This week I caught up with Welling United striker Luke Saggers, to talk about his journey so far.
As we sat down to talk, the late September sun drenched the pitch at Welling United’s Park View Road. Luke stared out at the goal where back in March, he narrowly missed out on scoring on his debut against Woking. His eyes were filled with determination; a steely look crossed his face – the look of a man itching to prove himself to the footballing world. “That’s where I missed on my debut, scoring would have been a special moment for me”. With those words everything about this young footballer was exposed. He has been searching for that moment where he feels like he’s arrived in the sport he loves.
No-one has it easy these days, but 20 year old Luke Saggers’ path to the National League South has been fraught with false starts. Chances have come but slipped away, mostly through situational circumstance as opposed to simple rejection. Growing up around the Walworth Road, an area riddled with gang problems and poverty, Saggers found solace at Waterloo FC. The Southwark based club are intent on giving those from a disadvantaged background the chance to access sport, for Luke they would turn out to be his saviour.
Under the guidance of manager Arnie Reynolds, Saggers went from being an overweight 8 year old to a rapid centre forward, it’s a change that he acknowledges. “That club is why I am in this position. Arnie was so supportive, he had a big impact. He taught me a lot about football”. The environment Reynolds created at the Sunday league club meant that Luke could develop away from the social issues many kids from the area faced.
As he reached 15, Chelsea came calling and offered him a trial. “Arnie didn’t want me to go. I had anger issues and he didn’t think it was the right option for me”. The anger issues were the first signs of an internal battle going on with Luke. Not only was he in the midst of that difficult teenage angst, he was struggling with the pull of the gang culture brazenly on show on his local streets. “The family I come from, my mum and dad, didn’t have a lot of money. It’s easy to get dragged in to it (gangs), when you see the money, the cars stuff like that, if they’ve got that, I could get it. That’s how easy it is.” The poisoned apple was there, all he had to do was reach out and grab it. “A lot of people I knew were involved in that life. There’s a bad side about where I live, growing up there I don’t see nothing wrong with it because it’s normal to me. Other people think it’s a violent area, but if I hear about someone getting stabbed it’s just normal. So many people have died, it’s just part of life.”
It became more appealing when soon after the Chelsea experience; Southend United offered him a place. At 15 years old, with his family struggling for cash, he had to travel 4 times a week to Essex. “My dad took me a few times, but it fell away because we couldn’t afford it.” This started a period of self-reflection for Luke. “It knocked my confidence. When you’re young you’re told if you haven’t got a club by a certain age then it’s over, I believed it.” Not getting into Chelsea and being forced to turn away from Southend because of finances, Luke was faced with that easy option of getting into the gang life.
Thankfully for him, Waterloo FC was there once more. “Football pulled me away from the temptation. I was training three times a week so it kept me off the streets.” With his confidence in bits, his self-reflection made him realise he had to change something. He couldn’t affect his family’s finances, but he could do something about the anger issues which had concerned Arnie Reynolds so much. “I had to change that, I knew it would hold me back.” At that early age the level of introspection is impressive, more impressive was the acceptance it was all down to himself to change. “I didn’t have anger classes or anything like that, it was just down to me, something that within myself I had to sort out, I knew I had to change that side of me.”
After a few more years with Reynolds, Saggers left Waterloo FC and starting turning out for Thamesmead FC reserves, but his big break into the first team didn’t materialise. A move down to Maidstone United was next for Luke. A club rising back through the Non-League pyramid seemed the perfect fit for him, until the travel got in the way. The same problem that stopped his career at Southend, hampered his time with Maidstone.
As the 2015/16 season started, Saggers wasn’t going to give up on his dream. He joined Cray Valley’s reserves and soon made it into the first team. He was scoring, like he always had no matter where he was. Then came the call from Welling United. This brought a difficult choice, did he leave the Valley, who had given him his chance, or did he make the jump to a then National League side. “I felt I had to take the risk, going to Welling and getting in the first team would give my career a jump start”. He was told it wasn’t the right move by some, saying he wouldn’t develop, his answer to that showed maturity beyond his years. “I wanted to test myself. If I wasn’t good enough, I’d have lost nothing.”
He made the move, and was quickly sent on a short-term loan to East Grinstead Town, where he scored and got man of the match in his single game for the club. Dean Frost recalled him, and put him into the Wing’s first team squad. To give himself every chance of making it, Luke resigned from his day job, making the sacrifice to make sure he could be at every training session and commit fully to the club’s cause. After making his debut against Woking, excitement surrounded the striker, but a relegation battle and change in management meant he had to wait a little longer for minutes on the pitch. In the last game of the season, with the club needing a win against fellow relegation rivals Boreham Wood, Mark Goldberg brought Saggers on at half time. The match was already lost, there was no coming back from 3-0, but Luke did his best.
The future looked bright leading into this season. Goldberg, the Welling manager, had disposed of the entire Welling team and brought in around 26 new players, as they prepared for life in the National League South. Saggers was one of only three players to remain (now it’s down to two) from the previous seasons first team squad. This looked like his chance to make the number 9 shirt his own. Then disaster struck. He broke his metatarsal in his striking foot before pre-season training began. The injury has been another testing time in his short career, but Luke remains resilient, thanks in part to messages from fans he has received on social media. With his protective boot now off, he’s potentially a month or so away from full fitness and will hope he’ll be able to kick start his career once again.
Many young footballers these days are pampered; they have everything on a plate and don’t really understand what sacrifice means. Luke Saggers is different to that, he hasn’t risen up through an academy, instead he’s doing it the hard way and that’s something he’s proud of. He cited players like Jamie Vardy and Charlie Austin as role models, people he looked up to. In turn he wants to inspire others. He wants children in the future to look at his story and use it as motivation.
Luke’s experienced an eventful few years in his early life as he’s tried to make it. The easy option to turn to crime was there, but despite coming from a family struggling financially he was strong enough, with support, to turn away. Unlike some of his age involved in the sport, there is no arrogance, no sense of self-worth. Instead I met a humble and focused man, a person who studies the game and a man who truly understands what a footballer should be – that it’s about being a role model, setting that example. He may have missed the chance to score on his debut, missing out on that ‘special moment’, but his determination will mean he’ll finally have that moment he’s searching for.