James O’Halloran will follow in the footsteps of Chris Smalling after his selection for the England Schoolboys under-18 side.
The 16-year-old, who plays for Maidstone United in the Ryman Youth League, made it through regional and national trials to earn a place in the 18-man squad for the upcoming Centenary Shield campaign.
This time last week he was at the Lilleshall National Sports Centre – one of 32 players vying to represent his country. And in this hi-tech world, it was a traditional letter that arrived on the doormat on Tuesday just gone.
James takes up the story: “I was at school when my brother phoned me to say a letter had arrived. I was so nervous about the answer, whether it was a yes or a no, so I asked him to open it for me. He was screaming down the phone when he did. He brought the letter to the school and it said that they were pleased to inform me that I’d been selected for the squad.
“I was a bit cautious before I got the letter because at the previous trial there was a boy who was playing in my position who took on most of the team and slotted the ball into the top corner. He was in the final 32, played in the game before mine and rattled the crossbar straight away. When I played my game I was able to put two goals in and set a few up as well.
“On the way home I wasn’t too confident but proud that I’d had the experience and scored twice. Inside I felt I’d done enough but it was the cautious side I had to take.”
The England Schoolboys set-up has provided a platform for players to make it in the professional game – most notably Chris Smalling who was selected for the side during his spell at Maidstone.
James said: “Everyone that I’ve been talking to has said about where this could lead. I’ve just got to see how it goes and take it as it comes. I’ve got to train my hardest and play my best to impress my managers and take on board what they’ve got to say. It’s a great opportunity for me. The fact I got into the final 32 was an achievement and it’s still sinking in that I got into the 18.”
The left winger started playing football with Meopham Colts in their under 9s side. He went on to play for Invicta Lions, Corinthian and Bearsted, before a move to the Gallagher Stadium last season.
James added: “My best move was from Bearsted to Maidstone at under 16s. I had one of the best seasons I’ve ever had under Mark Taylor and now I am in the under 18s. I played district football from year six to 11 and been with the county side too. It’s been my life over the past few years.
“I trained with Maidstone’s first team last summer and that was a great experience to get used to the physicality of the men’s game, how quick it is and how you get less time on the ball compared to youth football.”
James was recommended to trial for the English Schools Football Association representative side by county coaches John Coles and Steve King. The first trial in Hertfordshire saw him compete against 60 others. Those players were whittled down for an area heat against trialists from the north, Midlands and south, and from that the final 32 were selected for last weekend’s final cut.
Stones first team boss Jay Saunders said: “I am delighted for him. It’s great for the youth lads here to see someone from the club do it and it will give them the belief that others could follow. I saw him play last season and we had him in to train with us pre-season and he didn’t look out of place. He’s got a good future ahead of him, he’s someone we’ll keep an eye on and I hope he does really well.”
Head of Kent youth football at the club, Tony Birchard, added: “To make the last 18 is a massive achievement and we’re very proud of him. He’s a great lad to have around the place and has all the attributes to progress in the game. We wish him every success.”
James was one of four Kent players to be selected for the games against Northern Ireland (4 March), Wales (18 March), Scotland (1 April) and Republic of Ireland (8 April).