On Non-League Day, an annual celebration of this country’s thriving lower league scene, we speak to three young Chelsea goalkeepers currently enjoying loan spells in the sixth and seventh tiers of English football.
Set up in 2010, Non-League Day provides a platform for clubs to promote volunteer-led community football, while giving football fans across the country the chance to show support for their local non-league side. With no Chelsea men’s game this weekend, why not get your football fix elsewhere?
Eddie Beach, Teddy Sharman-Lowe and Max Merrick all made January loan moves to non-league clubs, so who better to hear from on what life is like playing at that level, why it’s such a good option for goalkeepers, and what fans can expect if they go along to a game…
It is often said goalkeepers are a special breed. Standing out from their team-mates with their gloves and different coloured shirts, the match action unfolding in front of them, their perspective on proceedings is unique.
Often, so are their career paths. Jamie Vardy’s journey from non-league to Premier League champion was well documented because of its rarity. Yet look at the England squad Gareth Southgate took to the World Cup in Qatar, and all three goalkeepers diverge from their international peers: Jordan Pickford, Aaron Ramsdale and Nick Pope each made their senior debuts in non-league football.
‘It gives me a lot of confidence that people I look up to, and are where I want to be in 10 years’ time, started out in non-league,’ says Eddie Beach, who is getting his first taste of senior football in the National League South with Chelmsford City. He joined the play-off chasing Clarets on loan in mid-January.
‘Keepers are expected to play for longer, and break through later. You don’t often see keepers breaking through at 17, 18, 19 or even 20 into Premier League or Championship first teams.
‘You have to go through a process of proving yourself in senior football before being given that chance. Every goalkeeper who has gone through an academy in England has proven you have to go out on loan.
‘And everyone has a different route. Nick Pope was in step four of non-league, he broke through really late. Other guys have done it different. Look at Edou Mendy’s story, taking time out. With goalkeeping it’s very intriguing because the journeys are in such contrast to outfielders.’
Beach knows experience is vital for a young goalkeeper, pointing out they can’t accrue minutes off the bench like their team-mates further upfield. To play, they have to start.
‘The big thing for me is getting them on the ladder,’ adds Ross Turnbull, once Petr Cech’s back-up and now a loan goalkeeper technical coach at Chelsea.
‘It’s about trying to find a game programme for all those goalkeepers in the system. Training is all good, but you learn more from games. If Eddie had stayed with us he would have played three or four games in that period, now he has played 14.
‘With them being part-time it allows him to train with us, too. That’s a plus. He still gets the level of coaching from us, but he gets a bigger games programme at Chelmsford, with bigger attendances, and more pressure in terms of winning games.’
Beach trains with the Chelsea senior team during the week, working alongside Kepa, Mendy and Marcus Bettinelli. On Tuesday (if not playing) and Thursday evenings, he heads east to Essex to link up with his Chelmsford team-mates. That experience alone is invaluable.
‘The players are semi-professional, and I now don’t take for granted going in every day and playing football as a day job. They work hard, nine until five in the day, and then rush straight to training. It seems really tough. I say ‘aren’t you shattered? I’ve done a big lower session yesterday and my legs are sore!’ Whereas they have done a whole day on a construction site or something.
‘A lot of them have done what I’ve done before. They’ve come through academies, played in the Football League, some in the Premier League. There are some top pros in the team. They end up getting a bit older and going down the leagues, and they just love the game so much. They have the passion.
‘It’s exactly what I want. You go from playing with some of the best players in the world to playing with lads who have been labouring all day. It keeps you grounded. You need that. I would like to say I’m humble. I would never act big time. But it’s important to keep you level-headed.’
Max Merrick is the youngest-ever Chelsea goalkeeper to leave on loan. He joined Hanwell Town, of the Southern League Premier Division South, in January, aged just 17 years and 81 days.
‘It was a bit of a culture shock when I first went there,’ he admits.
‘You’re in a men’s dressing room. You soon realise you have to apply yourself differently. They’re going to speak to you as an adult, and that has definitely helped me grow up a bit quicker.
‘With my first game the crowd was a bit of a shock. There must have been only about 20 people behind the goal and they were constantly shouting things at me, calling me every name under the sun, which was hard at first.
‘I’m the type of kid that enjoys those things, and takes it on the chin, but that first game was a shock. I was nervous when I got on the ball, but I use it in a positive way now. It helps me to play better because I’m not just constantly thinking about football.’
It is clear Merrick, who joined Chelsea as an Under-13, does think about football, and his game in particular, a lot. Like Beach, he picks out a couple of challenges non-league football poses him as a goalkeeper above all others: long kicking, and constant crosses.
‘In non-league you can improve aspects of your game that you can’t necessarily improve that quickly at a Premier League academy, for example,’ he notes.
‘One of my targets at Hanwell is to work on my longer-range kicking which I can’t do during Chelsea games because our philosophy is to play out from the back. In non-league the managers are happy for you to take minimal risks and kick longer.
