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Exclusive: Tom Strain's journey from Adelaide to Aston Villa and back again

The world of professional football is as competitive as they get. It is an industry that involves thousands upon thousands of players sacrificing it all to be the best players they can be.

Footballers all around the world, dream of playing under champions league lights, or hearing the national anthem play as they represent their country on World Cup final night.

One of the key questions discussed in the world game is what does it take for players to make it at the top level?

Is it talent? Yes talent certainly is needed but talent isn't everything.

Is it hard-work? Hard-work is key, but hard work alone won't cut it.

While both are key contributing factors to making it at the highest level, one of the most defining things that separates the players playing on your TV to the ones around the corner at your local football ground is one of the most fundamental elements of the sport we love.

It's the difference between scoring the winning goal off the inside of the upright and the ball deflecting miserably off the post. It's the difference between a clean, dry game and a wet, rainy slog. It's the difference between the opposition keeper having a blinder or making a blunder.

That's right, you guessed it, it's luck.

Luck is a particularly frustrating term in the footballing world. It causes so much angst simply because no-one can control it. Footballers can't change it, commentators can't predict it, analysts can't analyse it, statisticians can't compute it, but yet there it is, making for some of the most defining moments in the sport's history.

Diego Maradona once famously said "When people succeed, it is because of hard-work. Luck has nothing to do with success." Sounds to me like someone who had a lot of luck on their side. Not to mention other things…'Hand of God' anyone?

For former Aston Villa academy player Tom Strain, luck has played a big factor in shaping his footballing story, with the intangible variable casting both positive and negative elements throughout his career.

TribalFootball had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Strain, to discuss his colourful career.

For Tom Strain, his career, and his life has been "a back and forth marathon journey."

This journey began in Coventry, England, where he and his younger brother Ryan were born, and where they lived until he was 11.

It was then that the Strain family decided to emigrate to Adelaide, Australia, drastically altering the footballing trajectory of his life, or so he thought.

The year 2012 saw the Strain family return to England on a family holiday, to visit relatives in Coventry. It was on that trip where his life took another dramatic turn.

On that trip, Tom met up with a good childhood friend, Daniel Crowley, and the rest as they say was history.

"We were visiting family and one of our good friends over there was Daniel Crowley who is at Birmingham City at the moment, but he was at Aston Villa at the time and he said to the coaching staff at Aston Villa that there are two boys from Australia, Ryan and Tom who are looking for a few nights to train.

"It was almost just like that. They got us out for a night, one night led to a week, one week led to four weeks. We extended our trip and that was it, we didn't trial at any other club.

"We didn't have any intentions, we just had a real good mate who mentioned our names and that was it, the door was open."

Many young boys around England, seeking out their footballing dream, go to trial after trial, showcasing their skills to clubs all around the country in the hope of being picked up.

For Tom Strain, he almost accidentally fell into the Aston Villa academy without even intending the result in the first place.

No doubt the talent was there, not any player could within a month have a contract with a Premier League academy, but a little luck to help his cause didn't go unappreciated. Luck as it were, was very much on Tom Strain's side.

With the guarantee of a full-seasons contract in the Villa academy, the Strain family moved back to Coventry to accompany their sons on the journey of a lifetime.

In the U18's, Strain certainly made himself known, scoring goals whilst playing up top. The Aston Villa academy side started off in fine form, with results going their way. One game in particular was a match against the mighty Manchester United. This game will go down in history colloquially, as 'the match where the Strain's bullied United all the way back to Manchester.'

Tom scored two goals past Dean Henderson, while his brother notched home another to condemn the Red Devils to a 3-1 defeat. Not even Scott McTominay off the bench could help United's cause.

"There was a stage where me and Ryan were playing together every week. If you look back at our youth team results, I think we went 10 games in a row. I just fondly remember having great memories of winning heaps of games at the time.

"Man United was one of them. That day we beat them 3-1, I got two and Ryan got one. We took a photo afterwards in the change-rooms and whatever doesn't matter how old (I am), I will never forget that. Mum and dad were there, some of my family and my friends were there.

Four goal hero Tom Strain back on <a href='/clubs/adelaide-united'>Adelaide United</a>'s radar | Adelaide Now

"It's almost emotional because I know it didn't quite work out when we were back there (at Villa), but not a lot of kids get to experience what me and Ryan experienced on that day. When we were coming home to Coventry after that game we were buzzing. Certain games like that, it's just really special."

However the good times for Strain became increasingly limited, with another game he scored in indicative of how his luck had begun to turn.

In a reserves match a year later, Strain was one of three names on the Scoresheet as Villa beat Bolton 3-0. The scoresheet read: Christian Benteke, Joe Cole and Tom Strain. While he was still clearly fighting for a spot in the first team and putting balls into the back of the net, factors outside his control spiralled together to make it particularly tough for Strain at Villa, also known as some good ol' fashioned bad luck.

