Justin Hoyte: Student of the Invincibles

Justin Hoyte was a student of the famous Arsenal 2003 squad and played for his boyhood club before establishing himself at Middlesborough, using his experiences in England to make a journey to America and the MLS:

My first ever team I played with was a Sunday league team, Redbridge United. Only because I saw an ad in the local newspaper asking for players who were interested so my dad got in touch. Starting off my dad actually was a coach so it worked out well playing and being around my dad all the time. As well as being able to guide me in the right direction towards through football which paid off because at that time there were a lot of really talented footballers in that east London area that didn’t make it, so I was fortunate to being noticed by Arsenal at such a young age.

I was scouted by arsenals head scout around the age of 9, it was crazy when I was that age because I was training with Arsenal all week, then I’d go home train with the district team, county team or school team depending on the day of the week as well as play games on the weekend for being such a young age and having a mad schedule like that it help rapidly progress me as a footballer just training and being around it every day.

They started selecting 8-10 players from the pool of the youth team to be in special education program where they attended school as well as training daily almost as a development squad and getting the players ready for the next step. At first, I wasn’t chosen, I didn’t know why. I was one of the better players at that age, working harder and keeping my head down and I still didn’t get selected. I was always picked first, and this was a big thing at the time being young to deal with. It made me think what I had to do to get picked. Instead of thinking this isn’t for me and having a negative mindset, which is easy done, it made me think “ok your not going to pick me now, I’ll show you what your missing and I’ll get picked first the next time round.” and I must’ve done well over the next three months for the next selection as I ended up getting picked and ultimately entered the academy at Arsenal.

At those times we would get the train to the practice facility and you would leave your house at 6am and not get home until around 6pm so it was tough but I enjoyed it that’s what I wanted to do as a footballer. All those long days were worth it, because obviously at the time the players Arsenal had are some of the greatest to ever play the game. I would be in the canteen and see the players on the training pitches and you would just be sitting there glancing out the window saying, “I want to be there.” You would be walking around the facility and try and peak down the hallway into their dressing room or through a door into their physio room just trying catch a conversation their talking about and see what it’s like being in the first team everyday it was something you saw that all you wanted was to be in there on that team.

The image that always sticks in my mind training at Arsenal in the reserves looking over at the first team was their low white socks. It was just one of those little things that always stuck by me, thinking you could wear whatever you wanted in the first team. We had to look professional and wear long socks to train. It was more the image of looking like a professional footballer that always sticks in my mind.

It started off like once or twice a week I would get called up to first team training. Then three times a week then it turned into an everyday thing being with the first team. Then it became regular I would arrive in the morning being in the reserves changing room an expecting to be with the first team. And it wasn’t in an arrogant way, but I thought to myself it was about proving I belong and working hard and doing the right things to stay involved with the squad. It grew even more and I started travelling with the squad and being on the bench at matches and I had the surreal experience travelling with the squad to the San Siro to play Inter Milan in a famous victory in the champions league. It was a gradual progression with it culminating with my debut against Southampton and my first deal.

To have the opportunity to be a boyhood Arsenal fan and be able to play as many games as I did for the club is just something I’ll never forget. Interacting everyday with guys like Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Ashley Cole was indescribable. Just watching how they prepare for training and how they carried themselves around the stadium and training facility I learnt a lot of lessons about being a professional footballer not just on the pitch but everywhere else too.

I was still young when I made the squad so naturally, I was a shy kind of personality and a lot of learning was done by watching and listening and asking little bits here and there. But I was fortunate because of the position I played in I had Ashley Cole take me under his wing and we were able to chat about all sorts which help me not only as a player but as a person let me personality come out a bit.

In the end I did well at Arsenal, but I wasn’t what they wanted at the time, sure I always could’ve done more as a player but that’s football. I learned enough for 3 careers at my time there and it’s something I can never complain about because I’ll always be an Arsenal fan.

In a way leaving Arsenal and moving to Middlesborough helped my career. In a sense it allowed me to play my game and step into my own path and becoming more outgoing as a player and person and find my lane. It was always going to be hard at Arsenal with the players they had. I would say after playing 162 games for Middlesborough I achieved that under Gareth Southgate who was a great manager and a great person to be around and got some consistency and had a steady thing going. But as with football managers change and so do players and things for me as a player changed and I had to move on.

I found it tough over the next year or so with the setbacks I had to go through because I did lose a little bit of confidence and fell out of love with the game. But I never thought I would give it up my goals and mindset would always change to see what the next challenge is. I went through a lot of things that have made players just call it a day. I was treated wrongly in my opinion by certain managers at certain clubs. Being told not to come to training and team meetings or being forced to training with the academy for months. Or even being told I’m going to be offered a contract and sitting in a hotel lobby for 9 hours to sign the contract, only to be told the club has decided not to sign me. I could go on forever.

Those things are normal occurrences in football, stuff that is wrong in a sense but a lot of time managers and clubs are trying to get a reaction out of the player to have an excuse to get rid of him or move him on. I never let it get to me, I always went in a trained or showed up to whatever the event, even if I wasn’t happy I went in with a smile on my face and was a good professional because I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction that I wasn’t doing my job. I didn’t want to ruin my reputation for something that’s out of my control.

Getting to America was a goal of mine and to MLS especially watching the league grow, knowing as a player would be a good experience. When I first was coming to America I was writing letters, emails contacting all the teams in NASL, MLS and USL and I was having interest at a number of place but I had spoken to Cincinnati when I was still in the UK. It’s funny because before I went to Cincinnati, I wrote a letter to New York Redbulls detailing my CV, what I could offer and my interest to come play at the club and in the letter I said

“If you don’t want to sign me then that’s up to you but know this, I will sign for a team and play against you, and you’ll see me playing against you in the future”

I was able to come to Cincinnati and fall in love with football again. Honestly going in I didn’t know what to expect with the USL but I enjoyed every moment. From being a regular and connecting with the fans as well as bonding with some great players over the years. I was able to be myself especially going through what I’ve gone through and being a veteran and a leader, it was a different experience for me. Of course, I had ups and downs as a player. I think I underestimated the MLS and it was a learning experience for me playing centre back and playing against some really top talent was good for me. Getting that MLS contract and playing in that league not only as a Cincinnati player but as a captain for a good amount of matches meant a lot to me and to the fans and I was happy to leave that impressions and bring some good times to the club.

Setbacks will happen. They happen even to the best players, but you can never give up. All you can do is give everything you have, remain positive and always believe it will come true and good things will eventually make their way to you. Like I learned certain coaches and club may not like you and not give you the chance but if you keep moving forward, you’ll find yourself where you want to be.

It might take a year, two years, three year even five years but in the end at least you can say you achieved you set out to do.

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