‘If I hadn’t gone to non-league, I don’t think I would be a professional footballer today’- The highs and lows of Ollie Crankshaw’s football journey

Ollie Crankshaw playing for Curzon Ashton. Credit: Evening Telegraph

Getting dropped from a football academy is a major blow for any youngster but many players make it back into the professional game through the non-league divisions. Rob Jones speaks to one player who has done just that.

When Bradford City winger Ollie Crankshaw got released by his youth team at the age of 17, he questioned whether his boyhood dreams had been shattered.

He said: “I’d started playing football at the age of six and by the time I was eight was taken on by Preston North End.

“From U9’s to U14’s quite a few teams were interested in me. I remember Blackburn Rovers and Oldham both tried to sign me.”

As Ollie approached the U16’s, boys his age began to get bigger and stronger and although still a technically gifted player, the winger struggled to compete physically.

“That was my hardest time in football because I didn’t really develop as a player,” he explained.

“I was about five foot five when I was about 17 and I didn’t have my growth spurt until I was about 18 or 19 and now I’m six foot.”

At the age of 17, Ollie was given the devastating blow that he was being released by Preston.

He said: “When I found out I wasn’t getting a contract, we got told in groups. Out of the nine lads I was with, one got offered a deal and the rest didn’t.

“Looking back, not getting kept on was probably the right thing for me but I didn’t realise it at the time.

“It knocked me a little bit but I always knew technically I was probably one of the best players. I just needed to get bigger so that physically I was on the same playing field as everyone else.”

The youngster then decided to join teams Clitheroe and Ramsbottom in successive seasons but struggled to adapt to the physical nature of the non-league.

He said: “I didn’t really play too much, and I wasn’t really enjoying it. Initially I couldn’t handle the physicality of the league whatsoever. I was still very young and hadn’t grown.”

Fed up with how his football journey was going, Ollie decided to join Colne and manager, Steve Cunningham, saw he had ability.

Steve Cunningham described Ollie Crankshaw as a “credit to himself.” Credit: Rob Jones

He said: “When we brought Ollie to the club we saw straight away the raw talent that he had. He was electric off the front foot and very direct. He had something very special.

“He didn’t come in like he was owed a favour in football, he rolled his sleeves up and was a great character.”

With Steve’s support, Ollie gained the boost he needed and he went on to have a successful season with the team.

He said: “The manager really took me under his wing and I went on to score 20 goals in 30 games that season.

“I think dropping down to non-league was probably the best thing I have ever done. I think it’s helped me massively.

“You don’t realise what pro football is until you play at that level where you are going onto pitches and its ploughed fields.

  “You look around now and so many guys are coming from non-league; I’d pretty much say half of the lads in league one and two come from those divisions.

Colne chairman Ryan Haigh believes there are more players coming through the divisions than ever before.

Colne FC chairman Ryan Haigh believes that non-league football is a “great experience” for any young player. Credit: Rob Jones

He said: “I think the reason you have got more numbers coming through is because clubs are realising that there is a pool of talent down there.

“Not every player is a Wayne Rooney who is ready for first team football at 16 years old. A lot of them drop into non-league and they are actually good enough to play league football. They just need the opportunity and the time to develop.

“It is all about can we identify youngsters who have been released from academies. I make no secret of the fact that we got our transfer model from Fleetwood Town.

Fleetwood, well known for cultivating Jamie Vardy’s talent, nurtured the young player whilst they were still in the non-league.

After getting released from Sheffield Wednesday academy at the age of 16, Vardy played for many semi-professional teams before getting his break in the professional game.

Lifelong Fleetwood fan Keith Jones watched Vardy’s meteoric rise at the club.

Fan Keith Jones standing on the pitch in Fleetwood where he saw his first ever football match. Credit: Rob Jones

He said: “He was just a scrawny lad when he first came but we saw him grow from a boy into a man. The fans have really fond memories of him at the club, he was a cracking player.”

So what is it about the non-league that revitalises so many young players careers?

Steve believes it gives young players a good grounding in football.

He said: “Non-league gives lads the opportunity to be with real men, real footballers.

 “They experience the ups and downs where you go into the clubhouse and the food is a few cold sandwiches and there is water coming from the ceiling when you go into the dressing rooms.

“When they get the chance and they take it, they appreciate it more and they want it more.”

After leaving Colne, Ollie went on to play for Curzon Ashton and from there landed a big move at Wigan Athletic. Wanting to gain more first team experience, he moved to League Two team Bradford where he continues to follow his football dreams.

He said: “I want to play as many games and get as many goals as possible so I can move up the leagues again. If I can keep playing well I really hope that can happen.”