Elliot Kebbie has played for some of the biggest clubs in England, Scotland and Spain yet at the age of 23, he is a free agent and hasn’t played league football for a year. He’s suffered from his fair share of adversity, from a debilitating illness to suffering from bouts of depression. But now he has returned to full fitness and is ready to give it another shot playing abroad.
“I’ve taken some time out during the last few months but I’m now ready to be back out there on the pitch at a high level and I’m still only 23,” he says. “I train every day naturally and I’m fully fit and ready to go.”
To understand fully Kebbie’s extraordinary career so far, you have to go back seven years to when the defender was a youngster at Leeds United. The son of former Rugby League player Brimah Kebbie, he was a highly sort after talent during his time at Leeds. He had the biggest clubs in Europe monitoring his progress and the biggest of them all were the first to make a move.
“The trial with Barcelona came about after my agent at the time informed that a scout of theirs had watched me play in a game for Leeds against a Liverpool youth team.
“I had a clause in my contract at Leeds that I could explore other options before I joined them full-time and therefore I took the opportunity to head out to Barcelona.
“I’d also looked at Everton and Manchester United but there were issues with the amount of compensation Leeds wanted for me at the time.”
So in 2011, Kebbie spent two months on trial with the Catalan giants which was enough time for the defender, who was only 17 at the time, to realise the Spanish game was certainly the right move for him, despite not earning a deal with Barcelona.
“The Barcelona trial was a fantastic experience,” he says. “I trained and played with world-class players and featured in a major youth team tournament in Madrid against teams from across the world.
“At the time Spanish football certainly suited my game. I’ve always played better with more technically gifted players and players that are capable of playing at that level with pace. I think when you’ve been used to being on the same wavelength as quality players in terms of their vision on and off the ball and their movement, it makes your job a lot easier than playing with players that haven’t been used to that level of football.”
Despite not earning a deal in Catalonia, Kebbie had done enough to impress one of their rivals in the youth tournament he appeared in for Barcelona. Atletico Madrid signed the pacey full back in 2012 for a fee of up to £500,000. It was now that his foreign adventure would truly begin.
The Yorkshireman initially made great progress at Atleti. He played for the club’s youth teams and after playing impressing for the club’s C team lower down the Spanish pyramid, he was given a chance to train with Diego Simeone’s first team squad.
In the summer of 2012, he was given the opportunity to impress on loan at Scottish giants Rangers by Ally McCoist but it was at this stage that disaster struck for Kebbie and the resulting effects would go on to affect his career for several years.
After initially impressing at Rangers, the defender collapsed during training twice and was then rushed to hospital closer to home in Yorkshire. It was here where he was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus, a condition which saw him lose three stone in two months and become wheelchair bound. The diagnosis couldn’t have come at any worse time in his career for the defender but football was far from the agenda as he was told there was no cure for the condition and he would have to hope his body recovered itself, which was not guaranteed.
The timing of the illness though, still frustrates Kebbie.
“If it wasn’t for the unfortunate illness I suffered with for over two years, I’m certain that I’d still be playing in Spain now or at an equivalent level elsewhere. But that’s life and you have to accept that things like that can happen.”
Even after starting to regain his strength, the condition’s post-viral fatigue ensured it would be a hard journey back to professional football for the defender.
“Even after sixteen to eighteen months, it wasn’t a simple case of the Epstein Barr virus disappearing one day. When I was eventually able to start training and going on trials, I wasn’t 100% fit but the only way that I could know if I was capable of playing was if I went on trials to see.
“It was extremely frustrating for me not to be able to perform and I went on trials at a couple of clubs in the Premier League, Championship and League One but I just was not ready at that time.”
Eventually the former Leeds United man agreed a six-month deal with Steve Bruce’s Hull City in 2014. The move helped Kebbie’s rehabilitation significantly but it was never a case of aiming to play Premier League football so soon and he soon realised he was not going to return to his peak performance levels during his time with the Tigers.
“By the end of the six months I had made amazing progress at Hull but I was nowhere near my best and therefore took some more time out,” he says.
“Mentally this was an extremely tough time for me and understandably I had a couple of bouts of depression. I knew I had the ability to play at the highest level, I’d been at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, but my body wasn’t letting me.”
Kebbie admits he has had some very dark moments in his life but it was through the help of a club he had previously rejected that he started to rebuild his football career.
“After getting back to training and playing it probably took an additional two years to fully recover, with time during that period training with Manchester Untied Reserves, signing for Salford City, going on a couple more trials and then signing for Barnsley.
“Getting rid of the after effects of post viral fatigue is not easy. It causes many other issues with your digestion system and you have to be more aware of what makes you feel lethargic, many would have given up.”
The Huddersfield-born man was part of the Salford City squad who made the second round of the FA Cup before being knocked out in a replay by Hartlepool United, despite only being in the Northern Premier League at the time.
After a spell with Barnsley’s development squad and a trial with Birmingham City, the defender decided last year to try his hand at playing abroad again by signing for top flight Norwegian side Sandefjord and he was initially delighted with the progress he made before issues off the pitch cut short his time in Scandinavia.
“I really enjoyed my time in Norway,” he says. “I was playing every game and thriving in my new adventure abroad. I was determined to play first team football at a high level after working extremely hard to regain my full fitness.
“It was just bad timing as I became a dad and there was a very complicated family situation with a baby and two step children back in England. So I had to cut my time short at the club.”
After returning to England, Kebbie joined big spending non-league side Billericay Town on a short-term deal, making a handful appearances for the Glenn Tamplin’s side who are never too far from the headlines. His sights have now turned to sorting another deal abroad and he is currently is discussions with several sides overseas.
“When returning to England, I had missed the window to sign for Football League clubs. Not in terms of needing a transfer because I was a free agent but more because most clubs had sorted their squads out for this season. So I ended up signing for a high-profile non-league team that was paying football league wages and had signed several former Premier League players.
“It was never a long-term solution and I’ve always intended on returning to Norway or potentially going to Sweden, Denmark or Portugal this summer.”
The 23-year-old is now fully focused on returning to the game and when reflecting on his career, he believes the numerous tough moments in his life he has been through, have helped shape him for the future.
“I’ve experienced a lot for my age, some amazing things, some things I wish I’d have done things differently or made better decisions on.
“Of course I was unfortunate to get a bad virus when playing for Atletico Madrid but I believe it’s made me a tougher person. If there’s anyone you can count on under pressure and to come through the other side of adversity, I’ve had more than my fair share, it’s me.”
There can’t be many more footballers out there more deserving of some luck than Kebbie and if his latest Instagram stories and posts are anything to go by, he is fully committed to finding a move soon and putting his all into returning to the top of his game.