Martin Hardy: Cost of a two-week trial: £1,000. Saving the dream: Priceless
Life Beyond the Premier League
The drive to Liverpool from Bournemouth took six hours. The price for everything, including a two-week stay in a hotel next to Prenton Park, was about £1,000, according to Abdulai Bell-Baggie. He was 20 years old and didn't have a regular income, but what price do you put on your dream?
His was just about over, the one about being a footballer, anyway. Bell-Baggie had been capped at England Under-16 and Under-17 level, but his more recent story had involved being rejected by Reading, spending time out of the game and bouncing around non-league football. He had spells at Yeovil, Hayes and Yeading and Salisbury ("it was close to where I lived so the travel wasn't as expensive").
They all ended the same, with the "we don't think you're good enough to make it" conversation, which would then have to be relayed to his girlfriend Natalie, her parents (where he was living), and her brother. All that would have been bad enough, but Natalie's brother is Adam Lallana, the Southampton midfielder.
"That didn't make it any easier for the family," says Bell-Baggie. "He was doing so well and I wasn't even playing. I kept getting told I wasn't good enough. I got a job in the summer to keep me ticking over with money. I was doing telesales. It reminded me how much I wanted to be a footballer.
"I was training twice a day as well to make sure I was fit. I would finish work and do another run. You have to be ready. You have to grab it with both hands.
"Some things I wish I had done better as a kid. I wish had been more professional but as a kid you do things. You have to learn by your mistakes. I've matured as person.
"I was born in Sierra Leone and I moved to England in 1999, when I was seven. I came over with my family but they went back six years later and I stayed with foster parents. I always wanted to be a footballer but the game is about opinions."
One person's opinion had not wavered. Ronnie Moore had taken Bell-Baggie to Rotherham United on loan when he was there. He signed for a month and stayed for half a season. His last appearance was against Dagenham & Redbridge at Wembley in the League Two play-off final in 2010. Rotherham lost. Bell-Baggie was once more clubless. Then began his drift, but Moore, who returned to his old club Tranmere to take charge in March, had kept note.
The invitation for a two-week trial fell Bell-Baggie's way.
"I was psyching myself up on the drive," he said. "I knew how important it was. It was a massive risk. It was a six-hour drive. I was on my own. There was no support. What if I didn't make it? What then? The question kept going around my head. I was going to a league club on trial, it could be the start of everything. On the other hand, if it doesn't work out, it is money for nothing.
"I had to think positive. You have to give your best in life. You can't think about the bad things. I couldn't think like that. I thought it might be my last chance and Ronnie Moore gave me that chance. I will forever be grateful for that. It was a bit of a gamble. If things don't work out for you at Salisbury City, wouldn't a Football League club ask why? I think Ronnie Moore is the only manager who believed in me."
Training was twice a day. He knew no one in the dressing room. Bit by bit, however, he got to know the players and impressed the coaching staff. Then a call into Moore's office. "It was the most nervous I've ever been," he said "It was always my dream to play football. It was all I wanted to do. I've loved football all my life. He said I had a 12-month contract. I was shaking when I came out of his office. I got into the toilet and I started screaming, for about 10 seconds, then I was tearful, very tearful. I rang Natalie and she started crying as well."
Tomorrow, Tranmere travel to Braintree Town in the FA Cup first round. Braintree are in the Conference Premier , the fifth tier of English football and one level above Salisbury City, who told Bell-Baggie he wasn't good enough. There is a doubt about his participation through injury but he will be there, as a League One regular with Tranmere – he has played 11 times this season – his faith in dreams restored.
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