Field of dreams: From the the verge of quitting to Stevenage star, Danny Newton is living the dream
PUBLISHED: 09:04 28 April 2018
Danny Loo Photography 2017
Stevenage face Exeter City in their final home game of the season this weekend, and while 2017/18 has not been great for Boro, Danny Newton has shone in his first campaign as a professional. But, the 27-year-old very nearly gave it all up just five years ago.
It’s mid-June, Stevenage FC’s Lamex Stadium is basking in the summer sun and the club’s latest signing is taking his first steps onto the freshly cut turf at his new home. Dressed in a crisp white shirt for the big occasion, Danny Newton proudly raises the red and white Stevenage scarf aloft as photos are snapped to unveil his arrival ahead of this season.
His delight at the move to the Hertfordshire club is clear, with a broad smile plastered across his face. But behind the smile is the story of a man had to work harder than most footballers to achieve his dreams and breakthrough at the age of 26.
Just five years previously, during a spell at Warwickshire based side Nuneaton, Newton very nearly gave up on his dream of playing professional football.
“When I was at Nuneaton I was very close to packing it all in,” he said.
“That was one of my worst years in football because I felt like nothing was working. No matter what I did it was never enough. I was never playing and I felt unsettled.
“I wasn’t getting massive amounts of money to be travelling away every other weekend to not even be in the squad. I still had to travel and I thought to myself ‘I could go work in the factory, earn more money and be home by one o’clock in the afternoon instead of 11 o’clock at night.’”
At this time, the Liverpool-born striker was playing football for love, not money. Working hard on the pitches of non-league football at the weekends, he worked hard off it during the week, earning money doing whatever he could.
“I started working in my stepdad’s warehouse a week after I finished school at 16” he recalls. “Then I started an apprenticeship a couple of months later in electrical engineering. I also used to work in a bar on Friday and Saturday nights collecting glasses for a few months.”
Newton was still working midweek – as a maintenance manager in a factory – during a 28-goal season that would be the beginning of a life changing journey that would see him go from factory floor to Football League.
Having spent time at Leicester City’s development centre during his childhood, he failed to make the step into academy football but continued to play the game he loved. Playing for his stepdad’s Sunday league team at 13, – an experience that Newton said “toughened me up quite quickly” – playing under 18s football at 16 and joining non-league Hinckley United at 17, he was determined to keep lacing up his boots every weekend.
After limited opportunities in his first season at Hinckley, the following campaign saw Newton form an effective strike partnership with Andre Gray, who made a meteoric rise through English football following his departure from the Knitters, going on to play for both Burnley and current club Watford in the Premier League.
With Hinckley close to going bust at the end of the 2011/12 season, both Gray and Newton left the club to move up a level, joining Conference sides Luton Town and Nuneaton respectively, with the pair now just one division below the professional game. But while Gray went on to shine in Bedfordshire, his former striker partner endured a spell that saw him come close to giving up on his dreams.
Newton decided against quitting football but his time at Nuneaton saw his dreams of turning professional begin to fade.
“I’ll be honest,” he said: “When I was at Hinckley, settled, playing games and still at a young age, I heard teams were coming to watch me and asking about me. That’s when I thought the chance would come but after moving to Nuneaton I started to think it was never going to happen, that’s it, I’ll just play non-league for the rest of my career.”
When a spell at Conference North side Brackley Town yielded little success for Newton, finding himself “on the bench every game”. His dreams of becoming a professional footballer were in tatters.
However, sandwiched in between the torrid spells he had endured at Nuneaton and Brackley was a short stay in the Leicestershire village of Barwell, the site of a meteor event on Christmas Eve, 1965 and the centre of shoe production in the East Midlands.
Barwell FC – one of two clubs in the village – initially signed Newton on loan before securing his permanent signature in the summer of 2013. Despite dropping down two divisions it was a move that he need to make “to play games and start enjoying football again,” he said.
hit a purple patch, scoring 11 goals – including a hattrick against Stafford Rangers – in just 13 appearances, picking up three man-of-the-match awards in the process before leaving for Brackley in October 2013.
With his form regained and a new found fitness, Newton was keen to move back up a level: “When I dropped down to Barwell I felt a lot fitter and stronger because I’d been working so hard. I scored a lot of goals so I thought I’ll move back up to the Conference North and I signed for Brackley.”
However, after a three month struggle in Northamptonshire he knew he needed to move, with fellow Conference North side Leamington Town offering him an escape and acquiring his services. However, Newton was only given a contract until the end of the season. He had to impress manager Paul Holleran or he would be on the move again.
The striker stepped up to the challenge, scoring 10 goals in just 18 appearances to earn a new one-year deal for the following season. Despite failing to find the back of the net in the opening eight games he soon hit prolific form, finishing the season with 20 goals in all competitions.
That tally included 11 in the final 12 games of the season, but his exploits in front of goal were not enough to save the club from relegation. With a heavy heart, Newton decided to leave.
“It was tough for me to leave Leamington because I was settled there. I was playing upfront and scoring goals but unfortunately they got relegated. For me to progress at had to stay at that level,” he said.
He clearly left a lasting impression on Holleran during his time at the club, who was full of praise for his former player in an interview with the Leamington Courier following Newton’s move to Stevenage last summer.
