I recently sat down with my long-time friend Reice Charles-Cook, Coventry’s first-team goalkeeper, who sit top of League 1 with promotion firmly in their sights. However, it wasn’t always plain sailing for the young keeper, who spent 12 years at Arsenal before getting released, being forced to form a new career path for himself.
One of my earliest memories of Reice is when he brought a video of himself on tour in Spain with Arsenal as a 10-year-old to school. My teacher stopped the lesson for us all to watch, and Reice did the business in that video, which made me think ‘if he sticks at it, one day he’ll go far’.
Some 11 years later, he’s now playing regularly at Coventry, one of the biggest clubs outside of the Premier League. In part one we discuss his journey leading up to Arsenal, the demands of balancing his education with football and touched on what happened after Arsenal released him, which will form the focus of part two.
When did football start getting serious for you?
The way it started was through my older brothers. There were 3 of us in the back garden all the time and growing up I had a heart murmur and didn’t want to stop playing, so my mum bought me my first pair of gloves. My brothers used to put in goal all the time and use me as a target, then it just went on from there. One of my brothers played for Tulse Hill, and I used to go along to training sometimes.
In the Tandridge League [a local Sunday League]?
Yeah, they trained at Dulwich Park and I used to go along. I was like 5 training with the U-8s. Then, when I was at U-7 level, I got scouted by Arsenal in my first season. I went to the trials at Tooting Centre of Excellence and they sent me to the Hale End Academy. They wanted me to sign, but my mum wanted me to enjoy my football with my friends. It’s cutthroat – you don’t wanna sign with Arsenal at 7 then get released at 9, at that age you just want to enjoy your football.
So you moved to Arsenal when you were seven years old?
I didn’t sign for them but trained there everyday, as I was still playing at Tulse Hill, because my mum didn’t want me to sign any papers.
When did you sign the papers?
Year 6, so probably U-11s. But I’m glad I waited because I’ve seen kids at 9 getting knocked back and it’s sometimes tough to come back from. After you’re released, you can’t come back to the training ground anymore and fall into bad ways, so I’m just pleased I’ve stayed in the system so long because it’s a cutthroat industry.
What was it like at Arsenal in your early years there, signing at 12? How does that process work for a schoolboy at an academy?
(The) first couple years, you spend in school and two-year contracts, from 10-12, 12-14 and then 14-16. I’ve seen a fair few players get released in that time, then after they just go wayward. In my last year of being in Year 11, it was crazy. I’ve had to fight off so many goalkeepers from the age of 10-11. I’ve seen kids from all over the world – Romania, Argentina, Spain – they bring them in at such young ages, it’s like your fighting for your life at such a young age.
How did you manage to balance the demands of your education with your football at Arsenal?
At U-16 level, there were a few good keepers around me, and I was the smallest one and didn’t grow until late, so was often playing a year down at times, it was hard. There were times where I was going into training everyday just to show the managers that I really wanted it, but I also had to be revising for exams at the same time. It was difficult to balance them both. We got told so late if we make it (around March/April), so if it doesn’t work out, you’re there in Year 11 with hardly anytime to recover in school, so it’s tough.
So did Arsenal release you at 16?
No. I got my scholarship at Arsenal, but I got told late though. I was doing my coursework in the car while driving to football, then coming home, staying up until 2am to finish it, then I had school at 8am, then training at night. That’s how it was, it was a regular pattern, but I fought through it and did alright in school. I wish I did a bit better because anything could happen, so it’s good to have a back-up.
Explain a bit more to our readers how a scholarship at a big club works.
A scholarship is when the club takes you on for two years, so you’re there from 16-18, then at the end, you either go pro, or you don’t. You do a little bit of school on the side, like a BTEC in Sports Science or whatever, but it’s more a front. More of a thing just to say ‘we’ve educated you’, but you basically have all the answers in the book. Your scholar years are like full-time work, so that’s another challenge in itself.
From 16 onwards, did it get even harder?
Yeah it did got even more cutthroat. It got harder, you’re there every day, around professionals all the time, you have to act a certain way. You know me, I’m a bubbly character, but they expect you to move like robots because at the top that’s how it is. You gotta act a certain way because your always in the public eye, but I like to just be. My first year wasn’t the best year. I was playing in the U-16s when I should be playing U-18s. Then in my second year, I’ve never worked harder in my life. It was mad, they brought in Emiliano Martinez and a few others, and were always trying to bring in more keepers. It was tough.
So what happened after they released you?
Because I was hardly playing first team football at Arsenal, I went on loan to Chelmsford and played with my older brother Anthony in the Conference South, to learn what the men’s game is like week in, week out. That was a whole different ball game to academy football, as playing against boys your whole life is a bit forced. Going from playing academy football to men’s football was good, but then I got injured for rest of the season and Arsenal helped me a bit with that. Then I was playing in the Next Gen tournament, and I carried Arsenal through, winning GK of the tournament, but then they threw me away, and said they didn’t need me anymore. They told me they signed a keeper from a division three Macedonian club, and that was it. But it’s just the way football goes sometimes.
Read part two of our interview here!
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