By Charles Wade-Palmer
Tom Blackwell has had more of a taste of non-league football than most players his age, but there is one appearance he still desperately craves.
Clarets fans are yet to see the 20-year-old forward in action since signing, having spent his first season at the club out on loan.
Even then, Tom admits there is little to write home about his stints with Canvey Island and Brightlingsea, thanks in no small part to a certain virus.
Unsurprisingly then, much of the conversation was dominated by Tom’s experiences prior to signing for Chelmsford last summer.
His is a story of making strides through the divisions since breaking into the men’s game which has shaped his refreshingly grounded impression of the sport.
Tom has been blown away by the sheer size and professionalism of non-league football, not least the attendances it ordinarily attracts.
That is why – he later explains – he cannot wait to run out at the EMG Inspire Stadium and introduce himself with his feet.
“I’ve played for teams where they want instant success and so young players like me don’t really get a look in.” – Tom Blackwell
No matter how much he wants a season full of 90-minute appearances, Tom has learnt that watching on from the bench is an inevitable part of development.
He told us: “It’s just about relationships with managers, little things make a big difference.
“It depends what managers’ motives are really. I’ve played for teams where they want instant success and so young players like me don’t really get a look in. I might come off the bench here and there but they don’t give you a proper chance.”
Tom joined the Clarets last year from Coggeshall, who had loaned him out to Stanway Rovers, where he enjoyed his most successful spell in men’s football.
“I thought I did really well, I scored loads of goals. I think at Stanway I scored 11 goals in 13 games, that’s the kind of thing that can get you noticed by teams like Chelmsford,” Tom said.
“I found the right managers that were willing to give me a chance.”
Detailing what he brings to a side; Tom listed his natural knack for scoring, dribbling, quick change of direction and most of all his speed. “I like to take people on and excite people,” He said.
As far as Tom is concerned, every game is an opportunity to get his name known because he has found first hand, the power of word of mouth.
He explained: “I’d barely done anything in the men’s game but it just shows from people saying good things about me, of what they know and what they’ve seen.
“It gets you that chance and then obviously you’ve got to back it up with your performances, show everyone what you can do because not a lot of people know anything about me so I’ve got to get my name out there if you know what I mean?”
For someone with big ambitions as a footballer, the National League South looked a long way off not so long ago.
Tom said: “I never would have imagined playing – I would have been step five when I was out on loan – I never would have imagined I’d be jumping up two or three leagues to come to Chelmsford.
“Obviously you believe it and you want it to happen but when you’re there in that moment you don’t think, ‘oh I’m going to be at a National League South club next season.’ It’s funny how quickly football can change for you really. So it’s worked out well.”
“You’ve got to keep the standards high because we’re playing in the National League South and we’re Chelmsford City.” – Tom Blackwell
If all things go well for Tom, he could be getting his next chance for the City first team after getting to know the players on and off for the best part of 12 months.
“When the most recent lockdown came I’d been playing with Chelmsford until obviously the league was called off.
“Obviously, I haven’t got to know the team as much as I’d like to because I haven’t been training and travelling with them in matchday squads but yeah, I’ve enjoyed the experience.”
‘Standards’ is a word Tom often comes back to when describing what has struck him most about training with Robbie Simpson.
As someone who has played his way around the county’s divisions, the training sessions Tom’s been able to make for Chelmsford have set a new bar for what he now demands of himself.
Tom: “There’s definitely a step up in standard in training and I’ve seen improvements in myself over the sessions that Robbie’s put on.
“It’s been good playing with better players and I feel like I’ve matched their quality but I need to show I’m more than good enough to be in the team really. I want to keep pushing up the levels so I’ve got to test myself against the players that come in those higher levels.
“It’s been really good in those terms without obviously being thrown into the games because Robbie and Steve didn’t think I was ready but hopefully I can put that practice into games next year.
“There’s a difference in quality compared to other sides I’ve trained with but a bigger difference in standards. Players won’t settle for less than what they know they’re good at.
“If the standard drops in training, the more experienced older players will let people know.
“You’ve got to keep the standards high because we’re playing in the National League South and we’re Chelmsford City, whereas when I’ve been at other teams the standard might drop off.
“Managers will have standards and will try to keep to them but sometimes it’s hard with players’ motivation but at Chelmsford, everyone is on it, you’ve got to be on it all session.”
A supportive environment has clearly been created within the First Team because Tom knows he can find advice not just from the coaches but teammates too.
His desire to ask for tips in training also reflects the groundedness with which he spoke over our phone call.
“It’s been a shame I haven’t played more but I’ve definitely learnt from little coaching points I’ve got from Robbie and other players in the squad that have given me advice, little things in training,” Tom opened up.
“We do a lot of stuff based on a match so I have experienced little things like I’ve gone to Robbie and I’ve said, ‘What can I do better here?’ And I feel like he’s helped me in that sense.
“Sometimes when you step up a level, you feel like you’re stepping out of your comfort zone because I’ve been playing in the leagues below and doing well.
“At this level, you’ve got to step up a bit more so I’ve been trying to force myself into uncomfortable situations, where I’ve got to be better and not do things that I might have got away with at the lower levels.
“When you turn up for a matchday you see a lot of people, you know the bartenders, the groundsmen, the media people, the officials, there’s a lot more to it than people think.” – Tom Blackwell
Making the jump from youth football to men’s, Tom soon realised he didn’t need to be playing in League Two to feel like a proper player.
Even towards the bottom of the football pyramid, he admits to having been amazed by the amount of effort that goes into making sure a game can kick off each week.
Tom: “I was surprised at non-league itself, there’s a lot more to it than people think, I was surprised at the amount of crowds and attendance you get, and the stands and the details of the grounds, you get proper grounds.
“It’s not just like people playing in a park, there’s a lot more at non-league clubs that people don’t know about.
“There are people that give up their spare time, you have got some full-time workers at clubs and some part-time and they put a lot of effort in.
“As a player, you don’t notice too much because you’re just playing and training but when you turn up for a matchday you see a lot of people, you know the bartenders, the groundsmen, the media people, the officials, there’s a lot more to it than people think.
“I only came into non-league football a couple of years ago and I’ve started right at the bottom and I’ve worked my way up.
“The first couple of seasons I was playing non-league, you’re at park pitches and that’s what you kind of expect but as you work your way up there’s proper grounds and proper clubs.
“With the fans, you don’t realise how much they care about it, if you play well they really like you.
“When I was at Stanway, I had plenty of people messaging me and talking to me, it makes you play that much better because you know people are appreciating what you’re doing.
“I haven’t experienced the Chelmsford fans yet but I’m sure that will be even better.”
Tom, who lives and works on his family’s farm in Coggeshall, has been determined to not let a day go by in lockdown without training – even if that means sometimes going where he shouldn’t.
Now with organised sport finally making its government-approved return, Tom will be keen to show his teammates what he’s been working on at his various village recreation grounds.