Mark Carruthers: The ex-Sunderland, Newcastle United, Cardiff City and Hull City youngsters looking to kick-start their careers in non-league
The sting of being released by your boyhood club rarely subsides as the dreams of running out at the likes of St James’s Park and the Stadium of Light are cruelly brought to an end.
All of the hours trying to catch the eye in training and in academy matches, in the hope of progressing into the first-team squad, come crashing down and reality bites hard.
Those emotions are only heightened during a summer where the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced a tightening of the pursestrings at academies across the football pyramid.
Over 600 senior professionals were released by clubs in the Premier League and EFL since the end of last season - and that total is swelled into four figures when academy players are accounted for.
Finding a new club is a challenge for players with hundreds of professional appearances under their belts - and options look few and far between for academy products looking for new employment.
Non-league football clubs are often seen as a last option when it comes to a recently released youngster finding a new club, with dreams of playing at the highest level still fresh in the mind.
But non-league clubs can often provide a safety for those players and can even give them a launchpad to re-energise their careers and capture the eye of clubs in the EFL.
The North East has provided a number of examples where players have dropped into the non-league game before earning a move back into the pro game.
Former Newcastle United youngster Marcus Maddison became a shining light at Gateshead before securing a move to Peterborough United and Callum Roberts became a revelation at Blyth Spartans ahead of a move to National League side Notts County.
This summer has seen a number of former academy players earn moves to non-league clubs in the region and there are some that could follow the examples of Maddison and Roberts by making the most of their time in the National League and beyond.
Owen Bailey (Gateshead)
As a long-time captain of Newcastle United’s under-23s, a lot was expected of the versatile Geordie but his progression into the first-team environment was hampered by a cruel set of injuries.
Comfortable at centre-back, full-back or in midfield, Bailey’s senior involvement was limited to appearances in pre-season friendlies, despite being a regular feature in the Magpies’ second string.
The 22-year-old was one of a number of players released earlier this summer and trialled at Doncaster Rovers before securing a move to Gateshead.
Working under former United defender Mike Williamson, and playing alongside a number of former academy team-mates, will only help Bailey settle at the International Stadium and I see no reason why he can’t catch the eye in the National League North this season.
Andrew Nelson (Darlington)
It is two years since Andrew Nelson departed Sunderland to try his luck North of the Border with Dundee after impressing during loan spells with Falkirk and Darlington.
Now, after an injury-hit spell at Torquay United, Nelson is back in the North East after joining Darlington on a permanent basis and there are high hopes that the 23-year-old can make the most of working under a man that knows what it takes to score goals at the highest level.
Quakers boss Alun Armstrong found the net for Middlesbrough and Ipswich Town during their Premier league days and even scored home and away in a UEFA Cup tie against Inter Milan for the latter.
Nelson will be able to fall back on the knowledge and know-how provided by Armstrong and has a real opportunity to shine in non-league’s second tier.
Jack Bodenham (South Shields)
Released by Cardiff City earlier this summer, Welsh centre-back Jack Bodenham earned himself a move to South Shields after impressing in training with the Mariners.
Bodenham could have already earned himself a move into the EFL had Hartlepool United offered him a deal following a short trial with Dave Challinor’s side in pre-season.
However, he has remained in the full-time game as South Shields prepare for their first season as a professional club and the 21-year-old has a useful platform playing and working alongside some experienced individuals at the Northern Premier League club.
Bodenham should ease into life playing alongside the experienced Jon Shaw and working under Mariners boss Graham Fenton, who encourages a possession-based style of play that will suit the young defender.
Jordan Hickey (Blyth Spartans)
It often pays to listen to experienced former pros like Michael Nelson and Micky Barron when it comes to forming an opinion on a player.
I have to admit, I knew little of Jordan Hickey when he joined National League North club Blyth Spartans earlier this summer, but both former Hartlepool United stalwarts suggested the former Hull City midfielder was a bit of a find.
Enthusiastic, energetic and with a top-level work ethic, Hickey looks a very useful addition and could form a key part of Spartans attempts to move on from two challenging seasons in the National League North.
He will need time to settle - but he could well impress a number of onlookers at Croft Park.
Will McCamley (Shildon)
A product of South Shields academy, winger Will McCamley’s form with the Mariners earned him a move to Championship club Huddersfield Town in 2019 - but he was released by the Terriers this summer.
A move back to the North East came when he joined Northern Premier League East newcomers Shildon and the pace and trickery that captured the eye of Huddersfield has been on display during the early part of his spell with the Railwaymen.
With a growing maturity and on-field intelligence, and coping with the physical nature of non-league’s fourth tier, McCamley has an opportunity to shine during a historic season at Dean Street and capture the attention of clubs from higher up football’s food chain.