The following article appeared in the matchday programme for the postponed game with Gillingham.
Don’t forget, never miss a player interview by ordering your programme in advance from Ignition Media.
18-year-old keeper Sam Long wasn’t a player many fans would have heard much about before the season started, but his progress to becoming number two has been startling, writes Gary Hutchinson.
It hasn’t always been smooth for the youngster, who was turned away from a Premier League side at a young age, but has bounced back with vengeance.
“I was at Crystal Palace from under 10s to under 14s, then I got released because I was told I was too small,” he said.
“They predicted my height to by 5ft 10, which I’ve gone past now as I’m 6ft. “It was tough being told by Palace I would be too small, but I also used it as motivation. I didn’t believe what they were saying, I didn’t think the height predictor was right, so I used it as motivation to push on.
“I have absolutely no regrets at all, it has led me here and I’m happy about that. I did have a few trials after Palace, but they didn’t work out. I played a bit of schools’ football after that, and a bit of Sunday League too. Then Lincoln spotted me at a school cup final, which led to me moving up here.”
Part of the move that appealed to Sam was the chance to continue his education whilst also pursuing his dream of professional football.
“Both me and my parents felt it was important that I carried on my school work and A Levels. There were a few other clubs come in for me, but they didn’t offer anything in terms of education, it was just a bare minimum package. With Lincoln and Jez in particular, we were really shown how both education and football could work out for me. If I can keep going and get the grades that I want, then great.
The academy players all live and work together, as part of the club’s relationship with the Lincoln Minster school.
“We study at Lincoln Minster school, and the group stay in one of the boarding houses there too. At the moment, it is all remote learning, but we can still get on with the work. It’s really good.”
“All of the lads bar a couple who are Lincoln based who are staying at home because of Covid. There are boys from all over the country here, from Brighton, Nottingham, Leicester and London. There are sixteen or seventeen of us in the house and it’s good as we can socialise too. Obviously, we can’t do that at the moment, but it is still nice.”
Academy football has changed drastically since the days of only having local players, which means challenges in terms of moving away at a young age, but Sam feels that also helps personal development as well.
“Moving away from home, at least for the first three or four months, was really different from what I was used to. Since then, I think it has helped me mature as a person, I think I’ve grown up a lot over the past year and a half or so, it has helped build my independence and confidence. Even things such as keeping your own room tidy and cooking meals for each other and cleaning up are important. Later in life, they are the skills we need, especially for the second years. Next year, some will stay with the club, others go to different clubs or Uni and we’ll all have these skills.”
Sadly, even life for the academy players is being impacted by the pandemic, but it hasn’t affected development, or team spirit.
“At the moment we can’t mix in each other’s rooms, but if there’s football on the TV, Champions League or something, we’ll go and watch it. We have a dartboard and PlayStation, but even just things like cooking and cleaning together helps form the strong bond between us and that shows on the pitch as well.”
Of course, it would be remiss to only discuss academy football with a player who penned his first professional deal, just months after winning the club’s Scholar of the Year award.
“Winning the scholar of the year award was great, a proud moment for me, but I feel like I’ve kicked on since then. I took it as a positive, but also a sign of my progress and how I needed to keep going, keep working hard every day and get a pro contract. Since then, I have got the pro contract and I have the same outlook, just to keep working hard and progressing, every day. Becoming a professional footballer is something I have been working towards my whole life and when I was offered the contract, I couldn’t take the smile off my face. It was a proud moment for me, and my family and to finally hear I was getting a contract was great, I was buzzing!”
That contract has brought with it a fresh challenge for Sam, who now sees first hand the level required around a League One first team squad.
“With the first team squad, the quality and intensity are just a level above academy football. The things you learn playing and training with the first team you wouldn’t learn in 100 academy games. Just being around them, playing and training every day helps decision making and sharpness. Off the pitch, you see how the pros train, what they’re eating, how they are in the gym and you learn from that. That has helped me grow, not just as a footballer, but also as a person, as it has showed me the levels you need to reach every day trying to build that professionalism. I use the senior players like Liam Bridcutt as a role model, and look to do the things they do off the field.”
Being a keeper, he also works closely with current stopper Alex Palmer, who has taught him plenty during their daily sessions.
“Alex Palmer is a phenomenal keeper. In training he is tidy and professional. He’ll give me tips when I make mistakes, but he will help me out and let me know when I’m doing things well. That’s certainly helped with my progress this season, but working with Steve (Croudson) has really helped me. He has helped me get that aggression into my game, and certain other things that maybe I wouldn’t have had if he hadn’t come in.”
The next step is to keep working hard and establishing himself as a viable number two and future first team player. Having battled back from rejection, and having left home to pursue his dream, Sam Long epitomises everything a young player should aspire to be – hard working, focused, grounded and willing to learn. Most of all though, he feels that resilience is the key for any youngster currently dreaming of making it as a pro.
“Just never give up, no matter what anyone tells you,” he added, with the maturity of a player far older than 18. “It is important that you have resilience and strength to carry on working hard. If you want to become a pro, you must be prepared to have people tell you you’re not good enough or big enough, but also to keep focused and fighting. If you keep working hard and do the right things every day, then have belief someone will recognise that eventually.”
You can read more from Sam Long here, as he discusses the FA Youth Cup with me, and a selection of his Under 18 teammates.