Journeyman desperate to settle down
Frank Nouble has heard them all. "More clubs than Tiger Woods", "more clubs than Peter Stringfellow" . . . And although he rolls his eyes, he admits he cannot disclaim their validity. "Well, they're true aren't they?" he says. "I'm 26 and I'm at my 17th team. When people ask me, I'm not even too sure of the order."
Indeed, the Londoner has to pause before answering where he was before Newport County. "Ermm, Southend," he says, before apologising. "I shouldn't forget that. I made five appearances."
Nouble has a ready wit, a sense of humour this journeyman of all journeymen has probably required in his remarkable odyssey from Chelsea to Gwent via Beijing.
At lunchtime today, he will lead the line for Newport against Leeds United at Rodney Parade and as the FA Cup third-round tie is being televised, he expects his name to be widely recognised. "Loads of fans will think, 'Frank Nouble', didn't he used to play for us?" he says. "They'll all be correct as well." Yet scratch this ultra-positive surface and there is despondency for young English footballers. They are still being mistreated, he claims.
Nouble is not the worst judge of the system. At 13 he signed forms for Chelsea and was soon appearing in the older age groups. "At 16 I was regularly training with the senior side - [Frank] Lampard, [John] Terry, [Claude] Makelele, [Nicolas] Anelka . . . all the names," he recalls. "But I could see the way it was going. There were kids like me such as Scott Sinclair and Michael Mancienne and, although they got the odd opportunity, there was no real chance of breaking through. At 17, Chelsea offered me a professional contract, but West Ham came in and I left straight away."
Nouble enjoyed his time at Upton Park. Initially. "It was a great first year. [Gianfranco] Zola was there and was a great man-manager. I remember playing in the FA Cup against Arsenal. It was my first start and when I went off in the 79th minute we were 1-0 up. We lost 2-1. It was how that season was and soon Zola came under pressure and I was shipped out on a series of loans - seven, I think, in total.
"That's what happens with 'promising' youngsters, isn't it? They drop down to where they're supposed to 'learn' and prove their worth. But the reality is, you've been playing this type of style and then you are chucked into club with a different style and there's absolutely no time to settle. Every time I came back to West Ham there was a new manager. Three in a year or something. The last for me was Big Sam [Allardyce] and we were in the Championship. I played a couple of games, but he told me I could go to Wolves, if I wanted."
Nouble recognises the chance was there at Molineux, just as it was at Ipswich a few years later. For varying reasons it did not happen and after a loan became a contract and then another rejection at Coventry, he found himself released at the end of the 2014-15 season. It was here where his story took an almost surreal turn.
"My phone rang and it was 'How d'you fancy China?' It was before the real big money was being chucked around. My partner was pregnant and went home to have the baby but it was going OK [at Tianjin Quanjian]. I was scoring and popular. But then the usual thing happened - the management was changed, Fabio Cannavaro came in, started signing all these Brazilians and I was loaned to another club, who I never even got to play for."
Then, to Gillingham, then to Southend, now to Newport in League Two. Is this the one? "I hope so, because you could say it's been a journey," he said. "I just want to put down a few roots at a club which has full confidence in my game. In my 10 seasons, I've only once had a full one [at Ipswich] and you can't expect to progress like that.
"I'm still young enough, hungry enough and I do feel blessed. Some of my mates can't be bothered to get up for training because things haven't gone their way. People think they're lazy, but the game here can grind you down. There's so much money in it now, so much pressure, I don't see it altering any time soon. That's OK, though. You just have to do it the hard way. In football, you can never give up."