Australian defender Jimmy Oates failed to break into the A-League but refused to give up on his footballing dreams and is now enjoying life in England’s League Two.
Oates’ journey has been one of heart-break and hard work after growing in Sydney’s northern beaches and joining Central Coast Mariners as a talented teenager.
A Manly United junior, the full-back signed for the Mariners’ National Youth League side in 2010.
Alongside the likes of future Socceroos such as Mat Ryan, Trent Sainsbury and Berni Ibini, Oates thrived and even trialled with English club Sheffield United in 2011.
The following season he captained the Mariners’ youth team to a premiership and was handed a professional contract for the 2012-2013 season by then coach Graham Arnold.
But a series of serious injuries cruelled Oates’ chances of an A-League debut and he was released from his contract early.
The right-back or right-sided midfielder spent the next five years away from professional football, plying his trade in England’s lower leagues, before finally winning a deal with League Two club Exeter City last year.
In August he debuted for the Grecians in the EFL Cup against Premier League outfit Fulham, illustrating how far his roller-coaster football journey has come.
“We had a Cup match against Fulham at Craven Cottage, that was my first match for the club,” Oates told The World Game.
“I was thinking back three years ago I was playing at some almost Sunday League teams, and then a few years later playing at Craven Cottage. It was pretty massive for me. It was special.
“I’m just soaking it up as much as I can and keep moving forward.”
Oates decided to move to the UK to study and play in 2014 after recovering from microfractures in his ankles that cost him his A-League chance.
He was then signed by Hereford FC, a new club created after the collapse of Hereford United, the following year.
“I picked up a stress fracture in my ankle in the last week of the Mariners’ pre-season. I had some other injuries in my calves so I pretty much had to move back home,” the 27-year-old explained.
“I was out for six months before I was even jogging. It just wrote off that season. It was definitely hard to take. It’s your dream to get that first deal and moving on from there, but it wasn’t to be.
“After I left the Mariners I moved back to Manly United for a year to sort of sort myself out. Then I got the offer to come to England to play and study with Hartpury University.
“The head of football there I’d played with at Manly, he offered me a scholarship to go over there and play.
“They’ve got a full-time program set up there so it was an ideal place to go, travel, play and study. So I came over with no real expectations, because I’d had so many problems with injuries I just wanted to do my degree, which was in strength and conditioning.
“Then get playing again and see what happens. My degree was a three-year degree and in my second year Hereford FC came in and asked me to play for them.”
Oates’ stint at Hartpury Univeristy in Gloucestershire put him on the road to an unlikely return to the professional ranks.
“It was definitely very hard work,” he admits.
“We used to train in the morning every day before university. At 7am we were in the gym and then 8am on the pitch for a couple of hours, then you have lectures all day and we were playing up to four games a week.
“It was a crazy amount of football and you’re constantly recovering and training and recovering. But I just learnt a whole lot about how to play football in England, the style that different teams want. It was a good learning curve.”
Hereford United was wound up in December 2014 because of financial problems. Hereford FC were founded in their stead and started life in the Midland Football Premier Division.
“They were a Phoenix club, they rebuilt themselves from the bottom up,” Oates said.
“They started down at a pretty low league, the ninth tier of English football. I was there for three seasons and we got three promotions in a row. It was a pretty good time.
“We only lost five or six league games in three years. It was a good thing to be part of.
“In my third year I captained the side and we went on to get promoted, win the league and set the record for that league. In the summer, last year, I got a call from an ex-manager of mine at Hartpury University, Matty Taylor, who just got the job at Exeter.
“He asked if I wanted to come in on trial for a few weeks during pre-season. I must have done pretty well and they offered me a contract here. That was a pretty epic moment.
“Coming over here I didn’t have any expectations, but in the back of my head it was a dream to play professional football. It was a big accomplishment of mine.”
Oates helped Hereford FC rise from the depths of the ninth division with three succession promotions, including an unlikely appearance at Wembley in 2016.
There the fledgling club took on Morpeth Town in the FA Vase Final in front of 46,781 fans at the iconic London stadium.
“That was amazing, my first year at Hereford. We’d won that league and went to Wembley to play in the FA Vase final,” he said.
“That was incredible. I think Hereford took about 30,000 fans, which was pretty much the whole city. Unfortunately we got smashed 4-1.
“We scored in the first few minutes and we just got complacent I guess. They got one back just before half-time and went on to smash us. But the day was unbelievable and playing on that pitch was crazy.”
Oates has played six Cup matches for Exeter City this season, who are sitting in seventh spot on the table just outside a playoff spot. The defender has been on the bench nine times for the Grecians but has yet to make his League Two debut.
“It’s been really good, getting back into full-time training,” he said.
“It’s taken a little bit to get used to and to get used to fatigue and the mental side of it, that’s probably been the biggest struggle really. But I’m loving it, the boys have been awesome.
“I’ve played five or six Cup matches. I picked up a little injury early on but the body’s holding up well at the moment.
“We had an unreal start to the season. In the last two months or so our form dipped a bit. But we can put together another run.
“Promotion is definitely what we want. In the last two seasons the boys have just missed out on an automatic promotion spot, and they’ve got to the playoff final both years and lost.
“That’s been pretty devastating but they’re all keen to get that automatic spot.”
Oates admits it is amazing to think how far his former Mariners teammates have come in six years, many who are now part of the Socceroos’ squad currently defending the Asian Cup in the UAE.
“It’s mental to think where they are now,” he said.
“You’ve got Sainsbury, Tommy Rogic, Maty Ryan, Bernie’s done well, Dukey’s done well in Japan, Musti’s over here. It was a gun team.
“[But] Everything happens for a reason and I’m happy to be over here now. It’s all been a really good journey.”