How teenage goalkeeper Dan Langley went from Sunday League to St. James' Park
Written by Dan King
"I probably couldn't count how many trials I'd been on and how many times I've been rejected," explains Dan Langley as he reflects on a young career which has already borne more than its fair share of setbacks and rebuffals but saw him share a pitch with Alisson Becker before Newcastle United took on Liverpool last month. "It was almost like a last chance saloon - it's so hard to keep coming back after that many times."
The 6ft 7ins goalkeeper has spent much of 2020 training with Newcastle United's first team squad, ended last season warming up on the St. James' Park turf before the final Premier League game of the campaign against the newly-crowned champions, and he'll return to the Magpies' Benton base on Monday as part of head coach Steve Bruce's pre-season preparations. But he came within a matter of days of giving up on his dream of becoming a professional footballer before - at last - being given the opportunity he craved by his boyhood club nearly three years ago.
"I'd went on trials until I was 16 and it was sort of the last push, because I was meant to be going back to sixth form a few days later," the now 19-year-old, who studied at St. Benet-Biscop Catholic Academy in Bedlington, tells nufc.co.uk via Zoom from the Northumberland home he shares with his family. "I was getting ready to do business, biology and physical education. I wanted to be a PE teacher, in my head; I've always been sporty and not that academic at school. I was a keen golfer - I still am - and with football, I'd just been rejected by Sunderland and I was like 'I'm 16 now...'
"I don't think I would have fully scrapped football but I'd have been playing just with my mates on a Sunday, for a local team, something like that. But then I got the trial at Newcastle - Sheffield United were interested too - and I thought I'd just keep with it for another few months.
"Thankfully it worked out. I had to phone the school up two days before term started and say 'right, I'm not coming back - I'm doing a scholarship at Newcastle!'. It happened that fast."
Last summer, at the end of that scholarship, Langley signed a first professional contract with the team he'd supported since his grandad, Dave Crane - himself a former junior goalkeeper with the Magpies - bought him a replica shirt with DAN 1 on the back for his first birthday. He went to his first game - a 2-2 draw with Derby County - in the Gallowgate End at the age of five and idolised Shay Given and Obafemi Martins ("for some reason I had a bit of a weird obsession with him," Langley smiles, "I think it was the celebration where he used to do all the backflips") and had a season ticket for several years as a teenager.
But more recently, despite the interruption of the current pandemic which has forced football behind closed doors, rather than watching his heroes from the stands he's been playing and training alongside them. "When you get that at your home club, it is something special, but it's extra-special when you're as much of a fan as I am," he says.
Langley started playing outfield as a four-year-old with Blyth Town before following his father, Chris, to Whitley Bay Juniors when he started coaching there. Already, Langley junior was "a head above everyone else" height-wise and a coach, David Shepherd, suggested he go in goal. By the time he was 11, scouts had started to take notice but despite spending time with several clubs, a scholarship never materialised.
That was until Langley joined Monkseaton Juniors, via a spell with Cramlington Juniors. Manager Iain Anderson, the father of United youngster Elliot, recommended his goalkeeper to Magpies scouts and the tall teenager was soon invited for yet another trial. This time, though, things went differently. "Newcastle kept me on longer than any team had before," recalls Langley. "I think I was on trial there for coming up two months, so in the back of my mind I thought 'they must be looking at something here. I've got a chance and I've got to go for it.'
Dan Langley is 6ft 7ins tall and the teenager has made huge strides with Newcastle United in recent months
"I think it's partly because I'd got better - I probably had improved - but with me, before I got to the Academy set-up, I wouldn't have been very technical with what I was doing. So when I went into the trials with other goalkeepers, they probably thought 'he can keep the ball out of the net, but he's not really orthodox,' while other goalkeepers who had been in an Academy set-up since they were really young look neat and tidy.
"But when I came to Newcastle, I think it was partly due to the trial games that I played. Because of all the rejections, I'd got to the point where I was almost expecting a no, so perhaps that helped me play with more freedom. I played an under-18s game against Liverpool away and did quite well, and I think Chris Terpcou, the goalkeeper coach at the time, thought there was something there to work with.
"And I feel like as the years are going on, I'm starting to become more and more polished; I'm still getting there but I feel like I'm the most orthodox that I've ever been. At the start, when I came in, I'd probably save lots but I wouldn't look good, and tidy. I'd be effective in what I was doing, but now I'm saving them and it looks like how it's 'meant to.' That's to do with all the training, the coaching. I was a blank slate and I had to learn things, which I think is good in a way because you do get 'keepers who are young and have habits that they've been taught, and can't really get rid of them.
"I'm kind of being fine-polished now. I'll always have that bit of edginess in there, but as long as it keeps out of the net that then it doesn't really matter."
Langley started last season behind Nathan Harker and former England youth international Jake Turner in the pecking order at under-23 level, but when he got his opportunity, he took it - as goalkeepers tend to - with both hands.
