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This time last year, on a bobbly pitch in East London, Kyrell and Kyreece Lisbie were playing Sunday League football with their mates after numerous setbacks at academy level. Last week, one of the twins received a call up to train with Watford's first team; three years after being told he wasn't good enough by the club.
"It still doesn't feel real," says Kyreece, who trained in front of Claudio Ranieri on Tuesday morning. "When I go to sleep, I don't feel like I'm a Watford player. It's weird. After chasing something for so many years, I finally have it but still, I haven't grasped it yet. I go to training sometimes and I just look down at my shirt and see that badge. I start smiling.
"A year ago today, I wasn't getting any chances. I felt like giving up but look what has happened. You just never know."
In modern times, as the competition for places becomes more and more fierce, it has become exceptionally difficult to succeed as a professional footballer. If you crunch down the numbers, a total of 0.5% of players who sign for a Premier League club's academy at under-nine level will go on to make a first team appearance, according to statistics.
The chances of 'making it' are slim. 1 in 200, to be exact.
More often than not those who are chewed up and spat out by the system will struggle to bounce back. Kyreece and Kyrell Lisbie know more than most how it feels to be let go.
The twins were labelled too injury prone to progress after 18 months in Leyton Orient's academy system. It was only the start of their journey in football but it had a big impact on their state of mind. "Being released made me doubt whether I was actually good enough," says Kyreece. "Seeing all my friends playing academy football was really difficult."
From that moment on, many would have given up on their dream. But not these two.
Since being told about their release on that afternoon in 2017, the children of former Charlton and Ipswich striker Kevin Lisbie have gone on to thrive in one of the country's most prestigious systems; a youth academy where Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane honed their craft to become first-team regulars at club and international level.
This story should serve as a reminder that rejection shouldn't define you but instead, redefine you.
Arguably the most important moment in a young footballer's life is often delivered by one coach; a single opinion that can make or break your chances of progressing through the ranks.
In 2017, the Lisbie twins were considered to be below the necessary standard. As a result, they were both released by Leyton Orient. "I knew I wasn't one of the best there," Kyrell admits. "Deep down, I knew I wasn't going to get that contract renewal - just because of the way I was performing. I wasn't at my best."
Clearly lacking in confidence, they didn't have the best of seasons prior to being released. In fact, coaches decided to relegate them down a year group as they struggled for consistency. They had built close relationships with their teammates but it just wasn't meant to be. The writing was on the wall.
In the coming days, weeks and months ahead, things were about to get even tougher for the boys when dad Kevin decided to act quickly.
The former Jamaica international invited those who had been let go from the U15's group to form a new team. In a bid to develop their skills he used both football and futsal to help them improve their overall game understanding. He hired a pitch and got to work at Leyton Orient's training ground.
That's right. As their former teammates finished a session at 7:30 pm, Kyrell and Kyreece would walk past them; a constant reminder of what could have been.
"I could sense that was really hard for them," Kevin remembers. "But it was a process. I wanted them to just get their head down and work on developing rather than getting kicked out of the system. I believe that made them a lot stronger than they probably realised. The fact they had to see their friends, shake their hands and see the coach who released them; I think that was a massive part of their development and mental state."
It was hard but looking back, the twins can see how important this stage was in their journey.
"It was really helpful," Kyreece admits. "I had to drive past the Leyton Orient training ground but my dad got us through it. I feel it played a big role in our development. Futsal also worked on our technique. Months before, I couldn't do a couple of kick-ups in a row. I wasn't great technically but futsal helped me develop faster."
Both of them improved in tighter situations and their understanding of tactics became apparent as the weeks went by. Several months later and, after working hard to improve their overall game, both Kyrell and Kyreece were rejected on trial at Colchester and Watford.
Watford academy coach Tom Hart was present that day. He told dad Kevin that they just weren't good enough.
Still, the twins were determined to prove everyone wrong. Another year went by and after impressing at a local level, Championship side Millwall were the next club to offer the pair a two week trial in 2019. "It was different being back in the system," Kyrell remembers. "It felt good. I felt I was of their standard and I felt like I was ready."
They would play in two trial games; the first being a clash against Charlton. "I played alright but I missed a one-on-one chance. I couldn't stop thinking about that for months," Kyrell remembers. "I felt like that was a big part of the decision. It showed my inconsistency. They actually used the word inconsistent."
Kevin approached those in charge at Millwall, who decided against taking a chance on the twins.
"I went to speak to the coach regarding the decision," he says. "I don't think I've ever told Kyreece this but the coach actually said look, we are going to keep an eye on Kyrell but we don't feel Kyreece is good enough. They obviously thought Kyrell was closer to the academy level. But Kyreece stood by his brother."
Months went by and after more setbacks, including the difficult period of lockdown, the Lisbie twins continued to work and improve at Sunday League level with local team Shield Academy. Throughout that time, the twins wanted to pick up as many first-team minutes as possible but dad Kevin wanted to focus on other aspects of their game.
