Updated: Jun 5, 2020
A Nottingham native, Jack Blake details his story of trial and tribulation through the English youth to pro pathway and his journey to becoming a leader and champion in the North American USL league:
I was born into sport. Growing up in Nottingham, a place where football was so vibrant and historic where you had Nottingham Forest, Notts county, a cricket and rugby ground nearby, it was a sports obsessed area. Especially my family, my dad grew up in Leeds Academy, my grandfather was a cyclist and my great grandfather was a boxer. Early on I just got into football for the enjoyment, and I joined Nottingham Forest academy at 8. It was all for enjoyment, I’d finish school, go train three nights a week and I just wanted to play at that age.
When I turned 14 is when it started getting serious this is when I started getting recognized by Forest, I was doing well playing well for my age group, so I made the decision to leave conventional school. I knew I had a good opportunity to make it professionally and leaving school which at the time was a massive decision really let me know how serious it had got. I left school and entered a private tuition program which allowed me to train with the youth team at 14 so I was playing again 16,17, 18 year olds which accelerated my development as a player skill wise. All while getting my grades with the private tuition.
Being that age and seeing where football was going it flipped a switch for me. I’ve always taken football seriously, but it opened my eyes to somethings. And I knew that I had to make sacrifices. I knew I couldn't go out with my mates all the time. I knew I couldn't drink. I knew all that party stuff couldn’t be something I did. And I really had to knuckle down and kind of separate myself from people. Which was very difficult as a teenager. Everyone wants to be going out with their mates. But I think my love of the game really drove that home for me that I needed to give this a shot.
On my 17th birthday I signed my first professional contract with Nottingham Forest. which was huge for me and my family, and it was such a special occasion and special moment. From then it was kind of difficult in the Forest academy, because the level of the academy was really good and they developed a lot of very good players to go onto the first team so the competition to break through was tough. It didn’t help either when I turned 17-18 that the first team manager position became like a revolving door. There were 8 managers in the space of three years. So for a young player like myself it was difficult not only to get to the first team squad but to also stay there because all the hard work to put yourself in the spotlight, to impress the manager would go out the window when they got sacked and you would have to start all over again when the new manager came in.
It affected the mentality I had at 14 thinking it would be straight forward to get to the first team, by just putting your head down, working hard and playing well I would get my chance. But I had to grow up quickly and that meant me learning that nobody owes you anything in this game and you must earn it sometimes the hard way.
For me it was going on loan to Mansfield town in League two. Being 18 playing in that league made me grow up and realize things about begin a pro quickly. I remember one game was a 0-0 draw, there were three red cards tackles flying everywhere and both managers got sent off, and in my mind it was a “welcome to English football” kind of thought.
When I was 19 things started looking up in pre-season as I was playing well under Stuart Pearce was the manager. Then the fickle game of football happened, I got a stress fracture and was sidelined for four months and while I was out Stuart Pearce got sacked. The new manager coming in didn’t know anything about me and just saw a young player and the club decided to release me. At the time my world was shot up, this was the first time I had a rejection like this as a young professional so it was tough to take but it’s funny looking back because the way I was released was by a letter. For a club I had been at since I was 8.
This rejection and disappointment are what spurred me to move over to the States, because I wanted something different. I was fortunate to have my grandparents who lived in Arizona support me, because I really took a gamble. I bought a one-way ticket and was coming to the states with no connections or contacts. I just started emailing teams and eventually got invited out to Minnesota when they were still NASL. The time I was Minnesota they were going MLS so I was focused on getting an MLS deal, but I came to find out the importance of international roster spots and my priority shifted to getting a green card.
I was at Minnesota for a few months but the important thing as a player was I able to adapt and develop to the American which is a lot different to how it is in England. It helped me market myself to other teams and It was big for my move to Jacksonville. The coach there was English and he liked me a lot and he had a really good style of play that brought the best out of me as I felt I still wanted to prove to people the quality of player I was and the team In Jacksonville was the same, a young hungry squad with a great manager. I was having a good season playing well and I had signed a contract with a green card as a part of the deal which was what I was looking for and again the fickle game of football happened and the NASL league folded and was just a panic when the season ended, scrambling to find a team just something that no one could’ve predicted.
That’s when Tampa Bay Rowdies came in. I had interest from Real Salt Lake Monarchs but sometimes in football you have to make a decision not only about football but what’s best for your family and whats easiest for them too. At the time my wife was pregnant and Jacksonville was only about 2 hours away so it was just an easy move for me and my family and a newborn baby, so it just made more sense. When I started off at Tampa I was playing week in week out being a regular in the side then we had a dip in form and I was moved out the team, the manager got sacked and I really didn’t see the field like I wanted and It set up for a move to Monarchs on loan for that season.
Being able to go on loan in the 2018 season allowed me to establish myself and get regular minutes was massive for me as a player. And being made captain the following season was a huge honor for me, a goal I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid. Becoming captain was a learning curve as a player and a person. I had added responsibility given to me by the manager, I would take team talks organize team events It really made mature faster because as a captain you have to know all your teammates and how to lead each one. Sometimes you have to yell to get a guy going, but some guys it’s just a quiet word. It was new for me, but I loved being a leader. Football has a way of teaching you stuff that is valuable every where and being a captain is one of those things.
That 2019 season we won the championship was the most enjoyable locker room I’ve played in. It was a huge factor in us winning the title that year. It shows how your mentality is so important, not just your skill on the field. In a lot of our games we were underdogs and we loved it because we knew we were going to win games against big teams. Our mindset was phenomenal. It’s something I stick by and what young players should keep in their mind; you have to have your self-belief because football is a game of opinions. One coach can think one way and another coach can think totally different. Having belief in myself and my team is what made that championship so important. It made all of the dark days worth it, all the rejections, all times I didn’t get my chance. To be able to repay my grandfather, who I’m very close with and who in sorts started my journey here in America, was emotional for me. He went through this journey with me, he helped me in uncertainty and spurred me on to achieve what I’ve done so far which is become a champion.
That’s the stuff you dream about as a kid and for me it came true.