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Jamal Lowe: 'I was a PE teacher at 22 and now I'm playing in the Premier League... it's surreal'

Jamal Lowe: 'I was a PE teacher at 22 and now I'm playing in the Premier League... it's surreal'

EXCLUSIVE: Six years after almost quitting football, Jamal Lowe is a Premier League player with four appearances under his belt for Jamaica.

It is almost 48 hours since he shared a pitch with seven-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi and Jamal Lowe is recalling the lowest point of his career to date. "At that point, I thought I'd never play football again," he tells SPORTbible. "I couldn't believe it. I was devastated."

So what happened? Seven years ago, when he was 21-years-old – the same age as England international Bukayo Saka – non-league journeyman Lowe was juggling life as a full-time PE teacher with a bit part role at National League South side Hemel Hempstead.

At the end of October 2015, after spending the majority of his week teaching around 30 kids at a primary school in South London, the former Barnet forward joined his teammates on a two-hour, 95-mile bus journey to Hampshire. 

Lowe was named in a 16-man squad ahead of their seventh-tier clash against Gosport Borough that afternoon but when manager Dean Brennan finished reading out Saturday's starting lineup and substitutes before kick-off, something was wrong.

To his surprise, he didn't hear his name called. 

"I decided to get changed into my kit anyway," says Lowe, who can’t help but laugh at how bizarre the situation was. "I thought it was a mistake but as I was getting dressed, one of the coaches pulled me to one side. He said, 'you're not on the bench today.' I asked what he meant and he explained that the gaffer thought it was best that I was left out completely. That was it."

Moments later, after walking out of the away dressing room, a devastated Lowe spotted his father, who had also made the long trip down south. 

"I told him I'd not even made the subs' bench," he remembers. "We jumped over the little barrier, got into his van and drove back home. How can you bring me to a game and name one less player than you're allowed on a teamsheet?”. 

It is almost six years to the day since Jamal, now 28, was left out of Hemel Hempstead's matchday squad for their National League South clash against Gosport. He describes that moment as an "all time low" in a career featuring six loan spells between 2012 to 2015.

But rather than give up and accept defeat, the Harrow-born forward has gone on to represent his country at the highest level. Last month, he was handed his Premier League debut against Manchester City and only last week, the former St Albans loanee faced off against arguably the greatest footballer that’s ever lived.

“In certain times in my life, it didn’t look like it would happen and neither did playing another game in the Football League. I feel blessed."

In January 2015, Jamal Lowe had just finished his sixth loan spell in three years when he decided enough was enough.

After coming through the youth ranks at Barnet when they were still playing in the Football League, Lowe made the brave call to pack his bags and leave. In his own words, he wanted to "break out and forge his own path" after struggling to pick up first-team minutes at Canons Park.

The idea was to join a Conference South club, pick up a solid run of games at first-team level and impress onlooking scouts. If all went to plan, a League Two club would eventually come knocking. Or so he thought.

"It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," Lowe admits. "Opportunities weren't as forthcoming as I predicted. I was just a bit naive, really. I was getting paid but it wasn’t much. In fact, it was cash in hand in a brown envelope. It wasn't enough to live off. I had to dive into full-time work.”

A spell at St Albans, who were playing in the Conference South at the time, followed. But to pay the bills, he needed a full-time job.

Jon Nurse, a former teammate he used to room with at Barnet, had an idea. After starting up a coaching company in Kingston, South London, the former Barbados international invited Lowe to work as a part-time teacher at an after-school club.

"It was on the other side of London," he says. "But it was a must for me. I had to make ends meet and eventually, I found a way to travel across London every day. At the start, I only did two days a week but as the weeks, months and years went on, I was invited by the school to become a full-time PE teacher. I was buzzing."

Juggling life as a semi-professional footballer with education wasn't easy at times, but having a full-time job he enjoyed made it all worthwhile. Lowe embraced life as a teacher, where he found great satisfaction from helping children reach their potential.

“At the start, speaking to 30 kids that may or may not want to listen was quite daunting but as you gained more experience in the job, it became really rewarding," he smiles.

"There are always a few kids in each class that aren’t as confident when it comes to PE and they always get picked last. They stay at the back and try not to get involved as much but at the end of the term, getting those kids to come out of their shell and get more involved in sessions was incredible.

