Sam Winnall has lived his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Of scoring plenty of goals – he now has over 100.  And enjoying plenty of success, he has won promotions and a cup final.  Hopefully, with a few more years left before hanging up his boots, that dream will continue for a good while yet.

But at times, the dreams of a footballer can also become something of a nightmare.  For most players, not so much a balance of ups and downs but mainly downs with the odd up.  And the former striker and Wolves Academy graduate has, like so many who pursue the same dream and ambition, ridden the rollercoaster of events and emotions.

Going through those contrasting experiences, those fine lines between success and failure, is now playing a part in Winnall’s mindset and mentality off the pitch. And also, potentially, his future. 

Because he has spent the last two years, alongside his football career, studying for a diploma in counselling and psychotherapy, and has now completed his Level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Over the next two years he will study for his Level 4, to reach a stage where, when he finally hangs up his boots, he will be in a position for a new chapter, supporting players or even people from other sports perhaps suffering the same difficulties and setbacks as he did.

Putting his ‘lived experience’ to positive use.  

“There are many occasions in football when you go through struggles and have problems, and things happen which challenge you emotionally,” Winnall explains.

“The world of sport can be a fantastic industry but also a very cruel one, and, looking after our mental wellbeing is becoming just as important as having the right diet, amount of sleep or training programme.

“I remember when I went through a particularly tough time when I had been on loan at Derby from Sheffield Wednesday and tore my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) for the second time in my career.

“I wasn’t going to be able to play football, things off the field weren’t going great either, and it got to a stage where I needed to go and talk to somebody and seek a bit of support.

“That is what I did, and I saw the benefits first hand, of how it helped me and took my life in a different direction.

“I spoke to a psychotherapist who was brilliant, but he didn’t have any experience in sport, and that just gave me the idea really.

“It encouraged me to be on the other side of the conversation and in a position where I could also use my own lived experience alongside completing the necessary qualifications.

“It really helped me, and kicked me off with the thought that, one day, I might also be able to help others in exactly the same way.”

Talking of kicking things off, it is now just over two decades since Winnall, now 32, first joined Wolves Academy.

Whilst he would go on to spend ten years at Molineux, and yet only make one first team appearance, it is a decade and an experience which he gratefully believes paved the way for the career that has followed. 

Playing for junior side Tettenhall Wood, it was whilst turning out for Wolverhampton Schools that the young striker and Smestow School student was spotted by former Wolves recruitment guru, Bob Bennett.

Invited on trial, Winnall scored in a game against Derby, and was eventually taken on, benefitting from the expertise of coaches such as Des Davies, Ian Whyte and John Trollope.

His was a particularly strong year’s intake, and produced a long and successful list of alumni, including Danny Batth, David Davis, Scott Malone, Ashley Hemmings, Kyle Bennett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.  

Along with the standards set in coaching and recruitment, and such a strong group pushing each other on, Winnall also believes the influence of Academy director Chris Evans was pivotal.

“I think having Chris overseeing everything was a big thing for us as young players,” Winnall recalls.

“He was always very good to us, and he believed in us, and would be the one pushing us forward to the manager, suggesting we join in training with the first team.

“Having that sort of backing always gave me the confidence that at some stage I was going to get a chance to prove myself.”

That chance was delayed by suffering the first of two career ACL injuries at the worst possible time, in the opening pre-season friendly at Kidderminster Harriers as Winnall embarked on his rookie season as a professional.

“I’d been feeling fit and ready to go and make an impression, and then that happened in the very first friendly,” he painfully recalls.

“But even with that, I remember the physios being great with me, taking the pressure off and telling me not to worry and rush anything, and that my chance would come when I had recovered.”

Eventually it did.  Winnall was handed the opportunity with his first team debut, a cherished League Cup night when he won an early penalty in a 2-1 win against Southend.  

Sadly, however, it was to prove his one and only senior appearance at Molineux.

“That was a fantastic experience for me and my family,” Winnall recalls.

“I think I did pretty well, and it’s a shame I didn’t get to make any more appearances, but at least I got my debut and a night I will never forget.

“There were a combination of reasons why it probably never happened for me at Wolves.

“After my debut I spent the next few months travelling with the first team, getting on the bench or as 19thman, which gave me a chance to see what life was like as a professional footballer.

“There were times when I thought I might have got another appearance, but you also have to remember, Wolves were in the Premier League during a time when it was all about survival, every year.

“In that situation, it becomes a very difficult decision to throw a 19-year-old striker in to try and get you a goal.

“It was probably a combination of reasons as to why it just wasn’t meant to be for me at Wolves.

“But there was never any bitterness – everything about the club gave me such a good chance of making a living in the game.

“These things happen, and you have to accept them and move on.”

Move on, Winnall did.  After a decade at the club.  But, if ever there was a sign of how timing and fortune can play a part in football, perhaps this was it.

After all, it feels like the direct and determined striker could have been a potent addition to the young and energetic rebuild delivered by Kenny Jackett.

But, during the ill-fated reign of Dean Saunders, Winnall had already been told he was on his way, and, out of contract, there followed instead a move which would revitalise and reboot his career.

He joined Scunthorpe, in League Two, scored 23 goals, winning him the Golden Boot and helping the team to automatic promotion, and that opened the door to a move to Barnsley.

During two-and-a-half years as part of a young and vibrant Tykes side, Winnall made further considerable progress and started to announce himself on a bigger stage.

During the 2015/16 season, he notched 24 goals, including two in quick succession in a play-off semi-final win against Walsall, and enjoyed two Wembley appearances as Barnsley won both the subsequent play-off final against Millwall, and the Football League Trophy final against Oxford.

