New year, new me?

How about: New football season, new career?

That’s the prospect that will face thousands of Academy hopefuls during 2024, who will see hopes and dreams shattered at various points of their journey through the ranks of youth football.  Twas ever thus.  

In recent years the Premier League and EFL have signed up to a three-year programme of aftercare support for young players who are released, and the increase in Player Care provision at clubs like Wolves mean they are no longer reliant on the dedication and social care skills of staff beyond their regular area of expertise.

Education programmes remain in place so that players who are released, and then don’t make it elsewhere, do at least have some foundations in place to build on in different industries.

It’s a journey that was once followed now a decade ago by Jacob Gibson, whose seven years with Wolves Academy – the final two as a full-time scholar – came to an end back in the summer of 2013.

Rewinding back a decade, Gibson’s eventual exit from Wolves wasn’t one of those sledgehammer moments where his future had been up in the air and he was summoned for a painful conversation and decision which could have gone either way.

After injury pretty much decimated the winger’s first year as a full-time scholar, landing a professional contract during his second was always going to be a tall order.

But that didn’t take away from the fact that Gibson was left having to consider options away from a career in football, like so many others, seeing his long-term dream and ambition ultimately disappear.

“I’d been really looking forward to getting in full-time, giving it a proper go and seeing how I could do,” he recalled this week.

“Then in the first week of pre-season I did my ankle, and, when I came back, I had a nightmare with my hamstring.

“By the time I was fit, the Under-18s were on an amazing run, winning 11 in a row, and I was sent to Doncaster on loan.

“That was a different experience, and I didn’t really want to be there because the lads were doing so well at Wolves and the atmosphere was brilliant around the place.  

“Having barely played in my first year, by the time I got into my second there were already conversations about how it was going to be a real struggle to get a pro deal.

“I kept my head down and tried my hardest, and always had the belief I would take my chance if it came, but deep down I knew it wasn’t going to happen and I had to prepare for what was coming next.

“In the end there wasn’t that big moment of letdown of not getting a contract – it was more gradual, but maybe in a way that made it more painful because of how it was dragged out.

“Looking back, I probably didn’t really process it all at the time, and the kind of person I am meant I just wanted to crack on and find some distractions and something else.”

If being released by Wolves wasn’t enough, there was perhaps an even bigger blow to follow for Gibson several months later.

He was handed the opportunity to spend pre-season with Accrington Stanley, where he impressed, surviving as one of four trialists whittled down from a big group only to be told the day before their final friendly with Everton that there wasn’t enough budget to take him on.

“I was 18, I’d have taken 100 quid a week,” he insists, but whilst other trialists Josh Windass and Danny Webber were taken on, for Gibson, it was the end of the road. Another route blocked.

“That was probably an even bigger blow than Wolves, as I’d moved up there to live with family in Bolton and was buzzing at the prospect of playing regularly in League Two,” he recalls.

“But by that time, it was the end of pre-season, and other clubs weren’t taking on any trialists, so that was it really when it came to football.”

That was it indeed. Sink or swim.  Many in that position might have lost focus and direction, completely understandably.  With the footballing dream shattered, Gibson could have been forgiven had life headed on a completely different path, and not necessarily a positive one.

Fast forward to the present day, however.  And the picture is completely and refreshingly different.

Now 29, Gibson is employed as a Senior Sourcing Manager by Lloyds Banking Group.  Having come through the graduate scheme, several postings in different parts of the country, and several promotions, he has made a considerable success of his new career.  

In 2022, he was among the nominations for the ‘Future Leader’ accolade at the Ethnicity Awards which have celebrated contributions from the likes of Bukayo Saka, Alex Scott and Leigh-Anne Piddock from Little Mix. Esteemed company, of which he should be very proud. The boy has definitely done good!

But let’s take a trip back to the very beginning. And to football.

Having moved to Maypole in Birmingham, not the most salubrious of communities but one where togetherness is all, Gibson was encouraged by his very supportive parents into the world of football.

It was a chance to mix, to make friends, and well, Maypole Juniors were actually really, really good.

“It’s maybe not the nicest area of Birmingham, and we were that rough team that no one wanted to play against,” Gibson recalls.

“We had a really competitive mentality, and I think that served me well going to Wolves Academy at the age of 11 when many other players had already been there for a few years.

“I probably had a different mentality from the others and it went well, I was pushed up into older age groups and made good progress, to the point where I was told I would be getting the full-time scholarship a couple of years in advance.”

Within that Academy setting, any young player is open to influences and inspirations to shape their development.

Gibson readily remembers the positive impacts of Academy recruitment chief Tony Lacey and one of his early coaches, former Nottingham Forest defender Des Lyttle.

