Being released by Premier League side Arsenal after seven years at the club was a devastating blow for 14-year-old Tommie Hoban. Understandably. But little over five years later and the centre-half sees the disappointment as a blessing in disguise.
“At the time I might have thought being released was a major step back but if anything, it’s been a step forward for me,” Hoban stated when he spoke to the Watford Observer before Christmas.
“I look at boys my age who I was playing with and now they are only with Arsenal’s Under-21 squad and some of them are not even playing every game. None of them are on loan at Championship clubs, so out of all of the players, me and another boy who was also released (Preston North End’s Jeffrey Monakana), are the ones who are probably doing the best out of the boys in our age group, at the moment.
“I think it shows that it is not all about being at a big club when you are young because it is a much foggier path to the first team. Obviously players like Jack Wilshere can do it, but coming to Watford has been perfect for me.
“It’s boosted my confidence and in my opinion there is a much clearer path to the first team here compared to clubs such as Arsenal.
“I am not saying there is no way to the first team at Arsenal, because obviously there is, but I would say from my experience that Watford has been better for me,” Hoban added.
It is a topic which has been debated at great length in the last 12 months following the Premier League’s controversial Elite Player Performance Plan, which has created a four-tiered academy system which favours the richer clubs.
Hoban joined Arsenal as a seven-year-old and was released at the age of 14 but, after an anxious ten days or so, the defender was not short of offers, with eight clubs quickly expressing an interest.
The youngster and his family opted for Watford following a recommendation by one of the Arsenal coaches – with location also playing a huge part.
Hoban explained: “The Arsenal coach said to me if I get into Watford, he had heard good things about them; that they could give me a good platform and that is exactly what Watford have done for me. They have been fantastic.”
Hoban made his debut and signed his first professional contract as a first-year scholar at the age of just 17.
His first appearance came in the final game of the 2010/11 campaign as a 22nd-minute substitute, in what was also Malky Mackay’s final match in charge. Hoban had not long started training with the first team and was struggling with a minor injury when he was told he would be travelling with the squad to Preston.
“That day was crazy, it all happened so quickly,” Hoban said. “I was just in awe of it all. We went up to Preston and I was thinking surely I’m not going to get a chance to go on. Then I saw that I was on the bench and then became more nervous.
“I was over the moon to have a chance to play. It was an amazing day and I will never forget it, but I would like to think that I have come along quite a bit since then. I was very nervous that day but it was still an amazing experience.”
Last season was less enjoyable for Hoban as he did not feature at all under Sean Dyche and spent much of the season training with the rest of the Under-18 players.
He said: “Going into pre-season that summer I was thinking maybe I could push on and be training with the first team more, but unfortunately that didn’t really come about.
“The manager brought in other players which is fair enough and the team did brilliantly last year, but I was a little disappointed. I just carried on, tried to get my head down, work hard, keep on improving and then coming into this season I probably wanted it even more.”
Hoban admitted: “Maybe it was best that I wasn’t pushed forward that early. I probably wasn’t ready looking at it now.
“It was great to play at Preston but I still had a lot more improvement to make, which I worked on last year and has put me in good stead for this season.”
Hoban, who grew up in Chingford and Woodford Green and still lives in the area, has become a first-team regular this season, despite the number of defenders who could play in his position increasing to 12, if you include the likes of Carl Dickinson, Nathaniel Chalobah and Marco Cassetti – who have all played as part of a back three at some point this season – and fellow youngsters such as Adam Thompson and Aaron Tumwa.
“Going into the season I wasn’t really expecting to play as big as a part as I have so far,” Hoban admitted.
“I was just hoping to get into squads, maybe try to secure a place on the bench and then if I had a chance, go in and take it.
“Then on deadline day, when they signed an extra two or three, I was thinking that I am not even going to feature that much.
“It was a little disappointing thinking that, but I just kept on training and working hard. Eventually I had a chance and I am pleased with how I have done so far.”
Hoban came into Watford’s starting XI when Gianfranco Zola decided to switch from a 4-3-3 formation to a 3-5-2 away to Huddersfield Town; a 3-2 victory which ended the Hornets’ five-match winless run. The Republic of Ireland youth international has subsequently made 18 appearances for his club.
He said: “I was really nervous for the first few games I played in but the more you play, the more comfortable you become. With other players around me like Fitz Hall and Lloyd Doyley – both experienced players – they helped me settle in.
“Hopefully it is just the start; I have so much more to improve on but this will hopefully come with more games.”
Hoban was rested for the trip to Manchester City which coincided with the return of the experienced Doyley and Nyron Nosworthy following injury lay-offs. The Academy graduate currently has a minor Achilles injury.
Hoban spoke to the Watford Observer in December but he was well aware of the challenges he would face during the remainder of the season, when it comes to holding down his starting place.
“The way I look at it is I have just got to try to give everything I can in training and matches,” Hoban said.
“Then whatever happens, happens. I’d be delighted to keep a starting place for the rest of the season and that is my aim, but I suppose maybe if I didn’t play for a bit then that is more of an incentive to go in and work harder and harder to get back into the team.
“I will still work as hard as I can to keep the place, but competition is good because it keeps everyone on their toes and improves the performances of the team.”
Hoban has been linked with top clubs a number of times in recent years, with Arsenal and Manchester City among those mentioned.
But the defender, who signed a new five-year contract in the summer, is hoping to secure Premier League football with Watford.
He said: “Obviously you are aware of the speculation. People say to you about it but I just try to ignore that sort of stuff, because I still have a long, long way to go before I can hopefully become the player that I want to be.
“It is my dream to play in the Premier League, hopefully with Watford. But at this moment in time I am just focused on still developing.
“I want to keep working hard, improve and hopefully maintain my spot in the Watford team.”