Bouncing back from rejection, former LFE apprentices James Beeston and Matt Needham have come together to establish a supplemental one-to-one coaching company on the outskirts of New York.
In the summer of 2010, LFE apprentice James Beeston was released from Port Vale Football Club, the team he had supported his entire life. On New Year’s Eve 2011, Chesterfield academy graduate Matt Needham was the recipient of similar news, departing the then League Two club after his six-month professional contract came to an end.
But as the duo dealt with the emotions that come with rejection, an offer of a four-year USA Scholarship at Siena College arrived through their letterboxes.
Although they didn’t realise it back then, it was a decision that would go on to shape their lives today.
A decade on, LFE catches up with the pair to understand how they are using their footballing experiences to educate the next generation of American talent.
Ever since he could walk, Beeston had dreamt of playing for his beloved Port Vale. It was a dream that edged closer towards reality as he climbed from one age group to the next. In 2008, he was offered an apprenticeship at Vale Park, during which he would compete with current Ipswich Town midfielder Sam Morsy for a professional contract. Beeston excelled on the pitch during those two years, but even more so in the classroom, where his efforts earned him the 2009 Apprentice of the Year accolade at the Learn More Awards. In the end, though, the contract decision swayed in Morsy’s favour due to Beeston’s late physical development.
“I was gutted and it was difficult to take, but I kind of braced myself for it because ‘Morsy’ was training with the first team a lot,” Beeston admits, as he casts his mind back to that Friday morning. “I remember it like yesterday. I was the first one to be told. The assistant Mark Grew came into the changing room and said that the manager Micky Adams wanted to see me. He told me that ‘if we were a more financially established club, we could offer you a deal and let you develop a little bit more because technically you are there, but we don’t think you can compete physically’. I understood that.”
Physicality was no issue for Needham, however, but it was his rather unorthodox route into academy football that made it difficult to adapt. The tall, commanding defender joined Chesterfield at the age of 16 after impressing for his local non-league side. During that year, he was one of 25 local players to be signed during a period of experimentation for Chesterfield’s academy, who had chosen to let go of all their Under-16s and instead recruit Chesterfield-based youngsters through open trials and newspaper adverts.
“From being the star of the local team, it was a shock to the system going straight into an apprenticeship and getting hammered in training for doing something wrong,” Needham laughs.
“Looking back, was I good enough? Probably not. I always suspected that, because I got picked up so late, I wasn’t going to be quite good enough.
“I was always good at school and had outside pressure to continue with my education. I was different to the other lads that got released. Of course, I was disappointed, but I always thought ‘OK, maybe this isn’t for me – what’s next?’.”
The traditional route for an apprentice or a first-year professional securing a USA Scholarship is through assessment trials, which run at the end of every season and give players another opportunity to showcase their ability to coaches and scouts from around the world. Another is via LFE’s partnership with FirstPoint USA. But in both cases, it was ‘luck’ that helped them land a four-year scholarship offer at New York’s private liberal arts institution, Siena College.
“It was strange how it came about,” Beeston explains. “When I got released, Port Vale offered me a job as a Technical Skills Coach. The weekend before I was due to accept the offer, my old P.E teacher got in touch and asked whether I’d be interested in going out to the States, as there had been some interest from Siena College through his friend. We had some skype sessions and it went from there.”
An American scholarship provides apprentices with a unique opportunity to gain a degree, experience a different culture and meet new people, but also expand their footballing skill set, which for some, has led to a professional soccer career in the MLS. For many others, though, it has been the start of a new beginning across the pond. That was how Matt Needham viewed it.
“I was different to James because I had almost given up on my dream of making it as a professional. When I arrived in Siena, I realised that I wanted to go down a different route. I had a good understanding that I wasn’t good enough to play professionally. I’m not even half the player that James is – but don’t tell him I said that!” Needham jokes.
“It massively helps to be out there with other English students and former apprentices who have been through what you have,” he adds.
Over the next four years, as technically gifted James and tough-tackling Matt mastered the art of juggling their education and soccer commitments, opportunities to coach began to arise.
As part of the LFE apprenticeship, players are given their first taste of coaching, which Beeston remains grateful for.
“Before the FA Level Two Coaching course, I hadn’t coached before. I think that was the moment when I realised how much I enjoyed it. I would never have discovered how passionate I was if I hadn’t done that at such a young age.
“Through the PFA, I went on to do my UEFA B licence, which boosted my confidence. People would come up to me and say, ‘you are ok at this’.”
In Matt’s case, it took a little bit longer for him to figure out where his future lay.
“I was always interested in numbers and business,” the former Spireite explains. “I went and got a job as an Accountant at a finance company after graduating with a Double Major in Economics and Management. I did it for two years and hated every second of it. I would never change it because it gave me lots of experience. I just couldn’t stand sitting behind a desk all day.
“’Beest’ invited me in for a week and I knew I’d never go back to finance again after that.”
Beestera Soccer Training is now approaching its seventh year as a business and, at the time of publication, has over 50,000 followers across its social media platforms, illustrating its popularity amongst players, coaches and American soccer fans alike. The detailed one-to-one training is what separates it from the crowd.
“I have definitely taken elements of my apprenticeship into what I do now,” Beeston says. “Looking back at those years, it was extremely demanding, and, at the time, it brought something out in you. You knew you had to perform on the pitch and we were being put under pressure from a young age. There is probably some value to that, but in terms of actually teaching and developing each individual, it can’t just be a cookie-cutter approach.”
Needham shares this philosophy. For two players who possessed contrasting attributes on the field, their values are well aligned when it comes to equal opportunity and personal development.
“We care about the player, but also the person,” Needham says. “Because of our background and experiences, what we have been through, we don’t want to just cater to the best player, we want to cater to all players. Great players and better people is our mission,” he adds.
Since the pair set up the company, with the help of American partner Mike Matera, growth has been steady and consistent. But after recently teaming up with Nike for their soccer camps, launching a phone app and delivering online courses, Beestera is reaching new heights.
The journey from closing the managers’ doors at Port Vale and Chesterfield, to owning a high-flying coaching company in America has been an extraordinary ride.
“To get offered a pro contract at Vale would have been a dream come true…” Beeston admits, “but I wouldn’t have had longevity in my playing career. I’m confident of that. I think it would’ve been a short-term win, but my decision to come over to the States has really helped me in terms of the long-term plan.
“The places I have been able to travel to, the cultures that I have been able to interact with, the people I have met and the standard of education that I have been a part of, I know that I would not have been able to experience that anywhere else.”
Needham has no regrets either.
“Moving out here is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says with confidence.
“Was it a scary decision to make at 18? Absolutely, but I felt prepared for it. Everything that you do during your apprenticeship preps you for life after football. For that, I have got to give credit to my parents for being so encouraging. Also, although not something I felt at the time, my youth team manager David Bentley and his assistant Mark Jules for always holding us accountable and allowing us to live in an adult world.
“Football is a bubble. It is an enclosed space, and it is not until you try something different that you realise there is so much out there.”
Beeston is jotting some ideas down for his afternoon group session and as the conversation draws to a close, the former midfielder offers some advice to any young player experiencing the emotions that he did twelve years ago.
“When you are younger and you are dealing with that kind of rejection, where for so long you have been building towards something and telling yourself you are going to become a professional footballer, for it not to happen you feel as though your world has just come crashing down. But, on reflection and looking at the bigger picture, you are still so young.”
“If you have an opportunity to gain a degree and resume playing, I would say ‘take it’ every time.”
For more information on USA Scholarship opportunities, visit https://www.lfe.org.uk/usa-scholarships/
This article features in Issue 43 of LFE’s Touchline magazine.