"I wanted to get the most out of the shyest kid in the class. I've recently had a few messages from some of my former students. It's surreal. At the end of the day, I was their PE teacher.”

Jamal Lowe during his PE teaching days. Image credit: Instagram/jamzlowe
Jamal Lowe during his PE teaching days. Image credit: Instagram/jamzlowe

Away from the classroom and Lowe was looking for a new club after being left out of Hemel Hempstead's matchday squad for their away trip to Gosport. He was enjoying life as a teacher but in the back of his mind, an ambition to make it in football was still burning, despite the setbacks.

"It looked like my dream of playing professionally was over," he recalls, seven years on. "But then I went to Hampton & Richmond, which was another league down at the time. It was seen as a step backwards but that's when I started to enjoy football again."

Hampton & Richmond, who had Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler as their assistant manager at the time, gave Lowe the regular first-team football he craved. They brought him in and he soon repaid manager Alan Dowson's faith with 29 goals in 48 games.

"They took the shackles off and just said, 'enjoy it as much as you can.' It changed everything," he says.

Hampton were soon promoted to the Conference South thanks, in part, to their biggest talent; Lowe. And with the end goal of League Two football in sight once again, he decided to take the biggest risk yet. Lowe walked away from his job as a PE teacher to give it one last shot.

Lowe took immense pride in developing students during his teaching career. Image credit: Instagram/jamzlowe
Lowe took immense pride in developing students during his teaching career. Image credit: Instagram/jamzlowe

“I just threw all my eggs into one basket," says the 28-year-old. "It was all or nothing.”

Lowe wanted to live like a seasoned professional, so after buying a Fitness First gym membership, he started to organise his own training sessions at the local park. "I went to West Harrow park on my own every single day," he remembers.

"I would take all of my coaching equipment. Two bags of balls, cones, poles... the lot. I used to dribble through cones on my own. If I spotted someone with all that equipment at the park now..." he laughs.

“It was a mad decision [to quit the job as a PE teacher]. Financially, those months were really tough. I still had a car and phone to pay for and I was buying protein shakes from Holland & Barrett, which were expensive. I was also living in my mum's house. It was a crazy time but thankfully, Portsmouth came in."

A life-changing moment. Jamal signs a deal with League Two side Portsmouth. Image credit: @jamzlowe/Instagram
A life-changing moment. Jamal signs a deal with League Two side Portsmouth. Image credit: @jamzlowe/Instagram

You might have spotted a trend throughout this story. The month of October is often an eventful one for Jamal Lowe and 2017 was no different.

After becoming a key player during his debut season at Hampton & Richmond, where he was scoring every other game under the management team of Dowson and Tyler, who managed to unlock the potential many knew he possessed, Lowe continued to impress in the Conference South.

Then, on one particular afternoon in October, a number of Portsmouth scouts turned up to watch. This was his chance.

"They stood out like a sore thumb because the stadium wasn't full," he remembers. "They were wearing Portsmouth trackies and long Arsene Wenger-type jackets. I was saying to myself, 'I better have a good game here'.

In typically modest fashion, Lowe says he played "decent" that day. Clearly that was the case because three days later, Hampton manager Alan Dowson called to say that Portsmouth were keen on bringing the forward to Fratton Park.

"I remember the conversation clearly," Lowe recalls. "He said, ‘I'm going to tell them that they should take you' and I replied, ‘Please tell them to sign me!'

A couple of days later, the former Premier League side made their interest known with a phone call. They wanted to sign Lowe on a pre-agreement. Portsmouth, who were playing in League Two at the time, made an approach in October, meaning he couldn't officially sign until January 1.

"They were keen to lock me into a deal because at that stage, there were a few clubs interested," he says. "I was buzzing with that and I finally moved down in January. It was a mad end to the campaign. We ended up winning the league on the final day.

“That season, I was training every day in the park, on top of Hampton training on Tuesday and Thursday nights before game day on Saturday. By the end of October, Portsmouth had offered me a pre agreement. Those couple of months after quitting my job and going as hard as physically possible paid off.”

Lowe is beaming from ear to ear as he talks about joining Portsmouth and the success that followed.

After spending two-and-a-half seasons with Pompey, he scored 30 goals in 119 games for the club before earning a move to Championship side Wigan, who were managed by Paul Cook; the manager that gave the forward his chance to shine at Portsmouth.

