Football's last-chance saloon
Mums and dads, looking ever so slightly lost, line up with their sons in a queue that snakes all the way out of the door. There is more casual wear on display than a high-street sports shop, while the odd diamond stud catches the light and sets of headphones sit on heads gently nodding to the music.
But none of this can mask the over-riding emotion. You can feel it; you can see it on people's faces. There are so many tense and nervous expressions that it resembles a hastily convened crisis meeting at the Bank of England.
It is the sort of atmosphere that makes me think of lining up to receive exam results, an unwanted trip to the doctors or possibly a visit from the law - but it none of these.
No, this is something akin to the last-chance saloon for more than 100 boys who are determined to realise their dreams of playing professional football.
It is the Football League exit trials.
The young footballers lining up to reach the registration desk are all different shapes and sizes, some are still waiting for a growth spurt, others have clearly been through that stage. The range of sculpted hairstyles amazes me and the youngsters certainly look the part. But these players are all united by at least one unwanted reality - they are being released by their clubs at the end of the season.
Not for them the two-year scholarship that would take them through to the age of 18 and, potentially at least, to the cusp of the professional ranks. Instead they are at Bisham Abbey on an early spring morning looking to resurrect their dream. The exit trials offer them the opportunity to show what they can do in a series of games watched by more scouts than attend a jamboree.
The trials are held every year in the February half-term and according to the Football League's head of youth development, former Wolves manager Graham Hawkins, they are becoming bigger and bigger every year.
Once upon a time the trials, which are almost a decade old, were only open to players attached to officially recognised academies but for the last three years those belonging to a club's centre of excellence have been eligible as well.
They take place over three days at Bisham Abbey, Lilleshall and, finally, Leeds, with about 100 boys attending each day. Every venue hosts four trial games, with the intention that all players have at least an hour to impress in his chosen position.
As I watched from the sidelines at Bisham Abbey the thought crossed my mind that it must be difficult to play in a team of complete strangers while trying to catch the eye of someone who might put you back on the path to your football dream.
There is no doubt that the trials are far from perfect. After registering at Bisham Abbey, the players were separated from their parents as they waited for the games to start. There simply wasn't enough space so the mums and dads wandered around the grounds or waited in the nearby café for the action to start.
The boys sat in the Warwick Room - double oak paneled with portraits of long-dead people looking down from the walls. It is often used for weddings so the sight of tracksuited boys sat around the edge and, after the seats ran out, on the floor, seemed incongruous with the surroundings. When I walked in the room virtually every face turned towards the door as they awaited news. Some had been there more than an hour. I felt like an intruder. I tried to chat with a couple of the players but it was awkward and difficult. I could not imagine many circumstances when a room full of teenage boys would be so quiet.
Next door the scouts had started to arrive. They came from all levels of the Football League but also from universities and private academies. Every scout I talked to thought the trials were a good idea. And each scout had different objectives and agendas.
David Regis, brother of Cyril and the head of education at Charlton, had brought down five of his youngsters that had been released. He wanted to make their sure they got there OK and to provide support and encouragement. For Regis, who himself did not enter the professional ranks until his mid-20s, telling young players that they will not be retained is the hardest part of his job and he wanted to do the best he could for those he had let go.
A youth coach from another Championship club said he attended every year but rarely picked up players. He went down the list of participants and looked at the clubs that had released them. Some but not many were leaving Premier League sides.
He thought they might be of interest but suggested that young boys at many Premier League clubs are snapped up by Football League sides are soon as word spreads around the grapevine that they have been released.
A few players at the exit trials were from Blue Square Premier or League Two outfits. He went down the list pointing them out and asking whether they would really improve what he had at a decent Championship side. I could see his point but nonetheless he was there once again on the off chance of discovering a rough diamond.
Yeovil chief scout Josh Stonell pointed out that football is all about opinions. "We are hearing all the time about players released from , say, Championship clubs who then get signed by Premier League sides."
Stonell was looking at players of the requisite ability rather than specific positions and was confident that even though Yeovil is a little out of the way it is an attractive proposition. Indeed, none of the players I spoke with had any reservations about travelling far and wide if they right offer came their way even though it would mean leaving home and living in digs.
As the games took place the scouts assembled along the touchlines, clipboards in hand. They seemed to congregate together, exchanging information, while the parents stood apart, looking on anxiously (though not all of them - I spotted one woman reading Horse & Hound).
Parents are often accused of being pushy and unrealistically ambitious for their children, screaming at referees from the touchline. I didn't see any of that at Bisham Abbey. Most of those I spoke to seemed more nervous than anything else, motivated by a desire related to their children's happiness rather than their own ambitions for them.
A representative of Crystal Palace, meanwhile, was looking at two or three positions. Northampton Town's head of youth Geoff Harrop was looking for a central defender. Had he seen any? "I have seen one or two but I'm not telling you who they are," was his reply. Harrop had picked players up from the exit trials before, such as current Cobblers youth team player Ben Judd.
Perhaps the most famous example of a player spotted at the exit trials is Watford's Theo Robinson. He had been released by Stoke but Watford took a chance. Robinson spent last season on loan at Hereford honing his skills and scored 16 goals as the Bulls won promotion from League Two.
Unfortunately there are no official stats available about how many players have been signed by a club after being spotted at an exit trial. However, Hawkins and the Football League's hardworking youth development business manager Jim Briden estimate that 55% of the players at last year's trials had contact with another club.
Some of the boys might attend all three days of the trials, which finish on Wednesday, while many scouts will attend at all the venues as well.
The trials cost around £15,000 to stage but I imagine that Hawkins, Briden and their team would try to put them on even if they cost a lot more. You can argue about the merits of youth systems and academy football, suggest that it is under-funded and not producing enough players, but the intention behind the exit trials must be applauded.
I got a real sense that, for the Football League's youth development team, the boys were not products or a commodity but young people who had to be cared and looked after. In an era when football is a wealthy global business, people can be reduced to statistics, but the exit trials are an example of football's human face. As Hawkins said to me with great sincerity: "The care and welfare of the players is paramount."
I imagine that for many boys the exit trials will be another step as they slip further away from their dream of playing professionally. But if just a handful of those at Bisham Abbey or Lilleshall or Leeds are picked up then it will all have been worth it.
For Jimmy Becque (Coventry), Grant Brown (West Ham) and Dawayne Campbell (Crystal Palace) - all of whom I spoke to on Monday - I hope you did enough to earn a scholarship.
And if it didn't work out, at least you had a go.