Paul Clowes spent part of 2018 regaining his fitness with a team who play in the 12th tier of English football. But they are no normal grassroots football team. Egerton FC train daily and have had the likes of Nathan Ellington, Emile Heskey and Victor Anichebe take part in sessions in the past. Earlier this week, the sessions proved worthwhile for Clowes as he secured his return to South Carloina and professional football with brand new USL League One club Greenville Triumph.
“It’s amazing to join a brand new team,” says the 25-year-old midfielder. “It is an exciting challenge to be part of the team that will set the standards for this club not only for this year, but for the years to come.
“I want the season to get started already as I have a lot of hunger to compete hard and hope to win the league – I think that would make this inaugural year something truly special.”
It’s fair to say the Cheshire-native is delighted to be back in the States. Having come through the Manchester City academy and later the US college system, he went on to be drafted by MLS side DC United before playing a couple of seasons in the USL. This all means a return has been a long time coming.
Thankfully for Clowes, he is now back in the country where he previously spent six years and is set to represent a side who have a lot of work to do. As it stands, Greenville have just four players in their squad having been formed last year ahead of competing in the inaugural season of USL League One, the US’ new professional third-tier league in 2019. What they do have though, is a US legend in charge. Former Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County midfielder John Harkes is the man who has been tasked with building a squad from scratch and in Clowes, he has a solid recruit with serious college pedigree.
“There are never any certainties in football but I had a good feeling about coming back,” he says. “I’d been training hard and, through contacts I’d built up over the years, I was able to represent myself rather than go through an agent which cut out a lot of the politics and drama.
“I have a strong faith and have always put my life in God’s hands and trusted his timing with my football but selfishly, I was really hoping that I’d end up back in the States.
“I am really happy to start a new chapter with Greenville and know that it’ll be a brilliant year.”
Going back to the early days, Clowes was a promising prospect at Manchester City and even when all the money started flowing into club following the Abu Dhabi Group takeover in 2008, he continued to make progress through the ranks. He went on to play in the Nextgen Series with the under-19 side, the precursor to the UEFA Youth League, against the best academies from across Europe and made the reserves to play in the Premier League Reserve League, as it was called then. However, eventually, his path came to an end after more than 12 years.
“As the money came into the club and filtered down to the academy, the standards and expectations went up in all aspects. At the time, I was just focussed on getting better every day and the quality of players I played and trained with certainly improved and pushed me on.
“Of course, the dream of every player is to graduate up to the first team, particularly at a club like Manchester City, but the coaches always instilled into us that working hard and getting better everyday would pay off whether at this club or another.
“I thought I had a great shot at getting a pro deal after captaining the youth team and playing in the reserves but it wasn’t to be. I left on great terms with the club and still go back to see old faces when I’m in England.”
After release from his boyhood club, he trialled at Stoke City and had the chance to turn professional with them but instead decided to take another route. Turning down a professional deal isn’t something many young, aspiring footballers do but Clowes had it all planned out and was seeking a future more secure than a single year contract.
Around the time Stoke offered him a deal, he had been to America by himself, visiting universities with the view of accepting a scholarship out there. After comparing the two options, it was not a difficult decision for the midfielder to make.
“On seeing the set up of college soccer in the States and how that could set me up for life versus signing a contract for a year in England, it was a no brainer. I knew that going to college to play full time football in America wasn’t me giving up on playing as a pro, instead it was going to advance my career.”
Choosing to study at Clemson University, whose football program has traditionally been one of the most successful in the country, Clowes was treated to a four-year program which consisted of high-level facilities and coaching and which had a proven track record of producing professional players. Twenty-two players since the mid 1990s have turned professional following studying at Clemson. It’s no surprise therefore, that the former Manchester City man found it easy to settle in.
“I settled pretty quickly to be honest. I just dove headfirst into it and became so focused on the football and schoolwork that missing home was an afterthought. My family were really supportive and encouraged me to go after what I wanted, for which I am ever grateful. They came to visit each summer and made a huge effort to watch my games online and support in any way they could.
“In terms of the school work, I actually ended up really enjoying it – which I wouldn’t have believed at 18! I did a degree in sports marketing so took courses that I was genuinely interested in, which allowed me to get my head off football sometimes.
“All players know the ups and downs in the game so the academic stuff was always something I could control no matter what was going on with football.”
But it was largely ups for the midfielder during his college soccer career, albeit not quite having a fairytale ending. He made 85 appearances in total as Clemson reached the NCAA Division I championship match in his final year at college, effectively the biggest prize in college soccer. Unfortunately, his side lost to a Stanford side which included Jordan Morris, who was already a full US international at the time despite still being at college, such was his potential and that fact helps to sum up the impressive nature of the Division I competition.
“After playing in the NextGen Series and at City for twelve years, I thought it would be easy for me to step in but in reality it took me two years to fully find my feet.
“To put it in perspective, last year the University of Maryland beat Leicester City U23s comfortably and the College of Charleston drew with West Brom U23s. I think the level is comparable to academy but is more real, results-based football rather than being about development.
“To play as many games as I did between 18 and 22 was fantastic and I know that some of my peers that stayed in England found it tough to find regular playing time.”
But of course, all the studying and playing had an end goal, to turn pro and that is something Clowes achieved in 2016 when he was selected by DC United in the MLS Superdraft, a process where professional clubs take turns to select from the best college prospects. He was the 32nd pick overall in a year which saw a fellow Englishman, Jack Harrison, selected as the number one pick.
“The draft experience was kind of surreal,” he says. “I didn’t even know what it was four years earlier so to go there and get drafted was really something amazing! As much as I enjoyed that moment, I knew that there was still plenty of work to go to earn a contract. I was really excited but at the same time, I always try not to let the highs get too high or the lows get too low.
“There were a lot of people who helped me get on that stage so I really felt proud that I could give them something to smile about.”
Being drafted does not guarantee a professional deal but the Cheshire-born midfielder did enough to secure his first contract.
“There was a short-lived, wow, this is what it is like to be a pro feeling, but that has to quickly go away before you get brought back down to earth. Becoming a pro was always something I believed would happen at some level so while it was still magical, it did also feel quite natural as I’d imagined it a million times in my head.”
Although his first deal would not lead to any appearances for DC United. He was released partway through the season, although he did go on to make 16 appearances in his debut year with USL sides Richmond Kickers and Charlotte Independence.
The following season he played in the USL again, this time for Orlando City B but spent 2018 regaining his fitness ahead of a move this year. After getting a taste for professional football in America, he made 32 appearances in a year-and-a-half in the USL, he felt he had unfinished business in the country and has returned to correct that.
As well as securing his own return to professional football, Clowes is also in charge of ensuring the next generation of former English academy players are coming through. Working for a company called Vertex Soccer, he is making sure released players do not give up on their football dream.
“I help lads like myself who have been released from category 1 and 2 academies go to some of the top universities in America, where they can follow a path similar to mine.
“We’ve had some great lads come through, such at Mo Adams from Derby County who is now with the Chicago Fire.”
Clowes will be a busy man in 2019 but at only 25-years-old, he has plenty more to give back to US football after it put him on the path to a professional career himself.