There was a time when goalkeeper Daniel East would have dreamt of taking his place between the posts for Saturday’s Premier League fixture between Brighton and Wolves.
After all, he was on the books of both...writes Paul Berry.
Instead, the now 27-year-old, at a stage in life when most goalkeepers hit their prime, is flourishing on a very different stage.
A Wanderer turned Warbler, East has become a very accomplished singer, also a hugely successful Ed Sheeran tribute act, and his career was on an upwardly mobile trajectory prior to the arrival of Covid-19.
He had previously performed as far afield at Italy, Ibiza, Norway and Canada, travelling and facing new experiences and challenges which he might otherwise have been able to enjoy as a footballer.
But in swapping his goalkeeping kit for a sharp suit or the latest Sheeran lumberjack shirt, and his gloves for a microphone, East is now focused on saving dates for gigs, rather than footballs.
He can still remember, like any footballer can remember that milestone of a debut, his very first stage appearance.
The anticipation, the nerves, the excitement, there isn’t too much which sets performers apart whatever their field of expertise.
“It was at a pub, I was using someone else’s equipment and was stood in front of about 15 to 20 people, including my brother and a few of his mates who were providing moral support,” East recalls.
“I was stood there for ages, thinking, ‘oh my days, I really need to start singing now’, and I wasn’t sure if I could.
“I sang a few songs, heard a few of shouts of ‘go on lad, you’re doing well’, and after half an hour I had run out of material.
“The owner of the pub just told me to sing them all again, and so I did, and all of a sudden I was off and running with a new career.”
Music has always been a strong influence within East’s family, and, even as a youngster, he was into acting, singing and dancing.
However, such pastimes weren’t considered ‘cool’ among his peer group, and gradually he was drawn away from those arts, and into football instead.
Playing locally, near his home in Northwich, he was invited to a trial with Manchester United, but alongside 30 other goalkeepers for a one-hour session, chances of progression were slim.
Shortly afterwards however, East’s father met a Wolves scout on a golfing trip which, given his father very rarely played golf, was taken as something of a sign!
A six-week trial travelling for Thursday night training sessions at Wolves led to him signing at Under-14 level, then Under-15s, and then, with much delight, a full-time academy scholarship.
“It was amazing to be taken on, and felt like a really big achievement,” East recalls.
“I wasn’t ever sure what I wanted to do when I was at school, and I wouldn’t say I was the brightest guy ever.
“I didn’t want to carry on studying, and so the football was a bit of a lifeline, and was a great opportunity.”
There were mixed experiences for East during his three-year scholarship but sadly, at its conclusion, no professional contract.
In his first year as a scholar, unfortunately Daniel Wright, a year older, was forced to retire due to a heart condition, which offered East the opportunity to play for the youth team earlier than expected.
He felt he acquitted himself well, but Wolves then brought in Aaron McCarey as a replacement for Wright, restricting those opportunities.
As the more senior man, McCarey – who later went on to play for Wolves’ first team – was also handed more chances with the reserves to further his own development, leaving East with fewer chances to shine.
The younger keeper knew that was how the system worked, and even a loan spell with Telford didn’t yield much on-pitch action as East was utilised largely as a back-up at the New Bucks Head.
East is also honest enough to accept that his goalkeeping needed more work at the time, but on the positive he did figure in several reserve games and also trained with the first team, learning on the job from the club’s senior custodians.
“That time playing in the youth team as a first year was a big deal for me and every single game improved me,” he recalls.
“I think I lost my confidence a bit as those opportunities disappeared and probably never really recovered from that.
“I did get to play a few reserve games and felt I did alright but there were a few bits on the goalkeeping side that let me down.
“My kicking wasn’t strong enough and I wasn’t strong or assertive enough as a character but I was still young and still developing, and those things could have improved with experience.
“We did train with the first team keepers from time to time and, while standard-wise I was nowhere near them, they looked after me and welcomed me and they would never look down on the academy players.
“Matt Murray would chat to me and ask me how things were going and Wayne Hennessey would give me his gloves and Marcus Hahnemann his boots – so they certainly kitted me out!
“But I was very shy at the time and I didn’t speak much – I just didn’t have a massive personality at that age and I don’t think that helped me.
“I thought maybe I might get a year as a professional, but it wasn’t to be and obviously I wasn’t the only one.
