Why are there so many gems in non-league still untouched? The ‘non-league Harry Redknapp’ follows up on his behind-the-scenes insight posted on Non-League Daily in March 2018.

Former Waltham Forest manager Qayum Shakoor became head of Crawley Town’s Under-23 team in September 2018. A few months prior to that, the man who has helped various talents climb the footballing pyramid shared his story on this site. Also head of football operations at Clapton FC, Qayum was referred to as the Harry Redknapp of non-league football by former Premier League midfielder Jimmy Bullard during their time at Leatherhead, owing to the multitude of accomplished players he knew in the lower echelons of English football. Two years on from his introduction with us, Qayum is back, with a whole lot to share…

Qayum Shakoor (right) in his time managing Waltham Forest alongside head coach Anton Smith. Photo: Ciprian Dimbean

Unfortunately, the world is under the grip of COVID-19 at the moment. I guess situations like this make you think about what is really important in life, but in addition to this, the free time given to us because of this situation is also an opportunity to reflect. I’ve been reflecting on my story since my last interview.

I am really humbled to have seen the response to the article back in 2018. Needless to say that without this article, and without the previous kind words and recommendation by the late Turgut Esendagli, I would not have been in my current positions, which are as head of the Crawley Town U23s, and head of football operations for Clapton (currently in the Essex Senior League). In any case, enough about me, what you really want to hear is about the lads I mentioned a couple of years back; they are the real ‘stars of the show’, and their stories make great reading.

I consider my shout outs carefully. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do it in an unnecessary way, as it can unduly inflate anyone’s expectations, and sometimes, also place unfair pressure. As I was telling my story freely last time, there are lads that I probably should have mentioned that I unfortunately forgot. The lads that I did mention, however, truly deserved it. And there are more that I will talk about.

Let’s start with Mo Sagaf. I did say the last time that he was one of the brightest talents I had seen, and I am fortunate to have trained lads that have gone on to have successful careers in the top division, with all the money and adulation that comes along with it. Mo was with the Ipswich Town U23s at the time and had a bit of bad luck with the managerial change at the end of the season. Both he and his representative were confident that had Mick McCarthy stayed on, Mo would have done, too. Unfortunately for him this wasn’t the case, but that’s football.

Mo signed for Braintree last season and was one of their star players in the National League, scoring several Goal of the Season contenders, and winning the league Player of the Month award in April 2019. I think he won something along the lines of 12 or 13 Braintree Player of the Match awards, as well as winning the overall Fans’ Player of the Year award. Regular visitors to this website will no doubt be familiar with him. In April alone, he had three goals from outside the area, which were all top drawer, and he then went on to sign at Carlisle United.

Things started off well, and the fans love him out there, you can tell. He picked up a couple of knocks, and a nasty-looking one from a (unintentional) tackle at the turn of the year that has more or less kept him out of it since, but he’s already shown that he can push on at that level and is still young enough to go much further. I’m delighted for the lad and his family. After his time with Braintree, he spent the summer training with us at our U23s, but we knew he would go straight into a first team, so it’s great that Carlisle came along and snapped him up.

Muhammadu Faal went on and smashed in over 20 goals prior to December at Enfield Town, and made a move to Bolton in League One. He made his debut and got a taste of first-team League football. No doubt next season will be a big one for him too, and believe me, if the boy gets a chance he will gobble it up. Muhammadu’s movement and finishing are both strong, and if he can match the other parts of his game with what’s required in League football, he will be an absolute asset, possibly even higher up. Salim Nassor is abroad in Norway, and if he can stay fit, he has a real chance of progressing. A lot of teams from all over were following him even when he was playing park-level football.

D’Sean Theobalds, who you might recall was referred to me by a double-glazing salesman, went on to represent Tonbridge Angels and became an integral part of their team. He continued to generate interest from the League, and we had him training with us at the U23s too. We tried to push him into the first team several times but for whatever reason, it didn’t quite work out; I think the numbers in his position were simply too much, as Crawley had Ashley Nathaniel, they signed Denzeil Boadu, Jack Powell, and had others there, too.

However, at the turn of the year, he finally got the opportunity he deserved, and also the one he wanted. He’s now signed with Korona Kielce in the Polish Ekstraklasa. One good season and he could find himself playing in UEFA competitions, which would be great for him. Whilst training with them, they played a friendly match against Michael Essien’s team (Sabail) in Azerbaijan, and Michael took a real shine to him. I’m sure he tried to persuade D’Sean to change his allegiances, but I think D’Sean is in the right place. I’m looking forward to seeing him really shine in the coming years.

D’Sean Theobalds, who left Tonbridge Angels to join Korona Kielce in Poland earlier this year. Photo: Korona Kielce

Carl Stewart is another one in Poland, currently at Zagłębie Sosnowiec (he’s out on loan at the moment). A former Watford professional, he was training with us in the U23s, and shining in both friendly matches and training. Zagłębie made him an offer immediately, and he started off really well. Again, the managerial change didn’t quite work in his favour, but he’s out on loan getting games right now, and will become stronger for it. Jakub, who supports us with the U23s, has got strong contacts in Poland. Several lads have been invited out there in the past months, and both Sammy Adams and Taha Benzeroual have signed up too with a team from the second-top division. There will no doubt be several more, as a few teams out there have taken a liking to our set-up, and non-league football in England as a whole, subject to how things pan out with the COVID-19 situation.

