There are various stories in the football world of diamonds in the rough. Sporting fairytales of forwards who have risen from the depths of the semi-professional divisions to excel in the Football League and beyond. These stories are synonymous with the likes of Charlie Austin and of course England international Jamie Vardy, now a Premier League champion.
But another who may yet follow suit is a player who has been there and done it in the non-leagues having come off the production line of a Premier League academy, and now plies his trade back in the Football League in a bid to push on and truly ignite his career: Port Vale’s former Newcastle United forward, JJ Hooper.
The 22-year old was signed by the Valiants in August 2015, with the forward penning a two-year deal having been snatched away from Cheltenham Town at the eleventh hour, where he had been on trial and received the offer of a one-year contract before being informed of Vale’s interest.
Still, under the age of 24, the Greenwich-born striker was the subject of a Football Association compensation tribunal, which eventually ruled that the player’s last club, National League South outfit Havant & Waterlooville, were due £8400 in compensation from the Valiants.
It was this revelation which was responsible for keeping him out of then manager Rob Page’s side for the first few months of the season, but since breaking into the first team, he has made a real name for himself at Vale Park with five goals in League One, including a strike against local rivals Crewe Alexandra which helped condemn them to relegation. The issue of the tribunal may have been a frustrating start to the player’s career as a Valiant, but it certainly has helped make him more of a man in footballing terms. When asked about the saga, Hooper replied:
“I think obviously at the time it was quite frustrating. I felt like I was training well and I was impressing and I felt like I should have played a bit more, but obviously, from the outside looking in, it’s probably the best thing that could’ve been done to me. It benefited me a lot and made me who I am today”.
Now, with a run of games under his belt, a solid pre-season under the regime of new manager Bruno Ribeiro, and the Number Ten shirt on his back going into the new season. Many at Vale Park are optimistic that the promising forward can have a big impact at the Vale in 2016/17 and become a future star for the Valiants. Discussing next season, he said the following:
“Hopefully this year I can push on, but I’ve still got a lot of hard work to do, with a lot of hours in the gym and on the training pitch, and hopefully under the new manager’s guidance I can push on and have a really good season”.
His Port Vale career is essentially the first time that JJ Hooper has been able to put together a run of games consistently in the Football League. Shortly before departing Newcastle United he had a loan spell at non-league Workington in 2012/13 where he struggled for minutes, before a permanent move to League Two side Northampton Town failed to bear fruit. It was a two-year learning curve for the player, before a loan move to Farnborough gave him his first break, where he netted six times in 11 outings:
It’s quite frustrating when you’re young and you feel like you should be playing, but obviously, you know there’s a lot of other stuff that’s involved and it’s obviously frustrating but it’s in the past now. I’ve learnt from it all and it’s made me a better player today, so I can only appreciate what’s happened to me.”
“When I went out on loan to Farnborough at the end of that season I scored a lot of goals and I feel like that gave me the confidence to trust my own ability and if I did drop out of the league, that I would be able to get myself back in”.
Even after his exploits at Farnborough, Hooper found himself facing the Sixfields exit door. But his efforts had not gone unnoticed, and the following season, the 2014/15 campaign, Hooper would enjoy the most prolific season of his career with South Coast club Havant & Waterlooville in the National League South. He scored 13 goals in 37 league appearances for the Hawks as they made the playoffs, and it is that experience in the non-leagues which gives the forward confidence that he can make a similar contribution for Bruno Ribeiro’s Valiants:
“Obviously, it’s a different level, but I definitely think I could do the same here. There are a lot of players here who’ve been promoted during their careers and I think all of that will help”.
So often used a means of players in academies higher up the pyramid to gain experience, the semi-professional divisions can have just as much to offer for players who have found themselves slipping down the ladder, and can be an effective springboard for young professionals to make a name for themselves and attract Football League clubs. But so often looked at as the “Non-League abyss”, players such as Hooper are evidence that there is always a way back, and that with the right attitude it can be an opportunity to impress rather than a condemnation to mediocrity. Hooper said based on his experience:
It’s up to them (the player in question) really. You can drop out of Premier League clubs and then go to lower clubs in the league and play, and also you can drop out to Non-League clubs and then not play, so it’s up to them really. They (the player) have to trust their own ability, if it takes dropping out the leagues to get back in, then just trust your own ability and stay focused and keep that professionalism and do your best to try and get back”.