“They told me to be louder and more confident to back up the good things I had been doing on the pitch,” he explains.

Then there was Mick Halsall, then Under-18s manager, who would sometimes give him a lift into training.

“In my second year full-time, I felt I gave it everything in training and was doing well but I wouldn’t get picked for the games because they wanted to look at the younger players coming through,’ says Gibson.

“But Mick would pull me and tell me I was training well, and deserved to play, and that kept me going to a degree.

“I got a bit of validation from that in the sense that I wasn’t going crazy, I was still training well, even though the club were wanting to look at other players for the future.”

There was also the chance to learn from the club’s more senior players, with Wayne Hennessey, another to have come through the Academy, always on hand with advice and also another goalkeeper in Carl Ikeme, who was on loan with Doncaster at the same time.

And so too from current managerial FA Cup giant-killing hero George Elokobi, who was already displaying the sort of leadership qualities which he has taken into his role in the dugout.

“George is a really funny guy but he always worked so hard,” says Gibson.

“He was injured around the same time as me, but I remember when he’d got fit, if he wasn’t in the matchday squad he would come into the gym when the lads were playing.

“He would be on the treadmill, doing sprints, making sure he was putting in 90 minutes even though he wasn’t involved.”

One of so many learnings that Gibson took from his time within the Academy, not to mention friendships, and he was joined by former team-mates including Dominic Dell and Jim Kellermann to watch Dominic Iorfa achieve promotion with Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley last year.  

And learnings he soon needed to use, when he quickly realised after the disappointing turn of events with Accrington, that he needed a fresh start and different direction.

His cousin Jason, who had been through not quite making it at Birmingham City, had been researching university courses behind the scenes after Gibson’s release from Wolves, and that led to studying for a degree in Sport Science at Hartpury University, affiliated with the University of the West of England.

At first Gibson was thinking of maybe studying for a few months and then potentially returning to football.

“But after Freshers’ Week and a few nights out I thought I wouldn’t mind this student life after all,” he laughs.

Ultimately the studying went equally as well as the socialising, but whilst he was also working within the fitness industry at the time, including going into schools to deliver PE lessons, a career in that sector didn’t hugely appeal.

“I know some fantastic people who work in that area around sport science and physiotherapy but it wasn’t going to be for me,” Gibson explains.

“It would all have been too raw, I’d maybe have been treating players or looking after players but I would still have wanted to be them, to be out there on the pitch myself.”

So, after completing his initial degree, Gibson headed off to another institution with a similarly high reputation for delivering in sport – Loughborough University – from where he graduated with a Masters in Sport and Business Management.

That business element of those studies had broadened his horizons, and so, when his partner Abi spotted the graduate scheme run by Lloyds Banking Group, he threw his hat into the ring.

That was six-and-a-half years ago.  And the rest is history.

“I still remember the recruitment day where we had to do loads of different tasks, a bit like The Apprentice, and it was all really competitive,” says Gibson.

“For a lot of the others, they had been working towards that moment through school or college and university – to get onto the graduate scheme was like that football contract had been for me, their big ambition.

“I think what helped me was that I didn’t feel that same pressure and expectation that I had in football, I just went into the interview without that fear of failure and felt that I nailed it.  That’s the sort of outlook I have taken on ever since.

“Having been in that elite sport environment, of having had the pressure of training with the first team at 15 with (former Wolves boss) Mick McCarthy staring at you to see how your first touch is, someone telling me one of my PowerPoint slides isn’t perfect doesn’t carry the same weight.

“But I mean that in a positive way.   I still set myself high standards and I want to achieve just as much as when I was a footballer but I feel I can handle the associated pressures much better because of those previous experiences.”

Gibson, who was relocated to both Glasgow and Bristol during the graduate scheme, is now back in Birmingham having made considerable progress with the company during those six-and-a-half years.

After several promotions to his current role as Senior Sourcing Manager in Cloud Services, he has found the perfect home within a company with over 80,000 employees and far more than just a high street bank, incorporating not just brands such as Lloyds Bank and Halifax but also Lex Autolease and many others.

The role involves leading the IT Cloud sourcing team, specifically around procurement, supporting all the different business areas across the group in getting value-for-money with their third party spend.

This can be anything from services or equipment to complex cloud agreements, within which Gibson’s team will forge relationships with suppliers, negotiate costs, put contracts in place and carry out assurance to ensure LBG links up with the right sort of distributors and avoids reputational damage.

By definition, it’s a varied portfolio, from straightforward contract discussions to high level commercial negotiations for multi-million pound deals when Gibson can be going from room-to-room speaking to as many as eight different suppliers battling for business.

Where Gibson has also made substantial strides and has found such a supportive and forward-thinking employer in LBG is in the area of equality, diversity and inclusion.

