Luck, dreams and tales of ‘if only…’
The 1998 movie Sliding Doors tells the story of a woman whose life hinges on whether she manages to catch her train or not.
If she does, she catches her partner cheating, breaks up with him and goes on to live a happy life. If she misses it, he gets away with his affair and she grows increasingly paranoid and unhappy.
Semi-professional footballer Khalil Zakkour of Ryman Premier League side Wingate and Finchley, is someone whose own life possibly hinged on a ‘sliding door’ moment – but in his case it was not a missed train, but a missed opportunity.
“When I was 16, I had a trial at Southampton where I lined up next to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and scored two goals in my first and only game for them,” he explained.
“I was invited back to play two more games and be part of the squad photo as the manager was quite keen on me – he even told me that if I impressed in those two matches, I would’ve been offered a scholarship.
“But unfortunately at the time no-one was available to take me down there from London, so I had miss those games.”
Had he made it down to the south coast, Zakkour, now 23, might have ended up renewing his acquaintance with fellow trialist Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Instead, whilst the England international’s season highlight is Arsenal’s big local derby with Tottenham, Zakkour’s is Wingate’s rivalry with Enfield Town.
So can something simple as not getting a lift or a train turn really change the course of someone’s life?
“There’s a steely determination about Zakkour. It is something that all footballers who wish to play at a high level must have”
The accepted logic is that if you’re good enough, you’ll make it. Zakkour’s story shows how sometimes, things are bit less straightforward than that.
He’d had an early opportunity, at Reading (after trials at Arsenal and Watford), but again something came along to dash his dreams.
“I enjoyed my time at there. It was a huge confidence boost getting in there at 14 years old after getting turned down by two clubs.
“But Reading actually came to an end because of my school at the time. They refused to give me day release every Wednesday to attend training. It was really frustrating and a bit of a setback.
“I felt like luck just wasn’t on my side, but I went back into Sunday league and within a year I was scouted and had that trial at Southampton.”
There’s a steely determination about Zakkour. It is something that all footballers who wish to play at a high level must have, such are the inevitable disappointments you are bound to face along the way.
“It’s not easy to get noticed at semi-pro level, but nonetheless it’s still a pathway if you work hard and make yourself stand out”
The recent euphoria surrounding Jamie Vardy, a player who so nearly gave up football yet came through the semi-pro pathway to top the Premier League scoring charts, must surely give players like Zakkour confidence to ‘make it’ by following the same route?
“Yeah, of course, most higher league semi-pro players play the level they do because of the chances of them being able to push on into league football. Obviously Jamie Vardy went that step further and ended up in the Prem. Living the dream!”
Unfortunately, Vardy is a rare occurrence. But such is his success that perhaps clubs will start to look more that the semi-professional ladder?
Zakkour said: “It’s definitely not easy to get noticed at semi-pro level, but nonetheless it’s still a pathway if you work hard and make yourself stand out.
“For instance, Dwight Gayle played semi-pro football and scored 60-odd goals. Now he’s at Crystal Palace.”
Gayle joined Palace from Peterborough after spells at Stansted, Dagenham & Redbridge and Bishop’s Stortford, but how big is the gulf in standards between the pro and non-league games?
Zakkour believes that while there is an obvious difference in quality, a lot of this is down to the sheer amount of training that professionals get.
“I don’t think there’s a massive gap, there definitely is one, but it’s created by the fact that professional players are full-time.
“A lot of people still have that dream of being spotted in the back of their mind”
“They’re more likely to be fitter and should 110% be sharper technically with much quicker decision-making, considering their training.”
He also stresses the importance of having the right attitude, plus the mental strength. “A lot of the time it’s down to commitment and dedication.
“But we all get to an age where we have to start thinking about our future. For me, it was either go to university and get a degree or continue to pursue a career in football through the semi-pro route.
“A lot of people just want to carry on playing but at a decent level and, of course, still have that dream of being spotted in the back of their mind, so they choose semi-pro football.”
Of course, it’s easier to ‘still have that dream’ when you have few commitments or ties. But Zakkour is now juggling football with being a parent, working as a teaching assistant and doing some coaching.
“Might his luck turn one day? ‘You just never know, I suppose, nothing’s certain’
It would be understandable if he packed it all in and accepted a professional career wasn’t meant to be.
However, when asked if he was offered one more chance to make it as a pro his answer is straight and simple. “Outcome outweighs the risk.”
Admirable that, despite the setbacks, despite the commitments, his dedication and belief hasn’t waned.
What is apparent when talking to the marauding full-back is that he feels – like so many others are bound to – that with a bit more luck he’d be sharing changing rooms with the likes Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Might his luck turn one day? “You just never know, I suppose, nothing’s certain,” he added.
“I know boys that I played with at academy level who I thought would’ve definitely gone pro but haven’t. Just how it goes, I suppose. It’s a cut-throat game.”