Express & Star

The former Walsall FC youth keeper who is making his mark in the business world

Football can be a cruel game.

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James spent 10 years at Walsall before going on to play for a number of non-league clubs

For devoted fans, it's a roller-coaster as they go through a gamut of emotions from season to season.

And, of course, for players in the heart of the action on the pitch, there are those left euphoric, gleefully celebrating a trophy, but hundreds left devastated by, say, a relegation or cup final defeat.

Just as heartbreaking can be the realisation that a professional football career, you might have always dreamed of, might not materialise.

Hopes and dreams of young trainees can be shattered in an instant by a club's decision.

But it doesn't have to signal a downward spiral. Far from it.

Countless footballers have taken rejection as a spur and proved a point by kicking on their professional careers elsewhere.

Others – like James Wren – have simply moved on and created a multi-million pound business.

He started out at Walsall, a talented young keeper, before going on to play in non-league for the likes of Burton Albion, Tamworth, Stourbridge and Nuneaton.

His business adventure, with another footballer, Jack Dyer, started in 2015 when the pair realised full-time football wasn't an option.

Freetrain was born. The pair's idea was to produce training vests for players which incorporate a central pocket for a mobile phone.

James Wren in his youth days

It was the start of an incredible journey and one which, as of May this year, had generated £8.65 million in revenue in two years.

It's a far cry from those early days with the Saddlers, which James remembers well but insists gave him a grounding and life skills to build from.

"I was at Walsall from 8-18," he reflects. "So it was ten years of my life and the last two years, in the youth team, was the best period in my life.

"It was something that shapes you for the future so I have a big affinity to Walsall as a whole because of the memories I have there, really.

"I was involved with a talented age group. The year above me included Jamie Paterson, who has gone on to do well, and my age group had the likes of George Bowerman and Jake Jones while the year below had lads like Aaron Williams."

"We had some really good players but for many it just didn't translate into a full time career.

"Luck plays a major factor. There were some in my age groups who were fantastic footballers but for one reason or another just found themselves out of the game. But I wouldn't change a thing about it."

James reflects back on some good times, working with Mick Halsall as well as former Villa boss Dean Smith, who is now managing in the Championship with Norwich City.

"In the youth team, we had a couple of fantastic games at the Bescot and there's one really good FA Youth Cup run I remember.

"We eventually got knocked out by Millwall but we'd gone to MK Dons and beat them, Carlisle and beat them. It was such a grounding and the youth set up at Walsall was like no other.

"We were based to the ground and it was the last of the old-school style of football really.

"I remember the staff would leave it until two minutes before our train was coming and would then say 'you can go now'. If you'd been outside the ground, you'd see lads tear-arising across the car park trying to catch the train at the station.

"We'd put covers on the pitch and all that kind of work – it was really humble beginnings but also fun. I wouldn't change a thing.

"With Mick Halsall, even now when I speak to him, I feel like he is my boss. He had a real impact on my life.

"Dean didn't get my personality as a kid – I was wilder than I am now. Mick enjoyed that more and could almost curb it but I wasn't Dean's cup of tea and I needed to mature a bit more.

"It's part and parcel of footballer and there are different personalities and characters and, thinking back, I was a bit too much out of the box!"

"Coming through the ranks, I'd always say to any young lad or girl now, work as hard as you can and if you've done that, try and do a bit more.

"From my point of view, maybe luck wasn't on my side but I am where I am supposed to be."

And that's a hugely successful businessman.

James and Jack

"Up until I joined Tamworth, the full focus was on being a professional footballer but then, as time goes by, you start thinking about all these other things you can do," James recalls.

"I always wanted to be the best at something, whether that was football or something else.

"Some of the conversations I'd had with Jack, while at Tamworth, we were like minded.

"It was in the close season of leaving Tamworth and going to Nuneaton where we had this idea for an app and needed to raise money for it.

"We came off a run, headphones out of ears and phones in hand. We started sharing these ideas and came up with the idea for a vest and have never looked back.

"Even when we were getting the vest over the line, we thought 'it'll do okay and sell a few' but we never realised the success we would have off it in the slightest."

To generate kickstart funding, they applied successfully for a £1,500 grant from the PFA, which they used to purchase coaching equipment and went round schools for six months teaching youngsters to play football – saving up just enough funds to purchase their first 500 vests.

After they sold these, alongside working 9 to 5 sales jobs, they pitched to an investor for £5,000 to scale up their manufacturing. Three years later and with no further outside investment, they have sold nearly 300,000 vests generating more than £8.65m in revenue.

"In the space of two years, we went from not being able to give the product away as people didn't see the vision to now having fulfilment centres in the US, Germany, Sweden, Canada and Australia," he continues.

"For lads who just played football but didn't go to university or develop business skills, it's a 'pinch' me moment to be honest.

"We are just normal lads who have just had a go and, here we are now, with Freetrain, having nine employees.

"The team has grown and we plan to grow more – hopefully another five to eight team members as the year progresses. It's about kicking on, creating great content and products.

"The big thing for us is we have never wanted to standstill.

"We had this vest, it's done well but we wanted to go onto bigger and better with an eye on training apparel.

"We believe in ourselves and our product and our aim is to become that fully fledged clothing brand and a major player in the industry."

And, James says, but for football, such success wouldn't necessarily been so forthcoming.

"We had lads like Patto (Jamie Paterson) championing the brand for us and some of the senior pros who had been at Walsall before, the likes of Troy Deeney and Alex Nicholls.

"Alex saw the product, supported us and got Ade Akinfenwa wearing it. Without our football roots and contacts in the game, would it have got the exposure it had? Probably not. So I am grateful to all those guys."

The hard work doesn't stop now, though, and James wants to put something back into the community and inspire others.

"Jack and I want to delve into communities and focus on the West Midlands," he said. "The region gets overlooked but there's a lot of great arts, culture and business coming out of here and I'd love to see, for example, Birmingham start to cultivate itself again.

"I'm also keen to help young people. I don't play football now but help Harry Harris at Walsall Wood with some coaching and love it, imparting a little bit of wisdom and supporting the young lads.

"Jack and I have done talks at football clubs as well about life after football which is huge. We did a talk with the Welsh under-19s recently.

"Football is a learning journey and for those who don't make it, you can bounce back from the disappointment, as we have, hopefully, proved."