Mikey is an odd one. He’s always had big talent and with all respect to Lewes, is one that can certainly go into the League. In fact, he was picked up over the summer by Heerenveen in the Netherlands, did his medical, and played in a behind-closed-doors match against the Greece national team, who were all applauding his performance. Somehow, somewhere, after negotiations took place and the contracts had been sent over to finalise, the whole deal collapsed, and Mikey hasn’t got a clue why! Only Heerenveen and the agent who was involved will know, but Mikey will fight back, there’s no doubt about that.

It goes to show that there are talented lads out there, and but for what goes on behind closed doors in some of these deals, there would be a lot more lads playing pro football on merit than there are now. This is not to criticise or berate the current system, or lads that are currently in the system, as with everything there are pros and cons. There is a reality, however, in my view, that there are lads out of the game who in many cases are arguably better placed than comparable lads who are in the game.

We are proud to be able to say that a high percentage of the lads that we train go on to become pros. It shows that we are selecting the right lads, and it shows that they are applying perseverance and desire to be able to progress. However, there is also an angle to consider: why are these lads not getting picked up sooner? It’s not ‘just’ the fact that they come to train with us; we do a good job, no doubt, but we are no magicians, we simply work hard with what we are given. There’s a player in there before they come to us. Is it because the scouts aren’t seeing them? Is it because the clubs are looking for something different at the time? Are they even looking for the right things? Is it the agent pressure on clubs, as so many lads, with respect, get into clubs that are unlikely to ever progress?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all, and other things. The rates of young players leaving the game is alarming, with something like 90% never making it out of U23s and into the pros. I’m delighted that we have had a whole squad of pros come through our system, but that might say as much about us as it does other clubs.

Qayum Shakoor (right) alongside his head coach at Crawley Town, Julian Charles.

In the past 18 months since running Crawley U23s – which runs part-time, as we are only able to get in a couple training sessions per week, tops – we have had 11 players come through our system and go on to play at a professional level (above the age of 18). We have another currently on trial with a team in the Championship, and several more who the scouts are coming along to watch frequently, too, both at the U23s sessions and at Clapton, where we took a team that was second from bottom into a comfortable mid-table position in less than three months.

People come to watch the lads either at Clapton, or when the U23s have friendly matches. Fortunately, news of some of our work has spread organically, and this season we have had friendly matches against teams such as Crystal Palace, Leicester, and Colchester. The U23s are not in a league, so we have to focus on getting quality friendly matches and funding them, too. In each match, we have more than held our own; being competitive in loss, draw or win. Taking into account we have no budget and our whole outlay for the season comes to less than £4000, compared to the teams we’re playing against who invest hundreds of thousands, if not millions, into their young sides, it is testament to what we are achieving and how pleased we are at how we have managed the task.

If I’m not mistaken, some of the statistics suggest that the chances of becoming a professional once you are out of the system are something along the lines of one in 10,000. Many of the players that come through our set-up are semi-pro, which just goes to show that there is a lot of high-quality talent that just isn’t being picked up, especially taking into account that with those mentioned statistics, we have supported 11 (and counting) just in the period since the last article went on NonLeagueDaily. There has got to be something there that can improve the pathway for some of these lads, and at the same time, helps the clubs too, as so many ‘slip through the net.’ It’s less the exception, and whilst it’s not quite the rule, it is edging closer.

If I have any regrets about the past 18 months, I would say it’s a shame we have not been able to get more lads into the Crawley first team. The fact that a lot of our lads are going off to pro levels, and in some cases going on to higher levels, shows that we are doing the right things, but my job is of course to develop the lads for the Crawley firsts. The squad is large, and unfortunately for some of our young lads, that has meant that the pathway is blocked. However, I hope that in the coming seasons there will be more opportunities, especially as they have seen the work that we are doing. The previous gaffer, Gabriele Cioffi, was really into our methodology and supported us, and the new coach has only just got his feet underneath the desk, so I imagine we will try to develop this in the coming period.

The final word comes with Crawley, in fact, and one of the lads that we spent a lot of time developing over the years. Tarryn Allarakhia has made huge strides in the past 12 months and is a bona fide first-team player at Crawley Town. Tarryn used to train with us when he was at Colchester, back when we weren’t even involved with the U23s. We have been mentoring him ever since and his agent takes great care of him, too. Tarryn is an example, and Mo too, of lads that have always had the ability, have been overlooked for some reason or other, but have never given up. He’s now been placed into a situation where, step by step, he’s proving himself. I know scouts in higher divisions are paying attention to him and fair play, as he does all the right things, trains well, and plays wherever he is asked. Tarryn is an attacking player and the other week at Crewe he was man-marking possibly the best player in the division! That’s Tarryn for you.

It’s been a wonderful 18 months, and I’m sure that part of it was down to the wonderful coverage from NonLeagueDaily.com. The next few years will be even better, I have no doubt about that, but the most important thing is that the lads, and all the people that are working hard in the background, get their credit. The countless hours from all the volunteers like Jakub, Julian, Gent, then the support from friends in the industry like David, Jake Kewley, Del, John Stokes, who has helped with some funding, the lads at EQ and CFM. I don’t know how we still keep getting pro bono advice from our lawyer either!

I’ve had the fortune and the misfortune of coming across a lot of people in football, and for a variety of reasons, I’m pleased to be a small part of what is a wider group of people that are trying to ensure that the players with the best talent are not stopped from progressing, whether it is here in the UK or abroad. Everyone has their pathway; they just have to keep pushing for it. We just do our best to help them onto the path; after that, it’s down to them.

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