By Tony Leighton
Charles Dickens was not a football fan as far as I know, but he would have loved the story of how a soccer-mad kid from Middlesbrough went through rejection by big clubs, career-threatening injury and then making ends meet by working in a pub before finally realising his dream of becoming a professional player.
There were bad things aplenty but also - just like a tale by Dickens - good people along the way to help Jordan Hugill fulfill his ambition; the 21-year-old striker signing for Sky Bet League 1 club Port Vale last summer and now beginning to make his mark in what will hopefully be a successful career.
As he relates a journey that has taken him from non-league football in the North East of England to Spain and back, and now into The Football League, the youngster stresses his gratitude to a couple of Georges, a Glenn, a Micky and a Dickens - or at least to a pub named after the great scribe.
Hugill, who scored his first Football League goal to clinch Vale's 3-1 win against Shrewsbury Town on Saturday, told football-league.co.uk: "The man who recommended me to Port Vale, George Foster [Vale chief scout], is a friend of a fantastic coach I had when I was younger, George Smith.
"George [Smith] had a lot of faith in me, he backed me to get to where I am now. I had trials for Sunderland and Leeds but nothing came of it - I broke my ankle on trial at Leeds, I was just unlucky, but at the time it was devastating. I thought everything had come crashing down on me.
"I was playing non-league, but George Foster recommended me to the Glenn Hoddle Academy in Spain and I got a two-year contract there. I loved it - working with people like Glenn Hoddle and Graham Rix, people with a wealth of experience at the highest level. It was fantastic to learn my stuff there.
"Glenn sorted it out for me [at the end of the Academy contract] to go to Whitby Town in the Northern Premier League and in my first game I scored in the first 10 minutes; but then in the same match I tore my cruciate ligament and I was out for 10 months - I had to have reconstruction surgery.
"A year ago I was working behind a bar at the Dickens Inn in Middlesbrough - I can make a lovely cocktail, by the way. That was when I was injured at first, but then it was just to keep the money flowing."
Hugill was also starting to get his cruelly interrupted career flowing again at NPL club Marske United.
Vale scout Foster, who had kept tabs with Hugill's progress, recommended him to manager Micky Adams and the rest, as they say, is history.
Adams loaned the youngster to Conference club Gateshead at the start of the season, but five goals in seven appearances led to a recall and a swift elevation to Vale's first team.
"It's all happened so fast," said Hugill, who was handed his first senior start - in a 3-0 win at Crawley Town - straight after ending his Gateshead loan. "I was told I would be travelling with the team to Crawley but I was thinking I was going to be on the subs' bench, I wasn't expecting to be thrown straight in.
"The manager told me in the warm-up that I was going to be starting, it was a total surprise. I'm not a person to get nervous though, you do what you do - it's just a game a football. But the manager had faith in me and he's given me the chance to go on, so I've got to repay him."
Hugill has already started to repay the manager, his victory-clincher on Saturday helping Vale climb to ninth in the table as they make a positive start to life in League 1 following promotion last season. Now the young striker is looking further ahead to hopefully achieving long-held ambitions.
He said: "My aim is to do well here and hopefully [with Vale] move up the leagues, and it's every lad's aim to play for your country. My old coach George Smith always said, 'if you don't believe in yourself nobody else will,' and so I believe. If you believe you can be the best then there's nothing stopping you."
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