BY ALL BLUE DAZE
One day, sitting in the office, I was chewing the fat over recent events in the football world with my colleague, Sull – nothing unusual about that. Sull lives in Nuneaton, and he was telling me about the triumphs and trials of his local club, Nuneaton Town. He was bemoaning the fact that The ‘Boro’, as the club are known due to a previous incarnation, had enjoyed a fairly successful season but had then lost their manager to Wrexham. The new man in charge was former Ayr United manager Brian Reid, who apparently had previously been managing in the Philippines. Being a football blogger, my interest was piqued as it sounded like it might be an interesting story to write about.
Casually dropping into research mode, I asked Sull a few further questions and found out that the club had also signed a player from Reid’s old club in the Philippines; someone who had been been a star of the Polish U20 team and had then travelled around world playing for various clubs before landing in the small Warwickshire town. By now I was becoming intrigued. Grabbing my ever-handy, trusty notebook and pencil like the seasoned hack I always envisaged I was, I made a few notes and planned how I could find out more.
Later that evening I logged on to have a chat with my all-knowing mate, Mr. Google. After a few searches, I discovered the player in question was a defender named Ben Starosta, and indeed there was a tale to tell. In an article from the ‘Nuneaton News’ I found the details to fill out what Sull had told me, and a small piece of news from the BBC relating the same thing. OK, so the bare bones of the story were there, but this was a tale as much about the man and his experiences, as it was about the game itself, so I needed a bit more first-hand insight. After further digging around, I found a way to get in touch with Ben and thought I’d chance my arm to see if he’d be interested in giving me an interview.
Many people receiving such an unsolicited message from an unknown source, wanting to ask questions about their life, may just have hit the ‘delete’ button, and who can blame them – especially when they’re on holiday, enjoying a bit of Greek sunshine. Fortunately, Ben’s approach was different, and because of his “Not a problem, mate. Happy to help,” approach I can tell you how a young man born in Sheffield managed to play international football for Poland, mark a Brazilian superstar out of a game, travel around the world plying his trade, before landing at Nuneaton Town, and at 27 still have the ability and potential to play at a higher level.
The article about Ben in the Nuneaton News opens with the sentence “There is a story I tell a few people, and, well, it makes me laugh anyway.” It’s not a bad way to begin, but there’s a bit more of the story to tell before we get to the episode of Canada, the World Cup, and the Brazilian superstar who spent ninety minutes in Ben’s back pocket.
In Britain, many cities, towns and villages will be full of kids kicking a ball around and dreaming of being a professional footballer. I know I did, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably still a bit in love with the game, so you may well have done so too. For most of us though, it just remains a dream as real life and a ‘proper job’ take over. For Ben Starosta however, there really wasn’t much doubt that his dream was going to be fulfilled. I opened the interview by asking him if he’d always been convinced he would be a footballer. He told me that “football’s always been in the family really. I’ve never thought of doing anything else. I’ve always been near a ball.”
A lot of that may have been down to his English-born grandfather who, Ben told me, he was “very close to.” He had played for Sheffield United in a career cut short by service in the Second World War, and when Starosta signed for the same club he would have been immensely proud to be following in his grandfather’s footsteps. Doubtless his grandfather was equally proud.
The early part of his career progressed well as he progressed to the Academy at the Bramall Lane club. It even included being selected for a few games for England when he was 15. As time went on however, the phone stopped ringing and any international career appeared to be stymied. Progress at the club was also slowing and a short spell on loan at Tamworth followed.
Around this time however, Sheffield United sent an under-age team to compete in the Northern Ireland Soccer Tournament and Ben was included in the squad. The competition, more commonly known as the ‘Milk Cup’ is a prestigious event, recognised across the world as a testing ground for younger players. Sergio Busquets, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs are just a few of a cast of many international stars to have played there. It would be interesting to know just how many of the glitterati of world football who travelled to Northern Ireland shone in the tournament when they played there. Ben Starosta certainly did, and he was named as ‘Player of the Tournament.’ That venture across the Irish Sea was to herald the starting point of a career that would take Ben around the world on a footballing odyssey.
