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Exclusive: We speak to Port Vale protégé Nathan Smith

Scott Challinor

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Port Vale’s 20-year-old centre-half Nathan Smith is unlikely to have been dreaming of plying his trade in the top tier of English football during his years of development in the academy of the Burslem club. In fact, it is something that is unlikely to have crossed his mind even as recently as July, when Smith was fresh from a successful loan spell at National League club Torquay United and simply hopeful of getting a chance in the Vale first-team as he reported in for pre-season, the first at the club under new manager Bruno Ribeiro, a close friend of José Mourinho.

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Born in April 1996 in nearby Madeley just over the North Staffordshire-Cheshire border, Smith grew up a boyhood fan of the Valiants’ local rivals Stoke City. The Potters back then plied their trade in what is now the EFL Championship, as did Port Vale themselves, and the Old First Division three years earlier had been rebranded with its current tag of the Premier League.

20 years and two loan spells later, Nathan Smith earned himself the accolade of the EFL’s Young Player of the Month for August after breaking into Port Vale’s first-team in pre-season, and if the reckonings of his manager and club chairman Norman Smurthwaite are to have any substance, Smith is a player who has a realistic chance of one day making it in the top flight.

Despite how his career has taken off so quickly, the 20-year-old centre-half keeps some words of advice with him, that he has kept in mind ever since his days in the academy.

“I remember being told play every game like it’s your last game. And basically it makes me think don’t play with any regrets and come off thinking I could’ve done this or that differently, that’s the thing that stuck with me”.

A thigh injury to Ribeiro’s first summer signing, Dutch defender Kjell Knops, forced the manager’s hand into giving Smith a chance in pre-season. He has exceeded expectations and seized his chance with both hands to the extent that within less than two months, he had become a regular in central defence, and had been rewarded with a three-year contract extension before scooping the EFL Young Player of the Month award. He has since gone on to start in all of Port Vale’s League One games so far this season.

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“I was very happy with it”, says Smith on winning the accolade. “It’s nice to be given an award but afterwards you’ve just got to put it to one side and keep working hard and going forward”.

“It fills me full of confidence knowing that you’ve got the backing from the manager, you’re playing in the team every week and doing well, but you can’t think about it too much or let it get to your head.”

“You’ve got to keep working hard because football can change very quickly”.

The winning of such an award certainly puts him in quality company. The list of former winners of the Young Player of the Month award who have gone on to play in the Premier League is a long one, going right back to the very first winner, Chelsea‘s Victor Moses, in December 2009, during his Crystal Palace years.

Other winners of the award who have gone on to play in the Premier League include Charlie Austin (March 2010), Connor Wickham (April 2010), Steven Caulker (November 2010), Danny Ings (April 2011), Jonjo Shelvey (November 2011), Wilfried Zaha (October 2012), Sam Byram (February 2013), Dele Alli (August 2014) and Demarai Gray (December 2014). At first glance, it undoubtedly sets a precedent.

Despite it being Smith’s breakthrough season in League One, club chairman Norman Smurthwaite has already hinted that the defender is attracting admirers from the higher echelons of the football pyramid, though of course Smith’s new deal, set to run until 2020, would give the Valiants leverage if any negotiations were to be made in the January transfer window or later.

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His chairman however praises him for his “motivation by the craft” of the sport, rather than being motivated by money, and than any deal completed regarding the player would be nothing less than the right move for the good of the youngster’s career. Smith himself however refuses to be drawn on such speculation, despite the fact he has admitted he has been forced into re-assessing his personal goals for the season.

“I’m enjoying life under Bruno (Ribeiro) massively”, he says.  “He’s given me my chance and its made my career progress quicker than I thought”.

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“At the start of the season I was planning on hopefully just getting into the side here and there but he’s given me my chance and hopefully I can continue doing well.”

“My personal target is just to play as many games as possible really. At the start of the season it was to get into the team, I’ve done that so of course that has changed. So now I just want to play as many games as I can and do as well as possible for the club.”

Across their five league matches back in August, Vale won three of them, picked up ten points, conceded just two goals and Smith scored his first goal – the winner in a 1-0 victory at home to Rochdale. He added another soon after, another winner in Port Vale’s 1-0 Checkatrade Trophy triumph over Derby County’s U-23 side.

The youngster let out a chuckle upon being quizzed over his secret of being a goalscoring centre-half, explaining that from his perspective there isn’t particularly a great deal involved in excelling at the art, though the smirk suggests the compliment was much appreciated.

