Sussex born & bred: Conor Chaplin
In the latest of our Sussex born & bred series we spoke to former Portsmouth, Coventry, Barnsley and current Ipswich forward, Conor Chaplin.
“It was a horrible period mentally, I just sat in the shower crying I didn’t think this was meant for me, every time I tried to come back I was just breaking down.” It’s an eye-opening conversation into the life of a footballer and the mental struggles that come with injuries. Conor spent months on the side-lines in a crucial part of his career but was one of the lucky ones to come out of it stronger.
The versatile forward, born in Worthing, was almost destined for some sort of life in football with it instilled in him from a young age in a footballing family.
“I come from a very football-orientated family. My dad, Mark, played for Horsham and I think is one of their highest appearance holders. My grandad, Michael played, my old brother played and my younger brother, Alfie, plays for Lancing Colts currently.
“My grandad has always been inspiring for me, he’s definitely my biggest fan! I’m pretty sure all of his mates and everyone he plays golf with know everything about me. He’s amazing, he watches every interview, every game, he’ll have all the newspaper cuttings, it’s something that makes me really proud, it means a lot.
“Then football all started for me when I went for an open day at Worthing Dynamos when I was six, and that was the first organisation I joined and participated with in terms of football.”
It’s tough for any young, talented, players to get noticed when playing. For Conor, it happened instantly.
“After the opening day for them (Worthing Dynamos) I remember coming home and there was a voicemail on the phone at home, but my dad wouldn’t tell me who it was from. My dad did later to tell me it was someone calling inviting me to the Portsmouth Training Centre.
“It was quite funny actually because my brother thought it was about him! I was obviously very happy; I was just a young lad that loved football and anything to do with it. It was a big deal because Portsmouth were in the Premier League at the time.
“I was still able to play for Worthing Dynamos, through under-6s, under-7s, under-8s, but once I got to under-9s and properly signed with Portsmouth, I had games with them on a Sunday so I could only play with them.
“I still carried on playing summer tournaments for Dynamos and a few other clubs that my friends from school played for. When you’re in an academy you don’t have those summer tournaments and when you’re a kid, they’re the best things in the world!
“I loved football wherever I played, and I was never pressured by my dad or my grandad or anything. My mum used to take me to training but I don’t think she knew as much as they did!
“They just told me to enjoy it really, until I got a bit older anyway and they expected a bit more from me! But when I look back, that was probably a good thing and it instilled the mentality in me I have today.”
For someone as highly rated as Conor was from a young age, we were curious to know his mindset during his key years at school. Getting into an academy is one thing, but making it as a professional, you’re part of a very small minority.
“School was very football-orientated as well and I loved it there; probably because I was scoring four or five goals a game! My first memories were with Orchards Junior School when I was in Year 4. I played for the school all the way up until Year 11; it’s funny because we trained inside at Portsmouth and I’d always be turning up with muddy knees, legs, elbows because of my school football where I’d then be rushing up the A27 to play for Portsmouth!
“I was always rushing around to fit everything in with school games and Portsmouth to the point where I was being subbed off with 10 minutes to go so I could make training. Unless we were losing or drawing then I wouldn’t!
“In Year 6 at Orchards we actually won the national cup at Wembley. We won all the prelim rounds then the final was at Wembley which, when you’re that age, is an unbelievable experience. Our school team was really good, we had no one else who was part of an academy but just a good standard.
“High school was no different it was the same routine of play school games and rush to Portsmouth. In Year 10 we also got to the quarter-finals of the national cup and I missed a penalty in that game! Jimmy Punter was part of those teams, he’s assistant coach at Horsham now. He played centre-back for us, but I think went on to be a goalkeeper for Sussex and I’m still good friends with him now.
“I never wanted to do anything other than play for Portsmouth. We were always told though to make sure our schoolwork was good because such a small percentage make it as a professional footballer.
“I was quite lucky though as I didn’t need to revise too much I was B-grade student throughout the board really except for science and geography which I was horrendous at!”
After impressing immensely for Portsmouth Under-16s, he was also made a regular in the Under-18s side where Conor was scoring a lot of goals. He was offered professional contract as a result but before that, things weren’t looking quite as positive.
