Professional sport is something that most of us can only dream about. It’s a world which seems so far away and yet for some it’s not a dream, it’s reality. Stars like Wayne Rooney or Kevin Pietersen might get all the headlines but for every one of them there’s fifty young men trying to make their name. Nouse caught up with two young professionals, a cricketer and a rugby player, to get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in a world so far removed from the banalities of everyday life.
James Freeman is on the verge of turning 20. For most people at the age of 19, life focuses around living away from home and attempting to wash enough clothes to live in. For Freeman though, there are different aims. Freeman was awarded his first professional contract with Worcester Warriors in 2009 and ever since has been working towards nailing down a place in the first team: “A normal training day really consists of a core session in the morning, which is strengthening the player’s core stability, joints, and flexibility, so to try and prevent injury and warm the body up for a day’s training. After this, there is usually a skills session…to try and improve the overall skill level of the players.”
‘A normal training day’ may not sound too far out of the ordinary, but when you’re training alongside the likes of All Black Rico Gear and Aussie legend Chris Latham, it becomes a different proposition. Being a teenager in rugby is different to football. The physicality of the sport is such that youngsters cannot be blooded to such a regular extent and, as such, Freeman as been on loan to Stourbridge, a club that plays in National League One, two leagues below the Aviva Premiership.
“It was quite an unreal feeling to step out to play for your country but I hope this will be a feeling I will be able to feel a fair few more times in the future”
The rise to prominence of cricketer Ben Cox was more sudden. Catapulted from the classroom to the changing room, the then 17 year old Cox found himself thrust into the cricketing limelight when he made a more than assured debut at Taunton just over a year ago; the wicket-keeper hit a maiden half century, took a superb leg-side catch to dismiss Arul Suppiah, and stumped ex-England hero Marcus Trescothick.
Cox speaks with impressive maturity about how it feels to make such a splash at such a young age: “When I look back at my debut, it was a little taster into what I had always dreamed of doing. It did me good to keep me working hard to play cricket full time after I finished school.” And that aim is something that Cox has already achieved, becoming Worcester’s first choice keeper in only his first full season with the club; Roy of the Rovers stuff.
Both are aware that there is a long way to go but acknowledge too that they have already made giant strides, and for both there is a particular moment to savour. For Freeman it was representing England U18s: “It was quite an unreal feeling, about to step out to play for your country.” While Cox reflects on stepping out in front of a huge crowd: “Surrey at the Brit Oval, an attendance of 10,000, and playing against Kevin Pietersen” is his highlight, and it is easy to see why.
It can’t be easy for people so young to not get carried away so it’s important that sportsmen of such an age are surrounded by good people and all three indicate that the help they have received from family and coaches has been crucial.
Freeman points towards his school coach as the biggest influence on his career: “I think in my career so far Paul Mullan, my first XV coach from Bromsgrove School, has probably been my biggest influence. He pushed me really hard in training and always bought the best out in me. I believe if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in the spot I am now.”
“I get a lot of banter from the guys about being a ‘school boy’…especially Surrey and playing against Kevin Pietersen”
Cox speaks in glowing terms of the affect his parents had on him and his career: “It started from when I was young; when Dad always asked me what I wanted to do when I was older, and I said nothing different from ‘play cricket!’” In fact Cox’s maiden century when still at school was met with a jubilant response from his father who whipped off his shirt to celebrate his son’s first ton.
Of course, in such a competitive world young sportsman are advised to have a Plan B in case things don’t work out as planned and, as such, education is more important for youngsters within clubs these days.
It is credit to academies that the young players being brought through days are forced to focus some of their attention on education. Footballers, such as Matt Jones and Sam Hutchinson, have, in the last ten years, been forced to prematurely call time on promising careers. Had they not had any back-up, they would have been faced difficulty readjusting to life without their sport.
It is an ever bigger problem in rugby where big names, such as Harry Ellis and Richard Blaze, have had no choice but to hang up their boots so an alternative career, or at least a basis in education, is a wise option for sportsmen of such a young age who have invested so much time and effort in chasing their dream.
For now though, Cox and Freeman need do nothing else than follow their primary ambitions. Freeman still has work to do to secure himself a place in the Worcester Warriors backrow. Even then, he faces a task to secure his side a return to the Aviva Premiership, whilst Cox has already tasted success with the Worcestershire Royals, seeing his side clinch promotion to Division 1 of the LV County Championship on the final day of last season.
So how do these sportsmen view each other’s sports? “I think rugby…is a much more disciplined game. You always see football players on the television shouting at the referee getting, sent off then doing something stupid in the papers, where as with rugby this rarely happens.” says Freeman.
“James has always shown a willingness to develop his game; an excellent trainer, he works harder than most. I remember him best for his Man of the Match display in the school win over Millfield”
Paul Mullan, Head Coach of England U18s Rugby team.
“He is a very good athlete and has chosen cricket as his future sport – a decision we are delighted about”
Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire CCC Coach
Cox sought to disprove the notion that cricket lies behind rugby and football in the eyes of the nation’s sporting fans though: “Cricket may be looked upon as the third favorite sport out of football and rugby in England, but it’s growing. Since the 2005 Ashes win, popularity has rocketed and if England keep improving on their successes, it’s only going to keep growing.”
With so much of their career ahead of them it seemed appropriate to ask the big question of where the lads saw themselves in ten year’s time.
Cox’s ambition is apparent: “I’d love to say playing for England! But I’ll take each step as it comes and work as hard as I possibly can to reach that level. First, my priorities are with England U19’s this winter – I aim to travel with them to Sri Lanka and then focus all my efforts in performing for Worcestershire in the 2011 season.”
Freeman is even more optimistic: “I hope to be playing top Premiership rugby and also be playing regular England rugby with some British and Irish Lions caps under my belt.”
Freeman and Cox chat happily about their future prospects and it is very easy to forget these lads are just like us, albeit plying their trade in the world of professional sport. With so much ahead of them, it is very hard not to be jealous.