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On trial with Chelsea stars Reece and Lauren James’ dad

The voice of Nigel James, father of Chelsea duo Reece and Lauren, can be heard booming over the sound of planes taking off at nearby Heathrow Airport.

It’s trial day for the academy he runs, Nigel James Elite Coaching, at Bedfont Sports Football Club. There are around 40-50 boys in attendance just trying to make it into the under-18s and they are listening to his every word.

“It’s a beautiful day, you have a great facility here, there are no excuses,” he says. “This is your stage, you have to show everyone how good you are. No one knows how good you are, you need to show me. The ones who have played with me before, don’t sit and just think because I know what you were like last year, that that is okay. You have to keep showing me. I’m not looking for anyone to stroll, to give up. I want to see people working, giving 100 per cent. Don’t stop running and look like you want it. If you do that, I will consider you.”

Competition is going to be fierce. Those who were part of the academy the previous season have to earn their spot again. Meanwhile, there are 10 newcomers who are trying to force their way in. There are only 30 outfield spots available.

Players get ready for their trials

Many more would like the chance to audition, but applicants are vetted before they’re given a chance to participate. Playing the odd Sunday league game or having a kickabout with your friends down the park is not going to make the grade. Set up in 2002, James is used to working with kids who have been trained by professional clubs and are looking for help after suffering the setback of being released. The standard is very high.

All the participants, including their parents watching from the sidelines, have the same dream to make it as a pro, to perhaps even have a career as good as Reece James. After all, this is his dad in charge, a man who had a massive impact on the England international’s development as well as Lauren’s, who plays for Chelsea women.

It’s the first game of the Championship season and Huddersfield Town’s match against Burnley is being broadcast live.

For midfielder Jack Rudoni, it’s an occasion to remember, to recognise how all the hard graft has paid off. The 21-year-old makes a strong debut for Huddersfield off the bench having joined from AFC Wimbledon for £800,000 a fortnight earlier.

While the 1-0 defeat was obviously not the result anyone connected to Rudoni wanted, it was still a special moment for everyone close to him. His family were there to watch from the stands. Meanwhile, messaging the youngster beforehand and ringing him afterwards to talk it over was Nigel.

“I have known Nigel since I was a kid,” Rudoni explains. “I was released by Crystal Palace after the under-10s and someone introduced me to Nigel. I started going to his academy and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. He’s made me the player I am. It was only fitting I spoke to him once the game was done, to share the moment.”

Rudoni is a classic example of a pupil that has benefitted from working with James, who runs groups from under-11 to under-18. Rudoni joined the under-11s and progressed all the way through. This was long before Reece James, who he would train alongside sometimes, became a household name.

“I just felt he could get me to the level I wanted to be,” Rudoni explains. “When I was released by Crystal Palace, I wanted to have that extra training so I could really develop. I had a feeling I was going to be let go and I told my mum (Caroline, who went on to become the business director of Nigel James Elite Coaching) that. But I was still crying in the back of the car as we drove away, it’s a lot different when you’re told and actually hear it. I don’t think they even told me the reasons why.

“It gave me that hunger to go and prove them wrong. I trained with Nigel all the way up to around 18, even though I joined up with AFC Wimbledon soon after leaving Crystal Palace.”

Rudoni moved to Huddersfield this summer and still talks to Nigel regularly (Photo: John Early/Getty Images)

This was the unusual thing about Rudoni’s progression, that even though he found a spot at another club, he still stayed working with James. So how did he fit that all together?

“In my eyes, Nigel’s training was the best for me,” he continues. “It gave me an edge over everyone and it eventually showed. I’d train with Wimbledon two or three times a week and train with Nigel two or three times a week. I remember one of the days at Wimbledon clashed with Nigel’s and I went to his session instead. I felt it gave me what I needed to improve. At one point, I was training more with him than at Wimbledon. When I was older, sometimes I’d train with Wimbledon in the morning and with Nigel in the evening the day before games. It made me sharp.

“How did he improve me? Definitely the technical aspect, touch, having sharp feet, awareness in midfield, wanting to get on the ball and making angles for passes. There was a lot of short, sharp stuff in his sessions. Working in tight spaces. But it was also his demands. They’re top, elite level. He is always stressing ‘never let your standards drop, NEVER!’ He will praise you, too, but it’s constant learning and developing.

“A lot of people have gone to him having been released by clubs and they go to him to help. That’s what he does. He improves them and gives them an opportunity to showcase themselves. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to get yourself a contract. But he provides that opportunity.”

Rudoni has certainly taken his chance to make it in the men’s game and started for the first time last night in the second game of the season. After making his debut for AFC Wimbledon aged just 18, he went on to make 106 appearances for them. His reputation was already growing, but last season was a real stand-out campaign, scoring 12 goals in League One. He was voted the club’s Young Player of the Year and Player of the Year. Once again, Jack is keen to give his mentor a lot of the credit.