So much so that he was on that shortlist for the ‘Future Leader’ award at the Ethnicity Awards organised by Legal & General 18 months ago.

“From the moment I joined Lloyds Banking Group one of the first things I remember seeing was ‘REACH’, their race, ethnicity and cultural heritage network,” Gibson explains.

“It was very important for me because I had come into the organisation from a different background to many in terms of having been a footballer, my own heritage and the area I grew up in, where most people didn’t even go to college, let alone University.

“So, REACH was a network of role models that I naturally gravitated towards as I settled in.

“And then Black Lives Matter came along, a movement which was a catalyst for change where organisations were put under pressure not just in terms of putting out statements, but more a case of, ‘what are you actually going to do’?

“LBG put together a Race Action Plan, with a determination to become a more inclusive and diverse organisation and increase the number of people from a diverse heritage who progress to leadership roles.

“I was involved in the Race Advisory Panel which incorporated people from right across the group, bringing them together to sit with senior execs and have CEO-level conversations to shape a strategy about how to achieve these aims.

“It’s all about finding a more strategic way to recruit and attract more diverse talent, promoting opportunities for progression, and looking at the ethnicity pay gap, amongst other things.

“It’s something that I am really passionate about and the result of that activity, combined with the work I was doing in my sourcing role on a day-to-day basis was being nominated for the Ethnicity Awards, which was absolutely incredible.

“It was an awards ceremony that was industry wide, involving people like Bukayo Saka, Alex Scott and Leigh-Anne Pinnock from Little Mix, and it was an awesome moment for me to be sat there in that sort of company.

“It felt like a real vindication in terms of what I am doing and where I want to go.

“In my previous career I had been told I had the potential for the future to do this or to do that, to go and play for this club or my country.

“But I have realised that potential is just that, potential. It’s nothing unless you go out and do it and I feel motivated to be recognised for what I am doing not just for me, but people from a similar background.

“It shows that you don’t have to be an athlete, or go into music, or other things like that for people from my heritage or background – there are so many other companies and industries who will value you for what you are.”

Strong and powerful words.  Delivered with passion by someone who has breathed it and lived it and is, thanks to his own drive and determination, absolutely thriving.

Gibson didn’t manage to emerge at Wolves to make it as a professional footballer, and life at the club was very different back then, but he readily acknowledges that his experiences at Molineux and Compton have helped to push and shape him in a positive way.  He still plays football now and again, usually five-a-side or now and again for a Sunday League team, albeit in the centre of midfield rather than ‘knock and run’, flying down the wing.  And, as an Aston Villa fan, life is good just at the moment.

He is refreshingly upbeat and positive, articulate and engaging, and, in Lloyds Banking Group, has found a vocation and employer which provide a seamless fit for his skills and ambition.

He is also modest.  When asked whether his adapting to footballing setbacks in such a positive way is a source of great personal pride, he refers instead to the support from family and friends in keeping him on a level playing field.

He is certainly an inspiration, to those growing up in areas where not much is expected of them, to those who perhaps fail to achieve in their initial career but have the strength of character to pick it all up and start again, and to those who use their platform to try and promote a more inclusive society.

Gibson has done it via actions, and not just words.

“Whether it’s sport, or work, or life in general, I think there is usually an element of luck involved, and I have always tried to make sure I take whatever opportunity is put in front of me,” he insists.

“I feel thankful and lucky to have landed here at LBG, which is such a good place to work and somewhere I can always be authentic – I haven’t needed to do anything different to conform.

“Any differences I have are embraced, and have become strengths which I have been able to bring to the company.

“I probably don’t tend to stop and think about what has happened in the past, and if I did look back at my journey then maybe it would all be a little bit emotional.

“When I think back to my football, I really wouldn’t trade it for anything, because while I didn’t make it, the growth I went through has led to where I am today.

“I am so much more of a complete and rounded person now, and I have been through challenges and been put in positions which have helped me learn so much more about life as a whole.

“I have so many good people around me, my family and friends and my partner, who have always kept me on the straight and narrow.

“I know that when I started to lose a bit of school time to go to Wolves my Mum was a bit concerned, so she is so proud that I went back into academia and got my degrees and landed a good job.

“Am I proud of what I have managed to do so far?  Maybe, but I don’t feel like I have done anything yet and I always want to look forward.

“It is important to celebrate successes when they come, but there is still so much more that lies ahead, more work to be done.

“Having not quite fulfilled what I wanted to do in my previous career, that is something I am very much driven to do now.

“And Wolves, while it feels like a lifetime ago there were things from those days that I know are still ingrained in me now – such good memories that I wouldn’t change for anything.”