Talented Tunbridge Wells footballer Sammie McLeod has been snapped up by Leicester City. He tells Andrew Tong about his rise to the giddy heights of the top flight...
SO DREAMS do come true. Aspiring young footballers really can be picked to play for the champions of the Premier League.
Sammie McLeod from Southborough always wanted to be a professional footballer, and now he is playing alongside the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
This week the 17-year-old central midfielder signs a two-year deal with Leicester City. Soon he will be earning thousands of pounds a week and driving around in a souped-up supercar.
His world will never be the same again. But the teenage prodigy is showing an impressive maturity and level-headedness.
Sammie attended Hayesbrook School in Tonbridge until he was 16, then Maidstone Academy. He played for Tunbridge Wells for several seasons.
Then he was spotted by an agent, Peter Finnegan, while playing for Kent and he was invited to undergo a trial at Aston Villa last summer.
“I was on trial at Villa for three weeks,” Sammie recalls. “The Academy coach Ben Petty really wanted me to stay but the manager didn’t like my style of play.
“Then Ben left to take charge of the Under-23s at Leicester City and he told them, ‘Look, you’ve got to get this guy in’.”
Sammie was also offered terms by another Premier League side, Bournemouth, at the start of the year. But Ben Petty leapt in first and persuaded him to put the south coast club on hold.
His father Paul, a shoe designer and developer, drove Sammie up to Leicester in January and he had a week-long trial, after which they asked him to stay.
You might think that arriving at the gates of the King Power Stadium would be a daunting prospect for a teenager.
But Sammie is ambitious and possesses a -composure which could see him go far in the high pressure hothouse of the game’s top flight.
“I’m not a nervous person, I’m pretty confident and I just wanted to get the job done and impress the people there,” he says.
“We went straight to the training ground, where we watched the first team -playing the reserves. Jamie Vardy was there, so it was all a bit overwhelming on my first day.”
He was offered some sage advice by his mentor. “The club takes on a couple of triallists a week. They can make a decision after the first session.
“If they don’t think you’re good enough, they will kick you out straightaway. Ben told me to keep my head down and do the best I can.”
They practise skills like possession and running off the ball in small-sided games, and there’s plenty of stretching exercises and fitness work.
Towards the end of the four-hour training sessions they play eight-a-side contests – followed by the full 11-a-side match on Saturdays.
Sammie has discovered that he had some catching up to do with the other boys, most of whom are on the club’s scholarship programme.
He says: “I play in centre midfield and the pitches are like carpets at the training ground, it’s the right facility for my style.
“But it’s a hard position to play, you have to be mega-fit to cover all the ground. I was slightly behind the other boys in that respect. Many of them have been there nine or ten years, and they have been going to the gym every day.
“They do an hour of education in the morning, then three or four hours of football, then an hour and a half in the gym.”
‘We are not allowed to go out past 10pm.
If we eat McDonald’s or KFC, we get fined a week’s wages’
He has been living in ‘digs’ with the scholarship boys in a 15-room house owned by the club, where two carers cook and keep an eye on them.
“The guys are all far from home, especially the foreigners. There’s guys from Poland, Spain, the United States, Australia. We get on really well.”
After all that training and fitness work, what does he do in the evenings when he has a little downtime? The same as any other teenager.
“After the gym we go back to the digs and just chill out really. There’s a games room and we have TVs in our rooms and Playstation.”
Nightclubs are off limits for now. “The carers don’t let us go out past 10pm, and if we eat McDonald’s or Subway or KFC we get fined a week’s wages. We get fined if we’re late for training too.”
Life is moving on apace at the club which defied all the odds and expectations last season to land the league title under manager Claudio Ranieri.
The team has struggled to keep up that form and confidence in the current campaign, and the Italian boss was fired 298 days after lifting the trophy.
“I met Claudio and we had a chat and he shook my hand. And two days later he was sacked. But that’s football, I guess,” Sammie smiles.
There is still a sense of disbelief, however, as the Foxes have reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Europe’s premier competition.
“The Champions League has been great,” says Sammie. “We have to be ball-boys for the games and I will be doing that against Atletico Madrid in the home quarter-final next month.”
He has also been busy learning his trade on the field. “I’ve been training with the first team too, and that was scary,” he admits. “I had Riyad Mahrez telling me off, it was nerve-wracking.
“He was telling me to support him when he was making runs, telling me to make angles for him and give the ball back to him.”
Sammie is allowed to come home to Tunbridge Wells for a weekend once a month, and admits that he misses his family.
He has two brothers: Jamie, 20, who is a student at Brighton University, and Finley, 10, who plays for Tunbridge Wells Ridgewaye Under-10s.
“I can get a bit homesick – but you’ve got to make sacrifices,” Sammie says with an impressive worldliness that matches his self-possession.
“We get a four-week break in the summer, then it’s back for pre-season. It’s a job really, it’s just like going to work.” But he’s not complaining.
What do his parents, Paul and Lucinda, think of his rapid rise? “They are thrilled for me. But they want to keep me grounded and level-headed.
“They don’t want me to go off the rails like some footballers do. My mum worries, she’s always calling or texting me, asking when I’m coming home.”
He adds: “My friends are really proud of what I’ve achieved, making the move from a non-league club like Maidstone.
“I even had a couple of young boys come up to me asking for autographs, which was strange.” It may be a sensation that he will have to get used to.
‘He’s got to keep his feet on the ground’ says dad Paul
Sammie’s father Paul McLeod says: “When he first kicked a football at the age of six, people’s jaws dropped. They were saying, ‘You’ve got something special here’.
“He went on a geography field trip with his school and he was up at 6am digging in the ground. He came back and said ‘I don’t want to do anything like that’.
“It made up his mind about what he wanted to do, and from that moment the quality of his football improved tenfold.
“It was a case of ‘you’ve been given a gift, work hard on it and see what happens’.
“The hard work starts now. He’s got to keep his feet on the ground.
“He’s already thinking about ordering his first Mercedes but I told him, ‘no you’re not, there’s a beaten-up old VW Polo on the drive, you can have that’.”