In the latest of our player interviews, we spoke to former Laxey star, Tom Cowley, currently playing for the University of Stirling in the Scottish Lowland League.
Tom has a long and impressive trial CV and our conversation focused on the pressures of performing in football trials and the experiences and emotions that go hand in hand within those pressurised environments, especially for young players coming from the Isle of Man.
From the time he was a standout player with the Isle of Man U10s, Tom’s football journey has been a long, at times arduous, but thankfully an ultimately rewarding one. Despite being an important player through the various Island age groups, Tom experienced many setbacks and made many sacrifices, but through it all he demonstrated a ‘never say die’ attitude on the road to fulfilling his dream of making a living from the game he loves. Now at 21 years of age it’s a dream he is close to fulfilling.
It was as part of that promising U10 youth side that Tom had his first experience of what it might be like to be a professional footballer, following an invitation to spend a week at Glasgow Rangers. In the subsequent years Tom found himself on the road on a frequent basis as he attracted the interest of many professional clubs across the country.
Yes I was at Rangers at a very early age, which was great experience at the time, and over the next few years I was invited to spend longer periods at clubs such as Blackburn Rovers, Blackpool, Leeds United, Norwich City and finally at Morecambe where I was given an academy scholarship.
Except for Morecambe however, the ultimate messages were the same. Tom’s ability was never in doubt, but as any youth trialist will have experienced, when you have that opportunity you need to be the standout player on the pitch and in the UK the competition for places is fierce and the talent margins are minuscule.
That was probably the most difficult thing about being on trial. Everywhere I went I received a similar message and it wasn’t ‘you’re not good enough.’ It was ‘you’re just not better than what we’ve got’. It was hard to take at times, albeit understandable from the club’s perspective. I was a boy from the Isle of Man, it was an extra overhead for clubs who had to pay for my digs, my travel and things like that. It was perhaps seen as more of an inconvenience for them when they had players that were just as good (as me) on their doorstep.
It was really quite frustrating, because I knew in my own mind, and the coaches always told me, that I was good enough. I always remember during a period when I was at Leeds United and we’d just played Manchester United. Our coach said to me, ‘If you were a Yorkshire boy, we’d sign you tomorrow’. We (players from the Isle of Man) are always fighting against that obstacle of coming from the island.
In addition to the pressure to perform better than anyone else, football trials can be mentally tough in many other ways too, such as having to play and perform alongside other players who you’ve never met or played with before.
In the early days it was difficult for me walking into changing rooms with players who I had no idea about and vice versa. At some clubs there were top players who have since gone on to forge decent careers, quality players such as Todd Cantwell (now a Norwich City first team regular) and Tyler Roberts (Leeds United) to give two examples. I always felt a bit anxious and nervous in those circumstances, certainly in the early days.
The build up and the anxiety prior to those initial trials especially, wasn’t a nice experience and neither was the amount of travelling and at times I just missed being with family and friends. But I knew what had to be done if I wanted to be where I wanted to be.
As I got older and especially once I got onto the pitch and the lads got to know me, those feelings of anxiety, while always there in some form, reduced somewhat.
Tom has been used to making sacrifices from a young age and he admits it was quite hard to cope with the demands on his education too.
It was challenging to be fair. Especially in my GCSE years as I was off the island every couple of weeks as well as every half term. St. Ninians’ (High School) were brilliant and they allowed me free periods throughout the year in order to catch up with my work. But it was tough, especially, coming back into school, having maybe missed a couple of days, or at times a couple of weeks. So, it was demanding on my education but thankfully I had great support from the school and especially my family and that helped me through.
Despite the tough environments Tom has found himself in he remains humble and grateful for the opportunities that he has experienced, and he showed remarkable resilience to continue to seek and walk through the next open door that became available to him.
A lot of kids my age, my mates from school, would’ve killed to be in my position. To be honest I never felt as though I was missing out on anything. Obviously at that age you always think in the back of your mind, “What if I didn’t have to do this? What if I could go out my mates and enjoy myself?” Well for me, being in the position I was in, I felt very fortunate and privileged.
