Whilst sides in the Premier League are cashing in millions of pounds each and every game, many teams across the country struggle to make ends meet on a weekly basis. The importance of non-league football to the elite in Britain may have diminished with the arrival of foreign stars and billionaire owners, yet there are many examples that capture why teams outside the 92 in the Football League still hold a special place in the hierarchical structure of the English game. In recent times alone, Jamie Vardy, Charlie Austin and Chris Smalling have all made the step up from the non-league to the Premier League. Smalling now has 17 England caps to show for his progress and ambition. Another young man who has recently made the step up is Ryan Sellers.
“I was playing for my school and Aron (Wingate & Finchley Chairman) was watching us play against Mill Hill County. I must have impressed him so he spoke to my dad and he asked me to come down for a trial. I ended up signing for the U16 side at the time and it was quite quick.”
“I was at Wingate until I was 18 and I got a call from Barnet and they asked me for a trial. I spoke to the manager and he said it was okay. I wasn’t moving to a rival like Wealdstone or Harrow, Barnet were in League 2 at the time, it was a good opportunity for me.”
“I left for Barnet’s development system where I went to college and played football, no pay or contract. You had to impress them enough to earn a contract. It was my first time at a professional club. I was there for a year or so and I’d been in and out of the youth team except for six weeks where I was a regular. I began asking questions about whether I’d get the contract or not. They told me I wasn’t good enough and didn’t offer me the contract. I was a little bit upset, I can’t lie, but that’s football. I thanked the club for what they taught me, I learned a lot about my role a lot and about reading the game.”
The next step was to be an important one for Sellers, who had to ensure he found a club where he’d get playing time with a chance to prove himself and regain the form that he showed in abundance whilst at Wingate & Finchley. Where better to go than back to the Harry Abrahams itself?
“The first place that came to mind for me when choosing a new club was the place where I shared a great relationship with the chairman, the players and the staff – Wingate! I went for pre-season training in 2013/14.”
However, it was during this time that Sellers’ life was to be changed by one message. “I got a text from my mate telling me that he was going to Nike trials and that I should go along with him for a kick about and a bit of fun. I registered on Facebook the night before and I went there without any real expectations, more for a game of football. All of a sudden, I was playing in front of scouts with 60 other boys. I ended up winning the national trials! It was weird because I didn’t go there with the mind-set, I just went for fun.”
“So I was invited to the global trials at St. George’s Park in November for a weekend. I went back to Wingate and told them how good an opportunity it was for me. My dream growing up as a kid was to be a professional footballer so I spoke to the Chairman and the staff, I assured them it was nothing against the club, the club is my home but the opportunity can slingshot me into the spotlight. Being at Wingate was incredible and I loved every minute. I made friends that I will never lose touch with for the rest of my life.”
“I went to the global trials and ended up winning it. The opportunity was big for me and Wingate were incredibly supportive, they drove me through the trials and that’s how I ended up winning. I was in the Academy for six months when I got a phone call from Bolton asking me to come up to Bolton for a trial.”
For any young schoolboy, the dream is to play football for a professional team in front of thousands and here was Sellers’ chance to make that move. “Dougie Freedman was in charge and I had no agent at the time, I was delighted as that was the reason I’d gone so far into the academy. I got injured just before the trial and I was gutted because I thought that was the end of my chances of going there but they were brilliant and I went up to Bolton after recovering.”
Of course, moving from London to Bolton can be a daunting prospect for one so young, but the club made the move much easier for Sellers. “They sorted transport and accommodation out for me, which made me feel really wanted. I was on trial for three weeks and was offered a one-year deal. The manager told me he liked my attitude and style.”
A year later, Sellers reflects on a time of his life that has flown by. “I think about the decisions I’ve made in my life. What if I’d not got that text from my mate? What if I’d not gone to the trial? It doesn’t happen to many people and I feel so lucky for it to have all happened to me.”
“Iain Brunskill became Under 21 manager when Neil Lennon joined the Club halfway through the season and I was playing at left-back for the Under 21’s. In the end, I played 14 games, scored twice and got six assists. It was a great learning curve for me. It wasn’t easy at the start, moving away from London, I had to settle in off the pitch before even thinking about the football side. I took a month or two to settle though; it was my first ever move away from home. I couldn’t hop on a train every night and see my friends or family, who were massive in pushing me forward in my career. I sometimes went weeks without seeing them but that made me who I am today.”
The experience at youth level also gives younger players the chance to play against experienced internationals who may be recovering from injury and gaining fitness from a youth game. When asked who the best players he played against were, the list was one of household names. “I remember playing Ron Vlaar, [Christian] Benteke and Joe Cole when we played Villa. Damien Duff was also another one who played against us. Tomas Kuszczak was in goal when we played Wolves.”
But even more of a household name is Eidur Gudjohnsen, who joined Bolton in December alongside Emile Heskey. “Eidur has won the Premier League and the Champions League, he’s played with Messi and now we were training with him at Bolton. Training with the first team was intimidating to start with because there are some good players in the squad, but you get used to it eventually. It was fast, the players are strong and competitive but the experience was incredible. The big name players are some of the nicest people I’ve met, they’re so down to earth.”
But for his former side, Wingate & Finchley, Sellers’ praise was unparalleled. “I check the scores each week, I always want to know who has scored and I was hoping the club would get into the play offs but the record breaking season was something the club can be proud of. The signings have been great and the club have coped extraordinarily with new management in a tougher league. I always hope we win, I’m so proud to say I used to play for the club. [Daniel] Nielsen and [Dave] Norman have done so much for the club and they love football at Wingate. Nobody at the club is there for the money; everyone does their job for the fans. Even though the fan-base is small, everything is geared towards doing well on the pitch.”
When asked about a return to Summers Lane in the future, Sellers could not hold back his love for Wingate & Finchley, “That’s a hard one! I always loved playing for the club. I guess I’ll just have to see how my career progresses.”
On Monday 15th June, Wycombe Wanderers announced Sellers as their second signing of the summer, a move that will give the left back his first crack at league football. “It’s a top, top club that were so close to gaining promotion last season. The manager and the rest of the club are hungry for success and I’m delighted to be joining a place where I can push on and help the club to achieve. It’s the right place for me to be at.”
I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Ryan for taking a lot of time out to speak to me and wish him the best of luck for his new adventure. I’m sure I speak on behalf of all at Wingate & Finchley in wishing him the best of luck at Wycombe Wanderers.