Josh Coley has shone as one of the National League’s most exciting young talents so far this season. It comes two years on from realising a dream of professional football for the then-Hitchin Town player. That move to Norwich City ultimately came with a sharp dose of reality, but what the Canaries opted to let go has been proving extremely valuable for the Magpies.
Having linked up with Stotfold in the Spartan South Midlands League in February, it was Maidenhead United that signed him in July, and the attacking performer has taken that chance and ran with it since. The 22-year-old was the goalscorer and Man of the Match in the televised 1-0 win at Wrexham in October. That was the first victory of the season for Alan Devonshire’s side and they have gone on to rise from bottom to 5th in recent weeks.
In this extended conversation, Josh reflects on his exposure to the pro game, how his ex-England international gaffer has helped set him into motion, the inner sanctum of the Maidenhead squad, and a lot more about a player and person you might be hearing plenty about over the years to come…
It’s been an impressive season so far for both you and the team. As we speak now, how are you feeling overall?
Yeah, I’m feeling a lot better than I was; obviously I didn’t have a club during the first lockdown. I was going through a tough time, not knowing if I was going to be playing or what was going on really. I’m feeling a lot better now, physically, mentally ready, and just driving on and seeing where it gets me.
It’s hard to fully gauge without fans, but from everything you’ve seen so far, what have your impressions of the club been?
It’s a great club. The whole backroom staff and everyone involved has got ambitions to take the club back where it wants to be. The gaffer’s unreal; coaching-wise, one-to-one, he’ll help you with things that he thinks can better your game. I’m really enjoying my time at Maidenhead. We’re starting to string results together, which is always good; the first three games were very hard for us. We’re still gelling together as a new team, but we’ve hit a nice bit of form, and hopefully it continues.
You signed in the summer after initially being on trial, how did the conversations go about joining, and what other options did you have at the time?
I had options to go to a few other places on trial. Maidenhead had a conversation with my agent at the time – I think we might have still been in lockdown, just starting to ease out of it –and they put an offer on the table. It was hard to refuse, in terms of the gaffer wanted to give me the freedom to express myself and the way I play. Obviously it wasn’t a case of ‘I’ll come in and be a starter,’ it was ‘come in, work hard and you’ll play, do what you do and see where it gets you.’ That’s all I did in pre-season, and whenever I’ve been given the chance to play in the league, I feel like I’ve done that so far. It’s hard sometimes to get a gaffer like that who lets you express yourself, so he’s made it a lot easier for me to play football, which is probably why goals and assists are coming in, and good performances. In terms of coming in, I was a bit nervous going into men’s football, because I hadn’t played too much. I think I only played 13 games at Dunfermline, so I hadn’t really experienced men’s football to the fullest. National League, as much as everyone says it’s non-league, it’s still probably one of the hardest leagues in England. I’m loving it so far and long may it continue.
You mentioned the freedom the manager gives you and helping with individual details. How will that tend to go, will it be staying behind after training to work on extras?
We do a lot of shooting. Me, Danilo (Orsi-Dadomo), Sam Barratt and (Dan) Sparkes, we kind of have a group and we do a lot of shooting drills together at the end of sessions. The gaffer either wants crosses or shots from his front four, so it’s just getting into those habits; if you get half a yard, or half a second, either pull the trigger or put a ball into the box. We’ve been doing a lot of that and scoring goals in games, so the bits and bobs that we’re doing on the training ground, I feel like they’re helping us a lot with natural instincts within the games. Obviously Sam’s on fire, he’s scored nine goals, I’ve got a couple, Danilo’s got a couple, Sparkes has got his assists. Everything’s going in the right areas in terms of what we’ve been practicing in training. The gaffer and (assistant) Ryan Peters, they’re both very helpful when it comes to training.
✍️ We are delighted to announce the permanent signing of winger, Josh Coley.
— Maidenhead United (@MUFCYorkRoad) July 14, 2020
Based on your time in football up to now, what kind of approach do you think gets the best from you, and which manager or coach before Maidenhead has understood that best?
I’d say Greg Shields at Dunfermline; he was the first-team coach/reserves manager. He’d give me a kick up the backside if that’s what was needed but he’d always put an arm around me if I did something well and be the first to give praise. In terms of what gets the best out of me, I perform quite well when I’m angry; if the ref’s annoying me or something like that. I get quite egged on by stuff like that, or by fans or people trash-talking. It’s like ‘okay, let’s have a one-v-one, we’ll see where we are afterwards.’ In terms of encouragement from managers, you can never have enough of that; it only drives you on more and more. I feel like there’s some players who have to be cotton-wooled in football, otherwise you won’t get the best out of them, whereas you can scream and shout at me and I just always want to play football, whatever the situation.
Which team did you support growing up and who got you into playing football?
I support Arsenal. My dad was the one that got me into football, very, very young. From as young as I can remember, I was always kicking a ball at some point. If we’re talking about football figures, inspiration to play, it’d have to be Ronaldinho. That was when he was sort of coming out of Barcelona, going to other clubs, but he was someone that made me want to play football, especially at a high level.
How did you take to non-league in the early days, when you’re a teenager playing against much older players in some cases?
I’ve been playing football with men since I was young; I used to play Sunday league when I was 15 for my dad’s team. Even when I was small, I was always around it. When I started playing men’s football properly, I think my first full season was at Baldock Town; that was the season before I moved to Norwich. That was in the Spartan South Midlands; horrible league, just a lot of kicking if you’re fast or half-decent. I don’t mind getting kicked; (Dan) Sparkes always says to me ‘if you’re gonna get kicked, just go down,’ but I’ll go down and just bounce straight back up because I always want the ball again! Men’s football’s never really fazed me in terms of the physicality; I don’t mind a challenge, don’t mind a shoulder-barge. I was always just excited for the next game.