“His work ethic is the key thing,” said Holleran. “He had controlled aggression, a desire to win and would tackle a brick wall for you. Any player who is mentally right can get to that level when you add in a sprinkling of quality which is what Danny’s got.
“He had a few knocks along the way but at Leamington he finally found his feet. We gave him the platform, stuck with him and once he got going he got better and better. I’m delighted that somewhere along the chain we were able to help him. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer kid. He’s really come through the hard way.”
Newton himself acknowledged that hard work was key in his rise to the professional game.
“The advice I’d give to people who are in the position I was is to work hard and constantly try to improve,” he said.
“If you look at how I play you can tell I’ve not come from an academy. I’m not the best footballer technically but I’ve tried to improve as the years have gone on. You just have to keep working hard and trying to improve.”
Tamworth FC would be his next destination. Despite being played out of position on the wing and enduring a three-month injury layoff, Newton scored 10 times in his first season. But it was the following campaign that would prove to be not just the best of his career but the one that helped change his life forever.
“We were playing against a team that were top of the league and they came to watch some of their players,” recalls Newton.
‘They’ was Jamie Vardy and the coaching team of the V9 Academy.
Vardy, who garnered much attention for his journey from non-league football to England international and Premier League winner with Leicester, had decided to set his own academy. The V9 Academy was designed to help get non-league players into the professional game, and Vardy was scouring the country to find 42 of the best players outside of the Football League to provide them with the ultimate opportunity of turning pro.
“I played really well against them, tore them to shreds and scored the winner. I got a message on Twitter the next day asking me if I wanted to be in the V9 Academy. I didn’t know anything about it at the time so I had a look, saw what it was about, what they were trying to do and thought ‘I’ve got nothing to lose’ I was 25 or 26, these chances don’t come round very often so I’ve got to take it with both hands.”
Newton’s big opportunity had arrived. His performance, 28-goal season and clean sweep of Tamworth’s end of season awards had clearly impressed Vardy, but now he had to impress scouts from professional clubs all over the England and earn his first pro contract. He was under no illusion that it was now or never, with the striker telling the Mail Online that it was his ‘last chance saloon’.
Remembering the life changing experience in vivid detail, Newton said: “The first couple of days were tough. We finished the season in April so I had six weeks until the course. You kind of keep yourself fit but you don’t have match fitness.
“For me personally, I’ve never played full-time so I went into the first day of training, a double session on the Monday and a game on the Tuesday so it was quite full on. They did it well though. They had everything you needed to recover and then we just did light sessions and drills before the game on the Friday. It was good but tough in the first few days.”
Knowing Friday would be the day when the eyes of the scouts were watching his every move, Newton had to step up. He did just that: “I played well in the game on the Friday, I worked hard, didn’t stop running and thankfully scored,” he said.
He would have to wait patiently to find out if his dream would come true.
“I didn’t know anything. I literally finished the process, went home, flew on holiday the next day and thought if anything happens I’ll hear.
“Two or three days into the holiday I got a text saying Stevenage want to sign you. I got a call from the gaffer [Darren Sarll] and he was talking to me about what he sees in me and stuff like that. So I flew home early from the holiday and got it all sorted.”
Newton had done it. He had become the first V9 Academy to earn a pro contract but more importantly, after years of grafting both on and off the pitch, he had fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer.
He has gone from strength to strength since. His 14 goals in Sky Bet League Two this season has seen him top the club’s scoring chart and become a fan favourite in Hertfordshire, reportedly drawing admiring glances from clubs further up the Football League.
His manager at Tamworth, Andy Morrell, told the Birmingham Mail that he is not surprised at how well Newton has done in his first professional season or by the reported interest from bigger clubs.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise at all that higher league clubs like QPR are being linked with him,” said Morrell: “Danny has hit the ground running since he went to Stevenage. He has taken what he was doing with us last year and been exactly the same. He’s gone about his business like Newts always does. I’m just really pleased for him. He’s a great lad and has taken the full-time thing in his stride.”
While Morrell praised Newton for taking full-time football in his stride, it has not been without its struggles, with the striker speaking candidly about the difficulties he has faced as a new professional.
“If you are new to it you’ve got to find your feet and your bearings,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, you are going to have to try and fit in and get up to speed with everyone else. Even lads coming in from higher up to play in League Two have to do the same. I started well but it’s a long old season and things change. I’m pleased with how my season has gone but you can always improve.”
“When results go against you, you take it into the rest of your life. It used eat me up when I was in nonleague. I’d be miserable for a couple of days but you just have to get on with it because you are at work. When you are playing football every day it’s constantly on your mind. If you’ve missed a chance in a game you try and put it right in training and improve, but it’s everyone’s livelihood and it means so much.”
Newton, although keen to make up for lost time and dreaming big, is trying not to look too far ahead and keep himself grounded.
“Like any other footballer I obviously dream of the Premier League and playing for England but that’s a long way off yet. It’s hard to say how far I’ll go but as long as I keep trying my hardest and doing the best I can do you never know.”
Danny Newton’s story started off like most other boy’s: “Ever since I was able to walk I was kicking a ball so I’ve always dreamt of being a footballer.” As just a dream.
But now, after years of hard work and grafting both on and off the pitch, he’s living it, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I can’t put into words what the opportunity has meant for me. It’s completely changed my life. I’m not going to work in the factory every day, working all hours. I’m playing football every day and doing what I love. Every kid dreams of it and thankfully I’m living it.”