Harley Willard made one of those sliding-doors decisions that can turn anyone’s life around last December. He had arrived at Heathrow airport, packed and ready for the 14-hour slog back to Phnom Penh, and at that point another season at the Cambodian club Svay Rieng felt like a trade-off he could just about stomach. The football there offered few real prospects but he had enjoyed the lifestyle and, after such an uncertain year and a half since leaving Southampton, surely his happiness was the most important thing.
But something did not quite feel right. Doubts had crept in during three weeks back home. “I want to progress in my career” was a thought he could not shake and it grew stronger as he sat in the terminal, the vision of the bumpy, sandy pitches and iffy facilities in south-east Asia looking less appealing by the minute. He rang his agent, then rang him again and again. “Should I get that on that plane?” was the recurring question and when the answer came it was the one that, deep down, he wanted to hear.
Now Willard is on his post-season break after eight months spent with the Icelandic second division club Víkingur Ólafsvík, which is a world away from the steam and bustle of his old home. “It’s only got just under 1,000 people but, you know what, I like it,” he says of the village, out on a limb in Iceland’s far west, where he has quietly begun getting things back on track. “It’s a good place just to concentrate on your football, no distractions, and that’s why I went there. It’s been great to be part of and I’ve enjoyed every game. Because I’m happy, I’m progressing and showing it on the pitch.”
Willard scored 12 times in 22 league games last season, an impressive record for a winger, and was named in the division’s team of the season. There is no kidding: this is not what he had imagined five years ago when, on his 17th birthday, he signed professional terms with Saints after showing the promise that would earn him a place on the Guardian’s inaugural Next Generation list that year. But he feels he is regaining the momentum that was crudely halted in the manner so many young players endure each year.
“I didn’t see it coming to be honest,” he says of the day in May 2017 when the Premier League club cut him adrift. He was no longer a regular in the under-23s, for whom he had made his debut at 16, but he felt Claude Puel, the senior team’s manager at the time, had taken a liking to him. “It was quite strange, but that’s just how it is. The more I wasn’t playing for the under-23s I was thinking: ‘Maybe it’s not going to work out,’ but then the next day I’d be training with the first team and the manager would be talking to me. So it was a bit of a shock.”
He is quick to stress that he bears no grudges. Martin Hunter, who coached Southampton’s second string at the time, preferred other wide players but Willard says the pair got on well. “It’s a sport full of opinions, and you can only try and change someone’s,” Willard says. “I did what I could do.”
The problem, and perhaps the most important issue facing the majority of academy products at top-flight clubs today, was what came next. “I didn’t know what direction to go in after I left,” he says. “The agent I had at the time wasn’t giving me the advice I needed and I had nowhere to go really. I had in my head that I was going to prove Southampton wrong and get back where I need to be, but I didn’t know what to do so it was hard.”
Almost a year of bobbing around in non-league with Maidstone, Eastbourne and Welling ensued. For a 20-year-old who had never been out on loan, or experienced much beyond the pristine surfaces and intense technical drills at top-level training grounds, the experience was “brutal, a completely different game – you just can’t compare the two”.
He knew he could quickly be swallowed up in the remorseless to-and-fro so found a move to the Swedish lower leagues with IFK Hässleholm. That was, on the bright side, an early chance to fulfil his ambition of playing overseas but the team only trained three times a week and when Svay Rieng’s Irish manager, Conor Nestor, called in the summer of 2018 he decided to gamble on the complete change of scene.
It has all posed a different mental challenge to the one that, trailed as a prodigy at Southampton, he now realises he found difficult to handle. “At the time I was young and I had a lot of pressure on me,” he says. “I was the first person in my age group to sign professionally and the club had put a lot into me. I felt I had a lot to give back but perhaps it got to me. You’re 16 and about to sign that contract, thinking: ‘I’m going to be a star here and break into the first team’. But obviously it’s not as easy as that and when I got to 18 or 19 it was tough, I struggled. My family were so supportive but other people around me were negative and it wasn’t the best. I was listening to the wrong people.”
He thinks that, at that stage of a nascent career, environmental factors can be the difference between academy products thriving and, in some cases, dropping out of football altogether. “When you’re happy, confident and everything around you is good, you play your best football,” he says. “You’re wanting to learn and progress, wanting to succeed so badly, and it happens to you because people can see it and they help you more. You get one chance, and if you take it then it could be you.”
The example of Marcus Rashford, another of the 2014 Next Generation picks, is particularly pertinent to Willard. The pair met while he was on trial at Manchester United, shortly before joining Southampton from Arsenal’s youth setup in 2013. They became friendly, hanging out together in the Trafford Centre on occasion, and he believes the England forward’s meteoric rise is proof of what can happen when that opportunity is seized. “It looked like we were both going down the same route: youth team, reserve team, first team,” he says. “He took his chance and now look at him. When you have that happiness, confidence and good people around you the only way is up.”
For Willard, those elements are now back in place. He does not rule out returning to Ólafsvík, the place that brought the joy back, but his return from the brink has not gone unnoticed. Clubs in Iceland’s top flight would take him but there has been interest from Scandinavia and the Dutch second division, too. The sense, at last, is that the tide has turned.
“I went through some dark days thinking: ‘What’s happened?’ and ‘How can I get back?’” he says. “Some really hard times. But when I look back now I’m happy I went through the struggle and think that was the making of me, going through the bad times and knowing things can’t get much worse than they were then. Now I’m on the way up, starting to get a bit of success, and I know what I need to do.”
The penny appears to have dropped, to some extent, for young English footballers and their representatives that foreign leagues are a logical next step from the academy education. Willard feels his technique has been allowed to shine in Iceland and is, unsurprisingly, eager to champion moving abroad as an option for others seeking a second chance. “I’d advise it for anyone if they get released or things don’t work out,” he says. “I think a lot of players will succeed with it. Hopefully things work first time but, if not, then don’t give up because there’s always a path for you.”
Even if it took a dramatic change of heart before passport control, Willard’s now seems awash with possibility once again.
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