There cannot be many footballers who have left Litherland REMYCA, a ninth-tier club from Liverpool, to go on to become full internationals but when Lewis Jones played for the British Virgin Islands against Martinque two years ago, he achieved that feat. Of course a lot has changed from when he was a young footballer back in Merseyside.
“As a youngster, I never quite passed the test of making it into a professional academy. The closest I came was trialing at Tranmere Rovers and representing my city and county for Liverpool Schoolboys and Merseyside Schoolboys.
“Sunday league is where I spent my time as a youngster and looking back on it, I wouldn’t change it for anything because it taught me to love the game even when I wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
Having progressed from Sunday League to the youth systems of respected non-league sides Marine and Prescot Cables, Jones’s spell in the ninth-tier of football then came with Litherland but he had bigger ambitions and was soon packing his bags as he tried to reach them.
“I left England when I was 18 to further my chances of prolonging my playing career and trying to reach the goal of becoming a professional footballer.
“I always wanted to get a degree in Exercise Science too so the chance to be able to push towards two of my three childhood dreams was too good to turn down.”
Jones started his new adventure at Andrew College in Georgia before continuing his studies at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. Although football had always been his passion and the move was for the best in terms of his career, it was a difficult adjustment period for the attacking midfielder.
“At first, it was hard and without doubt the hardest thing I’d ever signed up for. I missed home every day – I probably called home every day. I couldn’t stand being so far from my family but I knew this was the best chance I had.
“The training you do as a footballer in college, is like that of a full time professional whilst also studying as a full-time student. Between road trips, nights in hotels for away games and recovery sessions, you must find the time to stay on top of everything, whether it be coursework, studying or writing a paper. It is possible, but it takes a lot of determination to be the best you can be.
“After the first year or two, it becomes easier as you have learnt how to balance the lot.”
After playing for the Spring Arbor Cougars in the NAIA college league in 2016, the following two years he would go on to combine playing college football with also playing for club sides. In 2017, he played for NASL side Memphis City in the fourth-tier of US football. He followed that up with playing for PDL side Lansing United, making ten appearances this summer.
“From my experience of playing in college, NPSL and PDL, I can say, in my opinion, that the standard of the PDL is a whole level higher than the rest,” says Jones.
“The PDL attracts the best college players from NCAA Division I, Division II and the NAIA so as you can imagine every day in training is tough and every game is a battle. Every player is of a certain level that borderlines the professional game or is at the very top of the college game.
“This experience for me was probably the best couple of months as it definitely prepares you all as good college players to what life is like being in the world of a professional footballer.”
However, way before Jones had even donned a Memphis or Lansing shirt, he had become a full international. Back in 2016, Jones received a call-up to the British Virgin Islands national team for their Caribbean Cup qualifiers.
“The call up to the BVI squad came around through a friend who played at the same college as me. He was on the squad and his coach liked me as a player and it just went from there.
“It was a weird time when I got called up as I wasn’t aware of much going on but it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I mean I am now 23 and have played international football, a dream come true.”
Players who are British but have not represented any other nation are eligible to play for the island nation off the east coast of Puerto Rico. The collection of islands only homes around 30,000 people so the nation are unsurprisingly often ranked at the very bottom of the FIFA World Rankings. In 2016, they were ranked 204th in the world.
The games Jones was set to compete in were qualifiers for the Caribbean Cup. An oddity to this competition is that the organisers, CONCACAF, accept non-FIFA nations and the Liverpudlian’s first cap came against one of this such nations, the French colony Martinque. The second was against Dominica, a game which would count towards the FIFA rankings.
“The standard in the two games we played was pretty good,” he says. “Martinique are an exceptional side, made up of many French players, they tend to dominate a lot of the teams from Caribbean.
“We put up a solid fight against them, only losing to some late goals. They fielded a full squad of professional players from some of Europe’s first and second divisions.”
His side then lost their second game 7-0 but despite the results, it was an experience which Jones certainly does not regret.
“Albeit it was not at the greatest level, it is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Two international caps, playing against some top talent in Martinique, with their fan base loud as anything, it was an experience that I have and will continue to benefit from.
“I am not sure if I will play again though. There has been a lot of changes in the coaches this past year so that can always affect it.
“But if the opportunity comes and it makes sense for my career, then I would never turn it down.”
The 23-year-old has now finished college and is looking for his first professional contract for next season. With the creation of a brand new professional third tier in the States, USL League One, his chances of a deal have been boosted.
“I am expecting the USL League One to be a great league,” he says. “From what I hear and see in the USL, I am sure this league will follow it to be a success. With my experience in the PDL this past year, I am sure that there is a lot of talent who will be interested in joining clubs in this league so I honestly think the level will be really high.
“I think the league will be a great stepping stone to developing young players to make their way up the leagues, just like we do in England.”
With the league not due to start until March next year, most clubs have empty squads right now. Some clubs are entirely new franchises, like Lansing Ignite, based in the area which Jones’s PDL side Lansing United played in. There have already been two Englishmen signed though, former Nashville midfielder Charlie Dennis has joined South Georgia Tormenta and goalkeeper Greg Hartley has signed for Chattanooga Red Wolves.
With that said, Jones is hoping he can be the next to join them.
“My aim is to play in this league for 2019. My ambitions for my career are to firstly secure that professional contract. Right now, that’s all I want to do. I want to be given the chance to gain my first professional contract then I will take it from there.
“This is a great time for American soccer so for all the footballers who have recently graduated, we have a great opportunity.
“There are also no professional players who play for the British Virgin Islands right now so hopefully this next year I can become the first.”
The attacking midfielder is hopeful his search for a contract will be a successful one and with the college stats to back him up, 17 goals and 17 assists in two seasons, he has already proved what he can do in the States.
“I already have had two out of my three childhood dreams come true, through taking chances and making brave choices whilst always working hard. I am more than ready to complete the third now.
“Dreams do come true, right?”