He’s loving life at Forest
ASIZE really matters in some sports. For example, it helps to be tall if you’re a basketball player. Yet in football, you don’t have to be from the land of the giants to be a success. Indeed, some ‘shorter’ players have become stars of the beautiful game.
PLAYING in the Premier League should have been a dream come true for Joe Lolley. This, after all, was a man who’d once turned out for Littleton in the 11th tier.
But as Huddersfield revelled in their first top flight season for 45 years, the 26-year-old just couldn’t get into the spirit.
Injured. Miserable. In and out of the side. Even a goal against West Ham in what turned out to be his final top-flight game for the Terriers failed to shake off the blues.
By the time Nottingham Forest offered £500,000 in January, Lolley was, in his own words, already elsewhere.
Now, that fee looks like a monumental bargain. The winger has been in sizzling form for Aitor Karanka’s Forest side, chipping in with some vital goals, too.
So why did the Terriers never see the zippy, inventive and carefree attacker now lightning up the City Ground?
“It was a combination of things, really,” explains Lolley, who joined the Yorkshire outfit from Non-League Kidderminster in 2014.
“I had a lot of problems there in terms of injuries. I never really got fit enough. My confidence - in both my body and my game - had gone, and with it my enjoyment of the game. Day to day, I wasn’t having fun.
“That’s the biggest thing in football, especially at the highest level. Confidence allows you
to perform, to express your- self. If you’re worried about playing, nothing comes naturally. “To play in the Premier League, you have to be 100 per cent at it every single game. I don’t think I was at any stage. “Alongside that, the club changed a lot after David Wagner took over in November 2015. I lost a lot of good friends. “When you’re not having a great spell, you need people like that to help you through it. You can go into training with a smile on your face, even if you’re injured or not playing. “But if you haven’t got many close friends in the dressing room, you don’t enjoy things as much. It kind of grinds on you and the enjoyment leeches away. “By the time I eventually got myself to a state where I could physically play, mentally I was gone. I have to be honest about that. It was a tough year or 18 months which got me down quite a lot.” Lolley does not blame Wagner for his failure to fire at the John Smith’s Stadium and says his roots in the Non-
League game may have influenced his mindset.
Born in Worcestershire, Lolley was released by Birmingham’s academy at 16 and spent his formative years in the youth set-up at Bromsgrove Rovers.
Unwanted again, he eventually dropped into the Midland Combination with Littleton, a part-time side with an average gate of less than 100.
“I do think that made an impact,” said Lolley, who scored 88 goals in 83 games before being snapped up by Kidderminster in 2013.
“For me, football was never about finance or prestige. Back then, my ambition was to join a club who might chuck me £50 to play.
“It’s about enjoying yourself. Playing with your mates, having a smile on your face. And I think that if you’re happy and playing well, the financial things take care of themselves.
“That’s why I left Huddersfield. I didn’t have to. I wasn’t forced out. There was no real desperation in terms of the manager or club wanting me out. I’d actually started a few games.
“It was me. In my own mind, I was already elsewhere. I was desperate to leave the club and desperate to get that enjoyment back.” And he has, with spectacular results. “I enjoy the dressing room, I enjoy coming in every day,” says Lolley. “And I think that shows on the pitch. I’m probably playing the best football of my life at the minute.”
If Lolley is a player reborn, Forest are also on the up after a frustrating decade of false dawns, financial turmoil and fluctuating fortunes.
Fawaz Al-Hasawi - he of the infamous Carry on Kuwait headline - has gone, replaced by an owner in Angelos Marinakis whose own vast wealth has been more wisely disbursed.
At £13.2m from Benfica, Joao Carvalho, the Portuguese 21-year-old midfielder, was the headline act of a summer splurge that saw Forest outspend all but one of their Championship rivals.
In Karanka, too, they have a manager who won promotion with Middlesbrough and knows the Championship intimately. Pre-weekend, no side in the division had lost fewer games.
“A big reason I signed here was the club’s ambition for the future,” said Lolley. “I didn’t want to just sign somewhere and stagnate.
“They’ve been true to their word in that respect. They’ve brought in some really good players, from the young Portuguese talent to experienced lads like Lewis Grabban and Michael Dawson.
“The Portuguese lads (Tobias Figueiredo also joined, from Sporting Lisbon) have been brilliant. First and foremost, they’re good, honest boys who work very hard. But yeah, their quality always shines through. You could see after the first few games that they’d be huge assets.
“It isn’t easy for people who’ve come from abroad, especially younger ones who aren’t used to this style.
“But you just need to manage them well, keep their confidence high and - like everyone - give them rest at the right times. People make a big thing of the 46-game season, but nobody plays game after game.”
And whilst Karanka arrived at the City Ground with a defensive reputation, Lol- ley says he feels freer playing for the Spaniard than he did under Wagner. “At Huddersfield, the approach was much more patient,” adds the wideman. “We dominated possession, but that gave you less freedom on the ball. Here, we’re a lot quicker to attack, which definitely suits my style.
“Since I’ve come in, the manager has always given me that freedom to express myself going forward. I never feel that I’m restricted defensively. As long as you’ve got a shape and you work together, he lets the forwards go. I wouldn’t say he’s a defensive coach at all.”
Now the aim is a return to the Premier League, with Forest in the mix in the ever-competitive Championship.
“To go from Littleton to the Premier League in four years – it was quite a journey, and one I never expected to make,” says Lolley.
“I’m thankful for that, of course. I’ve scored in the Premier League and that’s something I never thought I’d say when I was playing with my mates. Whatever happens, I can look back on my career and say I’ve achieved more than I ever anticipated.
“But hopefully I’ll get that opportunity again and things will be different. I believe that I can perform at that level.”
Ecstatic: Joe Lolley celebrates scoring for Forest
Leader: Aitor Karanka
Sweet moment: Lolley scores for Huddersfield against West Ham
Old days: Lolley playing for Kidderminster, left, and Joao Carvalho