How Leicester’s youngest debutant became a non-league cult hero

In Depth
Ashley Chambers Leicester

Of all the players to represent Leicester City, nobody has done so at a younger age than Ashley Chambers.

He was just 15 years and 203 days old when he stepped off the bench to make his professional debut at home to Blackpool in the League Cup in September 2005.

Even now, more than half a lifetime later, he still remembers the day vividly. Chambers expected to be helping out as a ball boy, before discovering that he was part of Craig Levein’s squad instead. “It’s a funny story now that I look back,” says the striker.

“I used to go to school not far from my nana’s house. I’d pass by with my friends, say hello and grab a quick bite to eat. As I walked through the door on this occasion, she said, ‘You need to ring your mum.’ I obviously thought that was a bit weird because I never needed to ring my mum while she was at work.”

One phone call later, it all became clear. The academy director, Jon Rudkin, had been in touch, informing Chambers’ mum that he needed to bring his boots because he was set to be involved with the first team. He’d been playing for the reserves and knew his progress was being fast-tracked, but this was a different level entirely.

“My nana started crying in front of me with tears of joy, bless her, and she gave me a big hug. I finished off the sandwich that she gave me and went out to my friends and said, ‘There’s a chance I could play tonight.’ Then I carried on with my day at school. It was very surreal.”

Chambers only made the briefest of cameos that night, but he still surpassed Peter Shilton to set a club record that’s unlikely to ever be beaten. The next day, he was back at school, the envy of his classmates, for having achieved something they could only dream of. Some had gone to watch the game, a 2-1 win.

It took a long time for what he’d achieved to properly register with him. “The naivety of being how young I was helped in that sense, because you just turn up and get on with it. I was just like the shy school kid, because I actually was. The lads were brilliant, and everyone was congratulating me after. Some of them were old enough to be my dad!”

“It’s a results business, so you’re wondering, ‘Am I good enough for this? Are they wondering why a young kid like me is here?’ You do get those little inklings of doubt here and there, but it’s something I wouldn’t change for the world. I don’t regret it for one second. I still look back on it fondly.”

The fact that Chambers was given the opportunity demonstrates how highly he was thought of at Leicester. He enjoyed rising through the ranks at his hometown club and representing England at youth level alongside some players who have become household names.

“It was a really good experience every time we went away. I was lucky enough to play in an age group that had some fantastic players. Quite a few of them have gone on to have brilliant careers, even in the England senior team as well,” says Chambers.

“I played with Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier. What the England team did in the summer, and for them boys to be part of it, was brilliant. There’s a sense of pride. There are also lads that have played over the years like Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere. The list goes on. There are a lot of players I’ve been on the same team as and it’s good to see them on the telly, doing well.

“It was always enjoyable to go away to the camps and I managed to play at the Under-17s World Cup, which was brilliant. We got to the quarter-finals so we were away for a month in all. We were in South Korea, which was a lovely place.”

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READ: Where are they now? The England U21s from the first game at new Wembley

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Chambers readily admits that, in contrast to the likes of Walker and Trippier, his career hasn’t reached the levels that it might have done in different circumstances. Football is a game of notoriously fine margins, where things you have little control over – a mistimed tackle or a managerial change – can make all the difference.

There were a couple of significant turning points for Chambers, but he doesn’t dwell on them. “I tore my PCL (posterior cruciate ligament), which kept me out for four or five months. That took me until I was 17 and that was the year we got relegated from the Championship,” he recalls.

“I came back that pre-season, with a new manager again, and I was flying. Nigel Pearson was a big fan of me. I was different to the two strikers he already had. He wasn’t looking to loan me out. He definitely wanted to keep me around.

“On the Monday before we played the first game of the season, I fractured my ankle in training and then I was always just playing catch-up from there really. Football doesn’t wait for anybody. They needed success. They brought in a couple more players and it made it more difficult.

“I don’t blame the club, or anything like that. It’s down to the player at the end of the day. I look back now and think I probably didn’t quite do enough to force my way back in. That one incident could have changed everything but it’s all ifs, buts and maybes now.”

