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Friday, 31 October 2014

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Joining Carlisle Utd was a brilliant move for me - Frank Simek

Arsenal’s stars were happy to share a changing room and training pitch with Frank Simek but it was the one thing they wouldn’t share with the teenage defender that made him realise he was destined never to become part of the Gunners’ elite.

Frank Simek photo
Frank Simek

Every morning when he arrived at training, the young American would see his team-mates’ glittering array of baby Bentleys, Maseratis and Hummers in the first-team car park.

Then a security guard would wave him towards a roughly concreted area nearby to park alongside the second-hand hatchbacks belonging to his fellow reserve-team players.

As they had to enter the stadium through a different entrance to Arsene Wenger and the Gunners’ big names, there was no chance of Simek forgetting his place in the pecking order even if he did have stars in his eyes everyday on the training ground.

Sol Campbell would offer the young centre-back who dreamed of partnering him in the Arsenal side a few words of encouragement as they made their way onto the training pitch, he’d test himself against marksmen like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, while Kolo Toure became a good a pal.

You might think being surrounded by massive international names would have intimidated the quiet America teenager, but you’d be wrong to underestimate Simek, who was so determined to make it as a professional footballer that he dropped out of high school and left his family home in St Louis, Missouri, to come to live in England on his own at the age of 16.

Simek’s star may not have shone as brightly as those he shared a dressing room with but he still managed to make an impression on Wenger, who handed him his debut in a 5-1 Carling Cup victory over Wolves.

“There was the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Cesc Fabregas and Thierry Henry. To be around those kind of players and train with them, see how they went about their jobs was inspirational and a great learning experience,” said Simek.

“Kolo Toure was a really good guy and would help me. He was the one who would talk to you the most.

“I also liked Sol Campbell. He would show an interest and was a good professional with a good attitude. He was always nice to the youngsters coming through and would ask me about the US. My time at Arsenal was great experience. It’s a different world and you enjoy the best of everything. The likes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea have training facilities to die for. Everything is top-notch and it’s a great platform to succeed.”

How a young American, from a town with a population of less than 3,000, ended up at Arsenal is an interesting story in itself.

Simek had moved to England with his family at the age of five through father Frank senior’s job with Budweiser.

Growing up in Surrey, he became a huge football fan and was given a trial with Arsenal at the age of 12.

But his dream was thrown into doubt when his family returned to America, leaving Simek facing frequent trans-Atlantic crossings on his own during Easter and summer holidays so he could train with Arsenal’s academy players.

“When I was 12 I made up my mind I wanted to play football over here and so it was a blow to have to move back to the States,” said Simek.

“There is a lot of interest in soccer in America but when you get to 14 or 15, most kids are playing baseball or American football. When I’d first moved to England, the football culture really got to me and, to be fair, you can’t play baseball over here.

“I came back on my own at 16. Looking back I was so young but I was used to England and I knew my team-mates so it wasn’t a culture shock. It was the first time I’d lived away from my family which was a bit difficult, but it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.”

But in the end he never got the chance to park in that exclusive car park or walk through that executive entrance.

He was given a taste of first-team football during loan spells with QPR, who converted him into a right-back, and then Bournemouth, but the battle to break into Wenger’s side proved beyond him.

His four years at Arsenal gave him an insight into how the other half live, but having grown up in a Premier League youth system did nothing to equip him for life when the Premier League club threw him onto the scrapheap alongside hundreds of other young footballers when he was 20.

By sheer chance, his name had been scribbled down as one to watch in a notebook belonging to Sheffield Wednesday chief scout Peter Eustace while he was on loan at Bournemouth, and Owls boss Paul Sturrock gave him a chance to earn a contract during his side’s pre-season training break in Scotland.

It was a lucky break that changed the course of his career.

Simek said: “Arsene Wenger is known for giving young players a chance but to make it at Arsenal you have to be exceptional, so there are no hard feelings there from me at all. It was time to move on.

“You have to take it on the chin when you are released, but it wasn’t easy scrounging around for a club and I was lucky to get the chance with Sheffield Wednesday.

“I found that getting released at 20 wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. Even though I’d been at a big club, it didn’t mean I was going to walk into another team. It is a difficult game to make it in and it’s not a nice feeling being released and not knowing what is going to happen.

“The summer I was released, I’d booked flights home and came back for pre-season with nowhere to go, but I was determined to stick it out. Even when I’d been out on loan, I didn’t set world alight but Sheffield Wednesday must have seen something in me.”

Simek may have arrived in Sheffield under the radar but it wasn’t long before he began to fulfil his potential away from the pressures of Arsenal and established himself as a dependable right-back who quickly became a fans’ favourite.

His performances attracted interest from Premier League clubs and earned him a call-up to the USA team.

He made his international debut against Guatemala in March 2007 – the first of five caps for his country.

Simek made 130 appearances in five seasons with Wednesday and was a first-team regular for his first two-and-a-half seasons at Hillsborough until disaster struck in 2007.

During a game against Crystal Palace, he jumped up to try to control a ball on his chest and landed awkwardly, damaging his knee ligaments. He successfully underwent an operation but then two games into his comeback he tore his hamstring in two places during a game against QPR.

It was a serious blow as he became restricted to a bit-part role under respective managers Brian Laws and Alan Irvine, and ended up making just 15 appearances last season, during which Wednesday were relegated.

A parting of the ways was almost inevitable at the end of last season with Simek desperate to reignite his career and Wednesday undergoing a major rebuilding job over the summer. The timing could not have been more perfect for Carlisle, who were reeling from the loss of player-of-the-year Richard Keogh to Coventry City, leaving them without a right-back.

It says everything about the impact Simek has made with his new club that Keogh has become a distant memory.

And he is loving life in Carlisle, where he will shortly be joined permanently by fiancee Kristen, who he marries next year.

“Richard was a cult hero in Carlisle and I heard all about him from the day I signed,” said Simek.

“He was a great player for Carlisle but it wasn’t even in my mind that I had to fill his boots. I was confident in my own ability and I knew what I could bring to the team.

“Knock on wood, it’s been a brilliant move for me. The whole team, the manager and the fans have been great with me.”

Simek is one of a growing number of Americans starring in English football and he has not given up hope of winning a recall to the USA side.

He was last called up by manager Bob Bradley for a friendly against Holland in March this year – and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil is at the back of his mind.

“Bob Bradley and his staff travel round Europe to watch games so it would be nice if I could play well enough to get his attention,” said Simek.

“When I was playing well for Sheffield Wednesday, I know he came to watch my games. I’ve only just turned 26 so I’d like to think there is time for me to get back to playing international football.”

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