“Getting a professional contract was the best feeling in the world. Before that though I got a back injury and missed about six or seven months. I played the back end of my first year as a scholar, played six or seven games but missed a massive part of the season and my development.
“I knew going into the offseason I needed to be as fit as I’d ever been. I was probably doubting myself because of my injuries but I just wanted to leave with no regrets if I didn’t get offered anything. Then two months into the season I was the first to be offered a professional contract.
“The injury was really tough though; I remember that period so clearly. The problem stemmed down to just the volume of training that my body just wasn’t ready for. I had two bulging discs in my spine which was causing me so much pain and whenever I tried to come back running I’d break down again.
“I went through that process three or four times then when I finally got back doing lots of moving, running, striking, I was in training, leant back a bit and hit a sort of whipping shot then I felt my back again.
“I went through lots more rehab to recover then when I returned again, I played against Tottenham away, just a friendly, someone came in on me late and I done ligaments in my foot.
“The physio then sat down with me and told me what I’d done to my ankle, and I just burst into tears, it was another four weeks out. I obviously know a lot about football now and how common an injury it is, it happens to everyone. But at the time I didn’t know that, and the physio told me it was nothing to worry about and that I’d be back.”
Conor was lucky to have a good support network around him and once he finally came out of the other side, that professional contract was waiting.
“In terms of family, I had a great support around me. I didn’t want to say too much to them I just wanted to make them proud and do well. I know how much they sacrificed for me, driving me all over the country to play football. No matter I've played my football, geography wise, their commitment has never changed.
“Football is relentless when you’re that age and you don’t realise how much your family do for you. It’s only now I realise and understand what my dad and others all did for me. I remember he’d leave work early to take me to a game and I’d be raging at him that we were late!
“The coaches at Portsmouth were really good as well. I’m really close with the physio from my time there who is now at Brighton, but it was just always good to know you were in safe hands.
“I was scoring a lot of goals, I was confident, the manager, Mikey Harris, was really, really good in terms of the influence he had on me. I got my contract in the October, but I was really worried because the academy manager, Mark Kelly, told me he wanted to have a meeting with me down at the stadium.
“When I got there I was really scared, I thought I’d done something wrong because you never get called into meetings with the academy manger. My mum and dad were there when I arrived both dressed really smart and wouldn’t tell me what was going on.
“I was getting annoyed at them! But I got in the room and they told me they were offering me a pro contract and it really is one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Conor burst on to the scene at Fratton Park and was being touted as a future star player. After making several appearances when he turned pro, he became a regular in the team under Paul Cook.
“I made my debut in the December, after signing my deal at 17, playing at home to Accrington then scored my first goal in the March. I still needed regular game time so was playing for the under-18s but I remember one game I scored a hat-trick and the youth team manager pulled me and said ‘look I’m texting the manager and saying you can’t be playing here anymore!’
“In that Christmas period, the youth team players all went home for two weeks to be with their families but I was invited to stay and train with the first-team, in on Christmas day and everything, I couldn’t have been happier when he asked me.
“In my first full-season with the first-team, we was with Paul Cook who was really good for me, and I’m back with him now at Ipswich. He managed me really well as a young 18-year-old.
“I think I was top scorer that season with 11 goals, even though I only started about seven games. I always asked him what I can do to improve and stuff, but he’d look me straight in the face and say, ‘I’ve got no answers, you’re a great player, but you’re too young.’
“It was tough for me to take; I was 18 but this went on for a couple of seasons he’d tell me I was the best finisher he’d seen and that he had no excuses for not playing me. But I didn’t know then what I know now which is the high expectancy at Portsmouth.
“A club like Portsmouth is expected to go up every season and it was a lot of pressure to put in a 19-year-old to lead the line in League Two. But he’d also tell me that no one else would be able to provide the same lift and impact off the bench as me.”
The illustrious dream turned into a reality for Chaplin in his third season with Pompey as the club won promotion to League One, a memory Conor treasures.
“We got promoted at Notts County and literally had a party for four days after! That four-week period was the best of my life. It was just one big party after promotion but then we won the remainder of our games and with ten minutes to go of the last game, we even won the league.
