Michael Hector, Reading’s Reggae Boy, reflects on growing up, bouncing back and falling in love again.

By Josh Wilson 
Photography by Mehdi Lacoste

“As soon as I got the letter, I cried. And yeah, it was heartbreaking, thinking that the only thing you wanted to do had been taken away.”

With this admission, a dry laugh escapes Michael Hector’s lips. He runs his hand over his cropped hair, eyes elsewhere as he recounts the moment he was informed by Millwall, aged 15, that his contract with the club’s youth academy was to be terminated. After four years of sacrifice, of trekking across London three times a week by bus, train, and bus again, of neglecting old friendships in pursuit of the ultimate goal, his dream had been comprehensively dismantled on one A4 sheet, in the space of a few typed lines and an electronic signature. Thanks, but no thanks.

For Hector, as is so often the case for thousands of young hopefuls up and down the country, that really should have been that; not many are left by the footballing wayside at 15 and live to tell the tale. So it is testament to his resilience and determination – and a rather timely growth spurt – that he is describing his earliest rejection from the comfort of a hotel room in Chile, in the warm company of his Jamaica teammates, on the eve of the country’s third and final group game of the 2015 Copa América. Less than 24 hours after we speak, Hector will face the unenviable task – in only his third game for the Reggae Boyz – of neutralising the potent attacking threat of Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuaín, Angel di María and Lionel Messi on, naturally, the biggest night of his career to-date. There’s a sense of mild exasperation, that the question of how to contain the world’s most gifted player has been debated to death in the Jamaican camp, without anyone really coming to a conclusion. So with that in mind, Hector’s content, for now, to reflect on the journey that got him here.

“I thought I was good,” he says, ”but obviously I wasn’t good enough for Millwall. It meant I had to go back to Sunday league, which was good for me. It was good to play with the people that I’d grown up with, to get knocked back and then play with my friends in order to fall back in love with the game again.”

It was a period of reinvigoration, but also of reassessment, as Hector pragmatically weighed up his options against the harsh realities of the academy system. “I was just lucky enough that I had a great family behind me and they supported me. [They] said I was still young and that anything could happen – just concentrate on your schoolwork and, obviously, your football, but just make sure you have a back-up plan.” It was sound advice; Newham, the London borough where Hector and his brother, Matthew, were raised, was found to have the capital’s highest rate of unemployment when figures were last compiled in 2013.

Michael Hector

“As soon as I got the letter, I cried. And yeah, it was heartbreaking, thinking that the only thing you wanted to do had been taken away.”

Hector’s mother, now a teacher at the primary school he attended in East Ham as a child, was instrumental in pushing him to further his education, while his father, a former professional cricketer who works as a coach in addition to implementing sports programmes in the capital’s schools, concerned himself with his footballing development. For a time, it looked as if a compromise would be reached that satisfied both parties: “I was going to go over and study in America,” he explains. “Sports Science, at Michigan State. That would have been on a soccer scholarship, but just at the time I was sorting it out, Reading came along…”

In the two years since being released by Millwall, Hector had undergone something of a transformation. Aged 17 and standing at almost six feet four, he cut an imposing figure, blessed with a set of physical attributes that, married to his technical ability, were enough to turn the heads of the Championship club’s senior scouting network. The Royals’ approach represented a lifeline, a second chance for Hector to play the game with which he’d fallen back in love. Mindful, however, of the fragile ground on which he was walking, he remained wary: “I was thinking that if I sign at Reading and don’t get [into the first team], then I’ve wasted that opportunity as well. But my dad, again, told me that you’ve got to look at everything in a positive light; you’ve got to think, If I go to Reading and do well, then you’re in England doing what you always wanted to do.”

Hector signed the contract. Yet, last season aside, little of his five years at Reading have actually been spent in the Berkshire town. A series of 11 consecutive loan spells saw him lead a nomadic existence during much of his late teens, travelling to the four corners of the British Isles as he continued to amass the experience he needed to establish himself at his parent club. A return journey to each of the teams he turned out for during that period totals 2,786 miles; to put that figure into perspective, a one-way flight to Michigan is only 3,757.

An 11-game spell at Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, was his first real taste of life away from home. For someone so deeply ingrained in the fabric of his community, so wedded to family life, it came as something of a shock. “For the first month or so I was having pizza delivered to the flat,” he laughs. “But then the people understood that I was playing for Dundalk, because they knew my name, and they started asking questions, so I had to stop that and try to cook for myself. Just basic pasta and chicken, but I still messed it up the first few times. It was good to get out and learn some stuff.”

The narrative of the journeyman, especially one so young, is often neglected in a sport that places an overwhelming emphasis, in terms of both attention and riches, on its elite performers. Hector’s story, though, is closer to the norm than many might like to think. “There was a time at Horsham when I had three sending-offs for, basically, not a lot,” he starts, his broad smile disappearing momentarily as he reflects on one of his tougher non-league moments. “I didn’t really do much [to deserve them]. After that I had to go to the FA and got handed an eight-match ban. I’m not the kind of player that goes out there to try and hurt people or retaliate, but at that stage, when I got given an eight-match ban for something I didn’t even really do, that was a real low point in the five years.”

Michael Hector

“I was going to go over and study in America. Sports Science, at Michigan State. That would have been on a soccer scholarship, but just at the time I was sorting it out, Reading came along…”

It was a familiar figure that helped him to maintain his drive in the face of what could, for some players, have spelled the end of the road. “My dad’s played a huge part in making me who I am today, so having him around me and having his advice helped me a lot in my decision-making and staying positive. A few things happened when I was younger, obviously with Millwall, for example, and so I was quite negative. Now, in everything I do, I try and look at the best outcome.”

Perhaps, then, good things do happen to good people – positivity can prevail. But you sense that the three-year contract extension handed to Hector by Reading shortly before this year’s Copa América is also down, in no small part, to his inextinguishable desire to succeed. The image he conjures as he runs through a list of his inspirations – a list that includes Zinedine Zidane and Rio Ferdinand but is topped, naturally, by his father – is one of a relentlessly competitive household. “I’m a keen watcher of sports,” he says, with real enthusiasm. “Tennis, basketball, rugby, cricket, any sport that’s on, I watch it, and I appreciate good sport and the people that win things. That’s who I want to be associated with and that’s what you do sport for. You don’t take part in sport just to make up the numbers – you want to win.

“That’s what I’ve been taught from a young age – you only have fun when you’re winning – and that’s one of the lessons I’ve taken from my dad. It’s all about winning, whether you’re playing in the garden or playing on the pitch on a Saturday or Tuesday, and you don’t want to lose. It’s bragging rights.”

If that’s the case, then the one-nil defeat to Argentina the day after our interview will certainly have hurt – as will the losses, by the same scoreline, to Uruguay and Paraguay in Jamaica’s opening two matches of their first major tournament since World Cup 1998. But if Michael Hector’s story, and the outlook it has afforded him, are anything to go by, then you wouldn’t bet against him returning one day, whether in yellow or blue, as a winner. “No one remembers losers, my dad used to tell me,” he laughs, with one final flourish, before sighing. “But yeah, it’s true, no one does remember them, the runners-up.”

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