Simon Hart: David Syers is putting his classics degree to good use – chasing league honours with Scunthorpe
Life beyond the Premier League
Wednesday 26 February 2014
David Syers scored his first hat-trick in league football last Saturday. He has eight goals from midfield in a Scunthorpe United side unbeaten in 17 League Two matches and could end the season celebrating a second successive promotion, having helped Doncaster Rovers climb out of League One last May.
Yet there are still times when the simple fact of being a professional footballer is enough to leave him pinching himself. In an age when clubs spend small fortunes hothousing young talent from primary-school age, the golden ticket is not meant to land in the hands of a 22-year-old fresh out of university. Yet this is precisely what happened to Syers when he graduated from Leeds University with a 2:1 in Classical Civilisation in 2010. "I still sometimes don't feel that I am a professional footballer," he tells The Independent. "There will always be a part of me that sees myself as a non-league player that managed to burgle his way into the game and to enjoy it while it lasts because someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and say 'Come on, you're coming back down to the Conference North'."
There have been footballers with degrees before (Steve Coppell, Tony Galvin and Barry Horne to name three) but there cannot be too many familiar with the works of Socrates – the Greek philosopher, not the 1980s Brazil midfielder. Indeed, Syers did not even entertain the prospect of a football career until his last few months as a student. "I had completely given it up," says Syers, now 26. As a schoolboy he had "bad experiences" training with a number of clubs – Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, Middlesbrough, Darlington – and had "fallen out of love with the game". Instead, from his sixth-form days at Leeds Grammar, he combined school and then university football with learning the men's game at non-league Ossett Albion. "I was playing in the Unibond One and doing well but not completely pulling up trees." In his final year, though, the English Universities player stepped up to the Conference North with Farsley Celtic and found that "I was better at that level".
He was suddenly on the radar of several lower-league sides and after graduation, took up Peter Taylor's offer of a trial at Bradford City. He still had no contract when he made his debut in a shock victory over Nottingham Forest in the League Cup – a night he will never forget. "My brother Daniel came to watch and he went to the bookies in the ground and said, 'I want to put a bet on Dave Syers scoring'. They said: 'Who?' I wasn't in the programme and no one knew who I was. I remember warming up, thinking: 'What is happening here, am I really going to go on against Notts Forest?' But I managed to get the goal 12 minutes after going on and that pretty much got me the contract and my chance in football."
The size of the contract meant he actually had to move back in with his parents for a year but he did not hesitate. "I was happy to sign anything." It also meant a call to PricewaterhouseCoopers to defer his planned traineeship as an accountant. "I rang them and said, 'I've been offered the chance to play professional football for a year'." When he ended that first campaign with 10 goals and Bradford's players' player of the year award, there was no going back.
Recalling the adjustment to league football, Syers says daily training was a shock to the system – "there were quite a few Mondays I did not train because my body was so stiff and sore" – and he had to sharpen his technique. "I was technically very raw, I hadn't much specific coaching, I had to make up for a lot of bad touches by running that extra yard. I picked up a lot of bookings early on because of the pace of the game and learning how to tackle and getting your body in the right place. That is something that comes from training every day under a top-quality coach."
He continued his learning curve at Doncaster last term, a move that brought a League One title winners' medal after Rovers' "unbelievable" last-day success at Brentford. He is now back in League Two at Scunthorpe, joining in January after a three-month loan, and eyeing another promotion. His two goals at Portsmouth in November marked a winning start to Russ Wilcox's reign as manager and his hat-trick against the same opponents in last weekend's 5-1 home success kept up second-placed Scunthorpe's pursuit of leaders Chesterfield.
His first matchball, he adds, will be going in a display case at home. "Because my career is so unexpected I want to have a bit of pride in those things I have achieved," he says, quite understandably, of the latest milestone on a journey he never expected to take.
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