Ryan France: four consecutive promotions and a career with Alfreton, Hull City and Sheffield United that went full circle
The career of Ryan France has taken him full circle from non-league to the Premier League and back.
A knee injury ended the Sheffielder’s playing days prematurely, after starring for Alfreton Town, Hull City and Sheffield United.
It’s a rarity in modern football that a player would spend his entire career with so few clubs, but France only played nine times for the Blades and could be more accurately described as a two-club man.
Even rarer still is achieving four consecutive promotions.
Now he’s a trainee financial advisor and assistant manager at Clipstone.
But at one time he was lining up against Robin Van Persie, sprinting past John Terry and enjoying the Premier League lifestyle.
His promise emerged early on: “I joined Handsworth at nine, in an age group one year older than mine.
“The whole way through school, not to sound big headed, I was better than most if not everyone, and I played a couple of years higher even though I was small.”
His stature brought about the first real disappointment of his career.
“I went from Middlewood to the Owls School of Excellence at 14,” he said.
“But I was released, I was too small at 16. I didn’t start growing until I was 17 and I’m 5ft 11ins now.”
That made up France’s mind to pursue academia at Nottingham Trent University, where he gained a degree in Sport Science and Maths.
But he wasn’t lost to the sport.
“I got back to enjoying football, got picked up by Alfreton in a five-a-side event and went on to have three good years there.
“I did still think I could make it, and at Alfreton I rekindled my love for the game and my self belief.
“Men’s football made me better and I went from strength to strength.”
So did Alfreton, who won two successive promotions, going from the NCEL Premier to the Northern Premier.
France’s part did not go unnoticed.
“Two years into my time at Alfreton and my degree, I had a trial at Coventry. Gary McAllister wanted to sign me, I but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my studies for a two-year contract and he couldn’t wait for me, so I moved on.
“Luckily enough I started the next season at Alfreton really well and Hull City came in.”
Peter Taylor signed him in September 2003 for £15,000 and if Alfreton had been the foundations of a career, Hull would be the ground floor, second floor and rooftop veranda.
“It was a dream come true,” he said.
“I got my degree and Hull offered me a two-year deal.”
“I went training with them, signed and was on the bench within a couple of days. In that game I came off the bench and scored, it was a bit of a whirlwind.”
He brought his promotion habit to Hull and they finished second in Division Three to earn a place in a newly named League One.
France became more of a fixture in the 2004/05 Hull line-up, and won a fourth straight promotion into the Championship.
A career trajectory to rival that of Jamie Vardy didn’t end there, Hull becoming a Premier club in 2008.
While Vardy is proving to be a top level player, France gives an honest assessment of his own ability.
“I did take to it quite well in the Football League, I enjoyed playing with the players around me. I really enjoyed those first two seasons.
“I could have had a good 15 years in League One. In the Championship, I still had my fair share of runouts, but they were a lot better than me.
“In the Premier it was different, I’ve never been a Premier League player. I was a good League One player.
“But even if you chucked me in the Premier right now with half a knee, having not played in five years, I would still have a go.
“Never did I think I was out of my depth, I just gave my best.”
Hull were flying, and life was pretty good in the France household.
“I enjoyed the lifestyle of a footballer,” he said.
“If I wanted to get something I could just go and get it. That takes a lot of the stress out of life.
“I never wanted for anything. I could treat my family. It was very nice to have that from doing something that I saw as a hobby.
“I didn’t take it for granted, I appreciated every penny.
“I was never in the big, big money people might think, but I was happy with my contract. It didn’t matter what everyone else was on.”
But in February 2007, in a game against West Brom, France was dealt a huge blow.
“When I got injured, I got back into the changing room and I was a bit upset with myself, because I got carried off on a stretcher and it felt alright – I even went bowling that night.
“But I had a scan and the arthroscopy and when I woke up I saw blood on the sheets and I knew I was in trouble.
“I knew I’d be out for seven to nine months with my ACL, it was my first long term injury and I knew it would be a mental battle.
France stayed positive, worked hard and eventually got back on the pitch.
Victory in the 2007/08 Championship play-offs put Hull in the top flight for the first time in their history, and gave France a couple of memorable outings.
“We played Arsenal at home, and I can remember watching myself on Match of the Day.
“I hadn’t just arrived there overnight, I had put a lot of hard work so I was very proud of myself.
“They were better than me, but I just gave my all, and thoroughly enjoyed that game.”
At the request of a mate, he asked Robin Van Persie to trade shirts in the tunnel, and said the Dutchman was impressive.
“They passed us off the pitch, but he stuck out like a sore thumb. The ball stuck to him.”
At Stamford Bridge France came off the bench with the score at 0-0 and very nearly created a career highlight.
“Phil Brown told me to sit in midfield and shore things up with 10 minutes to go, but it started to move forward in our favour, and I started running and Frank Lampard didn’t seem to pick me up.
“I was full of energy and and went past John Terry and found myself in the middle looking at Petr Cech, with Craig Fagan trying to keep it in the corner.
“But he never heard me shouting. If he had squared it I might have scored, I would have loved that opportunity.”
At the end of that season, Phil Brown – who France describes as ‘a magnificent coach’ – called the winger in and released him.
Although it was on the cards, and done in a respectful way, France admits it was upsetting.
He wasn’t out of action for long, going on an extended pre-season trial with Sheffield Wednesday.
Manager Brian Laws didn’t have the money to offer France a contract, and it was the Owls’ cross city rivals who snapped him up.
The Blades didn’t get to see the best of France, and having reached the heady heights of the Premier, his career fizzled out.
“I was there two seasons but I was injured for 14 months of that. My knee broke down after nine or 10 games and never came back to me.
“I do look back and think I’m sorry for the fans that I never got to show what I was about, I would have given my all for them but my body wouldn’t take it.
“I kept trying to come back and getting to 70 per cent.
“If I was to play in the Championship or League One I needed to be at 100 per cent, I’m not naturally gifted like a lot of players.”
Retirement before the age of 31 was a bitter pill to swallow and injury thrusting him into the real world was a nightmare scenario, even if he doesn’t expect much sympathy.
“I had to try and adapt to the real world. People will laugh because they’ve been in the real world since leaving school, but it was difficult.
“I had been doing a lot of people’s dream job and now I had to make my own way.
“I don’t think I was ever depressed, but I’ve gone from doing what I loved doing, it was taken away from me and it wasn’t my decision.”
A few sales roles came and went, before France found a job he got a buzz from, as a trainee financial advisor.
And eventually he found his way back into the game, with Staveley Miners Welfare.
“James Colliver was trying to get me involved, and at first I wasn’t interested, I just wanted to spend time with my family.
“But he asked me to be the assistant manager and I thought I’d give it a go.
“I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot. James knows the game and he’ll become a very good manager.
“We work really well together, we did a good job at Staveley but didn’t see eye to eye with the chairman, and then got a great opportunity to go to Clipstone.”
So he finds himself back in the NCEL Premier, the same division he won promotion from with Alfreton.
And the drive that helped him get to the top is still there.
“As a financial advisor I want to be the best this side of the M25, and I don’t want to be happy with 10th in the NCEL every season.
“I want to take Clipstone up the leagues – I want to be the best assistant manager I can be.”