“I used to play for [insert name of club here] until I got injured” – a sentence uttered ruefully by countless young footballers down the years.
A dozen or so words that fail to do justice to all the broken dreams, unfulfilled potential and thwarted ambitions of so many talented players.
One of them is James Yeboah. The Londoner looked to be on the path to professional success until the muscles in his left leg stopped him in his tracks.
As a promising young defender, Yeboah was on the books at Tottenham Hotspur, playing in the same reserve team as the likes of Harry Kane and Andros Townsend.
“I joined West Ham’s youth set-up when I was 11 and played there for about six years before I got an offer to join Spurs,” the 20-year-old told me.
“I thought a move there would suit me, mainly because Spurs were arguably a better side and more importantly it was closer to home, so I found it a bit more convenient.
“Everything was running smoothly, I got called up to play and train with the reserves a lot. I was the youngest in the reserve team, all the other boys were older, but I coped well and cemented myself a starting position. So I was playing every week and I learned a lot.
“The majority of the lads I played with went on to make it professionally, some in the Premier League, others in and around the other English football leagues.”
Yeboah started to make a name for himself and his coaches at Spurs were impressed by his progress, suggesting a call-up to the first team squad was not far away.
“My career and life turned upside down when I tore my rectus femoris muscle in the thigh of my left leg. The doctor said the tear was about 10cm long, from my hip to the bottom of my thigh.
“He recommended I went under the knife, but I wasn’t keen on surgery, I thought I’d sit on the sidelines for 10-11 months which was the required time until I’m ready to play again.”
However, the healing process didn’t go to plan. After sitting it out for nearly a year, Yeboah attempted to make a comeback by training with the youth team only to find his injury kept recurring.
“I had trials set up by my agent and places to go, but a lot of these windows of opportunity had gone”
“It kept causing me pain, which was demoralising and stressful,” he recalled. “I got to a point where I lost love for the game and realised it was time for a back-up plan.”
Although initially supportive, Spurs eventually lost patience over Yeboah’s situation and he was released by the White Hart Lane outfit.
At first, he refused to give up and attempted to find a new club – but his body wasn’t in tune with his ambitious mindset.
“I would have been going on 19 and eager to get a new club, but was continuously on the sidelines. I had trials set up by my agent and places to go, but a lot of these windows of opportunity had gone, which was really mentally tough.”
Fear of the unknown
Yeboah’s struggle to regain fitness took its toll and eventually left him at rock bottom. He opted to give up the sport he had loved playing since he was old enough to kick a ball.
Does he still play at all? “Hardly ever, if I’m honest. I try to keep fit as much as I can by going to the gym. My main objective is going university and getting a degree in building surveying or architecture, depending on the route I decide.
“I never thought of giving up while going through that tough patch, but I was always worried about what I would do if it didn’t work out. It’s fear of the unknown I guess, but now I have my back-up plan I do think about playing again just for fun and fitness.”
Although he sees himself as a strong person, he stressed that mental toughness has to be allied with other qualities to make it as a professional.
“You have to be hard working, extremely dedicated and ready to make sacrifices. Add to that a little luck, and taking opportunities when they present themselves is key.
“I’d like to believe that if I’d recovered from my big injury that I’d be playing at the top level with the likes of my former team-mates Kane and Townsend. I wouldn’t say I would be on the same level as them because they are players who have done their loans and gained gamecraft to prepare themselves for the Prem.
“Youngsters lacking ambition could stem from so many things, but ultimately if you don’t have any ambition you’re not going far in life”
“If I was still playing I think I’d be on loan trying to get game time playing men’s football in the lower leagues to get experience.”
Yeboah also shared his thoughts on the debate over whether today’s young players ‘want it’ enough to overcome hurdles such as the ones he faced.
“It depends on the individual. I’m very ambitious and always want to be the best at everything. Injury can of course hinder or completely stop someone from achieving their goal. I won’t complain about that, but who is to say I would have made it?
“Youngsters lacking ambition could stem from so many things, but ultimately if you don’t have any ambition you’re not going far in life.”
Yeboah is currently on an internship at an architecture firm but hasn’t completely ruled out a comeback to playing football.
“Currently I’ve just been working in architecture, but I am thinking of getting back into football and might try to play for a local team like Barnet, as I live quite close.
“With my CV, I don’t doubt that they would give me a trial. However, I can still tell my left leg is not as strong as my right, and it’s quite obvious when doing strenuous exercise.
“If I’m to start thinking abut playing again then definitely I will have to start conditioning training again and take it day by day. I’ll be looking at getting back into it around the start of May, so we’re going to have to see what happens.”