“To do it with a club like Portsmouth though is just different. Fratton Park when it gets going is unreal and those last couple of away days and topping the league is just fairy tale stuff and especially to do it with the club I’d been at forever, it was so special.
“The expectancy didn’t change in League One, it’s promotion. The size of the club and what it is I think that’s rightly so as well.”
However, it was unfortunately going to be the start of the end of Conor at Portsmouth. Kenny Jackett replaced Cook at the end of the season and despite remaining a regular in the side, a move away was looking more and more likely.
“The playing style was completely different under Kenny, but he told me I’d be one of the main players. I was really excited, started the season, but after one or two games I wasn’t in the team. It soon became apparent that it wasn’t the kind of football that was going to suit me.
“It was really tough. One of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make. But I wanted to progress and do well, I didn’t want to be a highly thought of striker who’s career then fizzles out I needed to keep getting better.
“I’ve seen it happen too many times; players my age coming on the scene, doing really well, then they get too comfortable and all of a sudden they find themselves out of contract or out of the game. That was something I was really cautious of.
“I had that belief in myself that I could keep going up the leagues and it did work out like that in terms of going to Coventry to prove myself and then Barnsley in The Championship.
“When I was leaving Portsmouth I actually had Barnsley and Coventry that both wanted to sign me, both in League One. I chose Coventry for no particular reason, I looked at the squads and Barnsley had just come down and had a really strong team so I didn’t want to risk being on the bench.
“I was one of the main players at Coventry for six months but then I injured my ankle and I was basically out for the last bit of the season.”
Coventry was a journey that was about to be cut short with Barnsley, now in The Championship, knocking on the door again.
“I wasn’t expecting anything that summer, I’d played 30 or so games for Coventry scored eight goals, I didn’t set the world on fire without doing too badly either. I was on holiday and my agent told me Barnsley were in again and as they’d been promoted to The Championship it just wasn’t something I could turn down.
“We didn’t start well at all. We won our first game then went 17 without a win which is just a crazy amount of games not to win a football match.
“[Daniel] Stendel left then we had Gerhard Struber come in which was the turning point for me. He really liked me, put a lot of belief in me and I did really well for the team whilst he was there, scored a lot of goals.
“Struber himself then left four games into the next season and there’s always uncertainty when that happens because you want whoever comes in to like you.
“Valerien Ismael was appointed and the style of football was very, very tough to play in. But I played all the time and it was successful so you can never knock that.
“It was tough for me, individually because I didn’t score or lot or get many chances. A lot of our goals came from set-pieces but everyone wants to play in a winning team so it was enjoyable in that aspect.”
After two seasons at the Yorkshire club, Conor was, this summer, tempted into a move which saw him reunited with Paul Cook, at Ipswich, a switch that could be the making of him.
“I was leaving a playoff team in The Championship; a league I believe I’ve proved myself in and am good enough to play in. So, to drop down, was a decision influenced firstly by the manager (Paul Cook) and my relationship with him and secondly because of the size of the club. “The project here was very attractive; they’ve signed a lot of good, quality players who are all under the illusion we will go up this year, that’s the only focus.
“It’s another one, similar to Portsmouth, where Ipswich would be an unbelievable club to achieve success with. The fans, the stadium, the passion so it would be amazing to get promoted with this club.”
Conor is a fascinating character and one that has experienced a lot for his age. His talent shone through when times got tough and has developed into a fine footballer.
Lastly, he added words of advice for aspiring footballers in Sussex: “You need hard work more than anything. There will ever be anything more important than hard work. I don’t think it matters how good you are, talent wise or ability wise, if you don’t work hard you’ve got absolutely no chance.
“I think I grasped that quite early and that probably came from my dad and my grandad. But ultimately love what you do. It’s a lot easier to work hard when you love what you do.
“I’ve seen so many players when they get to under-18s, they want to go out with their mates to nightclubs and things like that and that’s the kind of sacrifice you need to make. You cant be doing those things if you want to be elite in what you chose to do.
“I’m not saying never do them but there’s a time and a place and some players just want to be with their friends who aren’t trying to be a professional footballer.”
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