Dulwich Hamlet striker Danny Mills hopes his experiences as a player can serve as a realistic example for young footballers.
The 28-year-old from Croydon had a somewhat unconventional route into the sport, joining Crawley aged 17 having never been in an academy.
Mills signed for Championship side Peterborough United a year later, an accelerated rise he was perhaps unprepared for.
“Football has never really been the be-all and end-all for me,” Mills said.
“The idea of playing professionally growing up was great, but did I believe it would happen? Probably not. I was just playing for fun.
“When I signed for Crawley, I had never been in that kind of structure. I came straight from park football.
“Everything accelerated so quickly. Before long I was in a car driven by Steve Evans and at the end of the journey I signed for a Championship club.
“Maybe that opportunity came too early, playing huge clubs like Newcastle and Middlesbrough. I was in awe of it all.”
Mills knows better than most how quickly fortunes can change. He had six loans at five different clubs during his three years as a Peterborough player.
Some young players might have been frustrated at the lack of stability, but was grateful for his chance – he had been in Sunday League football a few years earlier.
“Young players in Premier League clubs don’t know the realities for thousands of us in the real world of football,” Mills said.
“When I was at Peterborough, we had players come down from the Premier League and complain about how much of a shock it was to go one league down.
“As part of their education, I really think young players should go to non-league clubs for a month or two, away from the plush, shiny environments.
“People look at all my loan spells and think I was pulled from pillar to post, but I loved them.
“I came from humble beginnings in football, so to go on loan to League Two or the Conference was amazing for me. I made far more appearances than I would have done otherwise.
“The loans prepared me for non-league, even if I didn’t realise at the time that was where I would end up.”
Mills is keen to share his journey with the next generation of potential footballers.
He recently spoke to students at Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon after being approached by a Dulwich Hamlet fan who teaches there.
“I wanted to tell them the realities of the sports, the good and the bad,” Mills said. “I went from a high of being at a Championship club to a low three years later of playing in the reserves of a Ryman South team.
“The homes truths need to be shared – less than one per cent will make it to the Premier League and Match of the Day.
“Out of the class of 15 I spoke to, I told them maybe none of you will make it at the highest level – but there is a side to football away from the glitz and glamour.
“The consensus from them was if you don’t make it at an academy when you’re young, you’re finished. That’s not true.
“Look at Jamie Vardy and Dwight Gayle. There’s always a chance.
“If my career ended tomorrow, I’d have no regrets. Maybe most people haven’t heard of some of the teams I played for, but I woke up everyday happy. We’re not making life-changing money – but enough to live on, by doing what we love.
“My aim is to get into schools and clubs, maybe partner up with organisations like the PFA, and paint a realistic picture through my experiences.”
The striker joined Dulwich Hamlet in the summer on a two-year contract, but the offer of a more permanent structure did not fully appeal at first.
Mills still works part-time as a personal trainer at David Lloyd twice a week and at Hamlet has worked as assistant manager of their U18s – he has his UEFA B licence.
He said: “One of the things that attracted me to the club was being involved with the academy.
“I felt that if I was going to be with the club full-time, I wanted to invest time with the youth side as well as the first-team.
“I’d love to be here long-term. With the opportunities being presented to me I’d be stupid not to want to stay here in the future.
“I only started coaching a year ago, so everything is really new. It’s about dipping my toe in, learning off the coaches everyday.
“I’m now starting to develop my own philosophy, understanding how I’d like the game to be played.
“I know for sure I want to work in football once I retire, whatever capacity that may be.
“I’ve got coaches here at the club that can be great mentors for me if I decide to go in that direction.”
His time spent with the academy has been a fruitful experience, but Mills accepts it’s not been as happy a picture for the first team on the pitch – the National League South side are 16th in the league.
“If we’re being honest as a group, we’re underachieving at the moment,” Mills admitted.
“We all know we should be doing a lot better with the new set-up and the personnel we’ve brought in. We’ve won three games since August – that’s nowhere near good enough.
“But I’ve played at this level for a long time. Things can change at the drop of a hat. The league is very tight. If we can go on a run of four or five wins on the bounce we could find ourselves within touching distance of the play-offs. For now we need to be realistic and see where that leaves us in April.”
PICTURES BY KEITH GILLARD
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