When one door closes in football, another, very often, will open.
So proved the case for former West Ham United youth team goalkeeper Sam Cowler, who spent the best part of his teenage years travelling down the A12 to Chadwell Heath from Colchester.
Handed the chance to develop at the Academy of Football, Cowler’s positivity and belief saw him overcome a number of challenges – including initially being scouted from his local school as a defender!
A positional change soon followed, but as is always the case in Academy and development football, progression – through the prism of many circumstances – is never guaranteed.
Indeed, despite being at Chadwell Heath between 2006 and 2012, it was only from 2009 that Cowler became a registered Scholar at the Academy.
“I was actually on trial for the first three years – I didn’t sign any papers, my old man just drove me up three times a week on the chance I’d get signed,” he recalled.
“Then, our first-team goalkeeping coach Andy Woodman watched me play a game against Chelsea. I saved a penalty, we beat them 1-0, and off the back of that he signed me straight away. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right people.
“I went to a couple of different clubs on loan and was quite lucky really: I was at QPR the season they won the Championship and got back into the Premier League, and I was at Wycombe when they had a little run going up the leagues.
“I left in 2012 and signed a long-term deal at Barnet to play some more first-team football. We got relegated in my first year under Edgar Davids, but won the league under Martin Allen the next season.
“I was about 23 then, but I wasn’t really playing. I ended up going into non-league, but with all due respect, I just didn’t like it. I had been quite lucky playing high-level sport, and I just found it hard to cope when I wasn’t on the same wavelength as other people.”
It started at West Ham and the Academy, so all credit to them for actually putting me on the right path
It was at this point that Cowler, who had as recently as four years beforehand been on the bench for West Ham United’s first team in a League Cup game against Aldershot Town, began to have second thoughts about his future.
“It was around the time that Clarke Carlisle brought out his TV documentary about mental health in football,” Cowler explained.
“I actually reached out to him at that point, and on his recommendation, I decided to just quit football for a little bit and do my own thing.
“In my final six months at West Ham, first-team fitness coach Eamon Swift had put me in touch with a Strength and Conditioning Coach, who got me into gym. From there, I was just hooked. I couldn’t control what went on out on the football pitch, to a degree, but in the gym I can control how I’m working – I wanted to work hard and that was how I did it.
“I own a CrossFit gym now – Weightlifting and CrossFit are my release. Some ex-footballers find golf – but I needed something I found a bit more stimulating! Weightlifting is a lot more linear and the progression was more: ‘If I can do it, I can do it.' That made a lot more sense in my head.
“It started at West Ham and the Academy, so all credit to them for actually putting me on the right path, and it’s carried on since then. It felt like home to me. It just clicked, and I felt that this is where I’m better suited.”
Cowler remains in regular contact with fellow Academy alumni via a WhatsApp group of his youth team colleagues, including Barnet’s Rob Hall, Livingston’s Cristian Montano, Gillingham’s Olly Lee and the likes of Conor Okus, Eoin Wearen and Jordan Brown.
While the talented former goalkeeper continues to receive offers from sides in the English Football League to train and potentially return to the game, maintaining his distance from professional football – at least for the time being – is his current preference.
In the meantime, the highly-qualified Cowler – clearly a people’s person, and now owner of Colchester Fitness Centre – is relishing the impact that he is making on the lives of his local community, delivering workshops and personal training to them whilst also reaching some of the top CrossFit and weightlifting events in Europe on the competitive scene.
He explained: “We often work with people that otherwise don’t have an option – if people don’t come to our gym, they don’t go to the gym. We’re on the front line, helping people to build the confidence up to get back into fitness.
“We work with the military and rehabilitate people with addictions, mental health issues and physical issues, helping them to reintegrate into society. We work with them socially and physically, using CrossFit to get them to speak to each other, and also run sessions for kids, which especially after lockdown helped them to interact with each other.
“I don’t want to be boastful, but it’s been life-changing for quite a few people who otherwise they wouldn’t have met the people they’ve met, so for me it’s quite rewarding on a social level.
“Playing football, I used to struggle with the attention, but when I left, I realised that was what I missed! I liked being important – everyone does – so being able to help people gives me that buzz back.
“Also, at competitions, we get five or ten thousand people watching, so it’s quite nice to have both: to give a little back into the community, but also have that competitive edge again.”
Now 28-years-old, Cowler reflects on his time at West Ham United with fondness.
“Every training session was like a cup final to me when I was there, but that one hundred per cent made me as resilient as I am now,” he smiled. “I only look back on that positively – it’s helped me loads.
“I always wanted to play for West Ham my whole life – it was part of my childhood, and I gave up a lot to be at that Club, so I don’t regret a thing. I absolutely loved it.”
If you’re a former player who’d like to reconnect with the Club, please email [email protected]