Sam Wood may have eventually been plucked from non-league by Brentford, but as he recounts the story of his first chance to make it in professional football, there’s a smile on his face.
Having been part of the first team squad at local club Cray Wanderers in Sidcup, Kent after leaving school, at 17-years-old his blossoming talent was spotted by Dagenham & Redbridge – then in the Conference as they plotted their route up the footballing pyramid – who subsequently offered him a trial.
With a full pre-season under his belt, it was only a matter of time before Sam was offered a deal at Victoria Road ahead of the new season, but though a minor breakdown in contract negotiations cast out any plans of a transfer, positive news was on its way.Embed from Getty Images
“I asked Dagenham for an extra tenner as I used to have to go over the Dartford Crossing,” he says. “At the time, I think it cost about £2 per day, but they said they couldn’t do it and so I didn’t end up signing there!
“On the Saturday I went straight back to Cray and we played against Bromley in a pre-season friendly. Where I’d done a full pre-season on a full-time basis with Dagenham, I played really well and then I had a call that night from Bromley.
“Basically, their manager at the time phoned me up asking if I’d signed for Cray and I told him that I hadn’t. He told me that he wanted to sign me and that they had a game on the Tuesday, I could play in the game and then sign. That was it, really.
“I spent three years there, played 159 games and then in the last year, my current manager Neil Smith was player-coach. He left to get the job at Grays Athletic because they were Conference and I played a game there because he wanted to sign me, but then I got a call saying that Brentford were interested.”Embed from Getty Images
As it’s often said, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and in this case, the son of Sam’s agent just so happened to be friends with the son of Andy Scott. A conversation between the pair spawned a trial at Jersey Road and though his hectic description of what followed might induce anxiety among some, it’s the Roy of the Rovers-type journey every youngster dreams of.
He explains: “In my agent, myself and Andy had a mutual friend. I got to know him and he knew what I was all about. I was an honest player, I didn’t have any tricks, I wasn’t flashy or anything like that, I was just willing to work hard and that’s why I think he brought me into the side, to work hard, be honest and try to grind results out. After just staying up the season before, he probably thought I was the kind of player he needed to strengthen the side.
“But at the start, I literally had no training before a behind closed doors friendly against Fulham – I turned up at Fulham’s training ground not knowing anyone at all. I met the lads in the changing room, played the game, did really well and then Andy asked me to come in for training. By this time, when I signed for Bromley, I went and got a job at Bluewater as a Christmas temp. I was working for USC and I used to do a few adverts on the side for Nike, Adidas and stuff like that. So I was doing three jobs at the time the Brentford opportunity came up.Embed from Getty Images
“They asked me for a week’s training and then asked if I could come in the following week, too. I said I couldn’t because I needed to go back to work to get some money first, so I did a week’s work and then went back again for another week. It went really well and this was near the end of the season, so when they said they wanted to sign me, I ended up signing at the Big Red Ball!
“When I signed that weekend, the lads were going on an end of year trip – I think it was to Marbella for a couple of days – and one of the lads had dropped out that night, so I was told there was a spare seat if I wanted it. I signed on the night, met everyone and then spent most of the night on the phone to my dad trying to sort out a flight. We managed to get it sorted out and I spent a few days with the lads, which was a great way to settle into the group.”
And settle in he did. The transition into full-time football wasn’t an issue for Sam who was, by his own admission, “already playing football literally every night of the week,” though a run in the first team took a little while to manifest; following his debut on the opening day of the 2008/09 season – his 22nd birthday – against Bury away, it wasn’t until a 1-1 draw at home to Lincoln on 20 September he returned to the matchday squad, following an ankle injury.
