Rejection as a young professional can sour any footballer’s love of the game, but coaching has rekindled Sam Baxter’s passion for being out on the pitch.
The goalkeeper, who began his career at West Ham, was released by Gillingham in the summer of 2014 and took the plunge into non-league football, determined to get things back on track.
But he quickly realised that the unglamorous life of a semi-professional wasn’t for him and, at 19 years old, dropped out of football.
“I completely fell out of love with it, I didn’t particularly like playing non-league,” he told me. “It was a hard time working during the day and then playing football in the evenings. I really needed to make a change so I could start enjoying it again.”
It wasn’t until his former goalkeeping coach Jerome John got in touch that he began to reconsider his life without football.
“He was encouraging me to keep playing and I told him how I felt. He basically said it’d be a shame to lose the progress that I’d made in my career and drop out of the game completely, so I was asked if I wanted to help out and do some coaching.”
“If I was still playing now, the amount of stuff I’ve learned while coaching and on these course would make me a hell of a better player”
The shot-stopper returned for his love of the game, and getting involved with a group of young American goalkeepers who had been scouted by an international academy to come over for an elite academy experience allowed him to find his feet.
The 21-year-old is now a full-time coach at former club West Ham, working six days a week with the under-eights up to the under-16s.
“I’m really enjoying it,” he said. “It’s a lot less pressure than playing, and helping the kids out and trying to help them not make the same mistakes as I did, is really encouraging. If you work all week with one of the under-eights on one-v-ones then come Saturday, he makes a one-v-one save, then it is very pleasing for me as a coach.”
Learning and growing
As a scholar with West Ham, Sam completed his level two outfield coaching badge as a schoolboy – the first step on a big journey.
“I then did the level two goalkeeping coaching badge on my own. I’ll be starting my UEFA B in May this year. I’m trying to do as many as I can to continue learning and growing as a player and as a coach.”
“For now, the excitement of seeing fledgling goalkeepers make their way through the ranks at his boyhood club is fulfilling enough”
The Essex-born keeper stresses how fleeting the career of a professional footballer can be, and the importance of getting both hands on your coaching badges early.
It’s a great thing to do because you never really know what’s round the corner,” he said. “If you go and do your cruciate then you’re going to need something to fall back on.
“Not only that, I’ve learned so much from it. If I was still playing now, the amount of stuff I’ve learned while coaching and on these course would make me a hell of a better player.”
Baxter is now loving life once again as a coach but admits that the door is still open to a return to professional football.
“Sometimes I do think about it. I’ve played in a couple of staff games recently and thought ‘maybe’. If I could find a place which allowed me to balance my coaching as well as playing, then I would definitely give it another go.”
For now, the excitement of seeing fledgling goalkeepers make their way through the ranks at his boyhood club is fulfilling enough.