Five months after Leicester City’s miraculous Premier League trophy win in 2016, star striker Jamie Vardy released his autobiography From Nowhere. The title encapsulated the striker’s incredible journey from working in a carbon fibre factory to the top flight of English football; the sort of story that the media fascinate over whenever a player is unearthed from non-league and makes a name for himself in professional football. See Andre Gray, Dwight Gayle and Troy Deeney for other examples.
Reading hoped they had discovered the latest gem from underneath the Football League when they signed 22 year-old Rowan Liburd from seventh tier Billericay Town in the summer of 2015. Brought to the club’s attention by Steve Shorey, Liburd had scored 22 times for the Essex club in the previous season, before netting twice on trial for the Royals’ under-21s in front of the impressed Nicky Hammond. Liburd was snapped up on a two-year deal, with Hammond impressed by his “undoubted potential”.
It was a milestone moment for the striker, who had nearly decided against a career in football six years earlier. Released by Chelsea at the age of 11, Liburd played both Sunday league and with Bromley’s academy through his school years, before taking the opportunity to do a scholarship in America at Georgia’s Thomas University.
“When someone is offering you chance to get a degree and still play football at a competitive level, you would be silly to turn it down,” Liburd says. “I was quite fortunate where I went because our team was mainly European players – some from England, a few from Germany, a few from Sweden.
“There might even have been a few South American players as well from Colombia and Brazil. I think that mix of different cultures and different abilities helped me because the main reason why I wanted to go to America was for a new experience and I got that.
“Those four years helped me keep my love for football. If I hadn’t gone, then I would have gone to university in England and not really pursued the sport anymore. At the time, it was the best four years of my life. I loved the whole set up of college sports in America and I’m still in contact with a lot of the people over there, including my head coach.”
Liburd’s affection for his time across the pond is clear, and he was successful too, winning various awards including the Sun Conference Player of the Year, which covers the states of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. However, he also admits that it may have hindered him upon his return to England.
“I went to Southend for a two-week trial but they told me no. They said that I needed to find a team and get some game time. I wasn’t on anyone’s radar because I’d been in America and hadn’t been in an academy so no-one really knew of me”.
But things moved quickly for Liburd as he joined Billericay, with the move to Reading following just a year later. He made an emphatic start to life with the under-21s, scoring in his first six Premier League 2 games in succession, catching the eye of fans who began to clamour for Liburd to appear in the first team.
“I didn’t really read too much into it and just got on with things,” he says. “When you’re scoring goals at any level, whether it’s with the under-21s or out on loan, the fans will always become interested to see what you can do for the first team. So in the back of my mind I kind of knew that the fans were onside with me, but I was more focused on working hard in training.”
Supporters got their wish though, and Steve Clarke named Liburd on the substitutes bench in the Championship for the first time, in October 2015 against Charlton Athletic. A month later, a whirlwind year and a half was complete for the striker, as he made his debut away to Cardiff City, replacing Ola John in the 64th minute.
Recalling that day, Liburd says: “It was a surreal feeling. I’d been on the bench a few times but never expected to get on the pitch. I thought that I might play in the Football League for the first time out on loan, so when Steve Clarke told me to go and get ready I was like ‘wow, this actually about to happen’.
“I was thinking that I just wanted to get through the first five minutes, complete a pass, win a header and just go from there. I still remember it well and my life turned on its head. Having had that knock-back at Southend, it felt great.”
Liburd had made his way into the team during a rocky patch for the Royals, with a promising start to the season beginning to fade away. His debut against Cardiff City finished in a 2-0 defeat; a fifth game in a row without a win. Less than two weeks later, Steve Clarke spoke to Fulham about the vacant managerial position before turning it down, which did little to help the drop in form.
“All the players seemed to have a bond and there was a great team spirit,” Liburd said. I’m not sure why the form dipped. It could have been him speaking to Fulham, it was unfortunate but I wouldn’t put it solely down to that. With anything in life you just have ups and downs. I think most of the players would take the accountability themselves as we could have done better.”
The Royals’ fortunes failed to improve, and Clarke was eventually sacked following a 1-0 defeat to QPR in December 2015. But Liburd still speaks highly of the Scot: “You knew where you stood with him. He told me that I had an opportunity at Reading and that I deserved my chance, so I should carry on doing what I was doing.
“I remember I had a training session with the first team and we played a match between the starting eleven and everyone else. My strengths are getting in behind and playing on the shoulder, and in this training session I was doing the complete opposite. I was trying to be a target man and come to feet and show for the ball.
“He stopped the training session and told me in front of everyone to just be myself and not try to be something I wasn’t. I’ve always remembered that. He didn’t have to stop the session, I was only an academy player, but he made a point of doing that. I felt like he was a really good manager, and he’ll be someone that I’ll always remember, especially as he gave me my debut. I’ve not got a bad word to say about him.”
He also has praise for Clarke’s predecessor, Brian McDermott, despite playing just once under the Slough-born boss before going out on loan to Wycombe Wanderers. “When he came in he said he had seen me play before and was well aware of who I was, which was nice. He gave me my first appearance at the Madejski Stadium, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Reading changed managers again the following summer, with Jaap Stam being the man that called time on Liburd’s Royals career in the summer of 2016. “Jaap Stam had his plans and knew he wanted to be in and around the first team, and it didn’t look like he had plans for me,” Liburd explains. “He said to me that if an opportunity came up elsewhere and a bid was made for me, that they would probably accept it.
“I’ve got no regrets about my time at Reading. The club introduced me to professional football. You could say that I could have had a longer run at it, but I’m blessed with the opportunity I got and hopefully I can get back to that level.
“It’s kind of helped me because I know what it’s like in the Championship now and it’s given me a target to get back to.”
Look out for part two of our chat with Rowan Liburd, in which he discusses how his career has gone since leaving the Madejski Stadium.