Rowan Liburd’s exit from Reading to Stevenage in the summer of 2016 signalled the start of a difficult period in his career. He netted just one goal in 13 league games for the League Two side before being sent on loan to Leyton Orient, where he failed to score in eight appearances.
In the summer of 2017, he was forced to drop out of the Football League by going on loan to Hemel Hempstead in the National League South. Liburd is clear about where the problem lay: “It was one of those ones where I don’t look back and blame anyone but myself. I always look at myself first before other people.
“I just feel I took my foot off the gas a little bit, got complacent and got comfortable. It’s easy to say that the manager didn’t give me a run of games, but I always ask myself if I could have given more. Well the answer to that is yes. At the end of the day there’s no point blaming anyone other than yourself, because you’re the only one in control of your future and how far you want to go.
“At the time, I just felt like it was going to happen for me automatically and I wouldn’t have to do all of the things that had made me become a pro in the first place. It was just down to complacency.
“I wouldn’t say I got to Reading purely through talent, but I scored a lot of goals and as a forward that helps get you a move. What I didn’t realise was that to stay at level, the mental aspect is important. You’ve got to push yourself at training, do the things that maybe others don’t notice but really work hard.”
In December 2017, Liburd completed a permanent move to National League side AFC Guiseley, having impressed at the club on loan. But he could not prevent the West Yorkshire side finishing bottom of the table last season, meaning just two and half years after enjoying life in the Championship, the striker began the current campaign in the sixth tier of English football. If his rise from non-league to professional football was rapid, his descent has been just as quick. It has been a fall from grace that Liburd has had to acknowledge within himself in order to change his attitude:
“I’m having to work as hard as I did when I first came back from America. Having to earn my chance to get back in the league. It’s unfortunate that I’m in that position, but it’s shaping me as a human being and as a man. I worked myself down the leagues, now I’m trying to work my way back up to where I really want to be.
“I’ve had to have a conversation with myself. I look at myself and think I’ve been in the Championship and now I’m playing in the National League North. I’ve been hard on myself because this wasn’t the plan. When I got into the league, the plan was to stay in the league and have that career, but as I say that complacency kicked in.
“I know I’ve got the ability, I know I can do it, but now it’s down to applying myself and dedicating myself to get back up the leagues again. At the start of this season I told myself that this was my chance to have a full season at one club and have a real good go at things.”
It’s a promise to himself that he’s certainly kept, as Liburd is enjoying his best goalscoring run since his time at Billericay, top-scoring for Guiseley in the league with 11 goals to date. However it has remained a difficult campaign for the club, and they sit just three points above the National League North relegation zone at the time of writing.
“It’s bittersweet,” explains Liburd. As a forward it’s nice to score goals, but if the team isn’t doing well you don’t feel that same buzz. I scored my first ever hat-trick a few weeks ago, but we lost the game, which doesn’t happen very often. Of course I was happy to score a hat-trick, but then looking at the table we hadn’t moved, so it was difficult.
“I’ve done well, but I still feel like I could have done better. I was out for two months through injury, but since I’ve come back I’ve applied myself really well and bought into the system that my coaches have been preaching to me about. Fortunately it’s been paying off.
“Credit to the managers [Marcus Bignot and Russ O’Neill], because they haven’t had the budget that the club has had in the past. They’re doing a really good job. It might not look like it on the table, but they’ve settled everything down which is important. They’re stabilising the club on the pitch by having a core group of players, and off it too by being sensible financially. I don’t see us getting relegated this season.”
Liburd turns 27 in six months’ time, an age at which many players are said to be at their peak, and he still feel he has something to offer in the professional game:
“I feel like my career could have panned out differently had I not got complacent. But I have no regrets because everything I do is a lesson learnt, whether that be in football or life in general. You have to use every experience you’ve gone through as a lesson so you don’t make that mistake again.
“To be honest I really want to have another go in the Football League. My aim has always been to play as high as I possibly can for as long as I can. I just want to have a strong end to the season and help my team in the best way I can by scoring goals. At the end of the season I can then say I gave it my all and hopefully my phone rings!”.
Our chat concludes and Liburd’s comments on self-reflection stick in my mind. He is a player who has clearly matured over the last few years, acknowledging his errors and becoming better for them. His insistence to blame no one but himself is admirable, and if ambition alone gave you a move to the Football League, Liburd would be signed instantly. It would be an opportunity he deserves, and one you feel that he would make the most of this time around.