The United Nations of non-league: Meet the semi-pros clocking up the airmiles

If international breaks affect top-flight players, imagine being a non-league semi-pro representing the Philippines or Pakistan. Chris Flanagan hunts down the players just as likely to enjoy 90 minutes in the Caribbean as a wet and windy trip to Chorley...

They dot the non-league scene, like Clark Kent ready to fly off and become Superman once more. The captain of the Philippines at Ascot United, the Northwich defender who made World Cup history with the help of Viv Richards, or the Montserrat record goalscorer playing in the Central Midlands League.
 
"The coach in Montserrat asks the kids who they want to be when they grow up and they don't say Rooney, Ronaldo or Messi, they say Jaylee!"
 
This is Jaylee Hodgson, of Clifton All Whites FC in Nottingham, but also the man who tops the scoring charts of the country ranked 187th in the world by FIFA at the turn of the year. He is six promotions away from the Football League, a level at which he has never played, and at 33 he is unlikely to get there. But he has fulfilled a dream most players in the top four divisions cannot say they have even got anywhere near.
 
"When I was 14, I remember sitting down and watching the 1994 World Cup with my auntie and my mum," he tells FFT. "I said to them, 'One day I will play in the World Cup'.
 
"My first game for Montserrat was in the qualifiers for the World Cup in 2011, versus Belize. I got a yellow card in the first 10 minutes for doing an overhead kick, and I thought I'd better calm down! We lost 5-2, but I scored two goals. Then in the second leg I scored again."
 
That was as close as Hodgson got to the finals in Brazil, but with the aid of friendly matches – including a 4-4 draw with a British Rail XI at Charlton’s Valley two years ago - he has now amassed eight goals for the volcanic Caribbean island.
 
It puts him alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton, Pele and Ferenc Puskas in the list of players who top the scoring charts for their country. His first international call-up came completely by surprise, while he was playing for Heanor Town and Sunday league side Clumber FC.
 
Hodgson was left stunned when a phone call arrived from the Montserrat FA, who had traced his links to the country via a grandparent, and invited him for a trial in London.
 
"We went out drinking, which is not really a good thing to do, so I went to the trial with an hour's sleep!" he laughs. Clearly he still impressed.
 
The opportunity to play international football was not something Adam Priestley, of Yorkshire side Farsley AFC in Evo-Stik First Division North, was expecting either. But in November the 23-year-old forward started for Gibraltar in their first UEFA-sanctioned match, a 0-0 draw against Slovakia in Portugal.
 
"Someone who writes a blog in Gibraltar tweeted me," he said. "They had done a bit of research, found out that was I born there and told me the person to speak to, so I contacted the Gibraltar FA.
 
"My dad was in the RAF in Gibraltar, and I moved back to England when I was one or two. I knew I had the link but Gibraltar weren’t in UEFA before, so it never really crossed my mind. It was an opportunity I never thought would happen. I'm only playing in non-league and there aren't many non-league players who can say they're internationals. It's crazy to think of it, even now.
 
"The Slovakia game was the best experience of my life. When I was on the plane flying back I was thinking, 'Has that really just happened?'"

Farsley man Priestley played in Gibraltar's first-ever match in November

Farsley man Priestley played in Gibraltar's first-ever match in November

For former Wimbledon defender Rob Gier, it was encouragement from his Filipino mother that prompted him to make contact with the national team after dropping into non-league. His debut came at the end of his time with Grays.

"I didn't do much about it when I was playing full-time, but in the end I started looking into it to keep my mum quiet!" said Gier, who now plays for Ascot in the Hellenic Premier Division.
 
"I got in touch and said this is who I am and this is my CV, if you're interested it would be great to hear from you. I didn't hear anything for a while but a few months later the president of the Philippine Football Federation got in touch with me. They had a tournament coming up in the Maldives, so it wasn't a really hard sell to be honest!"

Just a normal guy

The disparity between non-league and international football can be such that it feels like living two different lives.
 
"It does feel like that," said Hodgson, who also works as a personal trainer. "With your club team you might go to a £15 a night hotel in Newcastle for a night out, compared to staying at Hiltons in the middle of Miami, Honduras or Trinidad with the national team.
 
"You get that taste of Rooney and the life they're living, but without the money. I'd love to have the money! People ask me for autographs but I’m just a normal guy who plays semi-professional football and just happens to be top goalscorer for the Montserrat national side. I have to close my eyes and thank the Lord, I'm so blessed."
 
On the day of the 2002 World Cup final, Montserrat lost 4-0 to Bhutan in the ‘other final’ – a match between the two lowest ranked teams in the world.
 
"When I started playing we were ranked 203rd and there were only 203 countries!" Hodgson says. "But we beat the British Virgin Islands 7-0 and because we’ve been playing friendlies too, we’ve moved up to 187th."