His centre-half partner Remie Streete- once a trainee at Newcastle United-, with whom Smith has formed an excellent partnership, has also been getting in amongst the goals, with both players now on three each for the season. Impressive when one considers that they are only 20 and 22 years of age respectively, and playing regular football at the heart of Bruno Ribeiro’s new-look Vale defence.

“I wouldn’t say there’s any secret to being a goalscoring centre-half, it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time. It’s nice to score goals for your team, but as a pair we (Remie and I) concentrate more on keeping clean sheets”.

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One of the most impressive performances the two have put in together was in new boss Bruno Ribeiro’s first competitive match in charge, where the Valiants battled well to earn a point at promotion-hopefuls Bradford on the opening day of the season. It was also more notably of course, Smith’s competitive debut for the club, played in front of a crowd that was little under 19,000 at Valley Parade. A task made all the more daunting for Smith by the mission of marking Bradford’s potent 6ft 4in target man James Hanson.

“There were definitely a few nerves”, Smith recalls with a grin. “It was my first appearance in the league and especially in front of a crowd as big as that I was full of nerves before kick-off. But as the game gradually wore on I feel like I grew more comfortably into the game”.

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So considering all the headlines that young Nathan Smith has been grabbing over the last couple of months, what actually goes into moulding an academy player into a future Premier League hopeful? As well as the advice he takes forward from his academy days, there is the example of one top-flight star which he feels has had an effect on his game.

“When I was growing up I used to love watching John Terry”, Smith recounts. “I loved the way that he’d go out and lead his team, no-nonsense defending, and that’s definitely something that I feel has rubbed off on me.”

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A critical aspect in Smith’s development however came from him going out on loan and getting first-team experience lower down the football pyramid. It is an ethos which was preached by former Vale boss Rob Page and has continued under the Ribeiro regime, with some of Vale’s other academy prospects, hopeful of emulating Smith’s success, now undergoing the very same learning curve themselves.

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Smith had his own message for the players that fall under this category. These include winger Ryan Lloyd, currently out on loan at Chester, goalkeepers Sam Johnson, Harry Pickering and Ryan Boot who are enjoying spells out on loan at Gateshead, Kidsgrove and Worcester respectively, right-back James Gibbons on-loan at Leek Town and midfielder Billy Reeves who is wracking up minutes with Witton Albion.

“I’d say playing games, competitive football against men is definitely something I’d advise to anyone coming through the youth system.”

“Playing competitive football, there’s nothing like it, you can’t recreate that in the academy”.

Smith’s first-ever spell out on loan was within the local area, when he put pen to paper for a season with Northern Premier League outfit Stafford Rangers, and Smith was more than happy to speak about the benefits of that experience.

“It was my first loan spell, so it felt a bit weird going out and away from the club, but regular competitive football definitely improved me as a player and again I’d advise any young players to go out and get games if the opportunity is there”.

The big turning point in Smith’s development however would come the following year in the 2015/16 season, when he was loaned out to National League outfit Torquay United. It was at the time the highest level the youngster had played at in his competitive career, and he was forced to adapt quickly after enduring a testing first-half of the season at Plainmoor.

The Gulls were entangled in relegation trouble in the National League, after having won just three times in 23 games before Christmas, two of those wins coming in their opening three games of the season. However a late season run that culminated in ten wins from 16 matches kept Torquay up relatively comfortably.

Smith was an integral part of that side, making 39 appearances throughout the season, whilst Torquay manager Kevin Nicholson hailed the youngster as being a “freak of nature”. Smith himself recognises this season as the moment when his career really began to upturn rapidly.

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“Going out on loan to Torquay benefitted me massively”, he says. “That was the big learning curve of my career so far I would say”.

Port Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite is also under no illusions as to the extent to which the experience has aided in Smith’s development. The loan spell almost constitutes a metamorphosis in his view, in that Smith went to Torquay a boy “and came back a man”. These words were also echoed to an extent by former Vale manager Rob Page when he spoke about the purpose of young players going out on loan, and featuring regularly in the team at clubs where it matters if you’re in a side that gets beaten on a Saturday afternoon. Page labelled the concept an experience which would help Vale’s youngsters become men. Smith himself, a beneficiary of this system, would agree with such an assertion.

“Kevin (Nicholson) helped me as a player both on and off the pitch and the experience helped me grow up, especially living away from home and going down to Torquay”, says Smith in recalling the experience.