Chambers made a few more substitute appearances, and got to celebrate winning the League One title with Leicester, but was then loaned out. His spells at Wycombe Wanderers and Grimsby Town were dispiriting and he questioned whether he wanted to continue playing.

“There’s more to football than meets the eye. The two loans I had were going into difficult situations. Wycombe needed someone that was primed and ready to go and attack the league. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out with the change of manager. It was the same again at Grimsby, but in League Two. I started the first game and then didn’t play for four weeks with no explanation.

“I remember, at the end of that season, I was wondering if football was actually for me. It was just too much. I didn’t like the politics. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. A lot of things that players don’t see, but they feel it because it’s happening to them,” says Chambers.

“It was probably the birth of my first child that woke me up. I thought, ‘I can’t just give up on something that I’ve committed my life to.’ I’d fallen out of love with the game, but it hardened me up to the football world. I’ve managed to carve out a career. It’s not as good as I’d hoped it would be, but 15 years in full-time football isn’t too bad.”

Redemption came at York City. After an initial loan spell, Chambers joined permanently and moved his young family up north. He scored 10 goals in 51 games as the Minstermen completed a Wembley double in 2012, winning the finals of the FA Trophy and the Conference play-offs in quick succession.

“I loved every second of it. The whole feel of the club – the lads, the togetherness – it was just brilliant. We got to know each other really well and that whole squad is still really good friends. It was probably my favourite time in football, to be honest.”

Chambers spent a few seasons in the Football League before losing his place at Grimsby and deciding to start again at a lower level. He wanted to spend more time with his family and focus on what really mattered.

“I’d got to another low point, where I was thinking, ‘I can’t be doing with this. I’ve got two young kids at home. I’m travelling up and down, staying away from them, missing things all the time.’ I just wanted to be at home. I chose happiness, even though that was two leagues lower.”

The first lockdown had a dramatic impact on many people’s lives, Chambers included. Financial constraints meant that his contract with Kidderminster Harriers wasn’t extended so he started planning for the future. He left full-time football behind to explore other possibilities.

“It was the best decision for me and my family,” he says. “It’s given me the opportunity to step into the real world and try to find out what I want to do. It’s been good. I work with my dad a couple of days a week, doing roofing, and I’ve just started doing joinery with a friend of mine, building bespoke wardrobes and fitting kitchens. That’s probably the route I want to go down.”

Chambers remains happy with his choice, which has created a better balance of work, family and football. But he hasn’t given up on creating more memories on the pitch, with seventh-tier Buxton presenting an exciting challenge.

“The club’s an anomaly for that level and that was one of the reasons why I joined. They’re trying to do things the right way. What the chairman’s trying to build, with the stadium and how he’s kitted it out, they’re ready to power on through the leagues. The squad that they’ve got together is brilliant.”

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Ambitious and well-run, Buxton are pushing for promotion and have the FA Cup third round in their sights. If they beat Morecambe tomorrow, overcoming a four-division difference between the two sides, it will be the first time the Bucks have reached that stage of the competition since 1952.

It’s already the eighth game of their run, having entered at the first qualifying round and survived two replays. Buxton are the lowest-ranked side left but enjoy home advantage as they look to cause a major upset, live on BBC One.

“Going into Saturday, we’re just relaxed. There are going to be a lot more people there than we usually have, and there are going to be a few more watching through the camera lenses, but it’s just another game,” says Chambers.

We’ve got nothing to fear. It’s 11 against 11 and anything can happen on the day. That’s why everybody loves the FA Cup. If we get anywhere near our levels, Morecambe will find it difficult. That’s all we can ask for. We’ll just see if the football gods are with us on the day and if they can help us prevail.”

As a senior figure in the dressing room, with plenty of knowledge to pass on, Chambers has an important role to play against Morecambe. He’s keen to add to his tally of 10 goals so far this season, creating some more headlines and potentially another piece of history.

By Sean Cole

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