“A lot of young players don’t make it and you have to be really special to make it through, especially as a goalkeeper when there is just that one position and you mature later on than outfield players.
“I also had Jon Flatt behind me who was doing really well at the time and the club obviously had more belief in him which was understandable as I was also a big fan of him.
“The decision was taken to release me and those decisions have to be taken in football – that’s just the way it is.”
East, however, wasn’t quite ready to give up on his footballing dream.
He dusted himself down, brushed up his CV, compiled a DVD of his goalkeeping, and posted them out to every league club.
The majority didn’t even reply, some responded with a ‘thanks but no thanks’, but Brighton offered a month’s trial, which eventually led to a year’s contract.
Brighton then however, wasn’t the same as Brighton now, and East never felt comfortable in his new surroundings.
At Wolves he was in digs with colleagues Kristian Kostrna and Wright at the home of Alan and Karen Lovatt, and, after Alan sadly passed away earlier this year, East attended his funeral where he met up again with Wright.
The support of his landlords was vital, but at Brighton he was put in a house with three other 19-year-olds, which he feels – accepting his own share of blame - wasn’t the most conducive to life as an aspiring professional.
“It was a strange time, and I don’t think it was the best organisation back then,” he recalls.
“Four 19-year-old lads away from home in a house together – you can guess what happened there – and it never felt like the then manager Gus Poyet was particularly concerned about the young players.
“Again, I didn’t feel like I got much game time, although when I did, the approach was to pass it around at the back including from the goalkeeper and that really suited me.
“It wasn’t about kicking long but finding players with 30-yard passes and I think that was why they signed me – it’s all the rage for goalkeepers now isn’t it?
“At the end of the first year at Brighton the goalkeeping coach offered me another year, and then the day after that he was sacked!
“I still got the extra year, but the new goalkeeping coach wasn’t really interested and he also brought in a new keeper Grant Smith, a year younger than me and better than me so I knew my days were numbered.”
A loan spell followed in non-league for East with Hastings – it was quite a battle - but it is now nine years since he made his final appearance for Brighton Under-21s, as his passion and enthusiasm diminished.
After departing Brighton he was close to joining Fleetwood before they were unable to offer a deal, and also spent time with Stalybridge Celtic and Witton Albion before realising that it was indeed time to try something new.
“I had lost any love for the game by that point, I had lost interest, but I had no idea what to do next,” he recalls.
East went to work in his Dad’s fruit and veg shop, but in the background, was continuing to hone his skills on the guitar, a hobby first picked up during his spare time on the South Coast.
It was whilst working in the shop that he was first alerted to the possibility of performing in a pub, as mentioned at the start of this article, when a regular customer suggested he play a few songs in her daughter’s pub.
After some persuasion he finally took the plunge, and, from there, things took off.
From every other Friday singing at the pub it became every Friday, then Fridays and Saturdays, then a wedding, and at the wedding he was asked to do a christening.
“It just got busier and busier and, before I knew it, I was a singer, and it was like ‘what’?!” says East.
“I was performing at a few different venues around Cheshire, and it had taken off like I could never have expected.”
It only takes a quick scour of the performances on East’s website or Facebook page to realise that he is good. Very good.
And before long, his career took another twist, when it was suggested he think about devising a tribute act to one of the country’s most popular and successful singer/songwriters.
“Having started out I built a little website and e-mailed all the music agents across the North West,” East explains.
“I didn’t get many replies, but one guy came back and asked me If I would consider doing an Ed Sheeran tribute.
“I wasn’t really sure, but then he said I could double my price, and that made me think a little bit more!
“I carried on performing as myself but started adding in the Ed Sheeran tribute on the side and it grew and grew until it effectively became my full time job.
“I have had to study him performing to get everything as close as possible and at one point I was watching his videos on You Tube for four or five hours a day.
“Now I am in a fortunate position where I can perform a mixture of styles and if someone books me, it is a question of what they want.
“I do a lot of events as Ed Sheeran, such as festivals, tribute nights or three-course meals, and perform as myself at weddings, christenings and funerals.
“I’d probably say I prefer performing as myself, and it is more natural, and people tell me I don’t need to do the Ed Sheeran stuff.
“But it is only that which has opened the doors and given me opportunities to be myself, so it is something I really appreciate.
“I have a wide repertoire which really helps, and would like to think I can tailor my performance to any occasion.”