“It has definitely helped my development the most so far. It was the step I needed to move forward”.

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His exploits at Torquay didn’t go unappreciated amongst the Gulls faithful either, and the Vale youngster cleaned up at their end of season awards, scooping the club’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards, and it is an experience which brings a smile to Smith’s face when discussed.

“I was over the moon when my name was read out, and it’s something you remember, especially within a loan spell away from the club and it’ll stay with me forever. But mostly it has given me confidence in going forward.”

And it is going forward which is certainly the focus for the local lad who is fulfilling his ambition of representing the club which nurtured him and moulded him into a professional footballer. Port Vale, who finished 12th under Rob Page last season, have been in amongst the top six consistently so far this season under the oratory of former Leeds and Sheffield United player Bruno Ribiero. Recently however, the Valiants have been cut two points adrift of the playoffs after a run of four games without a win in October.

It is a run which Smith and his teammates are determined to put right, and although his future may well lie elsewhere either in January or beyond, the youngster is keeping his feet firmly on the ground. At present, doing his best for Port Vale, keeping his place in the team and striving to meet the club’s expectations for the season is all that is on the player’s mind; and much like his employers, he is aiming high.

“As a club, our ambitions for the season are definitely to reach the playoffs and be in the promotion mix, we can’t look at anything else. Anything else would be a failure I guess”, Smith explains.

“We want to go up the leagues and make our way as high up as possible”.

A summer of complete overhaul at Vale Park has seen the club more than ever in recent seasons striving to reach for the stars, and an important part of reaching that achievement will be the accumulation of asset value in terms of developing younger players and making substantial turnover on them, a model which has so often paid dividends for Vale’s local rivals Crewe Alexandra down the years. As far as Port Vale are concerned, Nathan Smith may well be the player to set the precedent and get the production line rolling.

Though rather than simply remain content with a constant cycle of selling off the club’s better players, an ethos is being developed of keeping the conveyor belt going and ensuring any money made on young stars is reinvested into the team, in order to build towards the club’s ultimate goal of promotion to the Championship and eventual stability in the second tier, from which point, if they can establish it, the sky may well be the limit.

Whether or not they ultimately achieve that goal, if Nathan Smith can continue to make such remarkable progress, there can be little doubt that he, if not the club in its entirety, certainly will. Another precedent has been set entirely by the company in which he shares his EFL Young Player of the Month accolade, and it seems the potential is very much there for him to hit the very same heights.

23 year old from Stoke-on-Trent. Avid Port Vale fan. Also follow Derby County & OGC Nice closely. BA Hons Modern Languages Graduate (University of Oxford). My prior experience in Sports Journalism comes from Volleyball & Floorball, having worked on major tournaments with the CEV, FIVB, & IFF. Have been contributing pieces to The Boot Room since 2016. Views are my own.

England

Exclusive: Lucy Bronze discusses Lyon move; Lionesses and Champions League triumph

The Boot Room caught up with the Champions League winning full-back.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Getty Images

At the age of 26, Lucy Bronze has already enjoyed a hugely impressive career, both domestically and internationally.

She has played for the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City in England before moving abroad to join Lyon who are regarded as one of the best clubs in the women’s game.

It would have been tough to leave her home country, but opportunities such as this one doesn’t arrive often and the full-back grabbed it.

In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, she discussed the reasons behind that very move.

“To play in the best team in Europe, with the best players in the world, in the hope they could help me improve as a player. Of course, I wanted to win the Champions League too, but I really wanted to challenge myself to improve as a player.”

Although the women’s game in England is improving due to the performances of the national team and the implementation of the Women’s Super League, there are better opportunities to be taken abroad.

Toni Duggan has moved to Barcelona, Eni Aluko has joined Juventus while Jodie Taylor and Rachel Daly both play in the United States.

It is still rare for players from the national team to move abroad, but Bronze and the players listed above have set an exciting precedent.

(Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Lyon have established themselves as one of the leading clubs in Women’s football and were very keen to sign Bronze from Manchester City.

In the statement that announced her signing, they described the 26-year-old as ‘without doubt, the best full-back in the world’. This is high praise and underlines how highly she is thought of across Europe.

“I think I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. But my physicality and mentality are probably what give me an edge because I’d run through a brick wall to win.”

Bronze is humble when discussing that comment and her strengths as a full-back, but a player doesn’t get to the position that she is in without having natural talent.

Her winning mentality and reading of the game give her an advantage, but she is also effective in both halves of the pitch, as shown by her goal record.