Almost instantaneously there were glimpses of the player Brentford fans grew to know and love over the years, with his energy and tenacity down the left-hand side an ideal complement to left-back Ryan Dickson. Thus, his emergence saw Glenn Poole’s chances limited, but Sam – who turns 33 in August – quashes any talks of subsequent friction between the pair.Embed from Getty Images
“I’d always been a left-sided player – wing-back, winger, left-back – at Bromley and Cray,” he continues. “But after being injured and coming back into the side, the gaffer was throwing me on left-midfield because of my work rate when teams are tired, basically to run around and cause a bit of havoc and it seemed to pay off. It happened for a few games for a few weeks and then the gaffer decided to start me on the left wing and it just went from there, really.
“Regarding Pooley, there was not one talk or anything like that – nothing at all. Pooley is a great lad and we got on great but that’s just football and everyone has competition for places. Down the left side it was just me, Dicko [Ryan Dickson] and Pooley taking up the positions.
“It was a good way to have it because we all got on and everyone was just playing for their positions – it’s not anyone’s fault, it’s up to the gaffer and that’s why he’s the one to choose. I didn’t have one falling out with Pooley or Dicko – nothing like that.”
Sam’s battling nature earned him rave reviews and he continued the tireless efforts that had seen him make well over 200 appearances before his move into the professional game, appearing 43 times in his debut season at Griffin Park and scoring his maiden Football League goal in a 2-0 win over Exeter three days after Christmas 2008.Embed from Getty Images
Upon joining the club, he says he hadn’t been expecting to go on and win the league and he reveals that even up until the penultimate weekend, when the Bees beat Darlington away from home, neither was anyone else – needless to say, there were makeshift celebrations…
“If we got a win I think we got promoted because the top three go up automatically from League Two and I think there were talks that if we won and Wycombe lost then we’d be champions, but we thought Wycombe wouldn’t lose to Notts County and they’d nick a draw. We ended up winning and there were whispers that Wycombe were losing and we were just thinking, “What is going on here?!”
“We found out they had lost and it was just a weird feeling; we didn’t think that we’d be champions at the end of that game and it would all come down to the final day. Just to get the win and then realise that we were champions was the craziest feeling, especially for me coming into that in my first year and being a League Two champion.
“I don’t really remember much about that because it was just a blur, but I remember celebrating on the pitch with the lads, celebrating with the fans who’d travelled up that day, celebrating in the changing room with Powerade and Lucozade going everywhere – I don’t think we even had champagne or anything like that because we didn’t expect it!Embed from Getty Images
“It was pretty mad to be fair. I couldn’t really believe it and it felt like a little bit of a dream, really – finishing my first season in professional football with a medal around my neck as a champion. Lifting the trophy on the final day with all the fans being there and the lap of honour, it was just one day I probably won’t ever forget in my footballing career, probably my life, really. Not many people will get to do that in their lifetime.”
As many people know, having previously juggled three jobs, Sam is a versatile character off the pitch. But in his second year in TW8, he was required to display his versatility on it in order to continue his development. Former England U19 winger Myles Weston was brought in from Notts County, with Sam often shunted out to the right-wing or left-back to accommodate the pair, yet he still ended the season with 48 appearances to his name.
From there, Sam struggled to hold down a regular starting spot. At the start of the 2010/11 season, he was included in the lineup in just three games in the opening two months, yet there was perhaps the highlight of his Brentford career to come, in spite of the hardship.
Andy Scott’s men had already seen off Cheltenham, Hull and Everton in the League Cup, earning them a fourth round tie against eventual winners Birmingham at St Andrew’s and Sam netted a sublime volley to fire the Bees into an unlikely lead against the then-Premier League outfit. Kevin Phillips, though, buried a stoppage-time equaliser to force the game to extra time and the eventual penalty shootout victory for the Blues.Embed from Getty Images
“I still talk about that now,” grins Sam. “Some of my family travelled up that day but I didn’t think I was going to be playing. I thought that if I did get onto the pitch it was going to be tough against a Premier League side. As the game went on it was tough, but when Westy crossed the ball in, I think Charlie MacDonald headed it back and luckily enough, I was on the right and it just fell onto my left foot and I just thought: “I’m going to hit this – what’s the worst that could happen?”