With much of the cream of the world’s footballing talent taking part, the Milk Cup is a magnet for club and international scouts. Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, Ben’s international career was being resurrected, as representatives of the Polish FA had noted his performances. When Sheffield United’s Mick Jones also wrote to them, pointing out Ben’s Polish heritage, the wheels were set in motion.
Recalling the day he was first approached to play for Poland, Ben told me. “I received a phone call in the early hours, and I mean early hours. They must have got confused by the time difference!” he joked. At first there was a little language difficulty, but once they called back with a translator all became clear. “Basically,” Ben told me. “They said do you want to play for Poland. Oh, and by the way, we’re playing in the U20 World Cup this year and we’d like you to be part of it!” Going back to all those kids who kicked a ball around, it was the sort of call you dream of receiving. Unsurprisingly, as Ben told me, “that was it!”
I asked him if he had still harboured thoughts of England when the Polish offer happened. “It was the chance to represent my granddad’s country”, he replied. “I never had any doubts.” The one sad point is that his Polish-born grandfather, who had immigrated to Britain after spending time in a POW camp in Austria during the war, had died a month or so before the call. He never knew that his grandson would be playing football for the country of his birth. Ben remarked to me that the family often say that if he had still been alive at the time, the news would probably have brought on a heart attack with the excitement!
For a young lad from Sheffield, the world was suddenly turned on its head as travel between Yorkshire and the land of his grandfather’s birth, to attend training and squad assemblies, became a regular occurrence. There was even a trip to Jordan for a specialised training camp. Ben recalls that it was an amazing time, and a life-changing experience that would be a precursor for his later travels around the world. And then when all was prepared, together with the remainder of the Polish squad, Ben journeyed to Canada for the U20 World Cup finals.
Poland were grouped with South Korea, the USA and the inevitable tournament favourites, Brazil, with the opening game being against the South Americans. As always seems to be the case at under-age tournaments, the Brazil squad was replete with players linked with moves to top European clubs for big money fees. The outstanding talent in this particular Selecao was Alexandro Pato. A player right off the seemingly conveyor-belt production line of Brazilian forwards blessed with exotic skills, poise and balance, pace and an unerring eye for goal. You will doubtless have heard of Pato, but for the record, he would go on to play 117 games in the famous ‘Rossoneri’ of AC Milan, scoring over 50 goals, and be awarded more than two dozen caps for the full Brazil team, scoring 10 goals in the famous yellow shirt. He turned out be the player Ben would be in direct opposition to in his international debut for Poland. It was a daunting prospect, in front of a sell-out crowd of some 64,000 spectators, but at that sort of level, I guess there are no easy rides.
If there were any nerves however, they didn’t show, as Ben delivered a tour de force performance, fully deserving his man-of-the-match accolade. He man-marked Pato out of the game, and with their star player neutralised by Ben, Poland, massive underdogs in the contest, upset the odds by beating the thoroughbreds of Brazil 1-0. Unsurprisingly, Ben describes the moment when the referee blew for full time as “the best moment of my career.” As the full extent of the achievement began to sink in he described to me how he “just burst into tears,” and went on to say that “I couldn’t quite believe what was going on. I mean I’m just a normal lad from Sheffield and I was there in that very moment, but also wishing my granddad could have been there! It was absolutely amazing.”
In the following games, Poland – perhaps suffering a reaction from the outstanding performance against Brazil – lost heavily to the USA, but a draw against South Korea in the final group game saw them qualify for the round of 16, and a match up with Argentina. Despite being level at half-time, the South Americans netted twice in the second half to eliminate the Poles. Argentina would eventually go on to lift the trophy, so the defeat was certainly no disgrace.
It’s at this stage that the quote from the Nuneaton News kicks into the tale. In a typically self-effacing manner, Ben relates that following the Canadian adventure, “There is a story I tell a few people, and, well, it makes me laugh anyway.” Following the tournament, Pato duly secured his big money move to Serie A, when Silvio Berlusconi’s club laid out some £16million for his services, and he moved to Italy – once Ben had released from his back pocket that is, of course! Meanwhile, Ben returned to Sheffield United to be told that he too was in line for a move – on loan to Brentford. Although certainly not bitter at the contrast in fortunes, the irony isn’t lost on him. “Crazy to think of, but I kept him quiet in that game. He gets the AC Milan move and I get to go to Brentford.”
