Luke Coulson is a professional footballer, currently playing in the National League for Ebbsfleet United, and an occasional writer for talkSPORT. While England players have been accused of lacking pride, Luke insists that is not the case at non-league level and tells of his experience of being selected for the England C team…
I stood poised and composed with one boot slightly in front of the other. The whistle of the referee broke the tense silence as I bent the free kick over the wall and into the goal, leaving the goalkeeper helpless. The crowd erupted as I sprinted to the corner flag to celebrate scoring for England.
I can vividly remember that moment, except the wall was a row of plants, the fence was without a goalkeeper, and I celebrated with the empty washing line. However, recreating that famous David Beckham free-kick against Greece at Old Trafford wasn’t the closest I came to representing the Three Lions.
While playing for Eastleigh in October 2016, I was selected for the England C squad to face Estonia U23s in Tallinn. Created in 1979, the England C team is made up of the best non-league footballers aged 23 and under. The players of the England C team may not grace the pitch at Wembley or feel the pressure of the nation watching their every step but the pride of playing for England, at any level, remains the same and it was an honour to be selected.
In preparation for the match against Estonia, I attended a three-day training camp later that month to meet the manager, Paul Fairclough, the staff and my temporary international teammates. On the day of the training camp, I reported to the Eastleigh stadium as a black Mercedes pulled up to chauffeur me to the training camp in Warwick – quite the difference from the usual bus journey with all the lads.
Ebbsfleet United’s Luke Coulson in training with the England C squad
On arrival, I was greeted at the door, given a tracksuit and a full training kit before being shown to my room. The following few days were spent learning about the tactical ways of the manager and implementing them on the training field. However, the time off the field was just as important as we started to learn about the players around us and slowly became a team.
Each evening after dinner, we reported for a team meeting as the manager gave us team bonding exercises to complete. The first meeting was the most dreaded as each player was asked to stand up and describe their football journey to date. However, I found those moments the most intriguing as I learnt that I was surrounded by some players that had experienced very different journeys to my own [read more on my up-and-down career in football here] and some who had suffered similar rejection throughout their careers.
Playing for England C allows you to perform on a stage that constantly attracts the eyes of the Football League and, of the sixteen players that were selected for that camp, nine of the players now play in the Football League and have proven their potential. Ethan Pinnock, Sean Raggett, Jordan Williams, Oliver Hawkins are just some of those to have got their chance to move up the ladder, while George Boyd and Sam Clucas are among a number of former England C players who have gone on to play at the highest level.
George Boyd played for the England C team before going on to represent Scotland at international level
Despite attending the training camp, I never got the chance to have my own Beckham moment for England due to an FA Cup replay for Eastleigh, which proved to be an unforgettable match that we won 3-0 against League One side Swindon.
This year, two of my new teammates at Ebbsfleet United, Jack Powell and Darren McQueen, have been given the chance of representing their country and will no doubt catch the eye. They have both been announced in the upcoming England C squad to play against Slovakia in the International Challenge Trophy Final. Set-piece specialist Powell and the lightning-quick McQueen have consistently performed well this season and thoroughly deserve their call-ups.
As Russia and the World Cup beckons, the passion and pride of the England players is once more unfairly scrutinised. A few lacklustre and disappointing performances throughout the qualification stages do not equate to a lack of pride. However, regardless of the questioning of the first team, it undoubtedly means the world to non-league players to represent the England C team.