“It went in and I just couldn’t believe it, especially with it being in front of the Brentford fans at that end as well. It felt unbelievable to celebrate that. We lost on penalties but for who we were playing against, it was a fantastic night.
Uwe Rosler was installed at the helm as Andy’s replacement the following year and the German’s appointment, coupled with the Football League’s unfortunately timed decision to revert to a five-man substitutes bench, rather than seven. As the 2011/12 season got underway, the three starts in the first two months from the previous campaign became three in the first four months; Sam needed a route away from London and a familiar face provided him with a lifeline – initially, at least.
“I got on with Rosler fine, but I knew I wasn’t going to get as many opportunities. Maybe if we had the seven subs I’d have made the bench more often and then coming on I might have been able to prove something, but as it went, it was five subs so I ended up out of the squad.Embed from Getty Images
“That was frustrating so I simply went and said to him, in about November, that I was in the last year of my contract and I needed to be playing. I wasn’t getting game time so was there a chance that maybe I could go and get some game time until January and see where we go from there. He said that wouldn’t be a problem, so I went straight to my agent and that’s when Andy Scott and Rotherham came in.
“With Rosler there were no hard feelings and he didn’t treat me badly, I just couldn’t make the squad, so for my best interests I asked to go and get some games. I went to Rotherham until December or January and then they wanted to extend it to the end of the season. I stayed there and then left Andy left and Steve Evans came in. He said he wasn’t going to try and sign me for next season so I could go home – this is about 10 days before the end of the season. I was in the hotel up there, I packed all my stuff, went home on the Thursday and that was it.”
Not only was that the end of his short spell at the New York Stadium, the end of the season marked the end of his career in a Brentford shirt, with the club opting not to extend his contract into a fifth season. Around that time, Wycombe Wanderers had become an unofficial affiliate for both former Brentford players and Bees youth prospects and Adams Park was the next stop for Sam.Embed from Getty Images
Take a look at the Chairboys’ starting lineup from the 2014/15 League Two play-off final and it’s there for all to see; Marcus Bean, Alfie Mawson, Aaron Pierre, Nico Yennaris, Sam Wood, Sam Saunders, Paul Hayes and, for good measure, a certain Daniel Bentley started between the sticks for Southend. The tie was settled via a penalty shootout, with Bentley, coincidentally, making the crucial, match-winning save to deny Sam from the spot.
He describes his feeling after the Wembley drama as one of disappointment, but adds that he’s “one of those people who doesn’t take football too seriously. Yet what he is taking seriously is a promotion push to League Two next season with National League side Bromley, who he re-joined on a two-year deal from Eastleigh in August.Embed from Getty Images
“I’m loving it down there, it’s fantastic,” he says with a beaming smile and unmistakeable delight. “The manager now is Neil Smith who tried to get me when he went to Grays 10 years ago and I’m loving being back down there. Eastleigh was good, but it was just too far and I was getting the train down there; I was getting up and half-five in the morning and I know people do that for getting to work anyway, but then I was having to train and then getting home at 4/5pm. Compare that to normal footballers who are getting up at 8/9, getting in for training and they are home by 12/1. It was just taking its toll on me and I’m a little bit older now.
“Andy Hessenthaler – my former manager there – is from Maidstone himself and could fully understand what was happening, so we had a talk and Bromley were interested so he told me to go and do what I needed to do. Funnily enough, my last game for Eastleigh was coming on against Bromley.
“I’m loving it down there, there’s a great set of lads, we’re all gelling together. I’ve got next year as well so I’m looking forward to that. I think we’ll finish in the top 10 this year, but the gaffer is already saying that he wants play-offs next year as a minimum.Embed from Getty Images
“At my age I don’t think a league club would come in for me, but I feel that with the team we’ve got at Bromley, we could get there without a shadow of a doubt, so that’s my plan. It’s where I started so to get them back into league football would be massive. They are having a new stand built at the moment so the club is on the up and it’s a fantastic place to be.”
Sam may be starting to approach the twilight of his career, but he’s got unfinished business to attend to at Hayes Lane.