Aylesbury footballers move up to the Premiership

THE glamorous world of professional football is often a distant dream for youngsters sliding around in the mud of Edinburgh playing fields or the hundreds of men who compete every Saturday in Aylesbury's various and vast amateur football leagues.

To make it in the game, even at a non-league level, has become harder than ever as more and more money is pumped into English football. But four local lads have proved the dream is achievable.

For Aylesbury has been home to at least four footballers living that dream, two of whom currently ply their trade among the elite of the English game in the Premiership.

Keeper Richard Lee, a former Bedgrove Dynamos youngster, was born and bred in the town before rising through the ranks to take his place as a key member of Watford's Premiership squad this season.

Versatile defender Emmerson Boyce, an ex-Quarrendon CofE Secondary School pupil, has enjoyed two seasons in the top flight, firstly at Crystal Palace and now at Wigan, who signed him for more than 1 million last summer.

Then there is the talented Lee Cook, a skilful midfielder who is currently the star player for his boyhood club Queens Park Rangers in the Championship. Valued at a jaw-dropping 10 million by his club chairman, the Marlow-based former Aylesbury United youngster has been making a name for himself and attracting the interest of several Premiership clubs in recent seasons with goals and assists aplenty at Watford and now QPR.

Another player from Aylesbury who has gone on to play at the very top level is former Aylesbury Grammar School pupil Sam Ricketts, a current Wales international regular.

The Hull City defender, formerly of Swansea, has lined up against some of the world's best strikers in internationals and has also been the subject of interest from the Premiership in recent years.

Of course it is not only elite players produced in these here parts. Tring is home to World Cup and Premiership referee Graham Poll, officially the best ref in England. Poll, who used to officiate in the Herts Senior League, is now a full-time professional ref and nearing his retirement after several years at the top level, during which time he took charge of numerous matches in a number of major tournaments as well as Champion's League games and FA Cup, League Cup and Championship play-off finals.

It is Lee's story which is most intriguing, though. After stepping into BBC's Dragons' Den (see PG 19-20), life as a footballer is suddenly a whole lot easier for the former Aylesbury Grammar School boy turned Watford keeper. Until the turn of the year, 24-year-old Lee was probably more famous for his appearance on the popular BBC show than anything he had achieved in his footballing career.

Having succeeded in convincing a dragon businessman to part with 150,000 for a 50 per cent share in his cap-making business, Lee had managed much more than many of his fellow entrepreneurs.

However, when Watford No.1 Ben Foster suffered a knee injury earlier this season, it offered Lee an unexpected chance to excel on the Premiership stage. And he did just that with a man of the match display that earned his side a draw at Manchester City just one of a string of performances that caught the eye.

His run in the first team coincided with the airing of the show on BBC and at the time Lee admitted: "I am probably more known for the TV show than my football at the moment. The lads at Watford made a pretty big deal out of it. When I came into training the following day there was a fair bit of stick flying about."

But while things have settled down on the business front, he has continued to put Foster under pressure for the starting berth under boss Aidy Boothroyd.

Lee has had to make do with a place on the bench since Foster's return from injury but the on loan Manchester United keeper was not allowed to play against his parent side in a recent game, giving Lee another chance to face his boyhood club.

A Rooney and Ronaldo inspired United put four past Lee that day, but a positive Richard will hope he can go on to be the Hornets' No.1 when Foster makes his expected return to the title-chasers at the end of the season.

He said: "I was happy to get a run in the team with a chance to prove myself, and I was very happy with my performances, proving that I am capable of playing at this level. As for 2007, at the moment I'm concentrating on myself and trying to improve my game with every session, and push Ben Foster as far as I can. I'm working with top class keepers every day and credit must go to Ben and Alec (Chamberlain)."

While Lee admits Watford have had the biggest hand in his career to date, he acknowledges the steadying influence growing up and living not far from his job in Aylesbury has also had.

"I grew up in and around Aylesbury but have been with Watford since I was 12-years-old. I went to Aylesbury Grammar School and still have friends from there that I stay in touch with. Other than that I would say Watford FC have been more of an influence on my career, I love playing for them and am not too far from friends and family," he said.

While most people would perhaps be surprised to learn there are four players from Aylesbury doing so well in the professional game, Lee's view is the opposite.

"It's great to see a few lads from the area doing so well, although it actually surprises me that more didn't make the grade as I seem to remember the leagues in the area being of a high standard," he added.

