Meet Rashford and McTominay’s academy team-mate also playing in front of 70,000

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With his family in Bolton flicking through the archives during lockdown, Laurence Wyke was reminded of his 11th birthday party.

His Mum sent him footage playing football in his back garden alongside Scott McTominay and their Manchester United team-mates.

Like all the boys in attendance, Wyke and McTominay always envisioned walking out in front of 70,000 fans.

Twelve years later, their dreams have become reality.

But whilst McTominay jumped on the fast-track to Old Trafford, Wyke’s journey has been a long, winding road taking him 4000 miles to Atlanta.

Instead of the Theatre of Dreams, he walked out at a packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium for his first MLS start for Atlanta United on March 7.

It was a far cry from the days of kicking a ball around his back garden, or being replaced by a young Marcus Rashford on the Carrington training pitches.

“Me and Scott played with each other for nearly 10 years,” Wyke recalls.

“My Mum sent me a video a couple of months ago at my 11th birthday party on an old VHS recorder and it was me, Scott McTominay and a few of our other mates all just kicking a ball in my yard. We were all just football mad.

“We were together for so long and it was a great time. Later on, Rashford moved up and started playing with our age group.

“It was funny, because Rashford used to play right wing and so did I so he used to come on for me. I’m not sure who made that decision looking back, I should’ve been the one coming on for him!

“We had Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Devontae Redmond, Dean Henderson, who is doing fantastically now, as well. It was a great group and looking back it was great to play with them all. It’s fantastic to see how well they’re doing now.”

After spending half his life as a Manchester United player, Wyke’s world came crashing down at the age of 16.

It was a day which he will never forget but one which, in hindsight, set the wheels in motion for the long and unorthodox journey which he did not know lay ahead. 

He recalls: “When I was 16, I remember my parents sat me down and told me I’d been released,” he recalls. “I still remember it to this day.

“I respected the way United dealt with it to be honest, because they told my parents. As we were going into Under-16s they made their decisions a bit earlier and my parents sat me down on the sofa at the house.

“I’d had my meeting with Man Utd a couple of weeks before and they just said, ‘listen, Manchester United aren’t going to offer you a scholarship, how do you feel?’

“Obviously I was just gutted so they just comforted me and supported me as best they could.” 

In hindsight, Wyke accepts United made the right call and he has praised their handling of the situation.

It was still a bitter pill to swallow and, like many young players who find themselves on the scrapheap, left him seriously considering his future in the game.

He says: “It was tough. My problem was, and I understand it now, when you’re in the system so long it just becomes normality.

“By the time I was 13, 14 I just took it for granted. I came into training and I worked hard but I didn’t really appreciate how much I needed to push myself.

“Tony Whelan, the academy director, was fantastic. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He messaged my parents about two weeks later and said, ‘listen, I think Repton School would be a good fit for him. He honours his education and he’s hardworking as a student and player so this could be a good fit’.

“At the same time I went for a trial at Bury for a week and they didn’t want to sign me, then I went to Rochdale looking for a schoolboy scholarship and they weren’t sure.

“Honestly, I wasn’t really that invested in football at that point to risk it all and put all my eggs in one basket. I just wanted to get an education, because I’ve seen players that were fantastic, better than me at that age, are really struggling now and coming out of football.

“It was very upsetting but at the same time I knew I had my education I could use too and it wasn’t all or nothing.” 

After a stress fracture in his back ruined his first year away from United, Wyke fell in love with the game again at Repton, following in the footsteps of Watford' Will Hughes and then breaking the long-standing goalscoring record.

“At 16 I was lost, my confidence was shot and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I went there and got a stress fracture in my lower back in my first year. It wasn’t going well. 

“I went down to Derby County alongside playing for Repton when I first got there then got my injury and that all ended pretty quickly.

"Then I went into my second year at 18, Upper Sixth, and did pretty well. I broke the goalscoring record and that shocked me a bit, and I thought I maybe needed to keep pursuing football.” 

Wyke turned to an unlikely but increasingly common route. 

He set off San Antonio, Texas to join Division III College side Trinity University Tigers.

Two years later, he stepped up to Division I Furman Paladins in Greenville, South Carolina before forcing his way to Atlanta United 2 in the USL, one step below the MLS.

Wyke says: “I got an opportunity and I got sold on going there and decided I was going to go for it.
“It was a fantastic experience. It went really well, I got All-American and did really well for the team and I realised I needed another challenge.

“I transferred to Furman University, which is Division I. I went there, enjoyed it and did well. I got Player of the Year in my conference in my first year, my junior year, then did well in my senior year and we got to the NCAA Championship second round.

“Then my friend got asked to go down to Atlanta United 2, the USL affiliate for the MLS team, and he told me about it in the library one day. I decided I wanted to go, so I called my coach and asked what he could do. 

“I went down there, wasn’t expecting too much, did quite well and on the way back they called my coach and said they wanted to offer me a USL deal.

“I went there straight out of college, graduating in December 2018 then signing January 2019 and ended up playing 29 games out of 35 last season.” 

Then came the life-changing call earlier this year from Frank De Boer, the former Barcelona and Ajax legend now in charge of Atlanta United.

“It was amazing,” he says. “I was in the cafeteria and one of the coaches came up and told me they wanted me to come along for pre-season so I went up to IMG in Florida with the first team, went to Mexico then headed back up.