‘Non-league is a lot more physical,’ adds Merrick.
‘In my first game I caught a cross and the opposition centre-back was trying to push me into my goal. When the ball is put in the box, every single player attacks it, which hinders your decision-making on when to go and when to stay. But it does get easier as you get used to it.
‘I feel like my game has already come on massively. My longer kicking has strengthened so much. Even things like crosses, knowing when to catch or punch, or when to come for the ball, has improved massively. Next season, when I come back and hopefully play a lot more games for Chelsea, I’m going to look like a different goalkeeper.’
Beach continues on that theme.
‘21s football is nice and tidy. Non-league is completely different in that sense. You have got muddy pitches, long balls, it’s big target men. I feel big normally [Beach stands at over 6ft 4in], but most strikers are bigger than me!
‘Having now played 14 games, I feel so much more confident in that sense. That’s why these loan moves are so good. They prepare you for the game. It’s a great place to get rid of your mistakes. I don’t want to make any, but I’m a young goalkeeper and it’s going to happen.
‘I’m really enjoying it. I think I have improved massively on the things I wanted to achieve. It has turned me into such a better goalkeeper already in the last eight weeks.’
Every goalkeeper’s journey is different, and Teddy Sharman-Lowe is no exception. He signed for Chelsea from Burton Albion aged 17, returned to the Brewers on loan and played three senior games, including a Carabao Cup tie against Aston Villa in which Jack Grealish and Ollie Watkins scored past him.
Back at Chelsea he featured regularly for our development squad and was even an unused substitute in our Carabao Cup win over Southampton last season.
After an injury-affected start to the current campaign, Sharman-Lowe joined Havant and Waterlooville on loan in January. Like Chelmsford, they are competing for a play-off berth in the National League South, the sixth tier of English football.
‘I’m loving it,’ enthuses Sharman-Lowe, who turns 20 next week.
‘It’s so good. It’s what I needed. I needed to get out and play. The games are fun, training’s fun. The dressing room is a lot more real life. I wanted to be in that men’s environment again.
‘I knew the level was still good. A lot of people look down on it because it’s called non-league, but the level of football is still really good.
‘There are a lot more decisions, a lot more crucial decisions and game-deciding moments which I’m learning about at the minute. You come into your own when you have to make senior decisions quickly, and a lot of them per game. You can’t replicate that in training. That’s why it’s crucial to get out and play and be put in those stressful situations.
‘If we get promoted, some of the players might not have to do their other job,’ he adds.
‘It means a lot to everyone at the club. I feel that good pressure, but responsibility to try and get in the play-offs and hopefully get promoted.’
Sharman-Lowe has now sampled the matchday experience in the Premier League, the Football League, and now non-league. So why should Chelsea fans without a game this weekend get down to watch their local non-league team?
‘It’s a very good day out for anyone,’ he starts.
‘My mum and dad love coming to the games. The atmosphere is good, you can hear what everyone is saying, you can hear what the players are talking about on the pitch which sometimes is of interest.
‘It really supports the clubs. Filling up the grounds as much as possible gives the clubs a boost, and the players a boost, and it’s a good day out.’
‘It’s something a fan of a bigger team should definitely experience,’ adds Beach, who won’t be playing today because he is on international duty with the Wales Under-21s.
‘You can have a connection with the players, it’s a proper occasion, a great day out, a few beers, the fans are so passionate.
‘It’s a real community. We get about 1200 at Chelmsford. You know all the people. When you’re warming up the fans will be chatting to you. You can have a relationship with the fans which is lovely. There is a guy and his little girl who come to every game, home and away, and they speak to me before the games. She’s goalkeeping mad, and it’s just a really nice touch.
‘It’s maybe a slightly different way of supporting a team. It’s not a bad thing to have both, and if you support your local team it makes a difference to them. And trust me, the fans make a difference when you’re playing on a Saturday or a Tuesday night. It’s amazing for us.’
To find out more about Non-League Day, click here. Their website includes a Match Finder section for games taking place near you.
Games within 10 miles of Stamford Bridge taking place this weekend include:
Kensington Dragons vs Stonewall FC
Dulwich Hamlet v Oxford City
Westside v Bagshot
Raynes Park Vale v Redhill
Pitshanger Dynamo v Clapton
Kingstonian v Haringey Borough
Bermondsey Town v Larkfield & New Hythe
Hanwell Town v Swindon Supermarine
Hendon v Hartley Wintney
Sporting Bengal United v May & Baker
Cricklewood Wanderers v Camden United
Lewisham Borough v Snodland Town
Croydon v Faversham Strike Force
Enfield Borough v Park View
Hampton & Richmond Borough v Farnborough
Corinthian Casuals v Wingate & Finchley
Harrow Borough v Gosport Borough
Metropolitan Police v Chesham United