One player who will know all about the standard of Aylesbury football is Lee Cook. As a youngster, Cookie as he is affectionately known, started out at Marlow before joining non-league Aylesbury United, the town's premiere club.

His time at the Ducks saw him make 19 appearances over two seasons, but such was his obvious talent, a higher level soon beckoned. A move to Watford in 1999 did not come without controversy, though, as it sparked a year-long legal wrangle between United and Rangers over the Ducks' right to a transfer fee.

Former owner Bill Carroll's case was thrown out and Cook went on to spend the next seven seasons at the Hornets, where he came to prominence in the 2003/04 campaign with seven goals in 41 outings.

QPR, a club where Cook had spent a loan stint in 2002/03, came calling to bring his Watford career to an end and he has relished turning out for his boyhood heroes putting in some marvellous displays. Tottenham Hotspur were among a clutch of clubs tipped to move for him in the January transfer window but to no avail. However, the down-to-earth 24-year-old did not let it get to him, he simply went out and scored in QPR's victory in the next game after the window slammed shut.

Boyce, a former Luton star, grew up in Elmhurst but has had to re-locate to more northern pastures after a move to Wigan. The 27-year-old has been a key player for the club as they attempt to consolidate their Premiership status, featuring in every position along the back line so far this season.

The tall, strong and pacy defender stood out like a sore thumb on the playgrounds and playing fields in Aylesbury, seemingly untouchable such was his ability on the ball. 'A natural athlete' was a former Quarrendon teammate's description of Boyce. 'A player who loves to defend, the fans will love him' was the verdict of Wigan manager Paul Jewell after snapping up the crowd favourite from Crystal Palace, the club with whom Boyce had tasted his first ever Premiership experience, and subsequent relegation the previous season.

Popular Boyce, who still regularly sees many of his friends and relatives in the town, always seemed destined for the top from his early days at Luton. The production line at Kenilworth Road, particularly when it comes to defenders is particularly fruitful.

After scooping all the major honours in Luton's end of season awards in 2003/04, Boyce was targeted by then Palace boss Iain Dowie as the man to shore up his defence in arguably the best league in the world. During an impressive season, Boyce more than proved he was more than comfortable in his Premiership surroundings and capable of competing at that level. Boyce also realised a 'dream' when he got to play against boyhood heroes Arsenal, although Thierry Henry got on the scoresheet that day.

It was short-lived, though, as Palace were agonisingly relegated on the last day of the 2004/05 season. Wigan won the race for his signature in the summer and despite a decent start to the season, Wigan look set for a scrap with West Ham, Charlton and Watford to beat the dreaded drop.

Ricketts was a star at Swansea, where his left-foot, Welsh relations and consistency earned him international recognition from a young age. Born in Wendover, the 25-year-old showed great strength of character to move away from home at a young age in his bid to make it as a pro. He has pedigree - his dad was a champion showjumper and his uncle a champion National Hunt jockey.

In fact, Ricketts could have been turning out for Great Britain as a showjumper himself, had Oxford United not intervened. Aged 12, Sam was turning out for the district and had been picked for Oxford United's youth team, who played their games on a Sunday.

This clashed with Sam's showjumping and he was forced to make a decision. While he enjoyed showjumping and the prize money and trophies that went with it, football was his passion and something he knew he would only get one shot at, whereas he could always return to the stables if he wasn't successful.

He moved away from Wendover and the sacrifices he made were worth it with a transfer to upwardly mobile Hull City a deserved reward for years of solid form at the Swans.

The main criticisms levelled at the modern day professional footballer are that the money and fame goes to their heads or that they lose their passion and appetite for the game as their enormous pay packets increase. In fact, the void between fans and their heroes has never been greater. People often talk of footballers living in their own little bubble, with no concern for the people who pay their glamorous wages - the fans.

No doubt these criticisms are often true of some. In fact, highly-respected former Wycombe manager Martin O'Neill, now in charge at Aston Villa, recently ordered players to spend more time talking to fans in an attempt to bridge what he sees as an ever-increasing divide between the supporters and the players.

This talented quartet from Aylesbury will probably not be the last footballers to emerge from the town's production line, but one thing is true of all four; they have remained true to their roots since making it in what can be a fickle and unpredictable sport. So a clear message to any youngsters out there, have faith, you could be a Premiership star one day too.