Philippines skipper Rob Gier leads his side out in the Suzuki Cup

Philippines skipper Rob Gier leads his side out in the Suzuki Cup

The transition from club football to the international game is not always straightforward.

"The heat takes it out of you," admits Hodgson, recalling games in the Caribbean, where Montserrat have sometimes played games on consecutive days. "Within 10 minutes you're absolutely saturated through sweat, that's how hot it is.
 
"But after the first 10 minutes of a game I don't think about it, I just put my heart on my sleeve and play until I collapse."
 
For Antigua and Barbuda international Marc Joseph, sometimes the return home can be challenging too. Joseph made his international debut while still in the Football League with Rotherham, but in more recent times has combined his duties with spells at Altrincham, Kendal and Witton - as well as a full-time job as a community sports officer at Championship club Blackpool.
 
The regular 2,000-mile journey to Antigua has produced the most special moments of his career, although it can be draining.
 
"Going there the flight isn't too bad, it's coming back with the jet lag," admits Joseph, who joined Northwich just before Christmas. "A lot of the time I was landing on Thursday or Friday and playing on the Saturday. I would say the games after I landed probably weren't my best appearances!
 
"The legs are still asleep for a few days afterwards, you're still wondering what time it is. You're still thinking about the big game you've just played in and you've got to come back down to earth for Kendal against Northwich, or a game like that. You have to get your head back on that game, and the type of football is a lot different.
 
"From playing quite a relaxed game in Antigua, you're coming back to England where it's full on for 90 minutes."

Joseph attempts to stop USA's Herculez Gomez

Joseph attempts to stop USA's Herculez Gomez

One of Adnan Ahmed’s aims since moving into non-league in order to focus on his business career with family company Sweet Dreams, has been staying fit enough to play for Pakistan. Still only 29, he's turned out for Huddersfield, Tranmere, Hungarian side Ferencvaros and Aboomoslem of Iran, before joining Bradford Park Avenue in 2011.

Now he has returned for a second spell at North West Counties First Division team Nelson, a few miles from his birthplace of Burnley.
 
"My father has a bed manufacturing business which is one of the leaders in the UK," Ahmed says. "The plan was always to get into business at around 28, when my dad is young and healthy, and that's what happened.
 
"Business and family comes first. I could still go and play pro now, but it's just priorities. As long as I'm fit enough, though, I'm confident I can carry on playing internationally.
 
"It’s not easy. When you're playing and training full-time you're a lot sharper. But I keep myself in good shape and I train virtually every day by myself."

Nelson's Adnan Ahmed (No.8) is an established Pakistan international

Nelson's Adnan Ahmed (No.8) is an established Pakistan international

International call-ups are something a non-league manager rarely has to deal with.

"I had to miss two games when I went away in November and I think my manager would have preferred if I could have played in the game on the Saturday," says Gibraltar star Priestley. "But he said to me that it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up, and everyone at the club has been massively supportive.
 
"The lads have a little bit of banter about it with me, as you'd expect."
 
Joseph believes non-league bosses are often more understanding about international commitments than their Football League counterparts.
 
"The managers I've signed for knew I played international football," said the 37-year-old defender, whose father hails from Antigua. "At Kendal I missed a few games flying out there, but all my managers have been really supportive.
 
"They embrace it more, the fact that they have an international in the side, and they're interested in what happened in the games. At league clubs when you say you're going to play for Antigua they look at it as being lower than League football.
 
"Until you go out there and see the standard, how important it is for the nation, and that you're not just going for a holiday and you've got a chance of achieving something really big, it's quite hard to twist managers’ arms.
 
"That's a shame because Antigua have lost out on players whose managers wouldn't let them go. When I was at Rotherham it was tricky to try to get out to Antigua and I didn't get out there as much as I really wanted to.
 
"It was trying to balance my bread and butter club football here, and going to Antigua and achieving a goal of playing international football."

Joseph (No.5) lines up against the States alongside Mikele Leigertwood and Dexter Blackstock

Joseph (No.5) lines up against the States alongside Mikele Leigertwood and Dexter Blackstock

But Joseph achieved more than he ever expected in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, when Antigua reached the second group stage for the first time in their history - with a little help from a West Indian cricket legend.

"We play in the Sir Viv Richards Stadium and he's a god in Antigua," said the centre-back. "He’s been really positive with the football - he'd come down to the hotel the day before a game and tell us about when he was playing cricket and the importance of sticking together.
 
"He'd spend 40 minutes talking to everyone, letting us know the country was backing us and that he's on our side. He was a strong motivator before most of our games.
 
"He's one of those people you think you'll never meet, but he knows my name now and he'd come over and chat, asking about family. That was a massive thing, because he's someone we'd all idolised as children.
 
"When I left Rotherham I thought I'd be retiring. I wasn't really in love with football as much as I was when I was younger. But I started to play a bit of non-league, enjoyed it and kept my fitness up.
 
