Sam McCallum: From Vardy Academy to the Premier League
Sky Sports News exclusive access: Rob Dorsett goes behind the scenes to experience the inner workings of the deal that took Vardy Academy graduate Sam McCallum to the Premier League
By Rob Dorsett, Sky Sports News
Last Updated: 19/02/20 2:32pm
"Sam is 100 per cent the reason for V9. It's this sort of story that it was set up for." Premier League's current top scorer and founder of the V9 Academy, Jamie Vardy.
Sam McCallum has just secured his dream move to the Premier League. It comes just a few short years after he thought his chances of a professional playing career had ended.
He now sits in the living room of his family home in Herne Bay surrounded by his loved ones and with his mentor, Jamie Vardy, congratulating him via FaceTime.
It is a moment cherished by McCallum, whose journey to Norwich City has been one full of challenges and obstacles.
Here, Sky Sports News reporter Rob Dorsett goes behind the scenes to learn more about Norwich's new recruit and experience the inner workings of a transfer deal…
The deal is on…
It's the day before Deadline Day - January 30, 2020.
I leave my home in the Midlands at 5.15am, bound for Norwich. At about the same time, 19-year-old Sam McCallum is being roused by his agent from his digs in Coventry, ready to make the same four-hour road trip, which will see him become a Premier League player.
Just after 9am, we meet in a hotel, five minutes from Norwich's Colney training centre. In exchange for the exclusive access to his transfer, I've been sworn to secrecy.
The night before, Coventry manager Mark Robins, after his side's 0-0 draw with Fleetwood, almost let the cat out of the bag: "There's a bid that has come in for Sam from a Premier League team - a good seven figures but the club have turned it down, thankfully. Hopefully we will be able to keep hold of him."
The transfer rumour mill has kicked in. The national newspapers are awash with suggestions that it's the Premier League champions-in-waiting, Liverpool, who are in for McCallum.
We know differently. And we are about to see first-hand, the transfer happen.
I travel in the car with McCallum and his agent, Olly Henry from Key Sports Management, as we enter the Norwich training ground.
McCallum admits he's nervous.
"This is only the second time I've been to Norfolk," McCallum said. "I had no idea where the training ground is. I'm very nervous to say the least. But it's exciting too. I'm just buzzing to be here."
McCallum meets Norwich sporting director, Stuart Webber, who explains the plan for the day.
He will undergo a two-and-a-half-hour MRI scan at a private clinic nearby, followed by a thorough physical examination at the club, then meetings with manager Daniel Farke, loans manager Neil Adams, player liaison officer Phil Lythgoe, club owner and celebrity chef Delia Smith and the rest of the Norwich board......it's an awful lot for a 19-year-old to take in.
Within half an hour of arriving, we are in a car again - a Norwich club car this time - heading to a private clinic nearby where McCallum is due to have his MRI scan. It takes an hour longer than predicted, because McCallum falls asleep inside the scanner, twitches, and they have to restart the machine. Three and a half hours in total.
We give him a sandwich when we pick him up from the clinic - it's been eight hours since he's had any food. But there's no grumble from McCallum.
"This is my dream day, so a little sacrifice like that isn't an issue," he says.
When we get back to the training ground, it's quickly in to spend an hour with the Norwich team doctor and physio for the physical part of his medical. I watch him being pulled and stretched at every joint, blow into a special machine that measures his lung capacity, and provide five separate blood samples.
This is all very foreign to McCallum. He's never seen the plush surroundings of a Premier League academy, with its world-class medical facilities and a player liaison officer at his beck and call.
Two years ago, McCallum was making his full non-League debut in front of a crowd of 272 people in a local derby at Winch's Field against Ramsgate.
That was when he was at Herne Bay FC, his home-town club, whose first team play in the Isthmian League, in the eighth tier of English football. McCallum has played there since the age of five. Apart from short, unsuccessful spells in the youth ranks at Charlton, Gillingham and Chelsea.
"Herne Bay has always been home," McCallum says.
