For Steven Johnson-Fikula, the 2017/18 campaign had been a success on paper. Part of a solid Mansfield Town U18 defence, the young Stags conceded just 16 goals in 24 games en route to winning the EFL Youth Alliance North East Division for the third season in succession.
However, joy soon turned to despair, when the teenager was told that he would not be offered a renewed contract. All footballers suffer setbacks at various points in their careers, but to be knocked back at such an early age can be tough to take.
A second chance for Johnson-Fikula would soon come though, thanks to League Football Education (LFE). The LFE Assessment Trials provide a platform for apprentice footballers and first-year professionals released from clubs to showcase their talents, with scouts from the EFL and further afield watching on.
There were three events held in May, which combine to give approximately 250 individual players between the ages of 18 and 20 a potential route back into football. At the home of non-league Stafford Rangers, the central defender caught the eye of Sky Bet League One side Oxford United.
“As a young lad, when it comes to contract decisions and you get told that you’re not going to get one, it’s certainly difficult to take,” Johnson-Fikula said. “It took a bit of time for me to process it, it took a bit of time for me to accept it, but with the help and support of my family around me, they helped me get through it.
“The Assessment Trials are extremely helpful, especially for a lad who doesn’t really know what to do next. I didn’t know much about it until one of my coaches mentioned it, but it’s so simple – you sign up, give your details, you get a confirmation email and from there you’re good to go. You just turn up on the day, get assigned to a team and you just play your game.
“There was a side of me that wanted to go out and show that I deserve to be somewhere, but there was the other side that said don’t overcomplicate it, don’t try things I’m not used to, because it might not work out in my favour. I had to limit myself, discipline myself, and just go about about my normal game.
“I told myself ‘go out and enjoy it, express yourself; there’s no pressure’ and when I enjoy my football, it’s when I perform at my best. I went out there, played my natural game and must have done well because I caught the eye of Oxford and a few others.
“I went there not knowing what to expect, but the Assessment Trials are such a good idea. Following the trials, I was signed up in around three weeks. Oxford called me the day after and asked me to come in for another trial; two weeks after that, they gave me a call back and said they were interested in offering me a deal, and a day or two after they wanted me to come in and sign.”
When Oxford United came calling, it was a no-brainer. The U’s have been making good progress since returning to the EFL from a spell in the National League, settling into League One life, while continuing to hand out regular opportunities to young talent and letting them shine on the big stage.
Johnson-Fikula will join up with the U23s working under Academy Manager Dan Harris, but the set-up at the club offers hope that opportunities may well present themselves at first-team level. Senior minutes are, of course, the ultimate target for the youngster, but personal improvement remains the constant goal.
The hard work starts now with the U23 squad’s pre-season trip to Lilleshall National Sports Centre, and Johnson-Fikula can’t wait to get started. In fact, he’s got a slight advantage on his new team-mates – putting in an early cardio session when the contract offer was put on the table…
“Ask my parents, I was running around the house for God knows how long – it was crazy! It was a massive achievement for myself, and a proud moment for me and my family. My parents sacrificed a lot, taking days off work and things like that to get me to training, to games. Earning this contract was a way of repaying them and saying thank you, letting them know that those journeys down the motorways and everything they did for me was all worth it.
“Oxford have got a really good reputation of getting youngsters through and that’s one of the things that attracted me to the club. The target is to try and stay in and around the first team, to put in the performances in the U23s to keep my name in the mix – but the main thing is to keep improving as a player.
“Pre-season isn’t necessarily something that footballers always enjoy but I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great chance for me to go in, make a good first impression and show what I’m about.”
Like Johnson-Fikula, the club’s Academy Manager Dan Harris is another who speaks highly of the LFE Assessment Trials. Not only are there obvious benefits for the players, but the clubs in attendance are presented with a great opportunity to unearth a hidden gem.
With Karl Robinson in charge at the Kassam Stadium, a boss who has demonstrated his belief in giving youth a chance during prior managerial spells at Milton Keynes Dons and Charlton Athletic, Harris knows if he can nurture that talent, the players he works with on a day-to-day basis have huge potential to reap the rewards.
“The Assessment Trials provide a great opportunity for the boys to bounce back into the game. Having that disappointment but actually taking that step and saying ’I’m going to fight my way back in’ – this is an opportunity to show scouts that they are serious about being a player. These lads are learning the hard way, but there is the opportunity if they do go and perform on a platform like this that a club might take a chance on them.
“The reality of it is that every single year there are lads that come to a place like this and get picked up somewhere, so if the boys come here and perform at a high level you never know where it might lead.”