Jamie Coombes and Jack Sergeant both ply their trade in the ninth tier of the English football pyramid for West Didsbury and Chorlton AFC…. But they are also competing on the world stage as international footballers for minnows Gibraltar, as they tell Jason Hamburger.
Just a week after starting in a narrow 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland live on Sky Sports, Jack Sergeant, 24, was back playing football for semi-professional side, West Didsbury, in front of 243 fans.
Jamie Coombes, 22, like Sergeant, plays for West Didsbury and has to fit in his studies at Manchester Metropolitan University with his football. Coombes is studying business management, while Sergeant is in the final year of a fire and rescue management course at Blackburn College.
The move to Manchester occurred when Sergeant, a full-back or defensive midfielder, approached West Didsbury in the summer of 2017, with it becoming a convenient move due to the ground being close to where he lives in Hulme.
Later, Coombes, a forward, moved to the same house as Sergeant and joined his friend at the South Manchester club.
Not many international footballers have to contend with juggling University work but they both take it in their stride.
”At times it can be challenging with assignments due in and exams coming up but you’ve got to put those distractions to one side and focus on football and try and balance it the best you can,” said Coombes.
Both players were born in Gibraltar and the duo believed the recent back-to-back wins against Armenia and Liechtenstein, the territory’s first in competitive football, was their best achievement in football.
”I’d have to say it was the biggest achievement and proudest moment of my career so far”, said Sergeant.
”We’ve had a few draws and wins in friendlies before, but getting those two international wins, and especially back-to-back was just amazing.”
Coombes was equally proud and said the players always had the belief that they could win matches at international level.
He said: “No one expected us to go out there and win, except ourselves. We always believed in ourselves, we had the support from Gibraltar and to go out there and win back-to-back games was truly amazing.”
There is a stark difference between the facilities at West Didsbury and the major international stadiums. It is therefore a big step up for both Gibraltarians.
Sergeant said: ”Obviously the players are better, you’re playing against quality players who play in top leagues around Europe. You play on top of the range pitches and use great facilities. At West Didsbury, most of the pitches aren’t in great condition.
”I played against Germany a few years ago and was playing in midfield against Kroos, Gotze and Khedira, they’re the best I’ve ever faced.”
Coombes praised Mezut Ozil and Robert Lewandowski, two world-class players that he has rubbed shoulders with. But his team-mates, back in Manchester, are not jealous of him sharing the same pitch with such top class players.
”We’ve played against countless world-class players. On a personal note, at the time, Ozil at his peak or Lewandowski for Poland were the best.
“One thing I’ve learnt is how good their first touches are, it’s on another level. Their acceleration and speed has to be noted. They are so conditioned and you have to be on their toes against them. Also their knowledge of the game is amazing. They know where to be on the pitch all the time, right place, right time. All their link-up play.”
However, at West Didsbury, they are battling to stay up. A much-needed 2-1 away win at Irlam has kept their hopes alive, after six successive defeats. They currently sit second bottom, one place and three points from safety with three games to go, although the team above them has a game in hand.
Sergeant explained why the club is struggling at the bottom this season.
”Going back to last season, we had a good team. We chopped and changed the team, a few players left. We changed manager at Christmas as well. We have been unlucky at times but overall we haven’t played well enough.
The defender bemoaned the loss of a few important players in the summer, as well as some bad luck, He is, however, hopeful of surviving the drop.
Coombes is also disappointed with how the season has gone but believes they can avoid relegation.
“We haven’t had the season that we wanted. Being near the bottom. Four games left, we need to do our best to keep the club up. We don’t deserve to go down. Relegation now is a possibility, but we have three games to turn it around.”
It is a challenge for both players, who have university commitments to deal with but they wouldn’t swap it for anything else.
Focus now turns to avoiding relegation.