Upon entering Power League Mill Hill on a Wednesday afternoon in the late autumn of 2010, visitors are greeted by a sign. A red background bedecked with bold white text reads: “Arsenal u10 Trials. Please Register Inside”. The time has come for one of modern football’s global forces to inspect the local market, hoping to discover the next big thing. In a north London suburb where the fate of relationships often hangs on one simple question – “Are you Spurs, Arsenal or Chelsea, mate?” – this opportunity is everything.
Yards away, on the playing fields that neighbour the five-a-side facility, tomorrow’s common room stories are playing out in real time. An under-17 school game between Finchley Catholic High School and West London Academy is underway, the persistent drizzle and inadequate drainage combining to rule it a muddy, scrappy affair. The teams are comprised of players at the tail-end of their schoolboy careers, resigned to professional footballing ambitions that will remain forever unfulfilled while a roomful of pre-teens dare to dream next door.
There are, however, exceptions to every rule. On this day, it comes in the form of Finchley’s right-back, Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, who defies the quagmire forming beneath his feet with a series of deft touches and neat weaving runs. Taking centre stage on a damp mid-week afternoon, far more prestigious backdrops await.
To unearth a diamond from the rough, expect choppy waters. Talent spotters trawl the land, casting nets far and wide in the often futile hope of sourcing their catch of the day. The stakes are high, with success enhancing reputations and prolonging uncertain careers. A chance encounter with one such scout revealed the urgency of execution. “You really need to be at an academy by the time you’re nine or ten if you’re to stand any chance,” he said.
Try telling Pelly that. “I played Sunday league and school football up until the age of 16. After that I moved to Boreham Wood. I had a trial there and got in. It was a good level, close to home and I just wanted to keep playing really.” With a foot in the door, things started to move quickly. “At 17 or 18 I started to get involved with the first team and made my debut. They were playing in the Conference South back then, a really physical league, but Boreham Wood were a good footballing side so that helped make the transition to men’s football easier.”
Despite early success, his feet remained firmly on the ground, professional ambitions remaining unfounded. “I didn’t even think about going pro to be honest. I just wanted to play and made sure I got my head down and worked hard.”
Start the count. Speaking with Pelly, his dedication to improvement quickly becomes clear. That’s the first mention of his intrinsic work ethic, but it certainly isn’t the last. As his story unfolds, a picture quickly develops of a player hungry to make the most of every opportunity he was given. The next came courtesy of Darryl McMahon, a former West Ham player who was enjoying the twilight of his career at Meadow Park.
“I had an unsuccessful trial at Norwich and then came back to Boreham Wood. Darryl had a few connections at West Ham and recommended me. I didn’t have an agent at that stage, it all happened purely through word of mouth.” A trial was held, positive impressions were made, and a contract was duly signed. Premier League stars were now colleagues and expectations had grown.
“The first season I was in the under-18s but the following year I had more interaction with the first team. It was a completely different world. They all just knew how to operate – come in, train, eat, gym. Then do it again the next day. The level of hard work that the successful pros put in was definitely a big lesson for me. There’s absolutely no slack. There’s got to be progression every single day. The structure and dedication was completely different from non-league.”
Adapting quickly, Pelly rose to the challenge and was rewarded by manager Sam Allardyce. He made his first-team debut in a 2-0 League Cup win against Burnley in 2013. “I was buzzing. I was playing centre-back (out of position for the central-midfielder) but I didn’t care. You just have to take any chance when you’re given it.”
Unfortunately for Pelly, further opportunities failed to materialise. Adrift in the 18s and overlooked for the 23s, he decided a loan move, made permanent the following season, was best. “It was a really tough decision but I wasn’t getting games at West Ham and I wanted to play in the first-team.” National League side Luton was the chosen destination. Welcome back to non-league Mr Mpanzu, we hope you enjoy your stay.
The hazards posed by the economics of modern football are simple: the financial security of a lucrative long-term contract can equate to a decrease in hunger, desire and, ultimately, success. Aspiring footballers, listen up. Pelly has some wisdom to impart. “As footballers, especially in the academy system, you live in a bubble. Men’s football, down in the lower leagues, puts you back in reality. There’s a lot riding on every result. How you play really means something. You’re playing for your lives, playing for your family. Players need to play well because they genuinely need the money. Contracts tend to be short so there aren’t any long-term guarantees.”
From forever blowing bubbles in east London, a departure from Premier League facilities to Kenilworth Road ensured the bubbles were quickly burst. “I remember when I got there, we had portacabins for changing rooms and the pitch wasn’t great – better than a lot of others in the division, but not great. It was hard at first but you deal with what you have. Over time it’s improved and we’ve got a new training ground and new stadium on the way.”
Off-field developments mirrored improvements on it. In 2014 Luton returned to the Football League, going one better in 2018 with promotion to League One. Now they find themselves at the top of the division, a 26-game unbeaten run making them favourites for automatic promotion as the business end of the season dawns. This despite losing their manager, Nathan Jones, in January.
“The team spirit is quality. We haven’t lost since November and confidence is sky high. We feel like we can beat anybody. Automatic promotion is the goal. We don’t care how we do it, whether coming first or second, we’ll take it. A change of manager always threatens to derail a season but Mick Harford’s been really good. We’re all fighting and working for the same thing. There’s lots of strong teams and it’s a really competitive division, but we’ve just got to focus on ourselves. We’ve just got to keep winning. It’s in our own hands.”
With ambitions for the coming months confirmed, where are longer-term hopes directed? Leeds have reportedly monitored the midfielder in the past, while Jones has said that he is destined for the Premier League. Pelly, though, refuses to be distracted. “I’m not thinking about that at the minute. No one in the team is. We’re just all focused on working hard and getting to the Championship. That’s all that matters.”
If they’re to be successful in their common goal, considerable responsibility will fall at the feet of their number 17, an ever-present in the team before being substituted ten minutes from time against Rochdale in March. Hatters fans speak highly of Pelly and his teammates echo their praise. In striker Danny Hylton’s words, “he never comes off, he’s never injured, he’s always getting on the ball, always making things tick for us”. Not bad for a player who was playing park football at 16.
Pelly’s story is well-timed. It offers a welcome distraction from the underhand figures, misplaced trust, controversy and cover-ups that have plagued youth football’s recent history. It’s also an exception to the widely held rule: get in at an elite academy early and do whatever it takes to stay there.
Think back to that roomful of nervous adolescents in 2010 and the countless others who have assembled since, all vying for a place on the production line of the world’s most dysfunctional factory, where most of the product is cast aside. Indulging in the specifics, less than half a percent of players who enter an academy at the age of nine go on to play professionally or make a living from the game.
Odds in mind, perhaps more will follow Pelly’s path. Accompanying them on the journey is a final piece of advice: “Just find somewhere you enjoy playing football. Not just somewhere you enjoy, but somewhere that allows you to get your head down and work hard. That’s all you can do. Just know that someone is always watching. You never know where it will take you.”
By Pat McColgan @patmccolgan