Published: 06:00, 21 August 2020
At the age of 10, Tom Carlton was dreaming of playing for England.
He had been in Chelsea’s academy for four years, and played alongside future stars Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic.
But now, the 21-year-old struggles to watch his former teammates take to the field to face the likes of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, while he dons the blue of Herne Bay FC for appearances at Winch’s Field.
He said: “It’s hard, to be honest. It’s not because of jealousy or anything like that – fair play to them for making it that far – but it could have been me and that’s why it’s so hard to watch.”
A photograph of Tom standing with arm round Pulisic and Mount was shared online last week.
While the England and USA stars were immediately recognisable – despite the former’s face being framed by an enormous mop of hair – few knew who the ginger boy stood with them was.
With one arm wrapped around Pulisic and the other cradling a bottle of Lucozade, Tom towered over the pair.
“I woke up that morning and my phone had about 500 messages,” he said.
“I was pretty shocked. I didn’t even remember Pulisic being at Chelsea at the time until I saw the picture.
“Apparently, he was there on a 10-day trial and he obviously didn’t get signed at the time.”
The American was eventually bought by the London club for £58m from German side Borussia Dortmund nine years later.
Tom’s stint at Chelsea’s academy, which began when he was six, also coincided with that of future England star – and best friend – Declan Rice.
They were both released from the club at the same time when they were 14, before joining West Ham a fortnight later.
“It was hard to take,” he said. “It was heart-breaking.
“For a week after I was really upset; I didn’t go back to school for the next couple of days because my head was all over the place.
“But two or three days later my dad was receiving phone call after phone call from different clubs, like West Ham, Charlton, Millwall, Fulham, Birmingham, West Brom – a lot of clubs.”
Tom moved out of his parents’ home in Sittingbourne and moved into accommodation provided by his new team.
He based his life there for the next two year as he trained every day with other youngsters and went to school nearby.
But aged 16 the midfielder was again released.
“It was harder to take because I chucked my life away just for football, really,” he said.
“I didn’t see friends; I didn’t see anyone.
“After that, I was thinking, ‘I’ve done all that just to be released again’.
“I had an agent at the time and after having a chat with him, I thought I’d give it another go.”
Despite later signing a professional contract with Colchester, Tom moved to Herne Bay in 2017 to play semi-professionally for the club in the eighth tier of English football, the Isthmian League.
In between training twice a week for the non-league team, he works as a glazier.
“About last year, I wanted to quit football because I was down and depressed a lot,” said Tom, who has also played for Hythe .
“My girlfriend told me I can’t quit because I can still make it - I still have a chance.
“Until I’m at an age where I don’t think I can do it, I’ll still believe that I can make it into the Football League.”