JAMIE INSALL thought his old boss Andy Robbins was at the wind-up when he told him to pack his case and head to Edinburgh for a trial with Hibs.
After months of hoping, the 22-year-old – a prolific goalscorer in English non-league football – had all but given up on someone, somewhere giving him the chance he craved.
But, in that one short phonecall, Insall’s career has been turned on its head, the striker signing a three-year deal with the Capital club, a far cry from his days with Robbins at Littleton FC near Eavesham in Worcestershire.
Having begun his career in the Kidderminster Harriers youth set-up, Insall had spent the past few years kicking about clubs such as Stourport Swifts, Redditch United, Pershore Town and Westfield before an oustanding spell with Littleton saw him move on to West Midlands League Division One Champions Bromyard while also helping WCT Youth Raiders lift the Worcester and District League Sunday Division Two title.
His 42 goals prompted a step up to Stourbridge in the Northern Premier League where he had barely completed an impressive pre-season campaign with five further goals before, out of the blue, came that call from Robbins who, despite an apparent lack of interest from clubs on his doorstep, had never lost faith that the youngster would get his big break.
Robbins, who set strikers Matt Smith and Joe Lolley on their way to deals with Fulham and Huddersfield Town respectively, said: “I realised straight away Jamie had what it takes to go much further and I told him so. He was the top scorer in the West Midlands three years on the trot at the level he was playing at and, at Littleton, he was brilliant – the difference between winning and losing.”
Although Robbins gave plenty of clubs the “heads up”, none were prepared to take a gamble, perhaps apprehensive given Insall’s past, breaking an opponent’s jaw while playing for Pershore, an action which brought him a suspended jail sentence and 250 hours of unpaid community work.
Insall himself admitted he was quite immature at the time, saying: “I was in the wrong place in my life, I should not have been on a football pitch. There was a lot of anger around me but I am more relaxed and laid-back now.
“There was a year when not many people wanted to take me but then I scored more than 30 for Littleton and Westfields.”
Robbins said: “At the end of the day, we all deserve a second chance and I know speaking to Jamie he has changed dramatically. I had a great relationship with him –he’d do anything for me. He was scoring goals but nothing was happening. He was asking me what he had to do, and I was saying ‘work hard. Believe me, something will happen.”
Even so, Robbins admitted he was beginning to despair himself, saying: “Maybe his past meant people were not prepared to take a risk but now Alan Stubbs and Hibs have been prepared to take a punt. I hope Jamie repays them – and I am sure he will.”
Robbins’ persistence finally paid off when a contact called and asked if he was prepared to “put his head on the block” for Insall, that Hibs and an English League One outfit were interested.
He said: “With the greatest of respect, I don’t know much about the manager of that club but, to be fair, I think football fans know Alan Stubbs from his days with Bolton, Celtic and Everton as a well-discplined player, a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, someone who won’t take any messing. I think Jamie would want someone like that who will help him go in the right direction.
“It was the Thursday and I called Jamie to say he’d need to get a train up to Edinburgh that night because Hibs wanted him to play a game the next day.
“He thought I was joking, that I was winding him up. I told him this was the chance he’d been dreaming of. It was a daunting thought for him but he went and it was Alan himself who picked him up at the station at eleven that night
“I called Jamie after the game, a closed-doors match with Brentford, and asked how he thought he’d done. He said ‘okay’. He’d scored one, hit the bar and set up the other for Hibs.”
It came as no surprise to Robbins who recalled how, on joining Littleton, his assistant Glenn Brotherton had asked Insall how many goals he thought he’d score for the club. He said: “Jamie said that including the pre-season games, he’d have 20 before the end of September. Glenn asked him if we wanted a wager on it and Jamie replied ‘whatever you want’.
“I don’t know what they settled on but, by the second week of September, Jamie had scored 22. He once scored four hat-tricks in four games for us. He’ll score goals wherever he goes and, while sometimes you have to make sure you don’t end up with egg on your face, I’m sure that when Hibs get him fit he’ll get them goals.
“Hopefully, he settles in, gets himself into the first team and, if he does what I know he can do, then hopefully a few clubs locally down here will regret not taking a chance on him.”
Although delighted for Insall, Robbins admits he, too, was surprised not only by Hibs’ move but the fact the youngster has won a three-year contract.
He said: “Obviously, Alan has seen something of a rough diamond that he can polish. The fact he’s been given a long-term deal I would see as a positive.
“Usually, you’d expect that nine times out of ten players in Jamie’s position would be given twelve months to see what they can do but Hibs must see something to give him such an opportunity. It’s a huge step, no doubt about it, but you need that challenge, to see how far you can go in the game.
“Of course, there is the chance it won’t work out, but it’s a terrific opportunity for him and I am sure the environment Jamie is now in – he couldn’t believe the training facilities Hibs have – will make him a better player.
“Being around people like Alan, who has played at the top level, and his staff will ensure that happens and Jamie has already told me he’s been amazed at some of the training Hibs do. He says he’s learning a great deal all the time. It’s certainly been an eye opener.
“He’s loving it. He texted me the other weekend asking me to guess where he was. He was at Ibrox with a crowd of 50,000. We’d had 121 at our game the day before. Typical Jamie.”