A DECADE ago, Paul Digby made his debut for Barnsley aged 16 and – although he admits there were tough times ahead – he has praised the club for giving him a career in professional football.
A regular in England youth teams, the central midfielder was considered by many within Oakwell as the jewel in the crown of a promising crop of youth players coming through in the early part of the last decade, even ahead of John Stones who is a year older.
When he spent two weeks with Manchester United with a view to a big-money move, most of the national newspaper reports about the trial mentioned Digby in the intro then added ‘Mason Holgate is also on trial.’
Holgate is now a Premier League regular with Everton while Digby has made a good career for himself in the lower leagues, playing 175 games and winning promotion to League One last season with current club Cambridge United.
On September 27, 2011, Digby – who had left school that summer – came off the bench to replace David Perkins on 33 minutes at Derby County. Jacob Butterfield gave the Reds the lead seconds later but the match finished 1-1.
Digby told the Chronicle: “People sometimes ask me what my most memorable day in football is and I always say that day.
“It was surreal, I hadn’t been out of school long and I’d only trained with the first team a few times.
“All I had dreamed of my whole life was to play professional football. I’d been at Barnsley for five years and all I wanted was to make my debut.
“I could see we had another injury so I was warming up next to the dugout so Keith Hill would see me and put me on.
“I got the nod to come on and I was absolutely buzzing. I was playing with Bobby Hassell who I had looked up to for years, Ricardo Vaz Te and also Danny Drinkwater who has gone on to win the Premier League. I had never really played in front of fans and I remember not being able to hear anything my team mates said to me.
“Because we scored so quickly, it settled my nerves and it was an amazing feeling. I’ll remember that day forever.”
Digby would make his first start later that season, just days after his 17th birthday – which he says is another career highlight – but a serious hip injury meant he did not play at all the following campaign then just five games as the Reds were relegated in 2013/14.
The drop to League One did not give him the extra opportunities many expected and he was mainly a back-up for the next 18 months.
“It was very tough. I felt I played really well in my first few games then I was out for more than a year and, after that, my body felt completely different. I was growing at such a rate and I had a lot of problems with my body.
“I just couldn’t play consistently at that point in my career. When I did play, there was a lack of confidence and self belief which probably showed on the pitch. It was very frustrating not to be the same as when I was 16 or 17.
“Maybe there was some overtraining. I should have rested a lot more than I did, but it happened and you learn from it and move on.
“It made me a lot tougher and stronger as a person. Ten years on I have seen a lot and I can deal with things much better.
“Now I know my body inside out and I work really hard on keeping fit. I feel really fit and strong.
“I am very understanding of young players who have injuries. I try to help them through it.”
In the summer of 2015, Digby and Holgate spent time on trial at Manchester United, playing for their development teams, with a view to permanent moves which did not happen.
Digby said: “It was amazing. I learned so much in those two weeks. I still do drills and work-outs in the gym that they were doing there, because I learned from the best of the best. That’s helped my body a lot.”
Digby also played for England under 19s and under 20s with the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Calum Chambers who have gone on to play for the senior team.
“I felt such pride and honour wearing the England badge and singing the anthem. It was great to train and play with really good players and under really good coaches. I am very lucky to have had that experience.”
Digby left Barnsley in 2016, moving up a division to join Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich where he lasted 18 months before dropping to League Two and spending one season each at Mansfield Town, Forest Green Rovers and Stevenage then moving to Cambridge last year.
He was a regular as they won automatic promotion to League One last season – fired by the goals of Joe Ironside, the grandson of ex-Reds goalkeeper Roy – and has again been starting often this season.
Digby, who still plays as a central midfielder after a spell in defence, said: “It’s been great. The promotion was fantastic and it was my first one which I have been working hard for. We’ve got really good players like Wes Hoolahan who I’m playing alongside and learning a lot from.”
Many of that crop of Barnsley youth players have gone on to have successful professional careers with Northampton Town’s Danny Rose and Luton’s Jordan Clark joining Stones, Digby and Holgate in making their living from football.
“I have played against Rosey a few times, and Jordan Clark as well. We always catch up after the match.
“I don’t really keep in touch with Stonesy much but I love watching him play. He’s a fantastic player and I always get behind him for England. It’s been amazing to watch his career. He was a lovely lad and one of the funniest people I have very met. It was surreal watching him playing in the Euros for England.”
Overall, Digby – who played 25 games in total for the Reds – has very fond memories of his time at Oakwell.
“Sixteen is so young but getting those first few games helped me so much in my carer and I am very grateful to the club for helping me get my foot in the door in football which is very hard. It was a fantastic club to grow up at and the fact that I can make a living out of football now is down to how good the coaches were there.
“I am very proud to have started at Barnsley and I still support them – I was cheering them on the in the play-offs last season.”