“Being under his (De Boer’s) eye is incredible. It was his birthday the other day and I saw a clip of him just scoring free-kicks for Barcelona, that says it all!
“He was an incredible player so to be playing under him and learning from him every day is an honour.” 

On February 29, the moment Wyke had waited for finally came as Atlanta visited new franchise Nashville for their first ever MLS game.

He explains: “I signed a short-term deal to play against Nashville in the first game of the season, then that’s when it all went a bit crazy!

“They’re an expansion team so it was their first game in the MLS and I knew it was going to be absolutely mad up there. There were 60,000 people at Nissan Stadium, which is the Titans’ stadium, the NFL team.

“I just had a feeling I might play, maybe the last five minutes or something. I was always pushing in the background and I just had a feeling something good was going to happen.”

Despite being prepared for his debut, it was a simple message from De Boer which put him on red-alert before his long-awaited arrival on the big stage arrived. 

“As we’re walking out for the warm-up we all shake the coaches hands,” he explains. “I shake Frank De Boer’s hand and he looks me dead in the eye and just says, ‘be ready. Be ready, Laurence’. As soon as he says that it hit me this might be happening.

“It ended up being great words of wisdom because Franco Escobar unfortunately got hurt at the end of the first half. 

“Frank told me I was going in, did his team-talk then ran me through some things on the tactics board. His assistant, Orlando, came up to me and said, ’he wouldn’t put you in if he didn’t think you were ready’.

“Anyway, they put the sign up, number 27, and I put my shirt on. I got to the touchline and just looked up and there were 60,000 people, the lights were glaring everywhere and it was like they were stick figures or cardboard cutouts in the crowd.

“It was so loud, like nothing I’d experienced before, but they just said, ‘keep it simple, no silly fouls and just keep it tight’.

“We ended up with a 2-1 win, that was the MLS debut, then it ended up with me starting against Cincinnati the week after.”

Handed his first start in front of a sell-out home crowd, Wyke pulled out all the stops to get his family across the pond and thank them for their sacrifice. 

He says: “My Dad’s always been pretty tough on me. He’s always told me to keep going, if I had a stinker of a game he’d let me know I’d had a stinker but he gives me credit as well.

“They were loving it. I told them they might need to get the flight over there, I’d help and figure something out. They ended up flying over the night before, I took them out for some dinner then got them tickets sorted. 

“They got there early then were greeted by 70,000 screaming fans as I walked out, so we’ve got some nice videos and stuff.

“Unfortunately I got hurt so I couldn’t play the whole game, but we got the win which is what matters and it was just a great moment.

“My parents and my sisters, they would never have thought I’d have gone from where I was to where I am now, seeing me in a stadium of 70,000 people.

“The rollercoaster I’ve had, the ups and downs, playing in Division III in America then Division I, then USL and it’s just constantly been an upwards battle.

“I think those experiences have all helped shape my character and make me what I am as a player, and I’m just trying to keep looking forwards now.

“My family are really happy with it all, and it’s testament to them driving me to training at Manchester United, 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back, every day for eight years in England.

“Then letting me go to boarding school, letting me go all the way to America. It’s been a great family effort I’d say.”

It was not quite the way Wyke envisioned his dreams playing out.

He could be forgiven for looking back with some envy at McTominay and Rashford as they star in the Premier League.

But his own unique journey has opened his eyes as to their achievements and he is equally proud of his own.

He adds: “I never really was that invested when I was 16. It was fantastic to be there, but when I look at Scott doing so well I just think, ‘good on you mate’.

“I know how much it takes, how dedicated you have to be and he’s done fantastically to get to where he is, fair play to him.

“Rashford, especially, really stuck out even at that age to be fair and he’s become a great player.

“It’s nice to see them doing well, and it’s all about timing at the end of the day.

“I’m lucky I got my opportunity when the time was right and in other circumstances it might not have happened. I’m glad everyone is doing so well and I’m glad it ended up happening for me as well.

“A lot of people told me when I came to America, it’s difficult to get back into football. But I think this pathway has become a lot more common for young footballers who are heartbroken and coming out of England.

“It’s a chance to take a step back, review your options and get a good education to go along with playing football.

“Speaking about Atlanta specifically, it’s just different over here. The stadium is more of an entertainment hub, it’s a spectacle. They have a huge screen, retractable roof, lights beaming everywhere, sparklers going off when you score a goal. It’s just absolutely nuts and when they have all three tiers open there are 70,000 people in there.

“It’s so passionate. The city has taken it on board so well. I know other MLS teams the cities maybe aren’t as behind them, but I can only talk for my experience in Atlanta and it’s so passionate.

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  • “When my Dad came over for the Cincinnati game and said it was just incredible, the best stadium he’s ever been to.”

    Rewarded with a permanent first-team contract for his two performances, the future looks bright for Wyke.

    And whilst the timing of the coronavirus pandemic has not been ideal, he is focusing on exciting times ahead.

    “I didn’t really want to let it sink in too much, I just wanted to keep pushing,” he adds. 

    “But the Cincinnati game I got a concussion after 44 minutes. I had a head collision and didn’t feel too good afterwards.

    “I suppose it’s been a good chance for me to heal properly, not take any chances and just get back to being healthy and 100%.

    “But obviously we’re all really wanting to go back and play. We can only do that if everyone’s safe, that’s the priority, so we’ve got to be patient. Football is just a game really.”

    • Marcus Rashford
    • Premier League
    • Manchester United FC

    Source: Read Full Article