— Maidenhead United (@MUFCYorkRoad) October 13, 2020
You said before joining Norwich that you’d been learning a few trades, what kind of work have you done away from football up to now?
Before I went to Norwich, full-time football, I used to work for a firm called B&D Civil Engineers. One of the boys from Hitchin just said ‘do you wanna come and do a few days?’ and it turned from a few days into a few years. I was learning how to brick-lay, how to concrete and slab, and all these other bits and bobs. I was just basically getting into everything, because at that time, I was 19, and I thought ‘I don’t think I’m gonna play at any sort of professional level,’ so I was just trying to make some money and start learning a craft. Obviously I got lucky in the end but that was the work I did then. Now, I do an odd day here and there if I’m bored on one of my days off, for my uncle. I’m working now because I’ve gone from full-time football to Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I’m always bored during the day. My uncle does garden landscaping. It’s just something to keep my mind ticking over until training.
Reflecting on the whole experience with Norwich, was it what you expected before you signed? What kind of emotions did you ultimately take away from there?
Obviously it was an unbelievable time and experience, but especially with where I’d come from, I thought ‘oh, I’ve made it, I’m here now, I’m not gonna go anywhere else. Or if I go somewhere else, I’ll still be at pro level.’ It just wasn’t the case. It took me quite a few conversations with my mum to realise ‘Josh, you’re not actually a pro footballer yet, you’re still a youth player,’ and it was quite hard to come to terms with. The lockdown made me realise a lot, when I’m not playing and I’m sat at home bored. I was playing for Stotfold for a bit before I went to Maidenhead, to play with my friends again, because I’d just lost love for the game; I think it’s the only way to put it. There’s a lot of emotions I could go into, but I think just disappointment that I went into it and came out with nothing really. It’s probably why I give football so much attention; I rarely go out and stuff.
As a last thing on Norwich, would there be any interaction with Daniel Farke, or are you down the pecking order to the point that you’re not really thought of with regard to the first-team set-up?
I think I was probably way down the pecking order, yeah. The times that I spoke to (former first-team manager and current loans manager) Neil Adams, they said that they wished I’d had a better loan spell (at Dunfermline). They were a bit disappointed with how my loan went, which is obviously fair enough; I started quite a few games but I think they wanted a bit more. I think in terms of the first team, I was down the pecking order by quite a bit, but I always enjoyed playing 23s. When I came back from Dunfermline, I got over my injury, because I came back in January with an injury. Just before I left, I played a game for the 23s against Aston Villa and we won 2-1, so things like that I’ll always enjoy, but it was quite tough to take, especially because I didn’t train with the first team multiple times. I’ve gained the confidence to think I should have had a chance back then, but I’m a strong believer in everything happening for a reason. I believe that I’m in the right place now for my career, to take the next step up as well.
Winger Josh Coley joins on a season long loan from @NorwichCityFC
— Dunfermline Athletic (@officialdafc) June 21, 2019
In that Maidenhead changing room, who are the big characters? Does anyone lead it, who are the jokers, and who do you need to stay away from?!
I’d say the big leader obviously is Skip, (Alan) Massey. Alan Massey’s probably the one person you can talk to with everything – serious or non-serious – but then he’s also one of the jokers. I’d say me, Massey and Sparkes are probably the three jokers of the changing room; it’s one of the three of us that is messing around at some point. Even though those two are senior players, they’re quite childish when it comes to certain stuff, so it’s quite easy to get along with people in our changing room. Ones to stay away from…I don’t know, there’s a few hotheads, to be fair! I wouldn’t say you’d wanna stay away from anyone; maybe if you get on the wrong side of Rem (Remy Clerima)? Remy’s quite a funny guy but if you get on the wrong side of him…well, I haven’t been there yet, so I hope not to go to that side!
Have you ever had to sing when you’ve joined a team?
I haven’t actually. I never sang at Norwich, never sang at Dunfermline, and we haven’t done initiations this year (at Maidenhead). I don’t think we’re actually gonna do them, because when we do an overnight stay is when they usually do them. There’s about 16 of us new boys, I think, so I think we got away with that one!
If you had have had to do it, though, which track would you have done?
I reckon I would have gone for ‘Kiss From a Rose’ by Seal. Great song.
Sort of following on from that, have you ever been team DJ anywhere?
At the minute, I’m the back-up team DJ if Coms (James Comley) isn’t there. I’ve done it the last few games; some questionable choices, but the majority of them, a lot of the boys get going to. Like to start off with a few garage songs and then start getting into Drake and those ones that start getting you pumped before kick-off.
Finally, what else away from football and work gives you enjoyment, relaxes you, inspires you?
It’s really good for recovery but I do enjoy going out for walks. I try to go on those at least once a week, to get my legs going again; it’s usually after a Saturday game. I’m still young so I still play the PlayStation, I still play CoD (Call of Duty) and FIFA and all of that with the boys, but I do like to kick back and watch a film. I’m pretty sure I’ve completed Netflix! From the time at Norwich to Dunfermline, you finish at 1 o’clock and then you’re back home and you’ve got nothing else to do, so I’ve more or less completed Netflix and Now TV. That’s got me into loving a good film, so whenever a new one comes out, I’ll be giving reviews out to the boys about it already! Anything that just takes my mind away from football, because I’m around it quite a lot and it’s nice to kind of take a step back, even if it’s to sit back and watch a film with my family whilst I’m at home in the evenings, all of that’s good. I need positivity and vibes around me to keep me going.
Interview by @chris_brookes