Harley Willard is different from your usual 20-year-old. He may have grown up in Premier League academies but the path he has taken since is entirely unique from that of any of his peers. If his move to Sweden at the start of the year was unusual, it was nothing compared to the move he made later in the year.
“When I first arrived in Cambodia it was a definitely a culture shock,” he says. “But I’ve been here for a month now and I’m really enjoying life here. The weather is hot all year round – it takes some time to get use to but I’ve started to acclimatise.”
That’s right, there really is an English footballer playing in the Cambodian league. Willard signed for PKR Svay Rieng in June, joining the side part way through their league campaign. The side finished second in the C-League last season, the country’s top flight.
Having played for Arsenal, Southampton and Maidstone United the move was completely different from anything the 20-year-old had experienced before, even a spell in Sweden with Hässleholms IF could not fully prepare him for his arrival in Cambodia but now over a month on, he is finding his feet in Asia and totally embracing his new surroundings.
The midfielder however, had always planned on taking his footballing career abroad, where he says he feels most comfortable.
“I was speaking with a few agents about going abroad in the January transfer window so it was an easy decision for me when the opportunity came up to go to Sweden,” he says.
“I would 100% rather play abroad than play in England. I am different to a lot of people but for me I’m at my happiest when abroad. I like the style of football, the foreign lifestyle and the way of life. I know many people don’t understand but this is how I am.”
Willard’s opportunity in Sweden came after spells with both the Arsenal and Southampton academies.
“I joined Arsenal when I was nine-years-old after training with four teams before making a decision to sign for them.
“Being at Arsenal was a great experience and playing with some amazing players many of who are now playing in Europe’s top leagues.
“Southampton was also a great experience, they took my game to the next level I needed to be at. I trained with some quality players there as well from the under-18 side, all the way to the first team. I enjoyed most of my time there.”
In the 2016/17 season, the midfielder played 12 times for Southampton’s U23s in the Premier League 2 before leaving the club. Although initially disappointed, the 20-year-old now understands the sizable difference between youth and men’s football.
“Southampton have many talented players throughout their academy. I feel like technically many could get the chance to play [in the first team]. I thought technically I was ready to get a chance. I was disappointed at the time but after playing in the National League I realised how different men’s football is to under-23 football.
“I think Southampton need to prepare their players earlier by sending them out on loan to the lower EFL teams or the National League to gain that experience.”
Willard did eventually gain that experience himself, joining Maidstone in the National League, making a handful of appearances for them before playing on loan at National League South sides Eastbourne Borough and Welling United, who he scored his first senior goal for.
“When I left Southampton, I did not have many opportunities to go abroad because I had no first team experience. This was the main reason I signed in the National League, to get some men’s football and when the next transfer window came hopefully get a move abroad.”
That much-wanted move abroad soon came in the form of a deal with Swedish side, Hässleholms IF. The club played in the fourth-tier but despite that, Willard was pleasantly surprised with the standard and his first experience abroad turned out to be exactly what he had hoped for.
“I definitely found it easy to settle in [in Sweden]. The staff and players at Hässleholms were so welcoming and I really enjoyed my time there.
“There is not much of a language barrier in Sweden as everyone can speak very good English. The standard of football was good too. I was playing in Division 2 but the standard was still very high , a lot better than I expected it to be.”
After playing in the Swedish league for several months and even scoring in the Swedish Cup, the opportunity to play even further afield in Asia was too good to turn down.
“The deal happened really quick here in Cambodia. The manager Conor Nestor and I made contact with each other and within a week I was here signing my contract.
“Like I said before, I’m different. I love being abroad so to travel and play the game I love, I couldn’t think of anything better.
“My family is supportive, they understand and support what I want to do with my life and career so they told me to go for it. Life is too short so you have to make the most of it.”
Willard was arriving in a country with an entirely different language and way of life so it has helped having Nestor, an Irishman who had previously coached Limerick U19s in his homeland, in charge to help him settle.
“The players don’t speak the best English but they try,” he says. “Our head coach is Irish and we also have another Irish coach who has been in the country for twelve years and can speak fluent Khmer [the official language of Cambodia] so that’s great for us foreigners.”
And despite playing for a side closer to the Vietnamese border than to the capital, he still gets to experience the best of the country.
“I’m currently living in Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia. We train here every day and play our home matches in Svay Rieng where our stadium is. The trip down to Svay Rieng is around two to three hours away so the day before a game we travel and spend the night there.”
Football is a popular sport in Cambodia with C-League matches attracting between 3,000 to 5,000 fans and national team matches bringing in as many as 50,000 fans. There’s also a huge appetite for Premier League football in the country but Willard says their own league is going from strength to strength and had even done a little research himself before making the move.
“The C-League is improving every year. They have some very good players which are stars here. It’s a technical league and I am enjoying it. More foreigners are wanting to play here as it’s a good place to really kick-start your career in Asia.
“I started to look into the C-League around December 2017. I spoke to another team here about playing here from the start of the year but nothing came of it, so I knew about the league before I went to Sweden and watched highlights every now and then.”
Willard’s arrival in Cambodia has made a big impact, you do not get many English imports into the country and he has impressed on the pitch too, contributing several assists as Svay Rieng recently made it six games without defeat.
The 20-year-old is now focused on making a name for himself in his new home.
“Now I am in Southeast Asia my ambition is to make it into the top leagues here. I’m open minded and love to travel so we will see what happens.
“But my first aim and focus is to make a name for myself here in Cambodia. Not many 20-year-olds would make this move so young but personally I thought it was a great opportunity and I’m so glad I did it.
“I recommend players in England who have come out of academies and playing in non-league to try abroad. Training full-time, meeting new people and learning a whole new side of the game. It can open so many doors and lead to great places.”
The move to Cambodia was certainly an unusual one but there is no reason why it cannot work out for Willard. Yorkshireman Lee Tuck has built his entire professional career in Asia and the former Southampton man certainly seems to have the ability and attitude to make it big in the continent as well.