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Joe Pritchard exclusive: From Spurs whizkid & injury hell to Accrington Stanley success

Football can be a brutal and unfeeling industry. Navigating through the academy system to become a professional footballer is a long and arduous journey for every young player.

But few have had it quite as tough as Joe Pritchard, whose serious leg break while coming through at Tottenham Hotspur held him back for two years, only for a subsequent spell at Bolton Wanderers to coincide with the club's fall into administration. He didn't manage a senior appearance in the game until he was 21.

Pritchard, then, knows more than most how tough life can be for a young footballer hoping to make the grade, and it is with well-earned pride that he speaks of playing – and excelling – in the Accrington Stanley midfield this season.

His story of being released by Tottenham offers a fascinating insight into the mechanics of graduating from a Premier League academy. He tells Tribal Football about how hard one works as a teenager to make the grade.

"Every single year I'd see people leave and come in, and you get a rough idea of where you're at and how good you're going to be," he said. "But it doesn't really get serious until you're 15 or 16 and you're trying to fight for that scholarship.

"And then you're working for a job, and at that point it gets a lot more serious; a lot harder. You leave school and train every day."

Pritchard was prominent in the youth sides at Spurs, but his career changed trajectory when a broken leg put him on the side lines for 12 months, with another 12 months needed before he could make it through a full 90 minutes. And while the 23-year-old spoke fondly of Spurs, he went through dark times when the injury and subsequent developmental delay meant his contract was not renewed.

"At the time I was captain of the under-23s and I thought I was playing well. I'd recovered from my injury. But then I got dropped for a few games, and I got told around Christmas that season that they weren't going to renew my contact. At that point I started losing my love for the game. I started hating my time there."

Pritchard believes that he got caught in limbo as a result of his injury, which had prevented him from getting first-team experience on loan. Without an opportunity to prove himself as a teenager, he slipped through the cracks.

"At that point I was in a place where I just didn't want to be at Tottenham, I didn't want to walk into the training ground. I just wanted to be anywhere else. I spoke to my agent and I told him I wanted a trial at a new club every week just so I don't have to go back there. I loved the people there, the lads that I trained with were brilliant, but I just didn't have a future."

Being let go by a club you've called home since early childhood is a devastating moment that happens to hundreds of players every year, and while Pritchard has landed on his feet he recalls how difficult that time was.

"Yeah it was a dark place emotionally. It was the hardest time in my career. I lived with family at the time and I couldn't speak to them about it because they would care so much. They would want to know so much information and I just didn't want to talk about it.

"At the same time as being angry, I felt I had brought it on myself. I wasn't good enough to get the new deal. So at the time you put it on yourself, you take responsibility for it. I'd never had a first team game in my life. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thinking, 'what could I do at university? What could I go into next?'

"I felt like I was failing. I hadn't just failed me, I felt like I'd failed my parents for taking me to training three or four times a week, for all their efforts and driving. I felt like if I didn't make it, it was all a waste of time."

The difficulty of that period can be heard in how Pritchard now speaks about other Tottenham prospects that came through the youth system. Kyle Walker-Peters, who made just one appearance on loan at Southampton this season, is in a similar position to Prichard's limbo, which he fought through during his breakthrough year at Bolton.

"When I was younger I never understood this stage of football; I call it 'bridging the gap' between under-23s and the first team. It's the stage Walker-Peters was at with Spurs, where he's way better than under-23s, training with the first team, and you still don't get a chance to play. I never understood that situation until I was in it last year at Bolton."

Pritchard had been picked for a debut game against Leeds United in September, but just before kick-off the manager changed his mind. He wasn't picked again until December, but eventually Pritchard got his chance and excelled, and in hindsight can see the bind managers are in.

"You're in a zone where they know you're a good player, but they haven't seen you under pressure. So at that point, from a manager's point of view, you can put someone in too soon and kill their career, or do it at the right time and make something of them. I can only imagine how tough that decision must be."

Fortunately, Pritchard bridged the gap at Bolton, where his career was finally launched.

"Leaving Tottenham and going elsewhere opened up a new love for the game. It was brilliant and the experiences I had there were unbelievable, but I did not have a football career there. My career started halfway through my year at Bolton.

"I got to the point where I was training, I was striving again. That's what I love: pushing and trying to get better. It was brilliant. I loved my time at Bolton. Before, I felt like I was training and I wasn't getting anywhere, so what was the point?"

Since then, Pritchard has gone from five appearances in a season at Bolton to starting 26 games for Accrington Stanley by March this year. His recovery is complete, and a bright career has well and truly begun - a point symbolically made with a 30-yard strike against Rochdale in October.

"It was a bit surreal actually. I managed to catch the cleanest strike of my life," he said of his first senior goal."I don't think I ever shot from distances like that when I played Under-23s. Why did I hit it? I still don't know… It must be through confidence. I trust my ability now."

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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