Speaking on that game, Strain reflected: "That was my first real season with the reserves and that's a stepping stone to the next level so I was locked in back then. All I wanted was to train hard, do my best (and) try and put myself on offer.

"I think it was quite early in the season... you had Christian Benteke, you had Darren Bent, you had Gabby Agbonlahor all as the strikers and I would've been sixth choice at the time

"The bad thing is how it works over there when blokes get injured. Christian Benteke; the only reason he played that game was he was coming back from an Injury so they chuck him into the reserves to get match fit. But obviously If I'm starting in the reserves, I'm not going to play with Benteke so I get pushed to the bench.

"You also had Darren Bent, who I think fell out with (Paul) Lambert when he was he was playing reserves (as well).

"I was actually going quite good early on in the season before I just didn't play again...There were no minutes there for me at Villa, so my hand was forced, I had to go out on loan."

With already top strikers at the club, Benteke coming back from injury and Bent rejected to the reserves, not to mention competition for spots in the Academy, Strain was pushed out of the side and forced to go on loan to gain some experience.

First stop was to the Conference side Chester FC. At first it seemed like the perfect move, plenty of opportunity and playing for real championship points.

"Within the first few days of training, it was like a breath of fresh air. I knew the points meant something, you know leading up to that week of how passionate the players were in the team."

However Strain was then hit with another batch of bad luck.

Within a short time of Strain being at the club, Chester signed fellow striker Ollie McBurnie, currently Sheffield United's number 9 and least seasons leading goalscorer. This left the Strain second choice already, despite being recently brought in by the club.

"I don't know what happened, (maybe) just in case they didn't get McBurnie they got me (knowing) that I could play up top? (So) in the first two weeks I just had to get out of there almost straight away because I knew Ollie would be playing (ahead of me)."

So off Strain went, along to another loan spell, this time at Hednesford in the National League. This time there were no extra striker signings, so what could possibly go wrong?

Before even getting the chance to cement himself in the first team and gain some valuable experience playing against fully grown men, injury struck the striker.

"I had a couple games off the bench and I was feeling like I was doing really well, maybe trying to get a line-up spot but one of the games I came on and I completely tore my hamstring and that was my season done."

Just like that his second loan spell was over quicker than the time it took to remember the names of his new teammates.

Unfortunately Strain's bad luck hadn't come to a halt. Following his injury at Hednesford, his loan was terminated and he went back to the Academy that week to start his rehab, only to receive some devastating news.

"(I went) back to Villa that week for treatment and then on the Friday they called a few lads into the offices to talk about the next year and unfortunately I was released."

Before the week had even finished, Strain was released from the club. Despite all his obvious talent, and the huge amount of hard-work that had been put in along the way, he couldn't beat his bad luck.

"If you haven't done enough to perform and then you get a few injuries, it's so hard to get that next contract. Unfortunately for me at the time I was released and (I had) no regrets, not an argument. Aston Villa had so many players on the roster that they could choose from and unfortunately I just got injured at a wrong time. (I) tried to go on loan a couple times and didn't quite work out and that was it really.

"It's just a sort of lottery...You need a lot of luck and you need to be at the right place (at) the right time for players who were not standouts like Grealish.

You need that work rate, you need luck and you need someone to be on your side and that's how it works over there."

Despite the heartbreak of being released and the desire to make it in the Premier League, following their departure from Villa both Strain brothers along with their family returned to Australia.

"By then If I'm being honest with you, I wanted to come back to Australia, I was done.

"Luckily enough we came back, Ryan's having a fantastic time at Adelaide United and he's doing awesome there. For me, it didn't quite work out with Adelaide but I've won a championship here in South Australia...I'm so glad the way it has turned out."

Now playing with MetroStars in the NPL South Australia, despite the cut-throat experience he had in the Academy, Strain looks back fondly and understandingly back at his journey in the UK.

"It's definitely heartbreaking but it's something that holds you in good stead for the rest of your life. I'll have plenty of memories I can look back on that I came through. It definitely makes you stronger that's for sure.

"I have no regrets because that environment brings out the best of you. You make good friends for life, and I was in there with my brother as well so that was always good. It was just an unbelievable life experience that I think has held me and my brother in good stead for the future.

"Football is a cruel game but it's also obviously the beautiful game...we are very fortunate for what we experienced over there."

While Tom Strain's career might not have kept strictly to the script, he certainly had some terrific times along the way, and indicative of the footballing experience, luck managed to barge its way in to play a part in the course of events.

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Eli Rubenstein Sturgess

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