“There have been ups and downs over the years,” he said. “Nigel would definitely tell me if there were things I had to work on or improve! But I always knew it came from a good place, that it was geared toward taking me to the top, so it was all worth it.

“One thing he has told me is no matter where you are, treat the cleaner and the chef the same as the manager and the chairman. To have the same respect for everyone.

“I like being an example of what can happen. Obviously, Reece and Lauren have done unbelievable things, but I think it’s good that people outside of that, like me, can be another example of someone coming through and it working out really well.

“I plan to stop by the academy when the opportunity arises this season. I want to see the kids train and maybe give some words of advice if I’m asked. Meanwhile, I still expect Nigel to watch my games and give me a few pointers. We still have that kind of relationship even though I’ve left. That’s just the man he is.”

The sun is beating down as the under-18s trial gets underway. The session comprises of several intense 20-minute games with players being put in four different teams. Nigel is sitting on the touchline watching every move and making the odd note on a piece of paper. He is letting his coaching staff, Bafor Aganbi, Ryan King-Elliott and Jakub Pietrzak run the matches.

Occasionally, James’s silence is broken with a loud instruction. The left-back in the first game is urged to ‘push up’. After losing possession, one player is told ‘you got to do better son, don’t give it away cheap!’ Another answers back when accused of the same thing. “I’m only going by what I see,” Nigel retorts. He soon tells me that a couple of participants, not necessarily these two, have been ruled out of contention already because they look disinterested. 

This is not a charity and is run as a business. If someone is selected, they will be asked to pay £100 a month if they want one drill a week. Two rounds of coaching a week will cost £150 a month and three takes the price up to £200 a month. Should a talented individual struggle to afford it, a form of scholarship might be available.

James estimates more than 50 players he’s coached have gone on to be placed at football clubs. If you include those that got a spot somewhere only to drop out for one reason or another, that number increases to more than 100. His various teams are respected in the area and have won 18 trophies between them in recent years.

Lauren and Reece James have had huge success at Chelsea (Photo: Manu Fernandez – Pool/Getty Images)

As the games progress, parents are nervously watching their sons’ every move from the sidelines. Woody Woodcock has been taking his boy Fenton, a left-back, to learn under Nigel for years.

“He must have been 10-11 when he first came,” he says. “We saw a difference in Fenton’s football within weeks. Nigel turns them from boys to men. But he won’t BS you. If you’re not good enough, you won’t play. He tells it to you straight. Parents who are over the top in terms of their hopes and expectations have come and gone.”

Zeynel Ilhan, a dad next to him, sees his son Rocco hit a great shot into the top corner. He greets it with a smile but doesn’t get carried away. He knows better than that.

David Lopes, 18, was named man of the match in two under-18 cup wins at the end of last season (the under-18s play as Kingstonian — a senior team is in the Isthmian Premier League, the seventh tier of English football — and are managed by James. The younger age groups play as Nigel James Elite Coaching). 

“I know when I first came here I thought I was one of the best in my area,” David admits. “I’d played county level in Middlesex and turned up like ‘I’m the big show’ but soon realised the majority of players were much better than me in all aspects of the game. I was shocking, overweight, not in the right mindset to become something. It was a good reality check. Nigel not only worked on my game, he worked on my fitness. Through diet and exercise, I reckon I lost 20kg. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I’m in a much better place.”

The games come to an end and all the footballers look shattered. To an untrained eye, everyone probably looks like they should be in with a good chance of making the cut. That’s not going to happen of course and before they’re allowed to go home, James addresses them all once more.

“If you have a great attitude, it gives you a chance in life, whatever you want to do,” he says. “If you have a bad attitude, no matter how much talent you’ve got, no one wants it. The business that we’re in, football, all the clubs, they don’t want people who cause a problem. No one wants that in their team. Because it’s poison in the dressing room.

“One or two of you have to air things out… those of you wearing earrings, having the socks rolled down… all this nonsense. It’s absolute bullshit. You’re here to work, to do something and these eyes don’t miss a single trick. If you’re going to be in, you have to do the business. I won’t take any passengers. Last year there were too many. This year I’m going to be back to being mean and ruthless. 

“You have to sit and think to yourself ‘do I want to be a part of that?’ If you’re not and don’t think you have that in you, email Caroline and say ‘thank you very much’. We are not going to select you if you’re not up for that fight. Do I make myself clear everyone?”

There’s a mumbled yes before they go their separate ways. The day is not over for James, Caroline and his coaching staff, though. They go to a restaurant nearby and draw up lists of players they want to keep or cut. There are disagreements but no decision is made without a consensus.

The process is interrupted by a phone call from one overzealous parent complaining about how his son is being treated. It is not the first time the individual has had a lot to say for themselves. This is a hazard of the industry and Nigel gives them a stern talking to that if they continue like this, then their boy won’t be welcome anymore. Players aren’t the only ones who have to fall into line.

With a definitive list compiled, the nine-hour day is at an end. But for those that received the good news of making the shortlist a few days later, their hopes of making it as a professional footballer under James’s tutelage remain on course.

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