She isn’t a clinical scorer, but she contributes in the final third and that provides an extra dimension to a team that she is playing in.

Throughout the interview, her modesty and humility shine through. Despite her success as a player, Bronze keeps her feet on the ground and acknowledges the role of others in her career.

During her time in England, she won the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year on two occasions, while she has recently become the first English player to be named BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year.

“Of course, it’s nice to get recognition, especially as a defender it’s always a lot harder. I’m just very fortunate to get to play with so many great players around me who make me look good.”

Her decision to leave England to join Lyon wasn’t a huge surprise as it wasn’t the first example of Bronze leaving the country for career development reasons.

The England international spent some time at the University of North Carolina and she became the first British player to win the NCAA Cup. It was a short period, but an important one for her career.

“Although my stay was short, I learnt a lot.

“I played with so many American players who went on to win World Cups and Olympics, and they all had a crazy mentality that I’d never seen before and I was at an age when I was like a sponge taking everything in.”

Over the course of her time as a professional, Bronze’s desire to learn and better herself is a clear trend. As mentioned above, there are some that consider her as the best full-back in the world and there is genuine reason to believe that is the case.

There have been a number of people that have played a role in the 26-year-old’s career and development as a player.

However, one person stands out above the rest as a key influence on the right-back and that is former Arsenal defender Alex Scott, Bronze’s predecessor in the England set-up.

“I think there are loads of people I could mention, my family especially. But when I think about my England career and getting in at right back, surprisingly enough it was actually Alex Scott, who at the time was my rival for the right back spot at England.

(Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

“She’s the one teammate that helped support me become the player and person I am today.  

“She always pushed me to do more, always had my back, wanted the best for me and still does now, but I don’t know any of player who would support their direct competition the way Alex did for me. 

“It’s something I will always be grateful for.”

It wouldn’t have been easy for Bronze to step up and replace Scott in the England team, but the advice and guidance from the player she was replacing will certainly have made the transition simpler.

As her career continues, she will be hoping to contribute as much to the national side as Scott who made 140 appearances for the Lionesses.

The team on the pitch have made huge strides recently as they attempt to challenge for major honours and emerge as one of the best sides in the world. They came so close to a World Cup final in 2015 and they will be wanting to go even further at the next tournament.

Bronze has played a key role in the growth of the team both on and off the pitch. She believes the Lionesses have a bright future ahead of them.

“I think we have developed such a good squad, we have so many great players.

“We don’t have any superstars who we have to rely on to win us a game, everyone plays their part.

“Every year we have improved as individuals and as a team, and have so many more good young players coming through all the time.”

Although the appointment of Phil Neville was not well received, the Lionesses performed well in the She Believes Cup and made it to the final before losing to the USA due to an own goal.

The team proved that they could challenge the very best teams in the world and Bronze believes that the gap is closing between the USA and England.

“I’d like to think so, I don’t think we are there yet, we aren’t quite ready to be the best in the world but it’s something we are working towards and something I think we all believe we can reach.”

They still have a year before the World Cup is due to take place. It is being held in France and the location could prove to be an advantage for England as they will be so close to home. For Bronze, she plays her football in the country and that should put her in a good position to excel.

England are yet to qualify for the tournament as they trail Wales by one point, albeit the Lionesses have a game in hand.

Bronze and her team-mates won’t be getting carried away, but they have looked a very good team in qualifying. They have scored 20 times in six matches, while they have only conceded once.

There is a real hope within the nation that England can triumph next summer and the 26-year-old believes that it is important that the current generation win an international trophy together.

“It’s so important, we have come so close now in the past two tournaments where making the final is a must.

“We have a lot of players who will be hitting their prime come the World Cup, a lot of players who know what it takes to win trophies.

“Hopefully it all comes together at the right time. But for now, the focus is still on qualifying.”

The last year has been an excellent one for Bronze personally. She has not only earned a move to one of the biggest clubs in the world, but she then helped Lyon retain the Champions League.

It would have been a difficult decision to leave Manchester City, but it was one that paid off.

(Photo by Genya Savilov/Getty Images)

The right-back came up against her former club in the semi-finals of the competition and scored the decisive goal in the tie. She admits that it was strange to go up against her former employers.

“The first game was a very strange game for me, playing in Manchester, surrounded by English people and the pressure I put on myself to say I wanted to win the Champions League with Lyon.

“But the second game at home in Lyon was just like any other game for me, where I enjoyed every minute of it and scoring to get us to the final was like the cherry on top.”

