Soccer star Jimmy Harding is just 18 but already receiving accolades and awards after his first year in the States, having recently been named Freshman of the Year for mathematics at the University of Findlay in Ohio.
FirstPoint USA spoke to the English central defender, born and brought up in Bradford, to hear more about his journey …
FP: First of all, how are you, how is life right now where you are?
JH: At the moment life’s just a combination of boredom and tiredness due to the lockdown as I’m back in England with my parents currently. My days are mainly occupied with training and eating for preparation for the next season to make sure it’s a trophy winning one, and obviously there’s a fair amount of Netflix and Ps4 thrown in there on a night time.
FP: Take us back to the start of your journey - when and how did you start kicking a ball, who were your early influences?
JH: I started playing football from about the age of six, purely just for fun. My older brother was a cyclist so I actually started in that sport from around the age of two but I didn’t enjoy it at much as him so my parents took me to play the sport I liked more as I was what you could call an energetic kid, never sitting still, as many of my teachers would tell you. My Dad was always a supporter of Leeds United so I grew up in a household where that was a strong influence as I learned to love the sport and soon found out I loved playing it way more than watching. I didn’t take it too seriously until one season when I was about 13/14 where I started playing better, moving to academies and bouncing up and around different age groups. My main influence was when I returned to my old team, a coach there called John Francis (who used to play in for Burnley), who must’ve seen something in me and truly brought me into football and made me the player I am today. I’ve always wanted to be like my idols on the big screen but he was truly the biggest influence on my game alongside, in my last season in England, another coach called Sam Sutton. He took the Barnsley shadow squad and helped bring me into a different team where I also became a better player and person.
My idols in the game were different to most, them being Vinny Jones, John Terry and Patrick Kisnorbo as I was always a kid who enjoyed a hard tackle over a goal.
FP: What were your ambitions at a young age? Did you always want to pursue life as a sportsman?
JH: I grew up saying I wanted to be a footballer but it was never really a true ambition in my heart as younger I never had the potential until I hit my growth spurt and started training harder, and that’s when I started to get noticed by coaches and such. I’ve always loved sport so a job in it would be a dream but I’m somewhat gifted mathematically as well, I’ve been told, so a job in this sector is an option to allow me I to support my parents as they’ve always done to me. The day I earn money for stepping on a pitch is my true aim however, whatever the financial reward, is the day I can be happy with myself for football and start pushing further up the ladder.
FP: Talk us through the first moment the possibility of the US was raised and take us to the point you secured your scholarship?
JH: I first heard about it when I was playing a few years ahead of my age and one of the players at the club went off to America. He had really always been someone in the training sessions (as I was legally too young to play in games for them) that I saw as one of the better players I’d played with. Then a couple years passed and I started looking at university options and how I could take on my football to the next level, but every opportunity either restricted my level or restricted my education. Then someone mentioned America to me and I remembered Jack (the player who had left a couple years before,) so that started my journey. I then went to one of the trial days for FirstPoint to find out and the coaches there all ranked me in the top 3 players who had attended so this was when it started to feel like it truly could be a viable option for me, as I’d never personally had the confidence in myself to call myself a great player or dream that I could actually be good enough for this. This developed to the showcase day where I again got told to hold back and was approached by six or seven different coaches from America as well as through my online profile. This kept developing until I got all my offers together and could decide which one was the best for me, both playing level and education wise.
FP: What kind of support did you enjoy through the process?
JH: I really enjoyed the playing days where I got to get all my footage together. I also got in contact with Jack and went to see him and his parents when he was back and this actually led to him saying his coach was looking for a defender, he showed his coach my film and now I’m his teammate over in America. Having people to talk to who had already done the journey I was looking to do was easily the most help and they could tell me exactly what was good or not and how it would affect me.
FP: What were your first impressions on arrival? Sum up your first-year experience in Ohio both as an athlete and as a scholar?
JH: On arrival it took me about a week to come round from the jet lag and heat which I didn’t expect to be such a factor but after that I loved it. Touring the facilities and kit day was a real high, just getting to see everything for the first time was great and I was in awe. My first season didn’t go as planned on the field but I was really lacking in confidence, and I think I didn’t take to the movement of my life as easily as other people I know. My preseason wasn’t in line with my ability as I just couldn’t get my confidence up which I genuinely believe to be one of the biggest factors in being a good player, with talent but no confidence, a player will never get anywhere. However as the season went on I got my head down and trained as I slowly rebuilt myself, started getting more and more game time and eventually could show the team, even just partially, the player I was back in England. I think that would be my main advice for anyone nervous to go. Don’t be nervous as it will be the best experience on your life, the only thing nervousness will do for you is negatively impact your confidence and play. However off the field in classes I just used my work rate to get work done as soon as possible so I could spend more time focusing on my game, and a lot of the work I completed was similar to A-level work I had previously done so this really helped my transition as the first few weeks weren’t easy but a good transition into the classes and work.
FP: And the lifestyle where you were based, what is that like? Any comparisons with home at all?
JH: The place I play at is a smaller town with little nightlife in walkable distance, and with rules in place on the team, drinking was only allowed on Saturday nights (with Sunday being our only day off,) meaning this was definitely beneficial for fitness levels. This was the main difference however if really wanted, mainly after the season, a city with large nightlife was a 25-minute drive away. Other than the Saturday nights and Sundays my time was largely spent training, recovering or doing work. However once you get into the rhythm of life over there this feels natural and not tiring at all and it truly developed me into a way better person with a better work rate in life to get things accomplished. The comparisons at home aren’t many as it truly is like living two lives, but I liked this as in campus you were one of the athletes, as well as international, so you felt not only special but also like you had more of a duty to work harder. This just compelled me to work more whereas at home when you return it’s nice to chill out, see friends and in general take a bit of time off (just make sure your fitness level is kept up!)
FP: You have just won the Freshman of the Year prize, tell us about that? Have you been able to celebrate?
JH: Unfortunately not really as the UK is still pretty much in lockdown. I did treat myself to a takeaway but that’s about as much as I could do!
FP: What's next for you, what are your ambitions for the next academic and sporting year?
JH: Next year I’m aiming to keep the same academic level and increase massively on my football as I now I know what I’m going in for and I’m definitely not letting all the training I’ve been doing in this unusually long summer go to waste. I hopefully will be going from the first defensive substitute to the starting centre back, as I wasn’t happy with myself that I didn’t get this spot last year. I was told to go in as a defender it is very rare to slot straight into a starting role but the standards I set for myself are higher than what other people do for me. I think this is what drives me, especially as I was really close last year to getting the starting role, even getting it for a couple games and securing a man-of-the-match which helped me gain some confidence back.
FP: Finally, what would you say to young people and their parents who might be thinking about the option of a US sports scholarship?
JH: I would personally say go for it! As long as you pick the right university which I managed to do and are ready for some tough work, you’ll come out on the other side a better player and a massively better person. It forces you to be more independent and strict on yourself with what you can do in your free time and with eating etc – your whole life is dedicated to it. You also get to meet great new people that will stay with you for life, I’ve definitely done this and I’ve only spent one year out there.
Inspired by Jimmy? Find out more about athlete-scholar opportunities in the US via FirstPoint’s free digital platform: https://www.firstpointusa.com/