Cowley, is arguably selling himself short here, in terms of fortune and privilege, because what he has demonstrated is a great drive to overcome the numerous setbacks that are associated with football and he has shown an amazing spirit and perseverance to continue seeking his dream, it’s a quality that a lot of players may not necessarily have.
That determination eventually won out, and Tom finally earned his first big break when he joined Morecambe in 2014. He experienced a fruitful two years as captain of their U18 academy side and as skipper of the reserve team. Tom was also included in some first team match day squads during his final year with the club. Ultimately however, at the end of his two-year scholarship, Cowley was unfortunately not rewarded with a professional contract, due to a lack of financial resources available at the time to the small Lancashire club.
It was at this juncture that Tom decided to go down a different route. When he was offered a scholarship at the University of Stirling in 2016, he snapped up the opportunity. It wasn’t just the chance to enhance his education and obtain a degree, but to keep playing football at a reasonably high level, which happened to be in the Scottish Lowland League.
Well, things are going pretty well at the minute. I’m in the team every week, playing well, so that’s a positive. I also made last week’s Lowland League’s Team of the Week’.
As well as doing my degree, it’s basically full-time football up here right now. We train three times a week, play twice a week and with gym sessions in between its full-on football-wise.
We’re in the league below Scottish League Two. The standard is very, very good as far as I’m concerned. There are a lot of very good players and the league is prospering as it’s getting a lot of money pumped into it at the minute, with a lot of teams trying to progress into the (Scottish) Football League. We have a lot of ex-professional football players who have played at a good level previously in Scotland and the teams at the top of my league are predominantly made up of ex-League One and Championship players (from Scotland) as the money is surprising better in the Lowland League in some instances.
While this feature has been to delve into the life and challenges of being a football triallist coming from the Isle of Man it fits well with the concept that FC Isle of Man is hoping to establish by providing opportunities for aspiring local players the means to perhaps not have to leave the Isle of Man at an early age to seek out their dreams. Tom agrees.
It sounds like good news. There’s lots of kids from the Isle of Man who may have had a chance had they had the platform that FC Isle of Man are hoping to provide.
There’s a great opportunity to break that stigma that perhaps the Isle of Man doesn’t produce good enough players as they will have the chance to play in England on a regular basis and showcase their abilities against players, who may be perceived to be better. On top of that, perhaps to be able to do that while still being based on the island is fantastic as they might not have to go through some of the trials and tribulations I, and other local lads, have had to. I always felt if I wanted to achieve my goals, I had to leave (the island) early in life. Future players from the Isle of Man may have other options.
FC Isle of Man will hopefully allow the young players an opportunity to see that the goals they set themselves are attainable and provide them a platform to perform in front of people who can make things happen for them. The whole venture should develop the game massively for young players in the Isle of Man.
Tom’s enthusiasm for our project very much matches our previous interviewees and it’s not by co-incidence that their previous experiences have all led to them recognising the same benefits that FC Isle of Man could provide for the players of the Isle of Man.
So, while Tom will no doubt be a keen follower should FC Isle of Man ultimately get off the ground, what does the future hold for him?
Firstly, I need to finish out the season here and graduate. Ultimately though my goal is to earn a contract up here (Scotland), whether with another club in this league (Tom will not be eligible for the University team next season) or League One, maybe League Two.
I have been talking to my coach quite a lot this year about the future. Three or four of my teammates from last year are now doing well playing in League One and Two so if possible, I’d like to follow those players. Essentially the coach told me, if I continue to have a good season and play to the capabilities both he and I know I have, then he’ll have no qualms in setting me up with trials like he did for the other lads.
I am also keen to develop my game. I’m playing more as a ‘number six’ at the moment, just in front of the back four, getting on the ball, breaking up play whenever I can, but moving things along, and keeping things ticking over nicely. But I obviously want to progress my game and start getting up and down the pitch more, scoring more goals and generally being more influential at the top of the pitch.
Knowing the sort of drive, ambition and perseverance Tom Cowley has FC Isle of Man is sure that he will achieve whatever future goals he sets himself. We wish him well.