Why loanee James Brown has more than a slim chance of success with Carlisle Utd
"I WAS too fat to move, basically," James Brown says as he remembers a tough time in a young career. Brown has impressed for Carlisle United during his loan from Millwall and it must seem a long time since he was released by Gillingham with the knowledge he needed to slim down.
"I got told I wasn't technically good enough, but the real reason was I was just too fat," he adds. "There's no point painting over it. I was a bit of a porker when I was younger but luckily I've shot up a bit and now I'm a bit leaner."
Brown was 12 when his chubby childhood cost him a future at the nearest professional club to his Dover home. The defender describes how he spent the next few years playing locally before, as a slimmer teenager, he was then picked up by Millwall.
His ability has been plain to see in seven games for United so far. Brown has kept more experienced players out of Keith Curle's team since his move in late August and, with some energetic performances at right-back, his weight problem is clearly also a thing of the distant past.
His half-season loan in Cumbria is also a step forward in other ways: a first run of first-team football, and a departure of some distance from his southern home. "Yeah, it's literally one opposite [end of the country] to another, 400 miles or something stupid like that," Brown says. "It's a long way but if I've got to go that far to play first-team football, so be it.
"I'm happy. It was a no-brainer in terms of seeing what the club [Carlisle] did last year, the set-up, the gaffer and all the players that are here."
Brown adds that he had to Google "Carlisle" to check exactly how far it was from south London, where The Den has been his football home since he was 15. While Brown has made just one senior appearance for Millwall (a Checkatrade Trophy game against Gillingham last October) he knows he has already done some growing-up at a club with few airs or graces.
"It's a difficult experience in terms of the fans," he says. "You sit there at home games, and they're harsh. They demand a lot of players, which every fan should.
"It's nice to see that side of it. If you can play in front of Millwall fans...that's as hard as it's gonna get. It gives you a different type of education.
"On the coaching side, the coaches have all done it, played for the club and, in what they pass on to us younger players, I can't complain about the club as a whole."
Millwall may be a demanding environment but Brown felt his development had reached a stage where first-team football was required. His account of wanting that next step, which has come at Carlisle, is a familiar one regarding many academy players today.
"I felt like I've spent long enough in the development side of it, in younger football," he says. "I knew I needed to get out on loan, because that's where you forge your career. There's no point in basically resting in the 23s.
"At that level there's no-one there, no pressure, nothing really means anything. At the end of the day you're quite selfish in terms of, if you have a good game, that's all that matters, because it's development - whereas here, if you make a mistake, then you might not be in the team next week.
"You make a mistake, and not only your fans but your team-mates might give you an earful, which is real-life football, real men's football. It's a completely different scenario, playing in an environment where the result matters much more than it would in under-23s football."
Brown talks fluently and maturely about this pivotal point in his path to what will hopefully be a lasting career. Certainly he has made a strong start with United which is all the more impressive given that he will still be a teenager until January.
Curle gave him his debut in the Checkatrade at Morecambe on August 29 and was quick to introduce him to Carlisle's league side at Coventry on September 12, since when he has been a regular.
Were those early minutes nervous? "It's always nerve-wracking," he says, "but the way you have to look at it is, if you want to be a footballer, these are the games and scenarios and occasions you want to be involved in.
"So if you're going to get too worked-up over that, you need to say to yourself, 'Come on, this is what I want to do as my career'. You've just got to take it as it comes and plug through it."
As a boy Brown played for local teams St Margaret's and Folkestone Invicta and, after his Gillingham release, Ramsgate and Dover Athletic. He also captained the Kent county side through the local schools set-up and it was there that his path to Millwall was paved, as he earned a two-year scholarship and then professional terms at the Bermondsey club.
"It's tough for boys from where we are, because there are no professional clubs as such," he adds. "We have Gillingham and that's the only professional club in Kent. There's Dover, which are Conference, but no other real big teams. If you live in London there's a bigger catchment area."
A photo of Brown in his heavier days materialised in Carlisle's programme last weekend and has inevitably led to dressing-room ribbing. His musical name has not allowed him to pass into professional football without comment, either.
Brown, though, wants to establish his own name, and helping United to improvement in League Two is his best chance yet to do that. His six league games have seen two wins, a draw and three defeats and the Blues go to Colchester this weekend again hoping their away form will bail out some poorer results at Brunton Park.
United were beaten 1-0 at home by Exeter last weekend, a result that left them 16th and frustrated after failing to capitalise on lots of second-half pressure.
"I know it sounds cliched when a lot of people say it's fine margins and we're not far off, but it really is," Brown says. "You could see there was absolutely nothing in the game.
"Those set-pieces, little niggly bits, if that goes the other way, we could easily score two goals in the second half and nick a win, and everyone says 'well-played, excellent'. It's those fine margins either way.
"We've got to get on the training pitch, carry on as we have and maybe nick a goal or a late win somewhere and, like the boys did last year, you can go on a long run.
"We're not playing bad. We feel like we're in control. We never feel too edgy out there. It's just the little nitty-gritty bits we need to iron out."