"We've been in our own little bubble down here. The only real football league club around here is Gillingham. And I was with them for five or six years, but when I got released by them I didn't think anything of my football career, and so just had to focus on school.
"Mum got a phone call confirming the news that I wasn't going to be carrying on with them (Gillingham) and I just broke down. It's hard knowing that all your mates you've grown up with, relationships with players, broken down in that one day. I didn't really have a plan then."
He was 15. Other careers beckoned outside football. He was academically bright, and began planning for his A-levels.
Until one of his coaches mentioned Jamie Vardy's V9 Academy.
"V9 felt like a revival for me," McCallum says. "We had a showcase game in front of loads of scouts, and my housemate came up and told me that Coventry were looking at me. I thought: 'this isn't real!'"
Reality struck when McCallum signed for Coventry on August 9, 2018. At that stage, he was their fourth-choice left-back. But he quickly impressed in training, and manager Mark Robbins gave him his EFL debut on December 29, 2018.
He had played just 25 times in League One, when the Premier League came calling.
Signing on the dotted line…
Norwich were prepared to beat the competition, and pay £3m for him, rising to a possible £4.5m depending on his future success at Carrow Road. Coventry accepted the offer, but only on the condition McCallum returned to the League One club on loan for the remainder of the season, as they push for promotion.
I was alongside McCallum's mum and dad, Sarah and Jon, at the Colney training ground when he signed the eight separate documents that sealed the deal. Jon filmed it all on his phone, as a family memento. And also got his Delia Smith cookbook signed by the author, when Norwich's owner popped in to meet the club's newest recruit.
Delia created one of his favourite recipes, he tells me: Moroccan baked chicken, with chickpeas and rice. It was another reminder of just how humble and likeable Sam McCallum and his family are.
It's a factor that played a crucial role in Norwich's decision to buy.
"What we really like about Sam is the fact that he's had to go again, and probably doubted whether he was ever going to be good enough," explains Webber.
"It brings a difference to him, a humility to him. An appreciation of opportunity rather than an expectation of it."
McCallum is a big investment for Norwich. Only Grant Hanley, when he signed from Newcastle, has cost the club more, since Webber took charge of recruitment in April 2017.
But it's a calculated risk.
"For us, we have to get players at this point," Webber adds."We couldn't have waited for Sam to be proven further and go to a Championship club and be worth £10m, because we can't afford him then.
"It brings an element of risk, because he's got a lot of development to do to get to the level we need him to be at.
"But if we get that right - and Sam gets that right - we could have a future England left-back on our hands, who knows."
Judging by the rapid progress McCallum has made in his career so far, that statement sounds much more credible than it did 18 months ago.
Vindication for Vardy…
Of all the players that came through V9 Academy, 20 went on to win a contract at an EFL club. But McCallum has gone further than anyone else.
"Sam is 100 per cent the reason for V9," Vardy says. "It's this sort of story that it was set up for.
"I've played non-League, Sam has, and we've both played against kids - and I'm sure Sam can say the same - that are obviously good enough to make it as a professional.
"It just needs someone to have the guts to give someone that chance."
I've got Vardy on FaceTime. McCallum and his entire family are glued to the screen, inside his living room at their cosy semi-detached house in Herne Bay. I hand the iPad over so that the two ex-non-Leaguers can chat, and share their experiences.
"I see you guys on the TV, playing in the Premier League," says McCallum. "You've all got some mad stamina to keep it going for 90 minutes.
"Now, even when I'm playing in League One, towards the end of the game I'm getting tired, and I know I'm not doing the same things that I was at the start of the game. I feel I need to build some power and stamina up."
"That will come with time and training," reassures Vardy. "It is a big jump, I admit. I took a full season to get used to it. But once you are used to it, and you're in that routine of the training sessions, to boost your power and your endurance, it gets so much easier. Then it's just down to your own ability to keep it going.
"You've just got to keep doing what you're doing, keep working hard, improving. And that shows why clubs have been looking at him, and why Norwich have now taken a chance. Keep knuckling down, and I'm sure you'll progress further."