Revealed: What it is like to have your heart broken by Liverpool
Hammers defender tells Jeremy Wilson he had a tough route to the top after being released from Anfield at just 15
Published 09/11/2016 | 02:30
Amid a career that has taken him from Liverpool and now to England via the parks of Merseyside and three tiers of the professional game, Aaron Cresswell could hardly have been doing anything more appropriate on the day he won his first call-up to the national squad.
In temperatures that were touching freezing - and having shared a lift after training to West Ham United's academy base in a club official's Fiat 500 - he spent Monday visiting a group of teenagers on the club's Second Chance programme.
It provides full-time education and football to locals aged 16 to 18 who did not get the opportunity previously to fulfil their potential. Cresswell has taken a particular interest in their progress and, when he addressed this group of wide-eyed hopefuls, the connection was soon obvious. Yes, four hours later, he would be driven up to join the rest of the England squad but, as Cresswell explained over a mug of tea, he has been hardened on the route to the Premier League by past knock-backs.
The biggest, at the age of 15, was being released by Liverpool; the club he had grown up watching at Anfield with his family. That last journey home from the Liverpool academy remains a vivid memory. "My dad told me in the car," says Cresswell. "I couldn't get my head around it at first. They pull the parents to one side and tell them, 'It's not to be but it's not the end'. I was devastated.
"As a kid, you are in a bubble of playing for Liverpool. It was all I had done for two years and I had enjoyed it so much. It wasn't about a job, or thinking, 'I won't make it'. It was about playing for the club I supported. Everyone around me was a Liverpool fan. It was just purely for the love of football."
What happened next was instructive. Having grown up playing on the streets of Halewood with his schoolfriends, Cresswell simply went from Liverpool FC to the Sunday league team he had played for previously at Wood Lane. "My dad said, 'It is not the end of the world. Go back with your mates. Just play with a smile on your face and enjoy it'. That's what I did. I went back with the lads."
Within a few months, Cresswell was spotted by a scout at Tranmere Rovers, where two coaches became especially influential. Robbie Johnson had the idea to convert Cresswell from a central midfielder to a left-back, while Shaun Garnett helped to instil a toughness that still belies his slight physique.
"You ask any of the lower-league clubs and it's all about discipline," says Cresswell. "I think that is why, when you see the young kids getting released from the big clubs, they don't realise how hard it is to go into the lower leagues. It doesn't get easier.
"It's not like U-21 football where you are passing it around the back. You get some - I don't quite know how to put it - physical, old, bald-headed centre-halves who want to just head you and kick you. If you go in there as a young kid, and try to take the mickey, they will soon boot you up in the air or go right through the back of you.
"The kids that go there have never seen anything like it. You don't get your kit cleaned. You have to do things for yourself. Time has moved on and football has changed but, when I was younger, I used to clean the changing rooms, wash the players' boots every day. It shows a bit of respect to the senior players and gives you a grounding. When you come to train with them, you feel like it's a privilege. I wouldn't have had it any other way."
Cresswell would spend three years in League One with Tranmere before moving to Ipswich Town, where he played another three seasons in the Championship.
This is now his third season in the Premier League with West Ham, where he was Hammer of the Year and Players' Player of the Year in 2015. It has, then, taken more than eight years and 300 professional games to receive England recognition. Of those other players in Cresswell's academy year at Liverpool who were kept on, Cresswell can think only of Martin Kelly, now at Crystal Palace, who became a Premier League player.
"If it was my kid, I would always advise them to go on loan," he says. "The lads you are playing with are on nowhere near as much as those in the Premier League; they have got a mortgage to pay, bills to pay and the win bonuses add up. It really means something rather than the kids playing U-21 football.
"When you see the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City and Man United, there are not many English players coming through. It gets tougher every year, with clubs going scouting around the world (for players). "
With Cresswell having already outlined how "proud" he would be to play for England, the call from Gareth Southgate was to come shortly after he was met at the academy training ground by his girlfriend, Jess. "I can't wait to be part of it," he says. "I just want to enjoy the experience and do my best in training and, if I can do that, then I hope I can achieve my dream of pulling on an England shirt." (© Daily Telegraph, London)