The very best players step up when they are required and they a rarely intimidated by difficult occasions.

Bronze showed that she could thrive despite playing against her former team and was the match-winner on the day.

She may not be an attacking player, but she is capable of producing those moments like and that is one of the reasons why Lyon wanted to sign her.

Bronze has already achieved a lot at the age of 26 and is now establishing herself as one of the best players in the world. She has a big future and will be one of the most important players in England’s search for an international tournament triumph.

There have been many good moments, but the England international states that winning the Champions League and scoring a World Cup goal are two of her favourite moments.

“Winning the Champions League was huge for me, but I was disappointed in how I played in the final. So that’s something I have to put right next year.

“Still, scoring the winning goal in the World Cup against Norway is something that’ll always bring back the best memories for me, simply because I just didn’t think I was capable of scoring a goal like that ever.

“Since then I’ve seemed to have made a habit of scoring one off goals in big games.”

Lyon labelled her as the best full-back in the world and there is a genuine case to be made that she is. She has had a great career to date and there will be more standout moments in her future.

The World Cup next year is already shaping up to be a great tournament and England will be contenders if they get there.

In Bronze, England have a great player with a winning mentality and that could be important for Neville’s Lionesses.

It won’t be easy, but this is the best generation of footballers that England have had in years and it would be incredible for them to mark it with a major trophy win.

There are other great players in the squad, but Bronze could be the pick of the bunch.

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Exclusive: Adebayo Akinfenwa – Wycombe Wanderers, growth of eSports and League One future

Few players outside of the Premier League command the type of attention and admiration as ‘The Beast’.

Jake Jackman

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Adebayo Akinfenwa
Photo: Getty Images

Adebayo Akinfenwa’s reputation has surged during recent years thanks to the FIFA video game series. He has been ranked as one of the strongest players in the game and earned the nickname ‘The Beast’ as a result of that.

Throughout his career, he has been successful in the lower leagues and this season saw the striker win another promotion, this time with Wycombe Wanderers.

However, it is gaming that has taken him global. In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the 36-year-old was keen to make that point when asked about FIFA’s impact:

“Massive, massive, massive, I’d be lying if I said that I could, sat here, say 5-6 years ago saying how my life could’ve gone. The FIFA series, the game community is a world within the world we live in, it’s a community.

It has taken me internationally without even going to these places, of course moments happen, playing Liverpool on tv and I scored and it’s a domino effect. But with how big FIFA is globally there are places I’m known that I’ve never set foot in.

It’s been mindboggling, it’s humbling the way FIFA in itself has changed my world.”

It speaks volumes about the outreach of the gaming community that it has had such a huge impact on Akinfenwa’s career. There are some overlaps between the gaming and football community, but it is the former that has increased the striker’s profile.

A number of prominent YouTubers brought attention to his in-game character and how effective he could be, despite being a lower league footballer.

It is interesting that he notes the domino effect that it has had on the pitch, as opposition teams will be more aware of him and it is likely that clubs have signed him due to his reputation. However, it is his off-the-field activities that have increased due to EA’s popular gaming franchise.

“I mean I interviewed The Rock 4 weeks ago, it’s opened up so many doors. For me I’d say that to get involved with it, at first, you’re going along with it then you realize the doors opening up and the realms it’s taking my life to. It’s mindboggling, it’s opened up so many doors.”

Akinfenwa has been humbled by the way he has been taken in by the gaming community and he has been keen to give something back. Professional gaming is on the way up as an industry and eSports are starting to evolve across the board.

There are no limits to how far it can grow and the influence of people like the 36-year-old can be huge in aiding that. When asked about eSports, the Wycombe striker spoke positively about the industry:

“I think it will be the future, I think that you take gaming which has been around forever, and you take a competitive element and you fuse them together, it can only get bigger and you see it.

“It’s funny because when I was younger my parents were like “get off the computer and get outside” and now parents are like “get on the computer”. It’s the way society is moving and fusing two loves, a competitive edge and gaming. It can only get bigger.”

There will be many within football that fear eSports as genuine competition to the sport. Children may choose to follow in the footsteps of their favourite YouTubers and professional gamers, rather than looking as football as a career path.

The fact that the FIFA eClub World Cup was shown on Sky Sports underlines how gaming has moved into mainstream channels. Meanwhile, Hashtag United has tried to combine football with gaming and are moving into non-league competition in the 2018/19 campaigning.

