Joel Lynch Masthead

Sussex born & bred: Joel Lynch

Former Brighton defender talks early life in Sussex, evolution of the game, COVID struggles and more…

In our latest Sussex born & bred interview, we sat down with former, Brighton, Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield, QPR, Sunderland and current Crawley Town defender, Joel Lynch.

“I can look back now and say I've had a good, enjoyable career, played for Wales as well, I've still got a bit to go but I'm definitely proud.”

Joel gives us an extremely honest account of a career that’s seen him play for some huge clubs, but that’s come with a lot of ups and downs. 

He made history as Brighton’s youngest ever captain, when Dean Wilkins gave him the armband in a game against Doncaster Rovers in 2007 at just 19-years old.

It was the start of a career that saw Joel become a consistent, and experienced, Championship defender but before that, we go back to a young boy growing up in Eastbourne.

“I started playing football properly at 7 or 8. I didn't take it that seriously to be fair! It was just something to do with my friends.

“I used to play for Ratton Rangers who I think are still going and played for them all the way through whilst also playing for my school team. The manager there was Colin Chamberlain, and his son, Scott, went all the way up the ages with me at Brighton. 

Joel Lynch Ratton Rangers
Joel (third from left, top row) playing for Ratton Rangers.

“It was quite early on I got noticed because I was quite big for my age and I could kick a ball really far! It gave me a massive advantage when playing early on. 

“I stood out because of that but I didn't sign for Brighton until I was 12. That's when I started getting proper coaching and taking it seriously.”

As Joel said, Brighton took an interest in him, and it was at the Centre of Excellence (CoE) there that was to be the making of him. 

“The CoE at Brighton were brilliant because, not in a bad way, it was quite intimidating, it was quite strict, and they got you in line quite early. 

“I didn't feel under pressure, it just gave me discipline. They were only League 2 at the time, but it really made you feel like you were a big deal. I think that's when I realised that's what I wanted to do but also what I had to do to be a professional.

“When I first went into the Centre of Excellence, I don't think I was thinking about it then but the atmosphere gave you an insight into what it means. 

“I was still playing for my Sunday team and the school team as well. I remember a point where I think I had a game like every day of the week! 

“I was playing for East Sussex Schools, Sussex Schools, Brighton CoE, Ratton Rangers, general school games, so football was literally every day for me until I went full time at Brighton when I was 12. 

“There were two centres for the CoE at Brighton, Brighton and Seaford; I was at the Seaford one. There were a few in that group with me, Tommy Elphick, Wes Fogden, John Sullivan then there was Dean Cox and Jake Robinson in the year above me.” 

At the age of 12, Joel signed a four-year deal which, at the time, was quite a big thing for someone of that age and the level Brighton were at. By the time that was up at the age of 16, a scholarship was always on the cards for him.

“At 16 I signed my scholarship, and I knew that was what I was going to be doing then and make a real go of it. 

“Going into my scholarship, what helped was I'd already played for the reserves as a schoolboy. In that sense I was quite ready for it but going in full-time as a scholar was the real making of me. I thought what was so good was how old school it was, very tough.  

“The old school approach, they were very tough on you and you had to work ridiculously hard in order to survive. Real dog eat dog world. 

“Dean Wilkins was my youth team coach and we had Martin Hinshelwood who was in charge of the whole youth setup. When I went full-time with Dean, it all came together, he was very strict and very disciplined.

“You got something out of every day and at that age it's a massive change. Coming out of school, which was really easy, to then that real strict full-time environment, was huge. Looking back, Dean was the best thing that happened to me, his coaching is the reason I've had a career.” 

Joel progressed quickly as a scholar and was even making the bench as a 16-year-old. From there he eventually made his debut at 18 under Mark McGhee at left-back, and by 19 he was a regular in the side.

It was a bittersweet first season at Brighton, despite being obviously happy to break in the side, Brighton was relegated from the Championship. It was to be the start of the end for him at the Withdean.

“In my second season it all changed, and I played centre-back. Wilkins then became first-team manager which really helped me out having him.

“Dean was sacked then Micky Adams came in and as a young lad I was very confident but naïve as well. It didn't end the best way for me at Brighton or how I'd have liked. 

“I was called up for England Under-19s which had a brilliant squad but Brighton wouldn't let me go because they wanted me in a youth cup game as it was the furthest they'd got. 

“So, I missed my chance to play for England because I had to play in a youth cup game and I took that badly, I was quite bitter. 

