‘I want to look back and say I enjoyed it’ - former Norwich City youth star Reece Hall-Johnson reflects on life as a professional
- Credit: Archant
Reece Hall-Johnson has come a long way from the days of kicking a ball around in the park as a child, a hobby that has become a way of life.
“I always enjoyed kicking a football around the house and I also grew up watching it. Steven Gerrard was my role model,” he said.
“Kids now play PlayStation or Xbox all the time whereas I grew up playing football in the park until it got dark and the streetlights went on. I don’t think I would be playing now if I didn’t play so much when I was younger.”
Reece, from Benwick, finds it hard to imagine a life without the game he loves having first joined his local team aged seven.
But it was from this point where the midfielder turned full-back, who would have considered studying at university had it not been for football, got a chance to shine.
“I was taking part in an after-school football training session held by a third-party company and the person holding the session was impressed by my skills and recommended me to a friend who worked for Cambridge United,” Reece said.
“He asked my parents if I wanted to come down and play for Cambridge. I joined Cambridge around eight, nine-years-old.
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“At that age, you don’t see it as a career, but I loved it because I was playing more football as my local team was only training and did not play many matches.”
His time at the U’s was cut short due to the academy closing, but Reece’s next move would perhaps be seen as the one he burst into the public eye.
Joining Norwich City’s academy aged 11 acted as another stepping-stone in the right direction, learning tricks of the trade from those around him proving important in his development.
“I had the privilege of being around a lot of very good players and just being around them every day teaches you a lot as a footballer and a person,” Reece said.
One of the highlights of Reece’s Canaries career was winning the FA Youth Cup in 2013, having sent his team to the showpiece with a decisive penalty against Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals.
But after making his senior debut in a League Cup tie with Crawley a year later, Reece, 25, was soon on the hunt for another club.
“Football is a very competitive world and you need to find a club that want you and you will play for them,” he said.
“If I didn’t play for any academies, it would have probably been harder for me to get into professional football.”
Realising some of the harsh realities of football proved a challenge for Reece, but he was soon able to try and achieve the aim of building his name at senior level.
After being released by Norwich in 2016, spells at non-league clubs Maidstone, Braintree and Bishop’s Stortford followed, but it was the Football League that gave him a platform to improve on.
“When I got released from Norwich, I had not played many first team games so I needed to find somewhere I could play first team football and get my name out there,” Reece admitted.
“Everyone says it’s a big jump, but I didn’t notice it.
“The biggest difference I found is that you are playing for points, money and people’s jobs so it means a lot more than academy football.”
An injury to one of Reece’s teammates gave him a chance for League Two outfit Grimsby Town in February 2018, and from then, the right-back has been able to adapt.
“I feel that I have adapted well, but the professional game is a tough place. Fans see it as a game, but it’s not to us players when you don’t win on a Saturday and it ruins the rest of your weekend thinking about it,” Reece said.
Apart from a short loan stint at Chester, Reece has remained playing in the top four tiers of English football, but after rejecting a new contract with the Mariners at the end of the 2019-20 season, there was an offer too good to turn down.
“Northampton is much closer to home and a very good club, so it was a no-brainer for me,” he said.
“I didn’t play as much as I would have liked to. I can’t complain as we got promoted to League One and we achieved the goal we set out at the start of the season.”
Despite making just seven appearances in all competitions since joining the Cobblers in June 2019, Reece was able to taste success.
Now without a club, that happiness may have soured slightly, but Reece is confident he can still raise the bar and make his mark.
“As a professional footballer, I want to play at the highest level I can possibly play at and win as many leagues as possible. But most importantly, I want to look back and say I enjoyed it,” he said.
“You never know as a player where your next club is going to be, but I’m sure I will find out soon.”