You will have noticed that the academy update in the weekly bulletin is written by Michael Jones. I thought it would be interesting for supporters to hear how Michael came to be part of our academy staff and also involved with Mark Burke’s backroom team. His story is inspirational as he has had to overcome shocking health issues at a very young age and he has remained determined to make a career in football despite the setbacks he has faced.

Michael is now the head of recruitment for the Pro:Direct Academy Hitchin but his role covers far more than just recruitment. He is involved in the coaching and numerous administrative tasks as well as being the minibus driver for away games. Mark Burke has also given Michael the opportunity to assist with the Hitchin Town first team and he helps out at training and on match days.

But to go back to the beginning of Michael’s road to Hitchin he played junior football in Stevenage. He used to play for a grass roots team called Symonds Green FC and he was with them from under 8’s to under 13’s before then moving to Broadhall FC at under 14’s. At under 15’s, he was unfortunate enough to sustain an ACL injury which left him needing an operation which resulted in approximately 18 months out of the game. During this time Michael took the opportunity to gain experience in coaching as he became involved with Symonds Green FC under 11’s, assisting the manager. After his injury, he did continue to play football but his focus had changed towards becoming a coach. At 16 years of age he obtained his FA Level One coaching badge. This allowed him to manage a Symonds Green team independently. When he turned 17 he secured his FA Level Two Coaching badge which led to further opportunities such as casual coaching for Luton Town FC and Stevenage FC.

When Michael left school he enrolled in the AVC College Programme at North Hertfordshire College (Hitchin), which was linked to Hitchin Town FC. This changed hands twice throughout his three years at the college, firstly to Biggleswade Town FC before transferring to Watford FC. When Watford FC ran the programme, he started working for them as a Casual Coach. When his course finished he then started coaching on the college programme for the under 19’s. Half way through the season he was given an opportunity to work at Hertswood Academy college programme which is based in Borehamwood. Alongside this, Michael also decided to take the Stotfold reserve team manager’s role to gain further experience in the senior game.

He spent a year working at Hertswood before a full time position became available at Watford FC, coaching back on the Hitchin college scheme whilst also coaching Arlesey Town reserves who played at Step 6. After working full time at Watford from 2014-2015, a great opportunity became available as an Assistant Coach on a college scheme at Burnley FC as a previous colleague had reached out to ask for Michael to join him. He couldn’t refuse this offer so accepted and moved to Burnley in August 2015.

After moving to Burnley for the new job Michael started to feel very unwell and came back to Hertfordshire in the end of September of 2015. After a week or so he started to feel better, and people thought perhaps that he had just suffered from ‘homesickness’. Luckily enough, Watford FC had not filled his vacant position, so therefore he was reinstated and returned to work until October half term, when he then began to feel extremely unwell again. This led to flu like symptoms which lasted a week before he was taken into Lister hospital. After further tests he was diagnosed with stage 3 Bowel Cancer in November 2015. He was only 22 years old at the time so it was a massive shock. After an operation he was given a colostomy bag as they had to remove a large majority of his bowel. Michael then had 6 months of chemotherapy treatment which started in January 2016 to ensure that any other cancer within his body could be eradicated. However Michael still managed to return to work in between courses of treatment. He had intravenous therapy (given similarly to a drip), every third Friday during this period, and then had to take tablets for 2 weeks, finishing with 1 week of recovery time before his next treatment cycle. After Michael’s final treatment he had a scan which showed no further signs of cancer, meaning he could start to get his life back on track.

This step in the right direction led to him becoming the assistant manager of Harpenden Town (a step 6 side) under the management of Danny Plumb. This proved to be very successful and they secured promotion in their first season. In the next season at step 5 they excelled again finishing third and only missing promotion by 2 points but they won the Divisional Cup. In the next season they only finished mid table due to losing a lot of their players after the success they had in previous seasons. When the season finished the management team stepped down.

During the second season at Harpenden (2017-18) Michael received more bad news as doctors unfortunately found some cancerous cells during a routine 6 monthly scan. This meant he had to have another operation which took place on 2January 2018. Thankfully this did not require any further chemotherapy, only recovery time during which Michael also secured his FA Level 3 UEFA B coaching qualification.

Once he finished at Harpenden Town in the 2018-2019 season, Bedford FC were advertising for a manager ( a step 6 club). Michael was successful in his application and became Bedford’s manager! This was a great experience for him even though it didn’t work out as planned due to ‘football politics’. Michael still continued to do his role at Watford FC until he was made redundant in June 2020. When he found out he reached out to his various contacts within football, but this was difficult due to the current climate of the COVID situation. He made contact with a member of staff from Pro:Direct who mentioned that they were looking for a full time member of staff at Pro:Direct Academy Hitchin. He was then introduced to Mark Burke and Damon Lathrope, who after some initial discussions, offered Michael a role within the team. Michael is now thoroughly enjoying his new role and he continues to increase his
knowledge of the game.

Let us hope Michael continues to further his football career and he is certainly looking forward to a future that at one time seemed an unlikely scenario. He has bravely overcome serious health problems and does not feel sorry for himself at all. I was struck by how positive he has remained and he has fully focused on building a career in football. He was happy for me to share his story and he said that if it helps anyone else who is fighting serious health issues that would make it even more worthwhile.