Football as an industry will see the rise of eSports as a threat, but they should take Akinfenwa’s stance and embrace it. He sees many parallels between the two industries and they should be able to co-exist and thrive.

“I think there’s a comparison to anything professional really or with the desire you want to put in, even if you’re not professional but say you want to get bigger and you’re going to the gym every day, you need the dedication and to put the hard work into it.

“Just because they put the word professional in it – the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional didn’t quit and that’s the only difference.

“With the whole Gfinty Elite series, I’m talking to these gamers, and they prepare like I prepare for a game. They’re not half-stepping and just waking up and switching on the computer, playing and hoping, no, they’re honing their skills and training every day, they’ve got their formation that they tweak and change every day, it’s a direct comparison.

“If you want to be the best you can be you’ve got to put in the time nobody can wake up and be the best and that’s the same with these players in these competitive leagues they put in the work. That’s what I’ve noticed the most, their determination and work ethic, it’s the same as a professional footballer.”

The mentality of football and eSports are very similar. Akinfenwa has clearly taken that away from his time spent being involved in both. Those that compete at FIFA professionally have to put the time in and work hard, just like footballers going to training every day. Above, the Wycombe striker refers to the Gfinity eSports Elite Series, which he is directly involved in.

When asked about the competition, Akinfenwa spoke about the quality and how he managed to become a part of it.

“The elite series is the best of the best, they’re not half stepping. The players have managers and with FIFA anyway it’s literally like a last man standing, a team of four, PS4 and Xbox, you pick your best players and you go through a tournament process to the final and the winner is the winner.

“The good thing is you find out about the different players like Gorilla, the best in the world, and there are different teams and players trying to navigate through the series and win in the end.

“Initially, I got approached and knew one of the production managers from my time at EA and he said “well, look we want to do this and think you’ll be a great fit”. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to doing more next season.

“I’ve teamed up with Lauren and I felt the chemistry was there, the good thing about it is that I didn’t know much about Gfinity or eSports, I mean I knew, but not much about it.

“It’s let me dive into their world, see how seriously you need to take it and have dedication. I went along this year as a novice and now I know much more and I’m looking forward to next season.”

Despite being 36, Akinfenwa isn’t looking to end his playing career anytime soon. That said, he will have one eye on what he can do once he does hang up his boots. If eSports continues to grow, there is no reason why he can’t become more involved and become an ambassador for many more projects like this one.

Wycombe are the focus of his attention for now after he was rewarded for his form with a new contract earlier this season. He will remain at Adams Park for the 2018/19 campaign, which will see him given another chance to make an impact in League One. The powerful striker believes that the Choirboys are ready to push on at a higher level.

“Yeah, outside the Wycombe team, the fans, the board, we weren’t favourites to go up but in-house we aspired to that and wanted to achieve and it’s the same.

“When you get promoted, consolidating and staying up is the key. I think most managers and players will say that first and foremost is hitting the benchmark that you’re not going to get relegated. As soon as you can hit that benchmark you can kick on. We’ll try and hit our goals as early as possible and kick on from there.”

Akinfenwa hasn’t played in the third tier since the 2013/14 season, in which he played 34 times for Gillingham. It was a solid if unspectacular season as he contributed ten goals and five assists. A similar return would go a long way to seeing Wycombe establish themselves in League One.

Over the course of the last year, it can be argued that Akinfenwa has matured and found a consistency that has been absent previously. During the promotion-winning season, the striker contributed 17 goals and 14 assists, which is a remarkable impact.

“I rate it up there as one of my best seasons, I believe that I needed the players around me to help me get my numbers. As long as I enjoy the game and I feel fit I’ll go out there and I know what I can do and what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and I stay away from that.

“This season, as a club and a team we concentrated on what I was good at and therefore got the numbers both for goals this season and minutes played.

“It’s always nice to get acknowledged for the work you’re putting in but for me I’m glad we got promoted. Individual accolades are good, and I won’t knock that.

“When you retire you can look back on it, but collective accolades mean ten times more so for what I was nominated for and being in the team of the year; if we didn’t get promoted, personally it would’ve counted for nothing. It was nice for it all to culminate into a promotion and then get the accolades.

(Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

“For me, people would argue it should be my best season to date in my football career – It’s hard to argue because my stats say that. For me I’m enjoying it, numbers and stats take care of themselves. As long as I’m enjoying it I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

It is refreshing to hear Akinfenwa talk about the importance of team achievements over individual awards. Through the exposure supplied by the FIFA series, the attacker has got a lot of recognition as an individual, but he hasn’t let that affect his on-pitch performances.