“I didn't deal with it in the best way. I still got on with it and thought I might get called up again, but I was young and naïve so took it badly. 

“I started getting a bit of interest and had a few offers on the table which Brighton turned down. I wasn't interested in moving at that age really, but it got to a point where I wasn't playing under Micky Adams. 

“Nottingham Forest came in for me on loan back up in the Championship. I just thought well I'm not being played in League One so why would I not go and play for a Championship team that will play me.” 

Joel Lynch Tevez
 "Looking back, Dean [Wilkins] was the best thing that happened to me, his coaching is the reason I've had a career.” 

It was a huge step up for Joel, at the time, to go to Forest, where the expectation every season is that they get back to the Premier League.

“I was very nervous when I went because of what a big club it was. I remember turning up to the stadium on the day and thinking wow this is proper. Not that it wasn't proper at Brighton, but this was massive. 

“I had an easy life in Brighton and the fans were so good to me as a local lad. I could go training, be around my friends, see my family, but to go to Nottingham it was a completely different environment.  

“I'd moved out on my own in Brighton at 18. I'd go training, come home, be with my mates, play Xbox, eat pizza and that was my life. I'd go out at the weekends and I thought I had the best life ever. 

“In Nottingham I was alone in a big city. I remember walking in the dressing room and seeing Andy Cole thinking what on earth is going on here. Didn't even know he was still playing! I had to start trying when I saw him. 

“I was also still playing left-back so I did feel I spent a lot of my early years playing out of position. They had great, experienced Championship centre-backs at the club though, so my competition was really tough. 

“I thought my years at Forest were tougher than they should have been. Not wasted but I was out of position; it was hard enough playing left-back at Brighton but at Forest in front of 30,000 with their expectation, it was tough.

“I think if I had gone in at centre-back and worked my way in there it could have been better for me development wise but that's just how it went.”

Joel was a regular in his final year at Forest which saw him pick up Fans Player of the Year but turned down a new deal to join Championship newcomers Huddersfield Town.

He describes Huddersfield as “a fantastically well-run club,” and says the fans were “amazing” to him there. Under new boss, David Wagner though, he noticed a big change in the way the game was being played.

Joel Lynch Huddersfield
“It was just real good people at Huddersfield, very friendly club and as I say the fans were great." 

"Simon Grayson signed me, but I swear all the managers that sign me get sacked! He left early that season and Mark Robins came in. Then we had Chris Powell, then finally we had David Wagner. 

“It was just real good people at Huddersfield, very friendly club and as I say the fans were great. Wagner was an experience! Wagner came in and changed everything, he really brought his own philosophy in and we were all a bit taken back by it. 

“We were coming in and training at like 7pm and I just remember thinking no I don't want to do this! We weren't doing well at all still but were popping teams for possession in the last 15 games of the season. 

“We weren't the best team in the league or playoff contenders, but he turned us into a proper team. It wasn't just Wagner but at that time I realised how much football was changing. More money was coming in at the higher levels and then that started creeping into the Championship. 

“More teams became passing teams; like the Swansea team who went up, they had a real identity, and you had no choice but to go and sit in against them.

“Wagner coming over, he had his own ideas and at the time I thought he was a nut case, but he was brilliant! Everything he said, worked. To get that club in the Premier League was unbelievable.” 

Joel had the chance to stay with Wagner the following season but missed out on their promotion to join Queens Park Rangers.

“I still had a year left in my contract and in my last year he took me aside in a meeting and told me, 'next year you'll be my captain and we'll get promoted.' I was sat there like no we won't get promoted we've just been battling relegation for the last three years! 

“I mean fair play to the man because I left, and they went and did it didn't they. I remember watching the Playoff Final thinking why didn't I listen to him!

“Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, my old coach from Forest, had taken the job at QPR and he offered me the chance to go there. For me that was a great decision at the time and also go closer to home.

“Jimmy certainly had his own philosophy and was a brilliant coach. I think with Jimmy, because of who was and the level he played at, the levels he expected from us was so high. 

“That was great but sometimes I think the expectations were probably higher than the level we actually were. It was unfortunate and we were never a bad team under him, but the club needed something new.”

Joel had three seasons at Loftus Road and knows the potential was there to be successful at the club.

“I loved it at QPR and I don't think I appreciated it enough there. They're a massive club and a club that's almost there. They're doing brilliantly right now.

