Express & Star

Former Wolves academy graduate Sam Winnall has new career goals

Sam Winnall has lived his dream of becoming a professional footballer. Of scoring plenty of goals – he now has over 100. And enjoying plenty of success, he has won promotions and a cup final. Hopefully, with a few more years left before hanging up his boots, that dream will continue for a good while yet.

Winnall, front and centre, with Tettenhall Wood under-nines in 2000

But at times, the dreams of a footballer can also become something of a nightmare. For most players, not so much a balance of ups and downs but mainly downs with the odd up. And the former striker and Wolves Academy graduate has, like so many who pursue the same dream and ambition, ridden the rollercoaster of events and emotions.

Going through those contrasting experiences, those fine lines between success and failure, is now playing a part in Winnall’s mindset and mentality off the pitch. And also, potentially, his future.

Because he has spent the last two years, alongside his football career, studying for a diploma in counselling and psychotherapy, and has now completed his Level 2 and 3 qualifications.

Over the next two years he will study for his Level 4, to reach a stage where, when he finally hangs up his boots, he will be in a position for a new chapter, supporting players or even people from other sports perhaps suffering the same difficulties and setbacks as he did.

Putting his ‘lived experience’ to positive use.

“There are many occasions in football when you go through struggles and have problems, and things happen which challenge you emotionally,” Winnall explains.

“The world of sport can be a fantastic industry but also a very cruel one, and, looking after our mental wellbeing is becoming just as important as having the right diet, amount of sleep or training programme.

“I remember when I went through a particularly tough time when I had been on loan at Derby from Sheffield Wednesday and tore my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) for the second time in my career.

“I wasn’t going to be able to play football, things off the field weren’t going great either, and it got to a stage where I needed to go and talk to somebody and seek a bit of support.

“That is what I did, and I saw the benefits first hand, of how it helped me and took my life in a different direction.

“I spoke to a psychotherapist who was brilliant, but he didn’t have any experience in sport, and that just gave me the idea really.

Winnall in his solitary first team appearance for Wolves in 2010

“It encouraged me to be on the other side of the conversation and in a position where I could also use my own lived experience alongside completing the necessary qualifications.

“It really helped me, and kicked me off with the thought that, one day, I might also be able to help others in exactly the same way.”

Talking of kicking things off, it is now just over two decades since Winnall, now 32, first joined Wolves Academy.

Whilst he would go on to spend ten years at Molineux, and yet only make one first team appearance, it is a decade and an experience which he gratefully believes paved the way for the career that has followed.

Playing for junior side Tettenhall Wood, it was whilst turning out for Wolverhampton Schools that the young striker and Smestow School student was spotted by former Wolves recruitment guru, Bob Bennett.

Invited on trial, Winnall scored in a game against Derby, and was eventually taken on, benefitting from the expertise of coaches such as Des Davies, Ian Whyte and John Trollope.

His was a particularly strong year’s intake, and produced a long and successful list of alumni, including Danny Batth, David Davis, Scott Malone, Ashley Hemmings, Kyle Bennett and Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

Along with the standards set in coaching and recruitment, and such a strong group pushing each other on, Winnall also believes the influence of Academy director Chris Evans was pivotal.

“I think having Chris overseeing everything was a big thing for us as young players,” Winnall recalls.

“He was always very good to us, and he believed in us, and would be the one pushing us forward to the manager, suggesting we join in training with the first team.

“Having that sort of backing always gave me the confidence that at some stage I was going to get a chance to prove myself.”

That chance was delayed by suffering the first of two career ACL injuries at the worst possible time, in the opening pre-season friendly at Kidderminster Harriers as Winnall embarked on his rookie season as a professional.

“I’d been feeling fit and ready to go and make an impression, and then that happened in the very first friendly,” he painfully recalls.

“But even with that, I remember the physios being great with me, taking the pressure off and telling me not to worry and rush anything, and that my chance would come when I had recovered.”

Eventually it did. Winnall was handed the opportunity with his first team debut, a cherished League Cup night when he won an early penalty in a 2-1 win against Southend.

Sadly, however, it was to prove his one and only senior appearance at Molineux.

“That was a fantastic experience for me and my family,” Winnall recalls.