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That time of the year many players dread

Gavin Strachan | 09:00 UK time, Thursday, 26 March 2009

Hi, I hope you're all well.

This can be a very cruel time of the season for a lot of players. It is a time when clubs are starting to make decisions on which players will be released and who will be retained.

For young players in particular, the disappointment of being told that they will be in the former category can cause them to turn their backs on football.

mackail-smith595.jpgIf any of these lads are in need of inspiration, then they need look no further than a trio of my former Peterborough United team-mates - George Boyd, Aaron Mclean and Craig Mackail-Smith (pictured above). All three were released from Football League clubs at a young age. However, rather than consign themselves to a lifetime of bitterness and hard luck tales, they worked hard at their game and paved the way for a return to League football with Peterborough by excelling at non-league level.

When I was at Peterborough, Craig Mackail-Smith, in particular, struck me as being one of the hardest workers I have ever come across. He himself might admit that he is not as technically gifted as other players. However, he has worked hard at every aspect of his game - physical, technical and even mental - in order to establish himself as a league player.

This level of determination and his refusal to let the disappointment of being released get the better of him has certainly earned my admiration and with Peterborough seemingly heading for Championship status, I am sure that he will continue to get the success that all his commitment deserves.

It just goes to show that it is not always the most talented players who make a career in the game. On a lot of occasions it is the guys who can handle adversity and come back stronger who are the ones who go on to make a living from football.

During my time at Hartlepool United we had many talented youngsters who for whatever reason got released from the club. My advice to the ones who I genuinely thought had a chance of forging a career was to go on trial to as many clubs as possible, so they could at least say they have given it their best shot and avoid having regrets of not doing so in later life.

There is one common aspect that links the three Peterborough players and also for that matter the majority of players who make the switch from non- league. They are all goal scorers, or in George Boyd's case, a very special creator of goals. No matter what level you play at, if you have a habit of sticking the ball in the back of the net, clubs will take notice.

In the past, I have tended to take no more than a passing interest in non-league football, but as a 30-year-old League Two player, have now reached a stage in my career where this has begun to change.

Don't get me wrong, I am not throwing in the towel on my League career just yet. I am still convinced that as long as I can stay fit I can be a valuable asset at League Two level for a few years yet. Especially as I now consider myself to be a master in the lower league art form of "hooking it on", which is basically a midfielder smashing a bouncing ball as far as he can up field. However, the time when I will be forced to think about going into non-league football is obviously getting closer.

What has become clear to me as a result of speaking to friends involved in the non-league scene, is that dropping out of League football does have its advantages.

I have lost count the number of times colleagues have told me of obscure non-league outfits offering ridiculous amounts of money for players. Unfortunately, footballers do have a habit of exaggerating stories, and I have learned to take these tales with a pinch of salt!

However, there is no doubt that there is a decent living to be made in the non- league game, especially if you are combining it with the income from another job. In that respect, I know of some non-league players who have turned down offers by League clubs, not only for financial reasons but also because they enjoy having the balance of two occupations and not being quite so much at the mercy of the many uncontrollable facets of being a professional footballer.

When I play against non-league teams, it never ceases to amaze me just how many names I recognise. With the credit crunch beginning to have an affect on the squad sizes of league clubs, there will no doubt be many more familiar faces plying their trade at non-league level in the near future.

In terms of the quality of football, the gap between League Two and the Blue Square Premier is negligible. The biggest difference is possibly fitness, but I have to concede this was not apparent when Kettering Town, Notts County's FA Cup second round opponents this season, took us to a replay and knocked us out of the competition. The vast majority of that Kettering team had bags of League experience, which meant that for all intents and purposes it was like watching a League Two game.
The Blue Square Premier, in particular. is receiving a lot more exposure, thanks to their TV deal with Setanta. There are some big clubs with matching fan bases in this league, like Oxford United and Wrexham, who are desperate to regain League status.

A good friend of mine, the ex-Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers defender John Curtis (pictured right), has just signed with Wrexham until the end of the season and I know he is very enthusiastic about the set-up there. We actually had a chat about it last week when his car pulled up alongside mine in a traffic jam on the A6006 near Nottingham, as we were travelling to our respective clubs for training, and it was interesting to note how upbeat he is about this new phase in his career.

It was another reminder that professional footballers genuinely love playing the game, irrespective of the level they do so. That is certainly the case with me.


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