Lewis Baker is the first of many players and coaches on board at Playing Away From Home who are going to be giving us a regular insight into their time away from Britain.
Lewis’ story is a fascinating one that shows it really is worth pushing the boundaries and creating your own chances in your career.
How thinking outside the box took me to Ostersund
As I stood, palms sweating, heart racing, on the edge of the stage, the head of school read my name out to a loud applause. I carefully walked across the stage and collected my degree. I had done it! 4 years of studying were finally complete, and I had the certificate to prove it. I held in my hand, my honours degree in Sports Coaching from Abertay University. All the hard work, hours spent on library PC’s and in lecture halls, finally seemed worth it.
I knew I had to accept I had finished full-time education and had to start building a life for myself, but I still held a deep-rooted desire to earn my living playing football.
My motives for playing football have never been about money. The career of a footballer at any level is short and opportunities to play abroad are rare, especially for a lad from a small town in central Scotland with no senior or professional youth experience. Yes, a big contract in a big league would be brilliant, but I just wanted to prove to myself that I could earn, even a modest living, playing the game that I love.
Let me introduce myself, my name is Lewis Baker, I’m 23, born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland and I currently play football, as a striker, for IFK Ostersund in Division 2 Norrland in Sweden. My journey here has been different to many – I’ve had no professional youth academy training or the chance to play at any level for a wage. Yet, somehow, I’ve ended up playing full-time football in a city I’d never heard of, in a country and a culture far different to Scotland.
Growing up as a young boy in central Scotland, football was the first-choice activity for myself and my friends. I was lucky enough to attend football training with a local team from the age of 8. From my first day of training, I stood out from my teammates and this was quickly noticed by the coaching staff. Between the ages of 8 and 16, I played for three local teams with great success, which included multiple league and regional cup wins, even a European cup win in Holland.
As unfortunately is the case across Scottish football, the more technical players are often overlooked in favour of more physical players, despite often contributing more to the game. During my youth career, I was often given less game time, despite having a far superior goal to minutes played ratio than many of my teammates who also played in attacking positions. I had a couple of forays into what professional life as a footballer could hold, notably with Dundee United as a residential trialist and the ‘Samsung Win a Pro Contract’, where I reached the final 22 of 6500 applicants nationwide and was so close to a professional contract with Swindon Town or Leyton Orient. International appearances for Scotland U19 Grassroots squad and Scotland University squad were the highlights of my football career in Scotland, but these experiences did not prepare me for playing football in another country, with vastly different life and football challenges.
In January 2017, I made a decision that has changed my life entirely. It took place in the shower; the place where most of my plans and life decisions seem to take place for some reason. I came to the conclusion that if I was going to get an opportunity to become a professional footballer, it wasn’t going to come to me, I would have to create my own path.
Due to the fact that I had previously coached football at the Boson National Sports Institute in Stockholm and thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle and culture in Sweden, this seemed to be an obvious first choice as I looked overseas.
I began 2 weeks of research into football in Sweden. Focusing on everything from understanding the tiered divisions to watching various matches in several leagues on YouTube to pinpoint exactly where the most realistic destinations were. I chose to target Divisions 1 & 2 across the North and the South of the country. Creation of a football CV and a covering letter followed before I began the rather tedious process of finding each individual club’s contact details (which are surprisingly straightforward to find), once you’ve translated the website from Swedish to English of course!
After sending my email to almost every team in Division 1 and 2 in the country, I came across a club named IFK Ostersund in the Jamtland region of Sweden. Pleasantly surprised at the fact they had an English coach at the helm, I sent my e-mail off to the manager Ben Smith with a great deal of optimism. Within minutes of my email, I had a reply offering me to head over for a trial – he was looking for an attacking minded player and I fitted the bill.
4 weeks later and I found myself on a flight to Ostersund. A city in the North of Sweden that I had never even heard of until I had sent my email and googled the team. Here I was on my way, on my own and without any knowledge of the city, the people or the standard of football. To many it may have seemed a daunting task, but to me this was an opportunity I had longed for.
As the plane landed and I stepped off, I was greeted with a shuddering cold wind and more snow than I had ever seen before. Nevertheless, I waded into the airport quickly aware that the Nike running trainers I had chosen to travel in were nowhere near suitable for this climate. The standard airport process on arrival would be to go through security, display your passport, collect your luggage and leave. Not here. I was prepared of course, passport in hand, but as I stepped into the airport, I could already see the exit. I met the English goalkeeper of the team, Andrew Mills, who had come to collect me. We said our introductions and left, all in a matter of seconds.
The trial was due to last one week, where I would train with the team and play in a friendly match before finding out my fate. Initial impressions were good. The club seemed to be well run, the players and staff were welcoming and although it was averaging -9 degrees, I was thoroughly enjoying the experience. I arrived on the Thursday evening and the following Tuesday we were scheduled to play a friendly match against Division 3 side Alsens IF.
The week involved some intense training, most of it with a ball but the odd drill that makes all footballers shiver with horror– cones displaying various distances and not a ball in sight. This was the Swedish pre-season however, so I sucked it up and put on a smile, piece of cake, right? I couldn’t have been more wrong, running drills are hard enough as they are, however add in minus temperatures and a wind that literally freezes your hair in place and they become a whole lot harder.
Tuesday arrived. The snood and the leggings were on under the kit. I’m a Scotsman and we pride ourselves on being ‘tough’ (even if you’re not), gloves are frowned upon and if you turn up to training or matches with a snood or leggings on then you better be prepared to be the butt of the jokes for that day. However, this time was different, it was a painfully freezing night. The trusty iPhone weather app was displaying a harrowing temperature of -13. I learnt the hard way not to check this outside, as exposure in these temperatures sees a fully charged iPhone battery run for roughly 20 minutes.
I played well, we won 2-0, I scored the second, ran about as much as I could and done everything simple. It couldn’t have gone any better, the trial was living up to my expectations, this could happen, I could get a contract out of this!
Click here for part two