IN the space of a few months, Barnsley academy product Cameron Simpson has found himself playing seven levels below where his former team now play.
But the 19-year-old full-back will tell you he’s made the right decision as he turns out for a club just a stone’s throw away from his home in Penistone, in the Northern Counties East Football League.
The promising prospect was released by Barnsley at the end of last season after being in the academy from the age of nine – a decision due in large part to recurring injuries that severely limited his time on the pitch.
“It was hard to take,” said the teenager. “I’d been there all my life, but that’s what happens in football, it’s cut-throat.
“It knocks your confidence when you’re not around the rest of the team, and it takes a bit to get it back.
“I knew it was coming, but I hadn’t really experienced anything different.
“For the past three seasons I’ve really struggled with recurring hamstring injuries, and I just wasn’t getting the time on the pitch.
“They said it wasn’t because of my ability.
“Barnsley is a good academy, with good people. It’s all done right.”
Simpson looked for another club, getting as far as a trial at Stoke City – but that was derailed by the same hamstring issue that plagued the latter part of his time in the Reds’ academy.
Taking some time away from the game, he worked with Toni Minichiello, who coached Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill.
He found that the injuries were caused by his movement and running, and they worked to change the way he moves so he could avoid similar injuries.
“It’s not really something you ever focus on in football,” Simpson remarked.
It’s a lot to take for a young player, once surrounded by coaches and professionals, to suddenly become self-sufficient.
But Simpson, confident in his own abilities, was supported by his parents Vikki and Ian, both former Great Britain athletes.
And he also had Ian Richardson – his former teacher at Penistone Grammar School, and now manager of Penistone Church – to call upon.
They agreed terms and Simpson has since played most of Church’s games this season, growing in confidence.
“It’s the most I’ve played for the last three seasons,” he said.
“It’s good to get back onto the pitch playing regularly, and enjoying my football again.
“I’m definitely looking to progress my career, and I’ve spoken to Richo and Penistone is a good place to do that.
“Richo wants to develop players, he has a really good philosophy and management style. I trust him.
“It’s a good club, they’re top of the league so they’ve got that confidence.”
Simpson says life in the NCEL Premier Division is a ‘different level’ from playing in a Championship academy side.
He said: “It’s a lot more physical. It’s men’s football.
“It’s a different challenge as a defender, instead of facing players who are quick or tricky they’ll try to bully you.
“You get kicked about a bit, but you try to learn from it. Obviously if players are trying to target you, they’re doing it for a reason.
“Even though it’s non-league, the standards have become so much better. It’s first team football, which is the most important thing.
“It isn’t full-time, so I have to try to do my own thing and keep on with the gym work, with strength and keeping fit.
“If you want to make it you’ve got to put in that sacrifice. I’ve got the motivation to put the extra work in.
“My ambition is not just Penistone, and Richo feels the same way. I know I have the ability, it’s just finding the right team and right people to get where I want to be.
“I’m very grateful for what they’ve done for me.”