With Non-League prospects like Jamie Vardy having made it from the bottom to the glories of the Premier League, more attention recently has been drawn to the semi-professional leagues. But the Vardys and Austins can often seem to be one in a million, but with Hooper the latest to begin to demonstrate his potential, it begs the question about whether the non-league divisions really are being watched, and as to whether promising young players plying their trade down there so to speak are being noticed and given opportunities. Hooper said of the situation:
“Yes and no. I think it is difficult because a lot of clubs take from higher clubs so it just depends, as long as you’re doing well and if you’re a striker, you’ve just got to keep scoring goals and try make sure your name is on the scoresheet every week”.
Hooper certainly managed that during his time in those leagues, having followed in the footsteps of the mercurial goalscoring talents of the likes of Vardy to make his way back up the ladder. But now back in the Football League, Hooper is determined to grasp his opportunity with both hands in what is an exciting period at Vale Park. When quizzed on the impact of the loss of former manager Rob Page and the experienced players at League One level who have moved on, he seemed none too fazed over the idea of it having a negative impact at the club, and was quick to suggest that the same togetherness and spirit is in abundance within Bruno Ribeiro’s new “family” at the club:
“That togetherness and spirit is still there, definitely. We’ve lost a few key players, but that’s football and I think you’ve just got to deal with it and get on with it and I think the new players that the manager has brought in, they all have quality so I think we can definitely integrate and play well this season”.
The prospect of working with international talent and with the quality players that Ribeiro has recruited from elsewhere in the Football League is also a prospect that Hooper is much looking forward to, and he remains firmly optimistic that the season may well be an exciting one for Port Vale and its supporters:
It’s exciting times at Vale Park, you know, he (Bruno Ribeiro) has brought in some big signings, like Jerome Thomas, who has got Premiership experience and some of the players he’s brought in from overseas have got a lot of quality, so it’s very exciting times”.
What the striker will ultimately be judged on however is scoring goals. The Number Ten shirt comes with a huge responsibility at Port Vale, having been worn by prolific forwards at League One level such as Stephen McPhee and Leon Constantine, and most importantly those talents who have reached club legend status, the likes of Martin Foyle, Darren Beckford, Robbie Earle, Lee Mills and Tony Naylor.
If Hooper is able to get his head down and score goals for Port Vale this season and perhaps beyond, there is no reason why he cannot follow in the footsteps of those legends, and perhaps even in those of non-league gems who have made it all the way to the Premier League. Especially given that he has shown flashes of his potential over his first season with the Valiants.
Like any player, he dreams of playing at the highest level. But for now he is determined to remain grounded, and it is down to him to show that he can truly flourish under his new boss, and getting on the scoresheet is the first thing on his mind:
“I want to get some goals this season, I want to get some goals…. Goals, goals, goals! But I just want to play as high as I can it would be lovely to play in the Premier League as a first team player but that’s all in the future.”
“I’ve got to keep focused on today and make sure I can do my best for Port Vale and be the best player I can be”.
Now the question remains as to whether Hooper can help Bruno Ribeiro’s Vale family achieve success in League One this year. Having seemingly made the transition between non-league and League One, he will be hoping that Vale’s trip to Bradford on the opening weekend of the 2016/17 campaign is the first step on the road to something very special:
“Nothing Is impossible, the pre-season spell is where we all gel and get used to each other and see how each other play and nothing is impossible, so if we start off well, starting at Bradford, we can definitely push for promotion”.
With the success of former non-league players to provide further inspiration, the former-Newcastle United man will hold firm to his belief that he can get amongst the goals for Port Vale this season, and he is most definitely one to watch in the Vale ranks over the upcoming season. For in his own words, nothing is impossible, and the quality he has shown thus far may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Marc Keinch.