We’re hearing more and more stories about kids being snapped up to join football academies at ridiculously young ages.
Liverpool have seven-year-old Arat Hosseini on their books while in October there were reports that Arsenal had signed four-year-old Zayn Ali Salman.
It’s easy to feel uncomfortable about children being snapped up at such young ages, when they don’t really understand what all the fuss is about.
That’s why stories like Jamie Vardy’s are so endearing.
From non-league football to Premier League winner. You don’t hear that sort of rags-to-riches tale much in the elite game.
Many defenders will remember coming up a pacy, energetic Vardy for Stocksbridge Park Steels and Halifax Town. He’s proven to be a handful for elite centre-backs – just imagine the carnage he would have caused for some non-league centre-backs.
But their stories will be incredible and that’s the theme of a popular thread on Reddit where football fans recalled stories of playing against professional footballers before they turned pro.
We’ve decided to pick out some of the best experiences below.
mh_samaha | Mohamed Salah
“I was an unused sub against Mo Salah when he was in Al Mokawloon reserves team, wasn’t special but he was lightning fast.”
stewd003 | Isco
“I did an exchange student thing to Spain when I was about 14. Anyway, I ended up playing in my exchange’s football team one day. I didn’t want to do it and said to him, ‘I can’t speak Spanish well. I can’t make calls’ etc.
“He said, ‘don’t worry. Whenever you have the ball, pass to him.’
‘Him’ turned out to be Isco.
“He was just unbelievably good. I can’t even describe how good he was. I’d just kick it at him and he’d bring the ball down and score. Or I’d be on the wing, not even aware I’m in space and then all of a sudden the ball was coming at me.
“Not surprised in the slightest when I saw him in La Liga.”
brynhcky87 | Shane Long
“Went to school with (Southampton + Rep. of Ireland striker) Shane Long.
“Talented at multiple sports but at football he was unreal. Miles above our level. Also played against him in TSDL back home.
“Our manager thought he could stifle his team (St. Michaels of Tipperary Town) by putting 5 of us mortals in midfield. We lost 9-1 + he scored a hat-trick. Destroyed.”
LSDaw33d | Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias & Ruben Neves
“I played against an u15 Benfica team featuring Renato Sanches, Goncalo Guedes, Ruben Dias and Ferro. The starting eleven all made it through at least to the Portuguese First Division.
“I played for SC Braga and we actually won that game 1-0. Renato Sanches hit me while I was running without the ball, behind the referee’s back, but I hold no remorse and I’m very happy for all he has accomplished. The game was very even but Renato was the only one to stand out. Amazing strength at such a young age.
“I also played against Ruben Neves at u15. He was at Porto and was really unbelievable the maturity he had on the field. His passes were extraordinary. I think a year or maybe 2 years later he made his debut for Porto’s 1st team.”
FlashLG | Ashley Young
“I played for Watford’s academy and was in the same team as Ashley Young.
“He was a year younger than me but at the time the academy’s were grouping players into 2-year age brackets (u15, u17, u19) instead of 1-year.
“At the time he was an average player and very small, and didn’t stand out as exceptionally talented. However he went on to have the most successful career out of anyone there.
“I was surprised when a couple of years later he was breaking into the Watford first team, although I heard he had a growth spurt one summer and had really changed physically, which helped his game.”
graveyeverton93 | Ross Barkley
“Played against Ross Barkley in the Echo Cup Final at Anfield in 2008.
“He was by far the best player on the pitch, it wasn’t even funny how much better he was than us.
“We lost three one and he scored two belters.
“What I do remember is all my school mates all the time for weeks before the game talking about their team having this lad who is sponsored by Nike and is on the books at Everton…
“Yer, didn’t realise I would be playing against a future England international.”
TMillo | Kyle Walker
“I played against Kyle Walker and watched some of Harry Maguire’s games.
“Kyle was the typical over-talented kid at the Blades academy. He was absolutely rapid and strong for his age, despite never looking that strong.
“He was a cut above a lot of the players but wasn’t the best on the field. However I remember that I hated him because as a CB he used to deliver f***ing deadly balls as a winger and caused us mayhem.
“He also absolutely skinned me for a whole game when I was asked to play full back. They used to have a CM who was a machine, no idea if he ever got to any other level but I remember thinking him and Walker would make it to their first team in some regard.
“Now, a lot of years on, I think his mentality was evident. He was always screaming at teammates and we used to think he was a nutter, but he obviously knew what he wanted and that’s why he continued to improve and is now a multiple time Prem champion and the rest aren’t.”
FFG20 | Bernardo Silva
“Watched my friend play against Bernardo Silva as an under-15, when he played for Benfica.
“He was the smallest player on the pitch but absolutely bossed the game as a CM. Everything went through him and no one ever got nowhere near tackling him.
“His maturity was miles ahead of anyone else on the pitch.”
L0L303 | Mario Balotelli
“I played for a top youth club and Division 1 NCAA, so played against a bunch of guys who went on to MLS including a teammate who played for the Red Bulls… nothing that memorable but I’ll never forget playing against Balotelli.
“We participated in this international tournament in Italy .. I think I was 12 .. he was literally a one man team. We thought we were good and could handle any situation, yes we’re an American ‘soccer’ team, but half the squad were new lads from Europe & South America or the children of immigrants so we weren’t phased traveling abroad or scared of anyone.. lol then we got WHOPPPED.
“I can’t remember the exact score but maybe it was like 11-2 or 13-1 ?? We def scored, but Mario was scoring for fun and really aggressive. We were all lil kids, but I remember compared to us he was a beast. Physical .. fast as hell.. no one could take the ball away unless we got two guys on him.
“I remember we were pretty disciplined group of kids but our formation just went to s*** chasing the guy.
“It was clear he was on another level.. I’ve played around other incredible players who totally put me to shame.. but Balotelli was just god mode compared to everyone else.”
Some brilliant tales.
Click HERE to check out the full Reddit thread.