I asked Ben if he thought fate had dealt him a bit of a crooked hand, with the way things had turned out, wondering if there was any resentment that his big chance had seemingly slipped away. Being Player of the Tournament in front of some stellar names in the Milk Cup, and then Man of the Match in an international against Brazil, should surely have opened a few doors for him. Being a pretty sort of level-headed guy however, Ben offered a balanced answer. “I totally feel that after the World Cup where I did really well and caused a lot of interest, I perhaps wasn’t pushed enough afterwards and things didn’t probably materialise as they maybe could or should have! I had Spurs and CSKA Moscow, plus a few others, introduce themselves to my family over in Canada.” Nothing ever came of the enquiries though and as Pato headed for the San Siro, Ben travelled to the less-illustrious part of west London, and Griffin Park. “Don’t get me wrong” he said, “I had a great time at Brentford but you get my drift.” And then laughs out loud, with genuine amusement, at how that sentence sounds.
Following the spell at Brentford, further loans followed at Bradford City, and then a few games with Aldershot, before Poland beckoned again. Offered an opportunity to join Lechia Gdansk on loan, Ben jumped at the chance. Having played for the country in Canada, he was understandably keen to pursue his international career there. Ben told the Nuneaton News that “We had a great youth team at the time. I was in the squad with Wojciech Szczesny, who is at Arsenal, and I got to play with the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek who were coming through. I had just played in the U20 World Cup the year before and wanted to stay involved. I had, had a couple of loan moves in the UK, but thought a move to Poland would help with that. So I went there.” It was a fairly truncated stay however, and Ben turned out for the club near the dockyards where Lech Walesa formed the trade union ‘Solidarity,’ less than a dozen times.
When the 2009 season drew to a close, Sheffield United released the player that had marked the illustrious Pato, who was by now tearing up Serie A, out of a game, somehow deeming him not good enough for first team football at Bramall lane. It seems an odd calculation. A brief and frustrating move to Darlington where he never made an appearance was followed by a move to Alfreton Town. It was another passing visit however as Ben already knew that he was heading to Australia, but the club he thought he was moving to, was not where he ended up playing.
It seems a long jump from Alfreton to Australia, but Ben landed ‘down under’ in May 2010. The move had come about thanks to a link ‘forged’ at Sheffield United between Ben’s agent and Dougie Hodgson, who was at the time, the Thunder’s assistant manager. In an introductory interview for the club, Ben described himself “an attacking right sided full back who can also play right wing, and I love to join the attack and produce plenty of crosses.” He described the chance to join the club as a stepping stone to greener pastures in Australia, saying that “My aim is to reach the A-League with my performances, but at the same time help Dandenong do well in the league and reach the finals.” In a message to the fans, he assured them that he would “always give 110% on the field, and hope to give the fans some great performances, and do well for the Thunder!”
Ben’s arrival at the club had been less than a smooth transition however. It had originally been planned that he would move to Melbourne Victory. The A League regulations allowed each club a set number of ‘foreign player’ slots. With one of Melbourne’s allocated players injured, an opening had occurred that Ben was slated to fill. The player however recovered and the opportunity was gone. As it was midseason in England at the time, there was little chance of getting a position there, so when the chance to join Dandenong Thunder arose, he took it.
The move turned out less well than anticipated however, and after a brief pause at Frickley Athletic, a move back to Poland arrived with Miedz Legnica for the 2011-12 season. Miedz were a relatively young club, newly formed in 1971. They had an ambitious owner who had built a new stadium and had plans to take the club from the second division to the top league. Ben’s single season with them, during which he played 20 games, was successful as they gained promotion to 1 Liga.
A new challenge then arose on the other side of the world, with an opportunity to join Global FC in the Phillipines. Ben told me that this was the time during his footballing travels when he felt most at home. It’s a feeling that may have been helped by the fact that he scored for his new club on his debut. The fans were probably as impressed with him as he was with his new lifestyle. Ben told me that he “really enjoyed the Philippines. It’s really westernised after the American Navy was based there for so many years. I lived in Big City, but just an hour or so away you had paradise on your door step. Everything and everyone was really easy going, maybe too easy at times. The people are just so nice, would do anything for you and I made some really good friends.” In his single season there, as captain, Ben played just over two dozen games for the club and scored five goals; far and away the best goal-scoring term of his career. Global was also the place where he met Brian Reid. It was a relationship that would eventually lead Ben back to England.
