Life on the Road: What Does It Take to Become a Journeyman Footballer?

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 28, 2019

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Rohan Ricketts was not supposed to end up in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.

He came through the academy at Arsenal, with whom he won back-to-back FA Youth Cups, before spending three years at Tottenham Hotspur, making 36 first-team appearances and playing at Anfield, Stamford Bridge, Highbury and Old Trafford. A quick and creative attacking midfielder, he was capped by England at the under-18 and under-20 levels and looked destined for a bright future.

But after dropping down to the Championship in search of regular playing time, he moved to Canada with Toronto FC in 2008, and there began an extraordinary odyssey that would take him to Hungary, Moldova, Germany, Ireland, India, Ecuador, Thailand, Hong Kong and, finally, Bangladesh.

Ricketts arrived in Dhaka—a vast, traffic-clogged city with close to 20 million people living in the metropolitan area—in March 2016, signing for Abahani Limited Dhaka. He immediately began to feel like he had made a mistake. The pitches he had to play on were poor, and his team-mates were desperately lacking in football know-how. He did not play as regularly as he would have liked to, and to compound matters, Ricketts says, he was not even paid on time.

"That was the place that retired me," he told Bleacher Report. "It was a nightmare, an absolute nightmare."

Ricketts lasted only a few months in Bangladesh before returning to England, where he played out the final few weeks of his career at non-league Leatherhead. By the time he hung up his boots in December 2016, he had played for 18 different clubs spread across 11 countries and four continents.

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Rohan Ricketts (R) during his spell in Hong Kong.
Rohan Ricketts (R) during his spell in Hong Kong.Power Sport Images/Getty Images

Like all journeymen, Ricketts did not set out with the ambition of playing for as many clubs as possible. The hope, with each club he joined, was to find a little bit of stability, a little bit of security, only for circumstances—injuries, managerial changes, financial constraints—to shunt his footballing destiny on to a different set of rails.

He worked with multiple agents over the final years of his career and admits that he was "misled" by some of them. With the dream of a life-changing transfer having evaporated by the time he reached his 30s, he embarked upon the frantic globe-trotting that characterised the latter part of his career, motivated not by some kind of incurable wanderlust but by entirely practical considerations.

"Every kid's dream is to play for the best team and with the best players," he said. "And when you're playing for the best and you're doing well, money comes. You don't even think about it.

"But when you start to go to these other places, and you're trying to play well and impress, you realise there's all this politics and corruption and lying and agents. You go, 'Hold on a minute—I'm getting messed around. Forget this. Where's the money at?' You end up going where the money is."

After leaving Toronto in June 2009, Ricketts never succeeded in playing more than a handful of games for any of the clubs that subsequently signed him and seemed to find trouble at almost every turn.

In Hungary, where he played for Diosgyori VTK, he was subjected to racist abuse and says he was "lied to" about how much he would be paid. A subsequent move to Moldovan side Dacia Chisinau ended up at the Court of Arbitration for Sport after the club failed to pay him his wages.

He played German fourth-tier football at SV Wilhelmshaven and English third-tier football (albeit only one match) with Exeter City. In Ecuador, the football was good, but he went unpaid. In India, he was paid on time, but the football was a "disgrace."

Yet for all the anguish he put himself through, Ricketts concedes that at some point during his transcontinental wayfaring, a spirit of adventure took hold.

"It was exciting," the 36-year-old said. "It's exciting without actually wanting to do it. You just embrace it.

"I'm the kind of guy who's like, 'Where am I going? Hong Kong? OK! Cool. When do I leave?' When you start to go against that, you're not going to have much fun. I go there, I try to enjoy it as much as I can and when I feel that time's up, it's done. On to the next."


               

"On to the next" could be Jefferson Louis' motto.

An itinerant striker in England's semi-professional leagues, Louis has played for 37 clubs over the course of his 23-year career, moving to a new team (loans included) on no fewer than 42 occasions. Veteran former Uruguay striker Sebastian Abreu, who holds the world record for playing for the most professional clubs, has turned out for a relatively paltry 28.