He remains an excellent lower league striker and that is why he is rarely without a club for long. Last season, Wycombe benefitted from his goals, but it was his unselfish hold-up play that made him indispensable to the team, as underlined by his assist tally.

The 36-year-old will know that it will be tough to replicate those figures in League One, but if he can continue to deliver consistent performances, he will continue to offer something to the team. The growth of eSports is certainly proving to be exciting off the pitch, but Akinfenwa doesn’t plan to stop playing in the immediate future.

“Mentally I’m as good as I’ve ever been, and I feel fit I’m playing more minutes than I’ve ever played especially over these two seasons. But I think growth plays a massive part in the experience, I know what I’m good at and when you’re younger you’re trying to find what you’re good at.

“I’ll always say as soon as you can find out what you’re about, the better you will be – that’s what, especially in the last three years, I’ve found out what I’m good at.

“I’m not trying to do step overs and beat 4 players and I’m okay with the player I am. Some people will be for me and some will be against me but ultimately, I’m comfortable with who I am and what I’m about. As long as I stay fit and as long as I’m enjoying it, putting my body through this, I’ll keep playing football.”

League One defenders will be worried to hear that. Despite getting towards the end of his career, Akinfenwa remains as dangerous as he ever has been thanks to his power and physical frame.

He has the ability to dominate any defender in that division and, over the last couple of seasons, he has added intelligence to his game. The striker knows his own limitations and that has helped him get the best out of his ability.

It will be interesting to see how he and Gillingham fare next season. They have a bright, young coach in Gareth Ainsworth and they have a team that appears to enjoy playing together. Akinfenwa has played a huge role in that and few would back against him making an impact again during the 2018/19 season.

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Championship

Exclusive: Steve Morison raves about Millwall fans, discusses ‘difficult’ Leeds spell

The Welsh international spoke with pride when reflecting on Millwall’s most recent Championship campaign.

Jake Jackman

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Steve Morison
Photo: Getty Images

Millwall achieved an impressive 8th placed finish during their first season back in the Championship and were ultimately only three points off of a play-off place.

The Lions were one of the surprise packages of the 2017/18 Sky Bet Championship season and Neil Harris deserves a great deal of praise for the results that he has delivered at The Den.

One player who symbolises what the club represents is striker Steve Morison.

The 34-year-old has played over 200 matches for the Lions and will undoubtedly go down as a Millwall legend.

In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the Welsh international spoke proudly about the recent campaign, praising the incredible team spirit as the reason behind the club’s success:

“We’ve got an incredibly tight-knit and committed squad of players who work hard both individually and collectively.

“Since he first took charge, the manager has implemented a way of playing which gets the best out of the players he has at his disposal and also, since the back end of last season, we’ve formed a great bond with the supporters.

“Each of those elements are important individually, but when you add them all together then it shouldn’t really be as big as surprise that we have surpassed expectation as it has been made out by some.”

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Although Millwall cannot compete with the finances of some of the bigger clubs in the second tier, they boast an ardent fan-base and they have found a set of players who have been successfully able to connect with those in the stands.

In the past, the supporters have been difficult to play in front of and some players have struggled to live up to expectation but that hasn’t been a problem for the current squad. Understandably, Morison was keen to emphasise the tremendous role that the supporters played throughout the campaign.

“They can be a tough crowd to play for when things are going against you but so long as you keep putting everything in to each performance, playing with passion and desire, then they will continue backing you.

“I’ve played at Millwall for a long time now all-in-all and I’m sure they respect my achievements and personality, as I do their honesty and love for the club.”

It is no surprise to hear Morison speak highly of the club’s supporters. After all, he has played more matches for Millwall than he has at any other club he has been with.

This is his third spell at The Den and he is a player that the supporters have formed a genuine connection with.

A no-nonsense centre-forward, who benefits from the atmosphere created by the fans, Morison doesn’t shirk a physical encounter, making him the perfect striker for the current squad.

“This really feels like home for me as a player. The club gave me my big chance when I first moved here, which was a platform to go on to play for my country and in the Premier League.

“Since that first spell I’ve been back twice, firstly on loan which wasn’t so successful for me or the club, and more recently since the gaffer took over.

“The style of play suits me and I suit the style of play, which is why I think my best performances have tended to come in a Millwall shirt.”

