MANY an aspiring career has been forged – or floundered – in the tough, unforgiving arena of non-league football.Talking the talk and looking the part in the cossetted environment of leading football academies is one thing, but hands-on muck-and-nettles experience is quite another.Part of football’s learning curve is for managers and coaches to regularly send out young players to grassroots clubs to get some “wool on their backs” and it has often turned many into men.Not 18 until September, United newcomer Monty Gimpel is at the very start of his footballing odyssey and as academy boss Neil Redfearn sagely suggests, still has plenty to learn.But the signs are certainly promising with the teenager seeming to have a shrewd head on young shoulders.Alerted to the attention of Tooting boss Mark Beard last summer, while he was helping out with coaching at Ardingly College, German-born Gimpel – currently completing A levels – elected to continue his footballing education and sat on his own two feet in the Ryman League, alongside his scholastic studies.The progress of tall centre-half Gimpel – who won the Independent Schools Under-16s player of the yard award last season – soon came under the radar of several clubs, including United.And after sensibly concentrating on his education, Gimpel will focus on his burgeoning football career at United next term, having agreed a one-year professional deal.
United Under-18s coach Redfearn, who took a look at Gimpel in a handful of under-18s games in the second half of last term, said: “It was (chief scout) Mervyn Day who alerted us to him and he’d heard about him on the circuit.
“He’d actually been playing for Tooting and Mitcham’s first team, on and off, in non-league and for someone so young, it was quite a big thing.
“Even though the standard is not great, it’s still semi-pro and a tough and competitive environment, particularly in the position he plays at centre-back.
“It’s important he can handle the rough and tumble side of it.
“But we got him up and he trained with us. We knew there was a little bit of interest from other clubs, but we managed to play him in a couple of games and I think the first one we played him in was the Scunthorpe away game in the FA Youth Cup.
“He just looked really at home and didn’t look flustered and technically, he was quite good as a centre-back.
“He’s a good physique and is going to be 6ft 1in or 6ft 2in or something. But he’s still a lot of developing to go on and is right at the beginning of his learning process.
“Obviously as a centre-half in such a key position, he’s got to learn pretty quickly. But he’s an intelligent boy who loves the game with a really disciplined mentality and hopefully, we’ve got something of a prospect on our hands.”
United’s production line of young talent came in for sharp criticism in the not-so-distant past, but the signs are things are being to change in a positive direction.
Along with the signing of Gimpel, United also have high hopes for young keeper Alex Cairns, 18, who has penned his first 12-month pro deal with the option of another year, while the Turner twins – midfielder Nathan and defender Lewis – also earned rave reviews last term – also signing professional forms for next term.
Former Everton youngster Zac Thompson is another to sign up – with second-year scholars Sanchez Payne and Joe McCann having previously agreed deals – with United’s young guns ultimately coming of age after a wretched start to last season, when they had to wait until early November for their first win in the FA Academy Group D.
Out of adversity came strength, with last season’s under-18s side beaten just four times in the league from November, while also reaching the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup before bowing out to a strong Aston Villa side in their fifth-round clash.
Redfearn added: “If you think back, in the first 10 games, the side just took something like a point in the youth league.
“Then, in the next 18, we took something like 34, which is top-three form.
“We also had a decent little run in the youth cup got knocked out by last season’s finalists in Villa, so there was no shame in that.
“The fact we had a cup run and our Premier Youth League form turned around made people sit up and look. They have got to take great credit from the transformation. And to get four (professional deals) out of the back of it is brilliant.
“The improvement was there to see and the results were a reflection of that. But the most important thing is individual performances.
“To be fair, attitudes have been the key with Cairns, the Turner brothers and Zac Thompson. That’s the overriding thing.
“The Turner brothers are a really blank canvas and they want to learn and have got ability, no two ways about that.
“But they have a desire and are fantastic to work with and coach.
“You can always tell; with good players, you only have to tell them things once.
“The ones who learn quickly and take things on board are the ones who progress.
“But they have all only got one foot on the rung of the ladder and there’s a lot more learning to go on.
“Now, it’s making the transition from the protective environment of an academy system perhaps to the cut and thrust of the professional environment and working with the first-team players. It’s a big jump.
“This summer, it’s important they get their rest. They have had a tough season, particularly the kids who were playing in a lot of reserve-team fixtures at the end of the season as well.
“It was great for them, but often they were playing Saturday-Tuesday, Saturday-Tuesday, so they need time to recover as well.”