Heading into the Championship, he scored goals against several clubs now in the Premier League such as Aston Villa, Fulham, Brentford and Nottingham Forest, as well as returning to Molineux for a dramatic 4-0 win against Walter Zenga’s Wolves. The Winnall takes it all.

“Scunthorpe was such a brilliant year for me, everything came together and it was the right club at the right time,” he explains.

“And then going to Barnsley felt exactly the same, we had a squad of young and hungry players who really wanted to prove themselves.

“We had some great players who have gone on to achieve great things and, being the striker, I was the beneficiary of that with the chance to score a lot of goals.

“Being at Barnsley was the time I felt at my best, my happiest and most confident.

“We had so much success with the promotion and the Football League Trophy, and then went into the Championship where we were punching above our weight just outside the play-offs.

“That game back at Wolves, I started but came off having missed a few chances feeling absolutely gutted that I hadn’t scored.

“We won 4-0, but it was bitter-sweet, because I was so annoyed I hadn’t got on the scoresheet.

“Coming back though, it was nice to be playing at Molineux and to see some familiar faces.”

Winnall’s form at Barnsley saw him land a move the short distance across Yorkshire to Sheffield Wednesday where, at times, his lack of a regular starting place caused frustration.

That prompted the loan move to Derby, after which he picked up that second ACL injury, since when he has been among the goals at Oxford and Burton Albion.

It was whilst back at Burton – scene of one of a clutch of early loan spells when at Wolves which also included Shrewsbury – that Winnall notched his 100th senior goal, ironically against Sheffield Wednesday, in the Football League Trophy last September.

A fantastic achievement, after which he received an ovation from the Owls faithful, and one from where he has since moved on to 105!

“That was a great moment for me personally, and special to do it at Hillsborough and one of my former clubs,” says Winnall.

“I actually scored my 99th, 100th and 101st goals against Sheffield Wednesday!

“It was also my first goal since going back to Burton, and it was good to get it done as I’d been waiting for a while.

“As a striker you are always judged on goals, and it had also been a goal of mine to hit 100.

“When the time comes to hang up my boots, it is something I will be extremely proud of, and I have the signed boot from the game as a memento which always gives a smile if I see it when I am feeling a bit down!”

Talk of hanging up the boots is still some way off, Winnall hopes.

Currently feeling fit, and feeling good, he is out of contract and aiming for a new challenge next season. There is plenty left in the tank.

But when that day does come, when it is time to move on from life on the pitch, Winnall hopes he will be ready for a brand new chapter, from scoring goals to setting goals, in the world of counselling and psychotherapy.

He has, as already mentioned, experienced his own difficulties during his career, particularly through injury and also time out of the team – 126 of his 334 appearances to date have come from the bench.

And, with the belief that players can struggle with mental health at all levels of the game, the increased conversation around the subject in recent years is something which Winnall feels is extremely important.

“It’s every boy’s dream to become a footballer, and of course it’s a fantastic career if you make it, but there is a tougher side to it as well,” he says.

“There is the thought that footballers get paid a ridiculous amount of money to kick a ball around, but that doesn’t mean they are not immune to problems and difficult times.

“Even those at the top level can be affected, and we have seen Marcus Rashford talking about mental health with his goal celebration, and Jaden Sancho being given time off to focus on his mental health.

“And of course, not all footballers get paid a lot of money and, as you come down the ladder, it is nothing like as glamorous as the Premier League.

“So many different aspects can challenge a footballer, and whatever level you are at, you can go through the same stresses and strains that anyone in any walk of life will experience.

“In a career, you tend to see all the different sides to football and how it can challenge you emotionally, and how resilient you need to be to be able to keep going.

“With me, it was a combination of different things, that is when I needed to see somebody, and it’s all about just having the relevant and appropriate support in place for people when they need it.

“I think there are probably many other examples of footballers who have been through similar circumstances and challenges in their career.”

Winnall is confident that this will be an area where he will eventually be able to make a powerful contribution.

Alongside continuing to pursue his qualifications, he has also volunteered as a facilitator with the Sporting Chance organisation, including speaking to the Under-21 and Under-18 players at Leicester City, offering an insight into mental health in football.

He is also set to undertake some volunteering in Burton with the MIND mental health charity, and is very much of the opinion that the journey is just as important as the destination.

“It’s been a brilliant journey so far and I’ve really enjoyed being back in education,” Winnall insists.

“It has been fantastic not just for the studying and the future but also for my own self-awareness and the way I see the world.

“It has opened my eyes and changed my perspectives and changed me as a person along the way.

“It’s a journey which I think is not only benefitting me as a footballer but as a person as well.

“I’m just going to take it all step by step, and see where it takes me, but I feel like I am on the right path, and that’s the main thing.”

All in all, it has been an impressive response by Winnall, to being released by Wolves a decade ago.

Impressive too, that he has already mapped out, and is working towards, a very fulfilling and altruistic career post-football, even if, in an ideal world, he doesn’t want it to happen quite just yet!

“It was quite a daunting time when I had to leave Wolves – I think I was 22 at the time and it’s all I had known having been there for ten years,” he reflects.

“I hadn’t really made any sort of mark on the football world in terms of appearances, and it was the first time I had been out of contract.

“In the end, it probably turned into the best thing that could have happened for me, and the thing I needed most, to go out and prove myself.

“It also gave me the chance to put into practice everything I had learned in all those years coming through at Wolves, and that is why, even though I had to go elsewhere to build a career, I will always look back with nothing but good memories of my time at the club.”

There will, obviously, be players who have had a far more sustained and substantial impact on Wolves’ history.  And much more success in the gold and black.

But perhaps not so many to whom their time at Molineux meant so much, particularly for Winnall in representing his hometown club and in the footballing education he received.

Wolves Academy are always focused on ensuring they produce not only good players but also good people as well.

In Sam Winnall, they certainly managed to do both.