Young players have been told over the last 12 months that moving on loan is difficult in the midst of Covid-19 – and Birmingham City midfielder Charlie Lakin clearly didn’t get the memo.
With virus testing, lockdowns and other rules and regulations, footballers have lived a sheltered life during the pandemic, some youngsters opting to stay in their respective academies. But having only spent time on loan in League Two with Stevenage, Birmingham City man Lakin took a huge leap of faith and joined Stuart Kettlewell’s Ross County.
Some nine hours away from home in the Scottish Premiership, Lakin won Young Player of the Year as he helped his temporary club secure their league status on the final day of the season. It was a turbulent term for the 22-year-old under Kettlewell and then John Hughes, but the Birmingham City player says it was all worth it.
Lakin tells NTOF: “It was difficult. Moving so far from home – 9 hours away – it’s a long time away. I have lived with my mum and dad all my life, played with Birmingham City all my life. I was on loan at Stevenage last year but that was only a couple of hours away. I could still come home.
“Moving that far away, moving away from family, not seeing them for so long, it was difficult. But I adapted quite quickly and after a couple of months, I started to really enjoy it. My agent made me aware how big a jump it was. He explained that Ross County were interested, I thought Scotland was fine, but he told me to Google Map it.
“I know what he means now! But he left it totally up to me and told me it would be a great experience, playing for a good club in the league. You can go and see all the scenery up there, but you couldn’t do much due to Covid-19.
“Until you go and do it for yourself, you don’t realise just how nice it is up there. Until you see it for your own eyes, you don’t realise how good it is. The downfall for the season was not having fans and not being able to explore the place a bit more due to Covid-19.”
Things looked good for Lakin at Birmingham City this time last year, featuring regularly in pre-season and finding himself in English Championship squads. But it all changed very quickly and before Lakin knew it, he was in Dingwall.
Lakin explained: “This time last year, going back into pre-season, I felt good. I thought I did well and people were telling me I was doing well. But football can change so quickly. All off a sudden I wasn’t involved and I went to see if I could go out on loan. I needed to kick on and get more games.
“I got told to go out on loan on the Friday, the Saturday I was told Ross County were interested, the Sunday I was driving nine hours up to Dingwall with my dad! I was in the Birmingham City squad for the first couple of games but I knew if I wasn’t starting, I wasn’t getting in anytime soon. People my age need experience. That’s what parent clubs, other clubs, look at.”
Initially it was a difficult few months for the Birmingham City loanee. Joining in October 2020, by the time 2021 rolled around, he had spent five weeks out with a hamstring problem, Kettlewell had gone and Hughes had arrived as manager. He faced an uphill fight for first-team games.
But in the end he scored the winner in a 2-1 win over Hamilton, which set County up for a huge final day showdown with Motherwell, in which they secured league safety. Lakin says it was turbulent, but as he heads back to Birmingham City after signing a new one-year deal at St Andrews, the midfielder has a place in Dingwall history.
He said: “We didn’t have the best results, but I was playing games. I was trying to help the team and the injury killed me. I was just getting into my momentum and that came along. Football is football, injuries can come at the most unexpected time. It was hard watching the results and not being able to do anything.
“You are in the changing room but it’s hard to watch because you physically can’t do anything. I had the injury on the other leg at Stevenage, so I knew straight away what I’d done. It was only five weeks but at the time we were playing Saturday-Tuesday. There were quite a lot of games gone so it was hard. But I got myself going again.
“It was stop-start until January time. I think the day John Hughes came in, I returned to training the next day. You have to impress the manager and I impressed Stuart Kettlewell. For a new manager to come in while I was coming back from injury… it’s hard enough to do when you’re fit, never mind that.
“It was frustrating not starting the final games as I thought I did well in the games I came on. John phoned me to apologise for not starting me in some of the games, but he explained that football is football. To come off the bench and score one of the most important goals to all but keep us in the league, that will be remembered forever not only by me, but by Ross County fans and staff.”
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