“I decided to sign for Sunderland when I was 10 as I believed they had the better youth set up even though I was a massive Newcastle fan and hated Sunderland!”
Callum Ross has never been someone to shy away from a bold move in order to advance his football career. From turning down his boyhood club to signing for their fierce rivals to quitting a professional academy to return to his local club to moving nearly 4,000 miles away from home in pursuit of a pro deal.
The 23-year-old midfielder is now in his second season of professional football in America but is currently thinking back to how it all began in the north-east of England more than a decade ago.
“As a youth I played for Cramlington Juniors while training with both Sunderland and Newcastle United. After two or three years of training with them I decided to sign with Sunderland,” he says.
“I really enjoyed the first two years there but left half way through the third year as I was playing a year above myself and then went down to my right age group and I simply didn’t get on with the lads. They had grown faster than me and I was getting kicked to bits and couldn’t do anything about it.
“I hated it and I’ve never hated football so my mam thought it was best for me to leave. I went back to Cramlington and stayed there alongside school and county football until I went to Monkseaton Football College.”
Cramlington are a famous name around the north east with the club boasting former players such as Newcastle greats Alan Shearer, Steven Taylor and also Jack Colback so it was not like Ross was moving to an entirely amateur setup and likewise the football academy at Monkseaton High School also has an excellent reputation for progressing the careers of young footballers but it was a brave move to leave a professional club.
Thankfully for Ross, Monkseaton also has a great record when it comes to preparing students for American soccer scholarships with over 30 former students having accepted scholarship offers and it was this same route which would unfold for the former Sunderland youth player but an injury meant he would have to do it the hard way.
“Gary Hamill [the head coach of Wingate University’s football team for more than 25 years] came over and was told about me by my Monkseaton coaches. I was injured at the time so he took a huge gamble as he had no footage of me as I had been out for around eight months with a back problem.”
So despite his injury, Ross was offered the chance to study and play football at Wingate University in North Carolina and it is something he still very thankful for, even now, two years after leaving education.
“I needed a certain SAT score and also some GSCE’s and grades at Monkseaton but I don’t think it was anything that was too difficult! I chose Wingate because I had no other choice, however it was best decision I could have made as we won the national championship and I think Gary will be my lifelong friend. He was more than a coach to me and still is!”
Ross would spend four years playing for the Wingate Bulldogs, playing 58 games and scoring 15 goals as well as chipping in with his fair share of assists. His impressive performances on the pitch gave no indication that he was also studying towards a degree at the same time.
“Football and studying can be difficult,” he says. “However, I always placed my priority with football and did whatever I could do to get the work done in the end. I never missed gym sessions or fitness work for school because I knew I would get a degree in the end but football was always number one.”
After four seasons of college football, the midfielder had the option of another year of combining studying and playing but he had his sights set on the professional game.
“I had a spare season at Wingate if I wanted to use it but it meant I would have to start a masters so I went to a combine which was held by Charlotte [Independence] and Colorado [Rapids], just to start getting my name out there.
“I ended up nearly getting drafted but signed for Charlotte with Colorado keeping a close eye on me during the USL season. I settled in great at Charlotte, the boys, the trainer and especially the assistant coaches were brilliant and made me so welcome straight away. Troy Lesesne still is the assistant there and is fantastic.”
Ross took the step up to professional football in his stride, making 29 appearances in the USL, the second tier of American football, for Charlotte Independence completing nearly 1,400 passes at a completion rate of 85%. He also scored once in his side’s 5-1 thrashing of New York Red Bulls II. Despite that, he admits that the transition was not initially as seamless as it seemed.
“The USL is deceiving. When you watch online there’s some players whether you would question if they deserved to be there, however, after a few weeks of playing, I was getting caught out and making mistakes doing the stuff I had done in college and it wasn’t working in the USL.
“Players are a lot smarter, more experienced and play with their brains more. It’s also a much longer season so I had to try and adjust and kind of hold back a bit on the work load to stay fresh.
“It wasn’t a humongous step up to where I felt out of my depth but I definitely see and feel the difference from USL to college football and I’m still learning so much everyday now.”
The Independence went on to finish fifth in the Eastern Conference before being knocked out in the playoffs, which would be Ross’ last involvement in Charlotte colours as he joined fellow USL side Oklahoma City Energy for the 2018 season.
“Yeah I’m really enjoying it here in Oklahoma,” he says. “But the start to the season was awful and I personally really struggled. We were losing game after game, I was making mistakes and not playing well.
“Then I played a little further up the field and scored a couple and got an assist. I was having a run of games where I thought I had played much better, which has helped my confidence and also helped the team get some points from time to time which is always the main objective!”
Adding goals to his game was something the midfielder had wanted to achieve previously in his career after coming to terms with the importance of data in his new home country.
“It took me a couple of college seasons to realise that stats play a huge role here so after getting somewhat overlooked, I decided to work on other aspects of my game and definitely improved my finishing and getting involved a lot more going forward in college.
“I believe I can start to get on the score sheet a little more in the USL, if my role allows me to. At the same time though, I’m not willing to roam out of position to try to selfishly score when my team needs me in other areas, especially when I’ve been predominantly sitting in front of the back four both last season and this season.”
After a slow start to the season, the 23-year-old’s resurgence has seen OKC Energy kick-start their season and although still outside the playoff spots in the Western Conference, they are unbeaten in six games.
“I still struggle on our home field though. It’s so small and the turf is so bobbly but it’s our home field and no excuses are acceptable. We’ve turned things around slightly, so we’re only looking up now. The lads and the coaches have been great with me too and OKC has more to offer than what people may think in terms of the city!”
So far the Newcastle-born midfielder has missed just one of 19 league games this season as he continues to earn regular first team football and although right now he does not want to take his eyes off the prize in the States, he has pondered how his future career might pan out.
“I would love to play in numerous countries, but it has to be right for me and be beneficial to where I want to go. The sport here is growing so fast so it would be unwise to turn my back on the US without really pushing and trying to achieve a lot more. The sport has given me so many friends and allowed me to travel so I will always be open to travel and living in different cities and cultures.
“Until I can hold my hands up and say I’m not good enough to play at this level, I want to go as high as possible and achieve as much as possible.”
It’s easy to forget that Ross is in just his second season of professional football, despite being 23. He has a long career ahead of him if he carries on his consistent performances so far but in the end, his goal in life is a simple one.
“My overall ambition is that when I hang my boots up, I will be able to say to myself I gave it everything I had, made myself and my close ones proud of my efforts and played with a smile on my face.”