Martin Hardy: Hat-trick heroes give hope after rise from base of the pyramid

Life Beyond the Premier League

Two hat-tricks in the last seven days of Championship football have stood out; one carved from the Essex Senior League, one from the Herts Senior County League Premier Division. Levels nine and 11 respectively in the pyramid of English football.

It is worth remembering the talent that lies hidden away from the bright lights of the top flight.

Baldock Town and Stansted rebuilt the lives and careers of two youngsters when Southampton and Arsenal respectively showed them the door. Heartbroken at 12. Warming hearts at 22 and 39.

Seventeen years separate the stories of Kevin Phillips and Dwight Gayle, but the parallels go beyond those hat-tricks.

After his release, Phillips started scoring goals for fun at Baldock back in the early Nineties. Nigel Callaghan, the former England Under-21 winger, was training with the club. He was also training with Watford, just for fitness. He told Glenn Roeder, who was in charge at Watford at the time, about Phillips’ team. “Nigel said: ‘I can play one-twos, I can get it back, we can retain possession and he scores load of goals’. He said he’s worth a look.

“I went there. It was a freezing night, Baldock were at home to Fisher Athletic, it was an amateur ground with dodgy lights and no team sheets. I got there early to watch them warm up. Everything went in the net, he struck it that sweetly. It was nil-nil at half-time. I was frozen at the bone and I went home but I’d seen enough. I got him in for a two-game trial. He took to it like a duck to water.

“We got him for a grand total of 30 grand. I never spent money that well in my career. He scored 25 goals in 52 games.”

Phillips went on to play eight times for England. His hat-trick for Crystal Palace on Tuesday against Hull, at the age of 39, has kept his new club (his eighth) within touching distance of the one where it all started.

For Gayle and Peterborough it is about survival. Gayle moved from Stansted to Dagenham & Redbridge in 2011. Manager John Still, who left Dagenham for Luton Town last month, told Peterborough he had a goalscorer they would regret not signing. They were already tracking him, but the call spurred them on. After  Gayle scored six in seven games on loan at London Road, the move was made permanent. Not for 30 grand. Posh paid £750,000. Many more Championship hat-tricks like the one at Ewood Park last week that helped Peterborough to a massive 3-2 victory and it will look a snip.

“John Still found him and gave him his chance,” said Bob Symns, the Peterborough chief executive. “He was on our radar. We’re well connected. We watch a lot of games. Our scouting system goes to a lot of games some people can’t be bothered to see. That is our hunting ground. It works for us.

“Anything can happen with this lad now. There were a lot of Premier League scouts watching him. If he carries on scoring goals like at Blackburn, I think there will be some letters and phone calls.

“Their careers aren’t over when they are released. They can come here and go again. One of the reasons they want to come here is because we give them a chance. Look at George Boyd, who has made it into the Scotland squad.”

Roeder adds to the sentiment. “These lads get released and it breaks their heart,” he said. “It breaks them. You cannot come back if you’ve got a broken heart. Kevin would have been upset when Southampton released him but he obviously had a burning desire to be a footballer. It’s satisfying when you see them go all the way. Even if that is a career not in the Premier League, it’s not to be sniffed at. It’s fantastic for the player and one of your outer-limit scouts, who works for nothing or 10p a mile and finds that lad.”

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