Alex Simmons made an immediate impact yesterday for Gainsborough Trinity, banging in a brace as they swept aside our youngsters 4-1. It will have been a sweet moment for a player who, up until recently, seemed to have a big future with Lincoln City.
Of course his goals sparked a flurry of comments on social media regarding his potential and how he could still do a job for City. Whenever a young, local player leaves there is an inevitable mini backlash. We saw the same with Connor Robinson when he departed after showing much promise.
Simmons told Peter Hayward of Sports Linc that it was a ‘strange feeling’ playing against his old club, but he managed to put that to one side to register a fine personal display, albeit against some very young Imps footballers. His two goals showed he can finish, so were we right to move him on at the end of the season, or should he still be a Lincoln City player?
Whilst I do think Alex is a talented boy, I also think we’re pushing onwards quite quickly. If he wasn’t at a level where he could turn out regularly for us last season, how could we consider him being ready for the League Two campaign? My thoughts are immediately drawn to a player called Ollie Ryan you may well remember, a striker who looked to have a good future ahead of him back in Keith’s day. Ollie kept getting a fresh deal, spending short periods of time out on loan before coming back and knocking briefly on the first team door. Eventually he got his chance under John Schofield, but he flopped and was moved on quickly.
My fear would have been for Alex to take the same route. With the greatest will in the world there isn’t a starting place for him at Sincil Bank, and given the quality of players joining the squad I highly doubt there would have been a place on the bench either. Alex would have simply existed in the reserves, maybe heading out on loan and possibly even impressing. He had a great start to last season at Halifax, but struggled to have the same impact at York Street.
Eventually I could see him becoming a frustrated player, struggling for form as he floats on the fringes of the first team and keeps joining up with different squads and different managers. I don’t think that life is one for a footballer, not one who has come through the youth ranks and is looking to make his way in the game. What Alex needs is regular first team football at a level where he can perform to his abilities. Gainsborough Trinity will absolutely offer him that chance, and if he plays as well as he did for Halifax last season then we might see him step up to the Football League again. If he does it would down to his regular football at Gainsborough as much as it would be down to his natural ability.
As great comparison would be Elliott Whitehouse, a player I feel has taken a similar route to Alex but is a few years further on. Elliott wasn’t quite up to league football in his younger days, but a move to Nuneaton saw him thrive with regular football. He was able to express himself as a player, build up fitness and form, and demonstrate the potential he had. From there he was spotted by us, and since then he’s gone on to become a valuable squad member and a player of whom much is expected in the future.
If Elliott had stayed at Notts County getting the odd game here or a month a Retford on loan every so often, would he have built up the confidence and consistency to be noticed by Danny? Would he have been able to ensure he caught the eye with regular performances at Meadow Lane? Or would he have drifted down the leagues, much like Ollie Ryan did, frustratingly able to do a job but never given a run of game to prove that? Maybe Elliott’s game developed at Nuneaton too, I suspect he emerged from the National League North with more in his locker than when he first went in.
Many observers have spoken of yesterday’s game at the Northolme as ‘boys against men’, and that is not detrimental to the young Imps on display. They put in a spirited and ambitious performance, but they are youth players with a long way to go to before establishing themselves as first team players. Perhaps one or two will, but I suspect a few of them will drop into Gainsborough’s league where they’ll stop being boys and become men. Last season Alex Simmons was one of our young players, one of our ‘boys’ if you like, but now he has a chance to be a first team regular at Trinity he will undoubtedly become a man. He may flourish, he may develop and he may step back up to the level we’re now at, but there is no guarantee he would achieve that by staying put.
I’m not saying all young players need to move on in order to make it at Lincoln, far from it. If DC felt that there would be ample chances for Alex to shine at City I have no doubt he would have kept him with the squad. However, we often hear Danny speaking about what is best for the player, giving them the opportunity to develop and doing what is needed to boost their careers. It is a common held belief that Terry Hawkridge would have been on the fringes this year, and despite him being a great squad player, he was allowed to join Notts County with no malice because it was best for him.
Of those young Imps yesterday I hope there is a different path for them. Now we’re back in the Football League with seven subs places and the EFL Trophy to compete in, I hope a couple of them get around the first team. I know the managers are looking at strengthening the youth structure at the club, building on the great work of the past few years and developing players in the same way we saw Lee Frecklington develop. With the right attitudes and the right opportunities our youth set-up can bring good players through, and not just Lee. Look at Jack Hobbs, Shane Clarke, and Kern Miller, all of whom played for other Football League teams. The increased funding will help grease those wheels too, and the future is looking brighter every day as we re-establish ourselves as a Football League club.
Alex Simmons has perhaps been unlucky that his tenure as a youth at City has come during the six years in non-league where funding was lower, and despite the best efforts of some great staff he was unable to emerge significantly enough to remain in the first team. I have every belief he will be a success at Gainsborough, he’s a committed and able footballer that just needs games and confidence, and sadly Lincoln City are not in a position to offer that at this moment in time.