Callum Ebanks celebrates his 18th birthday on Thursday and the Cheltenham Town striker can reflect on six years’ rapid progress.
He did not start playing until the age of 12, but since joining Oldbury-based Sunday side Legion Lions, his talent has been clear and he now has a long-term professional deal with the League Two Robins.
“I was a sporty kid and enjoyed football and basketball, but my mum is religious so it was church on Sundays,” Ebanks said.
“When my dad saw I had some talent for football, he managed to convince my mum to let me play for a Sunday team and straight away I found scoring goals came quite naturally to me.”
After netting more than 50 times in his first season for Legion Lions Under-12s, Ebanks joined Saturday side PS Olympic in the Midland Junior Premier League, where he was coached by Simon Johnson.
It was there that scouts began to take notice.
“I grew up in West Bromwich and I’d see lads wearing Albion tracksuits,” he said.
“I told myself that I’d get to where they were one day because I believed in myself and it’s always been a dream to play for a team at that level.”
Ebanks’ performances for Olympic earned him a trial at Walsall at the age of 14, but he was not signed.
“They told me I had a few things to work on, so I went away and did the extras,” he said.
Birmingham City then took an interest, but Ebanks suffered another setback and continued to impress with Tantany Lions.
“When I was at Birmingham I found the whole experience inspiring, even though they didn’t sign me,” he said.
“Seeing the first team players, and their nice cars, along with the facilities they have – I enjoyed that.”
During a match for Tantany, Ebanks had already scored a hat-trick when one of his defensive team mates was sent off.
The unselfish Ebanks ran straight to the touchline to tell his coach to substitute him, understanding the need to add an extra defender to ensure they preserved their lead.
“I wasn’t fussed and I’d scored hat-tricks in my first four games for Tantany, so I knew we needed to put on a defender, see it out and then move onto the next one,” he said.
“I think playing at that level and scoring so many goals gave me the confidence to join an academy.”
Through a link with Birmingham, Cheltenham Town were told about Ebanks’ attacking qualities and they offered him a six-week trial.
Less than two weeks later he had been signed and at the end of the trial he was given scholarship terms, stepping up to the Under-18s midway through his first season with the Under-16s.
Having been fast-tracked soon after joining Cheltenham, it is perhaps no surprise he has earned his professional contract at the start of his second year as a scholar.
He shone during last season’s FA Youth Cup run, scoring four times in a remarkable 8-4 win over Portsmouth at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium before the young Robins gave Arsenal a real fright in round four, bowing out on penalties.
Ebanks’ form earned him a place on the bench for the first team at Newport County AFC on New Year’s Day.
And after working extremely hard on his fitness and strength during lockdown, he joined Michael Duff’s senior squad from day one of pre-season this summer.
Duff was already fully aware of his ability, but perhaps the way Ebanks performed against Cheltenham’s senior players in friendlies helped speed up the process of turning pro.
Ebanks scored a screamer for Evesham at the Jubilee Stadium and caused a few problems for club captain Ben Tozer and the rest of the backline.
He did the same at Stratford Town and was then rewarded with a substitute appearance for Cheltenham against Bristol City.
“I remember Toze giving me some banter and saying ‘are you going to be playing for them now?’ and stuff like that, which was funny,” Ebanks said.
“I think playing against Toze, Boyley (Will Boyle) and Rags (Charlie Raglan), who had the best defensive record in League Two last season, really helped me get noticed.
“It was then great to see players like Nahki Wells close up, how they play and move – I was just happy to be there to be honest.”
A little over five years after first starting out in football, Ebanks was performing at Ashton Gate and then signing a three-year professional deal with Cheltenham.
“I am very excited and pleased that I can finally say I am a pro,” he said.
“I’ve worked hard for it and I am pleased and excited for me and my family.”
Despite making the step up, Ebanks still lives in digs with some of the other scholarship players.
A loan move to Evesham was planned and he scored the winner in a pre-season victory at Bishop’s Cleeve, but he has recently been sidelined with a knee injury.
Ebanks hopes to be back in action before the end of October and from then his aims are clear.
“I want to get that first Football League appearance and then first goal,” he said.
“Being on the bench for the first team last year was exciting and I know I didn’t sleep the night before, but it was a great experience.
“The lads in the academy help me stay humble, they are still my friends so they want me to do well and I want them to as well. I owe a lot to the academy staff too including Pete (Haynes) and Antoine (Thompson).
“The senior strikers like Reg (Luke Varney) last year, Reubs (Reuben Reid), Tahv (Campbell) and Alex Addai have all looked after me as well and help me whenever it’s needed.”
Ebanks had also started working with coach Wade Elliott on a one-to-one basis.
Recently he has been working with medical staff Gavin Crowe and James Redman to build up the strength in his knee ready for his return to action.
“I had a one-to-one fitness coach during lockdown so my levels didn’t drop and if anything they went up,” he said.
“The intensity in the first team has gone up for sure, but I feel like I held my own in pre-season with ‘gaffer’s day’ and things like that.
“I have been working hard in the gym to get bigger and stronger and before the injury Wade was helping with things like my body shape towards goal and it was a real help.
“I suppose I am the ‘baby’ of the squad now, but all the lads help me out with pointers.”
Ebanks, who is half Jamaican, is a Manchester United supporter and the strikers he most aspires to be like are Romelu Lukaku and the Brazilian Ronaldo.
“I’d like to represent Jamaica one day and follow players like Bobby Reid and Michael Hector, who have both been on loan at Cheltenham in the past,” he said.
“Longer term my aim is to reach the Championship. I’d obviously love to play in the Premier League, but the Championship is a clear goal for me.”
Like his manager Duff, Ebanks knows how it feels to be rejected by bigger clubs before being given an opportunity at Cheltenham.
“Football is the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was 12, so I always remained focused,” he said.
“The manager demands respect from everyone and I rate that highly. He treats everyone the same, from senior players to me who has just turned pro.
“He’s just told me to keep doing what I am doing, working hard and hitting the back of the net, progressing and developing as a player.
“I still see The Hawthorns when I’m back in West Bromwich and it still drives me to work hard and make sure I play there one day.”