“When I was there we were an almost-team. We didn't have that cutting edge. But again, the expectation was high there, your expected to be one of the better sides in the league. 

“I decided to go to Sunderland because it was the chance to be successful with another huge club. I started to become very unlucky with injuries though and I struggled being so far from home at Sunderland. 

“My life was tough off the pitch at Sunderland and it just didn't work out. My last game for Sunderland, I got knocked out during a game and woke up in an ambulance, so I missed the end of the season. That was my time to earn myself a contract, but I was out for a while and didn't get my full fitness back. 

“I was offered a two-year deal, but only signed a one-year deal because I was convinced we'd get promoted and I could extend my stay then. Another mistake of mine!

If there was a lesson to be learnt from this situation, it’s that you can never take your career for granted, and Joel was about to be in football wilderness due to the incoming pandemic.

“I was released that year and COVID didn't help because my contract had run out when the season restarted, and they chose not to keep me on. It was really tough because no one expected it to be around for so long and how much it changed the game.”

“I thought I'd get a new club straight away and I wanted another good club on my CV. It really didn't work out that way and it got worse and worse.

“I haven't even got the time to tell you how many deals fell through or how many times I almost signed for a club in that 18 months. I will write a book on it because it was absolutely mental!”

Joel QPR
“I loved it at QPR and I don't think I appreciated it enough there. They're a massive club and a club that's almost there. They're doing brilliantly right now."

Finally, though, Joel decided it was time to return home. It was the best decision he could have made.

“I've ended up at Crawley and I have absolutely no idea how it's happened! It just happened and after 18 months of going through what I went through, I needed this. 

“I'm close to home and I'm buzzing just to be playing football again. There was over a year of hundreds of agents over the world offering me different things. I was offered money to go Saudi Arabia at one point which was an interesting conversation with the missus!

“Turkey was mentioned, Serie B in Italy was mentioned, I could've gone literally 20 different countries, then I ended up at home in Crawley!

“I've landed on my feet; it's the best move I could've made. John Yems phoned me while I was just keeping myself fit, virtually had quit football, but went into train with Crawley following my conversation with him. I was training for 6 months just trying to get fit because I was out of shape and had been out for so long. 

“I finally got a deal done until January and that first game I played was one of the highlights of my career, it meant so much. We won the game and I think I cried in my car on the way home. 

“I've signed another year and half deal from January so I know I have that bit of security for a while now so it's perfect. It's such a well-run club when you think about it like tiny budget etc. but they keep it together every year so well. When I compare it to Sunderland, as big a club as it was, I wasn't enjoying going in every day. 

“It was a really tough time for me and then to go through all that time without a club etc. I'm now in a position where I'm buzzing to go into training.” 

Joel Lynch Crawley
Joel's decision to go to Crawley was one of the best he as made.

So how does Joel look back on his career as a whole? 

“Only really recently I've appreciated the career I've had. For a while, I worried that I had let myself down a bit. Made too many mistakes, not performed well enough in certain times, but if I look back, take everything into consideration, I appreciate it a lot more now.

“There's so many ups and down in football, you lose, you win, you can beat yourself up, and I'm that player that beats themselves up which has held me back. 

“I can look back now and say I've had a good, enjoyable career, played for Wales as well, I've still got a bit to go but I'm definitely proud. 

“The Wales callup was a proud one for my dad. I was on the bench a good few times but there was strong competition there like Ashley Williams. It's one I'll tell my son about.”

It’s been an interesting career for Joel, one that you can take a lot of lessons from. He’s played for some huge clubs, and whilst he may not have achieved the success he wanted, he can look back and say he’s had a very solid career, at a good level.

Lastly he offered his advice to aspiring footballers in Sussex: “Nowadays you have to have to give it your absolute all. It's so much harder now and you just have to get your head down and work your way through. 

“Your attitude is your biggest attribute. I see so many players, young talent, that have gone past me, but their attitude has let them down. 

“I think that's why I was lucky being brought up in that old school environment at Brighton, because you had to do everything right and you wouldn't be able to let your teammates down because you'd get a bollocking. 

“Young players these days are paid so much money and not even playing games. The new 23s system I don't really get because all of a sudden you have 22-year-old's who haven't even played a first team game.

“You need to know how tough and hard it's going to be, put everything into it but most importantly, appreciate it.”

To find out more about playing opportunities in Sussex please contact:

Development
T: 01903 766855
E: Development@SussexFA.com

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