Jack Blake had just three senior appearances to his name when he first suffered from the brutality of professional football.
“I can’t quite explain the feeling and put it into words,” he says, recalling the day he was released by Nottingham Forest in 2015. “It was pure heart break and it left me with a bitter angry emotion that would later fuel my motivation to have success elsewhere.
“It definitely strengthened my character and resilience. I believe everything happens for a reason. “
His departure from Forest hurt even more due to his deep connection with the team. Having joined the club as an eight-year-old, his release brought to an end a 13-year stay at the City Ground but change had been the norm in Blake’s final years at the club. The writing was on the wall.
“Having joined Forest at the age of 8, all I ever wanted to do was to play for the first team. I felt a deep connection with the club living only a stones throw from the stadium and supporting them ever since I can remember.
“Unfortunately, after the club chairman Nigel Doughty sadly passed away in 2012, the club changed. I was 17 when a new Kuwaiti owner took over and what proceeded was eight managers in the space of five years. As a young player it became very difficult to break through the ranks and sustain a spot.”
During his final year at the club, the midfielder also suffered an untimely leg break which would keep him out of most of his last season. His release may have been devastating but as previously mentioned, it would go on to fuel him for success in the future.
Having decided to look elsewhere after leaving Forest, the midfielder headed to his grandparents in Phoenix, Arizona to use as his base to find a new club. Most players wait for opportunities to present themselves but that was not the way for Blake. He was proactive and made the move to States determined to secure a contract without even the help of an agent. “Looking back now, this was such a huge risk. It was make or break for my career but I knew deep down that I had the ability and mentality to get my career back on track,” he says.
Trusting his ability, two Englishmen would become instrumental in his return to professional football. The first was fellow Nottingham native, Darren Powell, the head coach at USL side San Antonio. Powell allowed Blake the chance to train with his side in order to reach match fitness. After that, it was former England international Barry Venison’s turn to help. He arranged a trial for the former Nottingham Forest man at Minnesota United, who at the time were still playing in the NASL before their transition to MLS club.
It took just two weeks for Blake to convince the Minnesota management that he was worthy of a deal. It was here that is new life in America would really begin and it ensured that he was reunited with a loved one from home.
“The initial period [after moving to the States] was difficult because I was stepping into the unknown. When I went on trial at first, I was leaving my long time girlfriend [now his wife] behind in England waiting to see if we were going to make the big move or not. It was a very unsettling period.
“Once I had landed my contract at Minnesota, it was a culture change for both of us – we had both never lived outside of Nottingham before – but we adjusted pretty quickly.
“This is why I love the sport though, football gives players and families the opportunity to travel the world and live in a variety of places to broaden our horizons.”
Joining halfway through the season, Blake went on to make 11 appearances in his debut campaign with Minnesota and it was enough of a shot at the NASL for his gamble to move to the US to be vindicated.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the standard in the NASL,” he says. “I was playing with and against top players that had had phenomenal careers and I felt as though where I had landed was very good for me. I would say that the technical ability of the players was similar to back home in the Championship in England but there was more of a concentration and focus on possession in the NASL.
“Sometimes the game was slower in the defensive third but once the ball transitioned into the middle and attacking third it was a hundred miles an hour.
“I loved it.”
Despite thoroughly enjoying his first experience of the NASL, there was still something the midfielder, whose only senior experience before moving abroad was during a loan spell with Mansfield Town, had not managed to do – score his first senior goal. However, now on the books of Jacksonville Armada ahead of the 2017 season, it wouldn’t take long for him to change that.
Again under the stewardship of an English manager, this time former Coventry City youth player Mark Lowry, Blake flourished at his new club.
“The coach’s philosophy allowed players to blossom and play their game to the best of their ability. Coming from England himself, Mark had coached in a variety of environments and was very educated on the game. He understood me and he put me in a very attacking, dynamic role as a number eight that I enjoyed very much. I worked very hard, day in day out, to improve as a player and perfect my role in the team. I found myself back to doing what I love to do which is scoring goals, assisting and working hard.”
Blossomed is one word for it but the English midfielder’s transformation under Lowry was remarkable. In just 27 appearances, he scored nine times and assisted a further four to truly ignite his career across the pond. His performances didn’t go unnoticed as he was named as the league’s Young Player of the Year having also scored the club’s first ever hat trick in a 3-2 win over Indy Eleven in August 2017.
Despite an incredibly successful season personally for Blake, who has represented Scotland at under-19 level through his grandfather’s heritage, he was forced to be on the move again as the NASL went into hiatus. After such a superb 2017 campaign, it wasn’t long until he had a new club in the form of USL side Tampa Bay Rowdies, who also had England legend Joe Cole on their roster.
After one goal in six games, the midfielder joined Real Monarchs on loan for the reminder of the season where he became a regular for the club as they reached the playoff quarter-finals. His impact at the club was clear and he soon made the move to Real Salt Lake’s affiliate club a permanent deal.
“I was elated to join the organisation permanently. I knew before arriving that they had been interested in me for a while so the move made sense. The pathway into the MLS team seems to be strong so that was also another factor in deciding to join on a permanent basis.”
Now going into his fourth season in the States, his goal is clear going into the future and at just 24-years-old, he has time to achieve it.
“When I first came over to the States, I was still understanding the rules and regulations within the leagues to do with international roster spots. Once I had grasped that in order to make the jump as a foreign player into the MLS it is imperative that I obtain a green card [something that counts a player as a domestic player], that was my sole focus.
“I am now on the second phase and hope to receive my green card by the middle of 2019. That will then hopefully open a few doors to fulfil my goal of playing regularly in the MLS.”
He’s made a big impact since moving across the Atlantic and he has a clear goal. It hurt at the time but Blake’s release from Forest may have been a blessing in disguise all along.