon proudly on my chest, was a moment myself and my loved ones will treasure dearly. We lost our first game 2-0 to Greece, before beating England 3-2, and then Luxembourg 6-2. Beating England, to this day, was the greatest moment of my career. Seeing my whole family in the stands, seeing the eruption of the crowd when we went 3-2 up, and seeing the tears within my teammates’ eyes when the full-time whistle went created a memory which could never be erased. I conceded two to Trent Alexander-Arnold, but we’ll speak less of that…
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That win also resulted in me being named in the ‘next generation of Welsh footballers’ in an article composed by BBC Wales. After returning from my International duties, I finished my first season in full-time football having got to the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup, and had a very productive season. My second year was where my career took a turn for the worse. The academy manager left, and this change saw the beginning of the end of my NCFC career. I was told I didn’t ‘fit the profile of a Norwich City goalkeeper’, a statement which, to this day, I can’t quite comprehend.
As the curtain drew on my six years at Norwich City, it was time to look for new opportunities. When I left, I had four contracts on the table from Championship clubs, but my love for football turned to hatred. I lost everything I had ever worked for. When I became one of those ‘forgotten footballers’, a group of individuals you hear so much about but never expect to be part of, I lost my identity. You live your dream for so many years, a dream that seems endless, and one person’s opinion rips that away from you. What else do you dream about now?
‘Never too high, never too low’. The low knocked me to the floor, it left me in the gutter. I couldn’t see the light, and the worst part was I didn’t know which way to turn. My life was football, football, football. I was a fan, I was a player, I was a lover of the game, I was addicted. It was in me. The sport was me.
I turned down the offers, and with the support from my incredible family, came to the decision to join UEL. The University of East London offered me the opportunity to get my degree whilst rekindling my affection towards the beautiful game. I could play the sport like I was 11 years old again, just with a wealth of footballing experience. I currently manage my time with UEL playing for non-league side Wingate & Finchley, who participate in the seventh division (Isthmian Premier) of the English pyramid.
Alongside my ventures in the non-league system, I have created my own business with one of my closest friends, who I met at UEL. We both have a passion for the beautiful game, and decided to use that passion to coach, mentor and educate young footballers, helping to give them the best opportunity of living a common dream of most young people in the country, including me – becoming a professional footballer.
I always knew football would never leave me, I always knew my life would be engulfed by the sport in some capacity, and my business allows me the chance to use my experiences, and my adventure, to positive effect. One man’s story is another man’s reason.
My football career has been unique, filled with highs, sprinkled with lows. Would I change any second of it? No.
The bottom line is: it was a journey like no other.