By Matt Badcock
From Preston to Jamie Vardy’s V9 Academy via Bamber Bridge, Congleton, Ramsbottom and now Darlington – Josh Heaton jokes a book could be written about his journey so far.
The 21-year-old defender is working hard at the Quakers to pen the next instalment and his performances have caught the eye.
It’s earned him a selection – alongside team-mates Joe Wheatley and Luke Trotman – as one of 42 players who will attend the week-long training camp at Manchester City’s Etihad complex in June.
Leicester City and England striker Vardy, Non-League’s most famous graduate, has put his own money in for the second year of the academy, which in its first season saw four players earn Football League deals and one a move to the Scottish Premier League.
At 6ft 5ins, Heaton’s ambitions match his height and he’s grateful for the opportunity to showcase his talents in front of scouts from across the country – and thankful his mates didn’t land him in it when head of recruitment Lee Tucker came to watch him.
“Lee came down to watch me at Salford,” Heaton told The NLP. “It was a funny one because two of my mates – Brad and Dave – were also there. They were talking about me and Lee started talking to them.
“They had no idea he was down to watch me and the other two Darlington lads – I’m just thankful they didn’t say anything bad about me. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve read up on it and I can’t wait to get going. The aim is to get back in full-time football. Whether that’s through the V9 Academy or next year, I don’t know, I’ve just got to keep putting in performances.
“And that’s not just performances for myself, it’s for the team. I’m not selfish like that. I want the team to perform and the stronger we are at the back the better.”
Heaton had been due to join Darlington in the summer but suffered a broken collar bone in a reserve game so stayed closer to his Preston home to recover.
The former North End youngster continued to play for Bamber Bridge, where he was last season, and had a loan spell at Congleton before signing non-contract with Ramsbottom United.
Quakers boss Tommy Wright then came in for him and he hasn’t looked back since arriving in the north-east and has already earned himself a new deal.
And he feels Non-League football is going to be the making of him.
“I’d been at Preston since I was eight and it’s all I’d ever known. Being honest, I didn’t feel like it was much of a challenge,” said Heaton, who has also had spells at Tamworth (on loan) and Droylsden and is a delivery driver. “I’d do what I do and be offered contract after contract.
“Then when I didn’t have one it was a massive wake-up call to the real world and realising it’s not all glamour – you don’t just get your food made for you or things like that.
“Now I’m getting up at 5.30am, Monday to Saturday – working before games on a Saturday – and, don’t get me wrong, it’s great and I’m happy but I want to get back full-time.
“I’ve realised the harder you work off the pitch, the more things go right on it. There’s no such thing as luck, you have to earn it.
“So I’ve been putting in the hard work and I’ve really been seeing the rewards.”
Heaton credits boss Wright for a lot of his improvements and says he will embrace the V9 experience.
“It’s something I might only get once,” he said. “I’m sure I will learn a lot. With Jamie Vardy doing this himself, it gives us lads in Non-League someone to look up to. What age did he break in to the League, 26?
“It just shows. Being an ex-pro and dropping out, experiencing the real world, I want to get back to it.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper which is available every Sunday and Monday
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