Joe Pigott last week signed a new contract at AFC Wimbledon, but life could have been very different if he had decided to pursue a potential career in cricket at the age of 15.
For those supporters that may have missed it in Saturday's match day programme, we featured an extensive interview with Joe and this is reproduced in full below.
The thrill of scoring goals ultimately proved to be the deciding factor for Joe Pigott when he opted to pursue a career in football instead of cricket. If things had worked out differently, the Dons striker could have been fronting the Kent bowling attack at the Oval against Surrey – but at the age of 15 he chose football. Though Joe has had to put some difficult times behind him, including dropping down to non-league after a goal famine at Cambridge United, some good times have followed, including the highlight of scoring at Wembley for Southend United, and he certainly doesn't regret the decision he took as a teenager.
"I played cricket to quite a high standard. I played quite a few games for Kent's second team, and I had a choice between football and cricket," Joe told us earlier this week. "I was a bowler, but I batted a bit too. Football just felt a little bit more natural, and I enjoyed it more. I was playing cricket from the age of about 11 until 15. I really enjoyed watching Kevin Pieterson play.
"The choice was totally up to me, but my mum wasn't too happy as I was out playing sport every night! It's different with cricket because clubs have only about ten academy players under the age of 20, and I was one of those ten. The coaches there thought I could have had a decent career in cricket. I decided to go for a scholarship at Charlton Athletic, though."
Fast-forward almost a decade, and Joe is showing real signs of fulfilling the footballing promise that he showed in his late teens at Charlton, where he played in an FA Youth Cup team that was just edged out by Manchester United at Old Trafford. Since joining the Dons in January, he has scored 11 goals, many of those vital in the club's battle to beat the drop last season. Having started this season with six goals in his first 13 appearances, Joe is determined to start hitting the back of the net again.
"I still think there's a lot more to come from me. I just need to brush things up in my game and bring it all together. I want to chip in with more goals to help the team. I made sure in the summer that I kept myself ticking over fitness-wise, so that I'd be up to speed when I came back this season. I have to get myself back in the team now and get back to the levels that I was showing in early season. I was ill at half-time during the Portsmouth game, but I'm obviously fine now and ready to play.
"I scored quite a few important goals during the run-in last season, and I was pleased with my contribution. It was sort of a transitional spell for me here as I was still getting used to the club, with new surroundings and obviously a different league too."
Joe wants to repay the faith shown in him by Neal Ardley after the manager worked hard to bring him to AFC Wimbledon in January. The 24-year-old striker had other options when Wimbledon came calling, but he was convinced that he would be given a real opportunity here, something that hadn't perhaps happened at other clubs.
"I had a couple of other offers from clubs in the league, but Wimbledon appealed to me the most after I spoke to the manager. I'd heard about the Wimbledon story and the history of the club, and I talked with the manager and it all moved on from there.
"I thought this would be a great opportunity, and thankfully it paid off, in particular helping the club to stay up after I joined. It was a great feeling to score on my debut against Blackpool – it was quite a good goal too, and I really enjoyed that! I just want to give the fans a few more moments like that."
Having been out on loan at Bromley, Newport County, Southend United and Gillingham, and with spells at Cambridge United and Maidstone too, Joe needed to feel wanted at a club and to be offered a platform to score goals regularly.
"I gained experience at different clubs, but it's really hard being a loan player. You're treated differently, and there's more stability when you've signed for a club permanently. When you go out on loan you're learning the hard way, but you do benefit from it.
"I was only 17 when I signed on loan for Bromley, and that was a wake-up call. I did quite well at Southend, scoring at Wembley in the play-off final – that was a great moment and it was brilliant to help them to promotion. I also played against Wimbledon for Newport and scored twice, but it was a while ago now and I don't remember too much about it!
"The toughest spell in my career was probably when I was at Cambridge. I scored just one goal during the time I was there, and that came in the Football League Trophy. I scored a lot of goals in pre-season, but when the season started they changed the way they played. It didn't suit me, and we got loads of bad results. There was a change of manager and then I wasn't really playing. I was there for six months, and then I went to Maidstone for the second half of the season."
The goals then flowed for Joe at his hometown club, and his form attracted the attention of scouts from Football League clubs. It was a move that eventually brought him to Wimbledon, and Joe says that he kept believing he could step back up to the professional game.
"I just needed to play regularly. I'd been on loan at various clubs, in and out a lot. I needed to be somewhere I was wanted, at a club where I knew I'd be starting every week. Everyone has doubts, no matter who you are, but I knew I could do it. I was playing every week and I got the goals to get noticed at that level. Now it's about proving myself again and seeing if I can get to the next level."
Joe is far from the only graduate from the Charlton Athletic Academy to forge a successful career in the game. Though they were younger than him at the time, Joe could see for himself the potential of current Liverpool regular Joe Gomez, and he played in the same Addicks team as former Wimbledon loan pair Michael Smith and Semi Ajayi (both now at Rotherham United). He remains very grateful to Charlton for the footballing education he received after being spotted playing local football.
"I was playing Kent League football for Corinthians, based near Bluewater, when I was about 15. That was late compared with other players that get picked up by an academy, often when they are eight or nine. But I steadily improved, and I had four or five clubs interested in signing me. But Charlton were a club I looked at and thought, 'I'll have a great chance with them.'
"Joe Gomez was at Charlton when I was there. He was very young, but you could tell he was going to be a top-quality player. Steve Avory and Nathan Jones were key coaching influences. They helped my game and took it to the next level.
"I was quite happy playing in the Kent League as a teenager. I knew quite a few lads who had gone to academies at eight or nine and a few years later they'd pretty much given up football. I was just enjoying my football. I'm really thankful for what Charlton did for me. It would've been nice to be in the Kent League for longer, but football is football and I decided to go for it.
"I played alongside Michael Smith at Charlton. Some people think you can't play too big men together, but it worked well. I'd like to think we're two quite intelligent footballers! He's doing well now in his career. I still speak to him occasionally, and obviously when we played against Rotherham last season. There are loads of players from my Charlton academy team playing at different clubs, including Michael Smith and Semi Ajayi at Rotherham, Morgan Fox at Sheffield Wednesday and Jordan Cousins at QPR. We got to the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals against Man United and lost 3–2 at Old Trafford. I started the game and came off after 70 minutes. It was a great experience."
Judging by the improvement he's made this year, Joe appears to have the best years in his career to come – and no-one at AFC Wimbledon will be complaining if that happens here.