East has never met Sheeran – he had left Wolves before the superstar popped in to take a look around Molineux and indulge in a pitchside kickabout ahead of a concert at the Civic Hall – but knows what he would do if he did.
“At the very least I think I’d have to buy him a pint,” he says.
It is East’s own name and reputation that has been on the rise since he set out on this musical path back in 2014.
Whilst he will always enjoy the pub performances which launched his new passion, and remains hugely appreciative of the local following which has supported his musical journey, he has since built up a larger following with that wider variety of events and travel further afield.
As well as performances across Europe, East had become a regular on cruise ships prior to the pandemic – both as himself and Sheeran – and performed a sell-out tour in Canada in January, and had been scheduled to return in October.
He would also love one day to take to the theatre stage, with the West End a long-term ambition, as whilst having dabbled in song-writing he believes the performing side is his biggest strength.
And therein lies the change in personality which has seen East fare so much better in his musical career than that of his football one.
When you ask him how far he thinks he can go, and how good he thinks he could eventually be, there is no holding back.
“I do feel I can be as good as some of the really top singers,” he insists.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to write songs like Gary Barlow does, but in terms of his voice, the whole package, people like Michael Buble and Alfie Boe, that is what I have to aspire to.
“I don’t want that to sound arrogant, but I don’t see any problem in aiming as high as you can, and I know I would never have been able to say that a few years ago.
“It is so different to the football – ask me then and I’d probably have said there is no way I would ever be good enough.
“But I feel that I am now where I am meant to be, I have something to really believe in and push for, and I have the confidence to back that up.
“When I perform now, sometimes I feel a few nerves, but my main emotion is being calm, and just focusing on going out on stage and giving a good performance.”
And all of this is in no way meant to demean his time at Wolves Academy, or then moving on to try his luck with Brighton, because in East’s words, ‘everything happens for a reason’.
There is an ethos and an emphasis to Wolves Academy now where if there is a holy grail of producing players who can fight for the first team of a team in the upper reaches of the Premier League, there is also an ambition of producing good players and good people whom, if they don’t make the grade at Molineux can instead forge a career elsewhere in the game, or even in something different entirely.
Just like East.
“I have definitely found my feet now,” he insists.
“Although I look back on my time at Wolves and I know I wasn’t confident enough I still think those years in the academy helped me.
“I remember even now Kevin Thelwell, who was Academy Manager at the time, telling me I needed to be more assertive and I have definitely taken that on with my singing.
“There is no place to hide for a goalkeeper, and a singer certainly can’t hide behind the microphone!
“I feel I have more of a personality now and that comes with age and experience as well.
“I never look back and think that I should have gone with singing from the start, because the football was amazing at the time and I met some fantastic people, including people like Conor Goldson and Lewis Dunk, whose weddings I will be performing at in 2021.
“I must also thank my Mum and Dad, for driving me to Wolverhampton four times a week in my Academy days, and also coaches like Mick Halsall and Andy Mulliner who really believed in me.
“If I knew then what I know now I think I would have worked harder and been more professional, not expecting so much on a plate and putting my foot down in situations such as living in a house of four lads at the age of 19!
“Maybe then things might have been different, maybe then I might have ended up breaking through, but everything happens for a reason, and I have always been a firm believer in that.”
There is also one Wolves memory which will forever stand out.
And that is the Gothia Cup, a prestigious youth tournament featuring young players from some of the top clubs in world football, when East, just setting out on his full time scholarship, was called into action after the unfortunate situation developed with Wright.
A Wolves squad including the likes of Jack Price, Zeli Ismail and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing came through to win the 2009 tournament prevailing in a feisty final against Brazilian side Cruzeiro, when East capped a fine individual display by saving four out of five penalties in the decisive shootout.
“Honestly that is still up there as one of my best lifetime memories,” he recalls.
East still plays football for fun on a Thursday night, at what might be considered a peak age for a keeper, and believes he is even better now than he was back in the days at Wolves Academy.
Now though it is time to make some more memories, on the musical stage instead of the footballing one.
The pandemic has limited his bookings to the extent that East has taken on work delivering parcels, but he is hopeful that life will return to some form of normality in 2021, and he will return more regularly to the stage.
More confident, more motivated, more determined, more ambitious than ever.
Regrets? He’s had a few, as the famous song goes.
But while the final curtain has gone down on his footballing career, the musical one is just coming up.