They would play "every now and then" but it was far from regular. Come rain or shine, you would see all three Lisbie's on that training pitch, working to improve on every aspect of their game to prepare them for when that big opportunity arrives.
"The aim was to develop," Kevin says. "I know had so many arguments with them about it. My philosophy was; you can play games but it's so important to train as well. I felt with these two, they would become emotionally involved and lose sight of what they needed to do in matches. I wanted to train them really hard so when they played, it became natural and free-flowing.
"They kept on begging to play games but I would hold them back and keep on training."
It was a tough period for the boys. They would look over and see their friends playing 11-a-side but their dad was insistent. "Back then, I couldn't see what he was doing but now, I understand why he did it," Kyreece says. "I just wanted to play matches. He just wanted to develop me. But that's why we are here today. It played a huge part in our development."
The time was right to step things up. They joined Cray Valley's U23 development squad in 2020; a move that thrust them into men's football at semi-pro level. This was a completely different ball game but after countless hours on the training pitch, they were ready to give it go.
"It was the most important phase of our development," Kyreece recalls. "It taught me game understanding.
"These guys are big, strong and fast. I had to start using my brain. Whether that was making a run to take them out of space or keeping the ball, I had to be one step ahead of them because they were physically and technically better. But we still stood out in those games and eventually, we got a chance to play first-team football and never looked back."
Kyrell agrees, saying it was a big turning point. "I realised that it wasn't just about running and beating your man down the wing. It was also about keeping possession as well."
The twins, who play on both flanks as attacking wingers, would make a handful of appearances for Cray Valley's first team when a Premier League club came knocking. West Ham showed interest and offered Kyreece and Kyrell a one-week trial that soon became six after they continued to progress.
It was a first for the club, who had never had boys on trial for six weeks.
In the latter stages of the trial period, something quite extraordinary happened. The pair were asked to play in a fixture against Watford; the team that turned them down in 2018. "It is really rare for boys that are on trial to play against a club." Kevin says.
Watford's academy coach Tom Hart, the man who said they weren't good enough all those years ago, was watching from the sideline. Some might say it was fate.
In that game, Kyrell was given 15 minutes to make an impact and Kyreece came on for the last ten. Kyreece sprinted down the wing before squaring it to Kyrell, who scored with a wonderful curling effort. But it still wasn't enough for West Ham to offer them a full-time scholarship.
After six weeks of blood, sweat and tears, the twins were told no. Again.
But Watford coach Tom Hart saw something that day. He told West Ham that if you don't take them, we will. "I said to the lads, listen to me, let's stay out of the system for a while, I know your head must be all over the place, let's just leave it," Kevin said. "But the opportunity was too good to turn down."
The Hornets offered them a two week trial but it soon turned into five weeks because they kept raising the bar.
"I had to put my foot down in the end," Kevin remembers. "I said look, I need to know now. They came back saying look Kev, we've never done this before, it's never happened but we are going to sign two boys who are second-year scholars."
They had finally done it. But there was another twist.
"I wasn't allowed to tell them," says Kevin. "I had to hold this information in for a week knowing how they felt. Can you imagine? Four years of waiting for this moment and I couldn't tell them. That was a really difficult time. I could see they were losing their will. I told the coach to tell them as soon as possible.
"The coach said they both took a dip in form. I said to him it was probably because they were mentally drained. Every day, they came home and said: 'dad, they aren't giving it to us' but I said be patient. That went on for two weeks.
"When they finally got the news. I remember Kyrell saying to me, 'it's just nice to know someone wanted us'. That really hit home."
In a meeting with the academy director, the twins were offered a contract. Kyreece says it was one of the happiest days of his life. "I couldn't hold in my emotions," added Kyrell. "It was just unbelievable." Months later, the pair are key members of Tom Hart's Under-18 side.
:bee: Our Under-18s were 3-1 winners over Bristol City this morning.
:soccer: Jack Grieves
:soccer: Kyreece Lisbie
:soccer: Adian Manning pic.twitter.com/N39gcnLmC3
- Watford FC Academy (@WatfordFCAcad) December 4, 2021
In reality, a huge percentage of those released from the academy system will struggle to bounce back. It can be a brutal process, so what would the Lisbie twins say to somebody experiencing the hangover of being let go?
"If I could say anything, my advice would be to keep going because that next opportunity could be yours," Kyreece says. "Sometimes, it can feel like you're training for no reason. Sometimes it feels like there are millions of boys out there who are going to take your place and become a footballer. It's just a matter of do you really want it.
"If you really want something in life, and you go after it with all your time and energy, you will get it."
Kyrell feels your work ethic will always set you apart from the rest. "One thing I've learned in football is that there can be someone far more talented than you but if your attitude, for example, is staying behind picking up the cones or getting the balls together after training; that is what makes you stand out.
"Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."
Featured Image Credit: Instagram
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