Louis has never played at a higher level than the English fourth tier, where he acquired experience with Oxford United, Bristol Rovers and Mansfield Town, yet an FA Cup run gave him a fleeting early brush with fame.

Jefferson Louis while at Wealdstone in 2015.
Jefferson Louis while at Wealdstone in 2015.Dan Mullan/Getty Images

In his first full season with Oxford, Louis scored a goal against Swindon Town that earned his side an FA Cup third-round tie at Arsenal, the team he had supported as a boy. After being caught on television celebrating the draw in the changing room with his bare buttocks on show, Louis became something of a national celebrity and was splashed across newspaper back pages in the days preceding the game.

His strongest memory of that match at Highbury in January 2003, which Oxford lost 2-0, was of arriving at the ground and being greeted by none other than then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger.

"He said my name and everything," Louis recalls. "He said, 'Hello, Jefferson.' Those big doors, the marble flooring—I remember it like it was yesterday." He took Robert Pires' shirt home as a souvenir.

Louis spent two-and-a-half years at Oxford before leaving to join Forest Green Rovers in September 2004. It remains the longest spell he has ever had at a club. Since he left Oxford, semi-professional Wealdstone, with whom he played from December 2014 to June 2016, are the only other club to have retained his services for longer than a year.

In 2005, he played for six teams (Woking, Bristol Rovers, Hemel Hempstead Town, Lewes, Worthing and Stevenage Borough) in the same calendar year.

But although Louis has been happy to jump at new opportunities, he says his nomadic career is also a testament to the unforgiving nature of semi-professional football.

"In non-league football, you don't sign five-year contracts or three-year contracts," he explains. "You find a club, and you might sign for a season, and by the end of the year, the club might not want you or there might be another club that wants you.

"It's a dog-eat-dog thing. Teams wanted me, and I had to progress as a player. I had the fire in the belly, and I had to keep going."

Louis, who turned 40 in February, plays for Chesham United in the English seventh tier, having returned to the club in Buckinghamshire in September following a characteristically brief stint at league rivals Farnborough.

His meandering career—which included an international appearance for Dominica in 2008—has earned him a notoriety in English non-league circles, and he admits that he gets a buzz from turning up at a club knowing he has a reputation to protect.

"I do like it," he says. "People say to me, 'Oh, you're a journeyman.' But I say, 'I'm a journeyman who scores goals.' People might say I've played for a load of clubs, but I've scored goals everywhere I've gone."

Though he admits he is thinking about moving into coaching, Louis is not ready to call time on his playing days. When he does, he knows he will reflect on his career with pride.

"I've fulfilled my dream," he says. "I've played international football, I've played against Arsenal, I've been on the back pages of the newspapers. I just look and think, 'Wow! I've had a great career.'"

Ricketts with Toronto in 2009—the city has become his home.
Ricketts with Toronto in 2009—the city has become his home.Getty

Few could begrudge Ricketts any regrets, given the trajectory his career once looked set to follow, but when he looks back, it is the positive experiences that stand out in sharpest relief.

Canada gave him a home: Toronto, which has been his permanent base since 2008 and where he now runs a football academy. Ecuador gave him a language: Spanish, which he now speaks fluently. He made friends everywhere he went and met the partners of his two children.

"I would be lying if I said I didn't want the career that I was originally going for," he says. "But saying that, I've embraced how my career has gone and seen value in the journey. I speak fluent Spanish. I have two children who were born to women who are not from England.

"I have friends all over the world, from Hong Kong, Thailand, Bangladesh and Ecuador. I've been to places in India, I've seen where most of the world's tea comes from and I've seen wildlife at close quarters. I've had a really interesting career.

"Do I have regrets? I regret certain things, but they're life lessons that I can learn from. I'm happy. And I'm grateful for that."

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