This season, Morison has shown no sign of slowing up, playing 44 of the Lions’ Championship matches and becoming one of the mainstays of the team under Neil Harris.

The 34-year-old only scored five times, but he was an important part of Millwall’s success. In addition to his goals, he contributed eight assists and was a handful every time he stepped out onto the pitch.

Over the course of the campaign he moved to within ten of 100 goals for the club.

(Photo by James Chance/Getty Images)

“Personal records and accolades are always nice to receive but if I’m not scoring and the team is winning then I’m far happier than I would be if it was the other way around.

“I’ve had some great memories of my time at Millwall and hope there is many more to come, including reaching that goal landmark which any player, no matter what club they play for, should be proud of.”

That would be a major landmark to reach and it is likely that he will be given more than a fair opportunity to get the goals required.

Naturally, Morison is right to speak about the team being more important than personal achievement, but there is a good chance that he can enjoy both at The Den.

It would be a great moment for him, as he has enjoyed his best years at the club and to reach 100 goals would be a fair representation of his contribution.

Morison will be remembered fondly by the Millwall supporters, but the current manager in the dugout is already legend at the club.

Neil Harris achieved a lot as a player and has had a similar impact since taking over as the number one at The Den.

His former team-mate speaks positively about his current boss and it is obvious that he sees him as havingd a bright future in management.

“The gaffer is one of those who knows how to get the best out of players both individually and, when all put together, as a team. He is very honest and up front and we regularly have lengthy chats about all sorts of things. He respects the opinions of his players, especially senior ones like myself.

“He knows this club so well – he’s a Millwall legend – but he was right when he said, after his appointment, that he wanted to be judged on his performance as a manager and not as the player he was.

“Since then we’ve been to Wembley twice, winning promotion once, and almost secured a Play-Off spot for a chance to get to the Premier League. Those achievements speak for themselves and ultimately say a lot about his quality as a manager and a person.”

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

There are times when a manager and club fit like a glove. Harris and Millwall are an example of that.

He played the majority of his career at The Den and is one of the players who, like Morison aims to, scored more than 100 goals for The Lions.

During his playing career, he learnt everything there was to know about the club and it isn’t a shock that it has allowed him to transition seamlessly into management.

Harris started as the boss of the Under-21s and is now emerging as one of the most exciting coaches in the country.

Millwall’s style of play is functional, but it has earned the club good results.

An 8th placed finish is a superb achievement and sees them finish above the likes of Leeds United, Norwich City and Sheffield Wednesday, all of whom were seen as teams that could challenge for promotion this season.

He may now be seen in a similar way to Harris, but Morison hasn’t been at Millwall for his entire career.

The Welsh international tested himself at a higher level with Norwich in the Premier League. Meanwhile, he also played for Leeds United, but failed to make an impact at Elland Road.

It didn’t work out for him in Yorkshire, but he doesn’t want to make excuses for his lack of impact.

“I’ve been fairly honest in my assessment of my time at Leeds in the past. It just didn’t work out anywhere near as well as I’d hoped or the club had hoped for me. It was a difficult time to be a player with the controversy and uncertainty in the background, which does have an impact on performances and results.

“But as an individual I don’t want to make excuses. I didn’t play as well as I would have liked and as I have done since.”

Although it didn’t work out for Morison at Leeds, he won’t finish his career looking back at the spell with regret. Ultimately, it led him back to Millwall and that is where he feels at home.

The atmosphere and playing style allow him to play to a high standard, despite approaching 35 years of age.

Although some would consider Morison to be nearing the end of his time as a player, he isn’t ready to call it a day just yet.

“So long as I feel fit and I’m contributing then I want to play as long as possible. You’re a long time retired as a footballer and I want to prolong my own career as much as is possible.

“I feel that I’ve contributed well again this season and am looking forward to coming back for training again at the end of June to get ready for another campaign. I don’t look too far forward.

“As a club we’ve got to ensure that this season and the success we’ve enjoyed becomes a platform for progression and even bigger and better things in 2018/19. That has to be our aim.”

There is a lot for Morison to achieve before hanging up his boots. The 100 goals will be on his mind, even if it isn’t his main priority. Also, he will want to continue to play a part in the progression of Millwall.

The Lions finished 8th this season and there will be a desire to go one step further and make the play-offs during the 2018/19 campaign. It would be an incredible achievement for the club to reach the top-flight, but the last 12 months show that it shouldn’t be considered impossible.

Morison still has a part to play and it is clear he has the hunger to deliver sustained progression at the club.

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