"When Antigua came calling again, I thought it might be my final chance to get out there and enjoy it. A year-and-a-half after I thought I'd be retiring, we got into the second round of World Cup qualifying for the first time ever and we ended up playing the USA, the biggest nation in the world.
 
"It was the pinnacle of my career. Clint Dempsey was playing up front and they had Landon Donovan too, it was David and Goliath.
 
"We lost 3-1 but we left with our heads very high. The American fans expected it to be 10-0 but we scared them for a little while. We put the country on the map with how we played. It lifted the nation.
 
"Cricket has been very dominant but it's getting pushed very closely now by football. It was really uplifting."

Fairytale run

When Joseph's nation met Dempsey & Co. in the group's return fixture, only a last-minute Eddie Johnson winner sealed a 2-1 win for Jürgen Klinsmann's side. 
 
Just as the Witton Albion man got to meet Richards, Gier’s success with the Philippines gave him the opportunity to rub shoulders with David Beckham and boxing great Manny Pacquiao.
 
"Manny Pacquiao is on a different stratosphere to everyone else in the Philippines," says the Ascot man. "I had the chance to watch him fight in Vegas, shake his hand and have a photo opportunity, which was an amazing experience.
 
"When I first joined the team in 2009 we were known in south east Asia as the whipping boys. The first time I went out on the training pitch, they said this is where we're going to train and I thought, ‘Are you serious?’ There wasn't enough grass for cows to feed on, let alone for us to play football on!
 
"But in 2010 we had a fairytale run in a competition called the Suzuki Cup. We qualified for the first time, and then we got to the semi-finals, beating Vietnam in Hanoi. We came back as heroes and since then everything has skyrocketed. We're the No.1 team in south-east Asia now.
 
"The fans are crazy, they're just so proud of people representing their country and doing well, they want to congratulate you and have photos with you. We can't really go out in Manila as a group now because it becomes a little bit unsafe! We went shopping in a mall and the security guards had to come and escort us out because we were getting mobbed, we couldn't move.
 
"LA Galaxy came to play a game against the national team too and Beckham came along. For something like that to happen to the Philippines was unthinkable in 2009."

Gier & Co. have turned around the national team in tough circumstances

Gier & Co. have turned around the national team in tough circumstances

Gier, 33, now has 50 caps for the Philippines, including a match in front of 90,000 in Indonesia. But he saw his only goal for his country ruled out after it transpired that the game, against Laos, was not sanctioned by FIFA. "I only got two in my career over here, so it sums up my goalscoring record!" he laughs.

As well as playing for the national team, his day job is co-ordinating the country’s European-based players as well as scouting and analysis for upcoming matches. Gier plays for free at Ascot and, having grown disillusioned with the full-time game, like Joseph he admits he is happier playing at a lower level in club football.
 
"I tell people that I've retired from domestic football to concentrate on my international career, which generally isn't the way players do it!" he said. "But I think Ascot probably get a few more followers from the football fanatics in the Philippines who want to see what the overseas players are up to and how their teams are doing."
 
Ahmed, too, has international memories he will cherish. The Pakistan midfielder has nearly 30 caps to his name and things have improved since his debut, a 7-0 home loss to Iraq in a World Cup qualifier in 2007. He said: "We got battered in the first leg but in the second game we drew 0-0 against them in Syria. Obviously we couldn't play in Iraq at the time because of the war.
 
"That was a fantastic experience, although there were 20,000 Iraqi fans ready to kill us! We haven't really played many games in Pakistan due to the violence and instability there, but football is definitely improving and we’ve closed the gap on India.
 
"I've been to maybe 20 countries, too, most of them I would never have gone to otherwise."

Eye-opening experience

Each player has been given the opportunity to see places quite unlike England. Joseph admits the poverty he saw in Haiti, a year after a devastating earthquake struck the country, was a real eye opener. "Seeing the country in that state, with all the makeshift tents that people were living in, was quite a grounding moment," he said.
 
For Gier, it was his own country that was affected by a typhoon in November. The defender has taken time off this season to help the relief effort.
 
"My family is from Tacloban, on the island that got hit badly by the typhoon," he said. "The family home is totally destroyed, there's nothing left, but thankfully everyone is present and accounted for.
 
"My cousin was missing for about three weeks, which was a pretty worrying time because you start to fear the worst. But thankfully she was found safe and well. She’s a nun and was probably doing missionary work, which was probably why she was unable to get in contact.
 
"Lots of others weren’t as lucky as us, though. Now we are trying to get money out there and help as best we can. I was involved in a relief effort over here - people were donating to a shipping company so I went to help out sorting things, and 12 containers were sent. The generosity has been unbelievable.
 
"My club Ascot have done their own fundraising and have given me a bit of time to process everything. Even though it's out of the news now, there are still a lot of people who need help, so anything people can do is still greatly appreciated. There's a long road to recovery."
 
Rob Gier photos are courtesy of Anton Sheker at Goal PH. 


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