When Reid was appointed manager of Nuneaton Town, he wasted no time in bringing Ben back from his foreign travels to play for the club, and made him his first signing on a one year deal. In the article from the Nuneaton News, Ben gave his thoughts on the move and how he works with his manager. “You might think I have an advantage as I know the gaffer and I was his captain out there – that means nothing, though. If anything I have got it tougher than a few of the lads who are already here. The gaffer doesn’t know them that well yet. He knows what I can do already, though. If I even think about not giving it my all or if my performance drops even a little bit he will know. It will be tough, but I enjoyed playing under the gaffer in the Philippines and I am hoping it will work out again this time.”
It’s clear that Ben doesn’t see the move as any kind of winding down of his career; quite the reverse. He went on to say “I can’t wait to get started. It is a new challenge for me. I know, I haven’t played that much football in the Conference. I am excited, though, I know the football will be different, but I want that. I always said I wanted to give myself a chance in England again and this was my chance. I didn’t want to go any lower than the Conference, but I was delighted when Nuneaton came in for me. I know this league is getting stronger and stronger. I also know that as a footballer the summer is a tough time. There are so many players out of contract. You can get up to 20 players all fighting for one deal at a club. It gets crazy. That is why I wanted to get my future sorted early. I wanted to know where I would be and what I would be doing. Being able to do that at a club like Nuneaton, where I know the manager is a real bonus.”
He’s expecting big things for the club under Reid, and has little doubt that the move will be good for his career. “The gaffer is great. He just knows his football. He is very professional and his coaching sessions are amazing. He hates losing. He loves winning, so I can see a winning mentality at the club next season for one thing. That can only be a good thing wherever you are. I think with Brian here it will be good. I am really looking forward to it.”
Ben is also aware however that his travels abroad, though both exciting and fulfilling, may have made it more difficult to progress his career back in England. He told me that “After spending so long playing abroad people forget about you in England and it’s hard to get your foot back in the door. But like they say it’s who you know and not what you know. And the gaffer at Nuneaton Town trusts me and brought me straight in with him as a new signing. That gives me a springboard now. If I play how I know I can, I climb the ladder once more. I know I can play at a higher level and it’s up to me to prove and achieve that!” Still only 27, there are still plenty of miles in Ben’s tank.
I mentioned earlier that becoming a professional footballer was the dream on numerous kids up and down the country – and indeed across the world. It’s a dream that Ben Starosta fulfilled, and he’s used that success to allow him to see the world and immerse himself in a number of different cultures. It’s something that he appreciates. Summing up his career to date, he reminisced that “When I first set out as a footballer I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world. And don’t get me wrong I still feel very lucky and wouldn’t change it for the world. What I’ve done. I’ve travelled the world through football. I’ve seen places some people can only imagine and I’ve met some amazing friends along the way!” It’s not all been plain-sailing though. “There’s also a dark side though to football,” he said “You have to be very thick-skinned, and have a tough backbone because not everything goes swimmingly and you never know what’s around the corner. But it’s made me a stronger person and the man I am today and you can only learn from the experiences!”
Finally, I asked Ben to speculate what career he would like to have chosen if football wasn’t an option. Laughing, in typical self-deprecating manner, he confessed that “If I wasn’t a footballer I would definitely be a singer. Wishful thinking!” Maybe. Maybe not. During one of his stays in Poland, his team-mates were that impressed with his vocal talents that they encouraged him to enter for a Polish TV talent show.
If the MLS open a franchise in Vegas in a couple of years, don’t be surprised to see a certain Sheffield-born Polish international defender playing there and moonlighting, as he tops the bill at one of the big venues on the strip. Who knows, perhaps Alexandro Pato may turn up for one of the shows, and tell people around him of the day he was marked out of a game by the singing superstar that is Ben Starosta.
All Blue Daze interview with Ben Starosta.