He went on to appear in all of Wigan's 46 Championship games during 2019/20 and following an impressive campaign, Swansea soon arrived on the scene with a bid. His journey from the seventh tier of non-league to England's top flight was in touching distance.

For many, though, that dream of playing professionally would have been erased many years ago, when he was left out of that matchday squad against Gosport Borough at aged 22. Lowe has a message for someone who may have given up hope of making it.

“Football is a game of opinions," he says. "People often ask, who is the greatest of all time? One person will say they love Ronaldo while another says Messi. It's going to be the same with coaches. One will rate you and the other might not. It's just about trying to stay consistent and finding the right one for you.

"If you work hard enough then you will prevail."

Through hard work and commitment, Lowe continued to impress at new club Swansea. He contributed 14 league goals as Steve Cooper's side reached the Championship play-off final, where they stumbled to a 2-0 defeat after goals from Ivan Toney and Emiliano Marcondes sealed Brentford's place in the Premier League.

Still, his individual efforts certainly didn't go unnoticed and on transfer deadline day, another soon-to-be promoted side, Bournemouth, made their move.

"It was the first time I've ever been involved in a deadline day deal," Lowe says. "I got a phone call the day before deadline day, saying that Bournemouth were interested. Basically, if they offered the right amount of money, then Swansea would take it.

"I was quite settled in Swansea at the time but the next day, it started to get a lot more serious. There were plenty of phone calls. I said, you know what, I want this to happen now. I spoke to the manager and chief executive. Everyone was beating on the same drum. I drove straight down to Bournemouth and got it all sorted. That was a long drive by the way!"

Lowe says he was majorly impressed by then-manager Scott Parker, who played a huge role in his move to Dean Court.

“The way he spoke to the group was something else," he says. "Scott's motivational team talks were up there with the very best I've seen. He made you feel like you were going to war on the pitch. That was massive for me."

Parker's memorable team talk during their clash against Nottingham Forest last season, when he sat down alongside his players to deliver a powerful message as they bid for automatic promotion, was a regular occurrence, according to Lowe.

"He was like that every single week," he says. "In fact, I wouldn't say that was his best one. There were some real emotional ones last year. Everyone was so hyped.”

Fast forward a year and, after helping Bournemouth reach the Premier League with a handful of goals, the 28-year-old made his top flight debut when Parker brought him on in the final minutes of Bournemouth's clash against Manchester City in August.

After everything he's been through over the past ten years, this was, in his words, a surreal moment.

"I remember looking around and seeing De Bruyne and Haaland on the pitch," Lowe says. "It's still surreal for me. Sometimes I just feel like I'm a spectator... a little kid looking at all these star players. But I've got to get it into my head that this is now where I am. I've got to be able to compete against these guys.

"But there's always that kid inside you. I don't think that'll ever get old for me. I hope it doesn't. I hope I don't get numb to playing against the world's top players in the world's best stadiums."

A month later, Lowe was forced to pinch himself again, when he lined up alongside Lionel Messi while playing for Jamaica in an international friendly against Argentina.

"When you see him in the flesh, it's just different," he says. "I couldn't stop smiling, even when I was on the pitch... I've never smiled when my team conceded a goal but when he scored against us, I couldn't help but smile at what I was witnessing."

It sounds cliché to write this but, Lowe's story is fairytale stuff. And that drives home when he speaks about recently watching a video of a St Albans game from 2014, when he scored a goal in front of 200 people.

"It's been some journey," he says. "When I score my first Prem goal, I think the emotion is going to take over. I might just take my shirt off and jump into the crowd.”

Jamal Lowe gets ready to make his Premier League debut against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City. Image credit: AFC Bournemouth
Jamal Lowe gets ready to make his Premier League debut against reigning Premier League champions Manchester City. Image credit: AFC Bournemouth

From jumping into a full-time job as a PE teacher to training in a park on his own, Lowe has overcome so many obstacles on his way to becoming a professional footballer.

Now, he is aiming for the pinnacle of any player's career.

"I want to play in a World Cup for Jamaica," he grins. "The next World Cup is in the United States and I want to be on the plane. From PE teacher to playing in the World Cup. Imagine..."

Featured Image Credit: Jamal Lowe/SPORTbible

Topics: Spotlight, Premier League, Lionel Messi, Bournemouth, Jamaica, Football World Cup, Non-League, Portsmouth, League Two, Wigan Athletic, Swansea, EFL Championship