He says: "I didn't play until the middle of October, and then I got my first game against Norwich at home. We won 3-2 and I did quite well, and kept my place for the next few games after that. Then the first team asked me to come up and train around Christmas time, so I went up there and did well. Then I got a stress fracture on my back just after Christmas. That put me out until March - and then lockdown happened.
Langley in action for United's under-23s last season
"But thankfully I got a call-up again when we came back after the time out, which was really good. When I first came in, I was basically just like this fan - it's almost like you don't believe that you should be here - but you've just almost got to realise 'I am good enough.' And they (Martin Dúbravka and Karl Darlow, as well as the now-departed Rob Elliot and recent signing Mark Gillespie) are so good to learn off; it's a really good environment to be around."
Slovakia international Dúbravka, who won the Magpies' player of the season award, tells nufc.co.uk: "I think Dan has improved a lot in the last year and it is good for him that he is part of the first team. You can clearly see that working with Simon (Smith, Head of Goalkeeping) is exactly what he needs. He is a great young lad as well and he has a great future in front of him."
And Darlow, who was a regular between the sticks when United won the Sky Bet Championship title in 2016/17, adds: "I think the way he has performed since coming up to the train with the senior goalkeepers and how he has trained with the first team is a massive credit to himself this season. He has a great mentality, (he's) a really down to earth lad and I'm excited to see how he develops over the next few seasons."
Langley is full of praise for each of the coaches he's worked with at Newcastle; Terpcou, now with Arsenal, "got me up to speed with how Academies work," before Steve Harper replaced him a few months later. "Harps helped me a lot with what I was trying to do, with the technical side of things, and he was really good with man-management. He was patient with me and he could see something there with me when he was coaching me.
"Simon is really good when I train with the first team, he just knows and sees everything and is really encouraging with me, and I've got Barts (Adam Bartlett) with the under-23s, who I think had quite a lot of faith in me when I first started playing games. All of them have had a role in moving me forwards."
Harper - himself a relative latecomer to the professional game who eventually spent 20 years with Newcastle and, after moving on from coaching the Academy goalkeepers, is now a first team coach at the club - says: "Dan is a pleasure to work with. His attitude is very good, he always has a smile on his face and he was always positive around the place. Given his size and age we had to be patient him him but you could see little improvements every day. It's been fantastic to see him up training with the first team during the restart, particularly as he's looking more at home at that level all the time."
And Smith, who has worked with the likes of Given, Harper, Tim Krul and Fraser Forster across two spells with Newcastle as well as England's Jordan Pickford during his time with the Football Association, adds: "The biggest testimony to him is that Dan came in and nobody noticed. He got on with it and did everything that was asked - and possibly more - and the lads just took to him, both goalkeepers and outfield players. He just became part of the squad.
"A lot of times he'd make a save and some of the outfield players would say 'how old is he?,' and you'd say, 'he's 19,' and they'd say 'really?!'. If the players take to you and you can do a job for them, they're having you. He'll be back with us (next week), due to the coronavirus but also because of what he did in the last two months - he deserves to be back with us at this moment. Longer term, as the season goes on, he needs to go back and play as many games in the under-23s as he can, because that's the other part of his development. Then we'll see how we get on from there."
So impressive was Langley in training in those last few weeks of 2019/20 that he found himself involved on the final day against Liverpool. "It was really good - I'd gone home on the Saturday thinking I was done for the week and got a message off Simon saying I was going to be doing the warm-up with them, which was unbelievable," explains Langley. "I went in, did the warm-up with the lads, watched the game and came down into the dressing room - it was a really special feeling, just to be around it.
The young goalkeeper warms up ahead of last month's game against Liverpool
"I think of everything that's happened and it's been really good to go in, train with the first team and do the warm-up at St. James' in front of the best team in the league on the last day of the season; it was a special moment and a special time for me."
Langley turns 20 in December and knows that he can't rest on his laurels. He volunteers that he needs to improve his footwork, which is good but with scope for advancement, and feels he can still get better technically. However, with Turner - a close friend but also a rival for the number one shirt at under-23 level - having joined Morecambe on a season-long loan and Harker leaving the club earlier this summer, he is aiming to establish himself further with Chris Hogg and Peter Ramage's second-string next term as well as continuing to train with the senior squad whenever possible.
And while he barely had time to pause for breath in the frenetic final weeks of the campaign just ended, now, as a half-hour conversation draws to an end, Langley can pause and review how far he has come after all of the blows and noes earlier in his journey. "Things can just happen at times you don't expect, and if something goes your way, you've just got to try to take (the opportunity)," he explains. "You might have in your head that you've got to give up after so many times failing, but if you keep going then you never know what can happen.
"All you need is one person's opinion on you, one person to take a chance on you. That's what happened with me. I don't know how many people must have said no to me, but one person comes along and says 'I'll take a chance on him.'
"You've just got to keep going, because you never know when that one person could be watching. You've got to keep working and hopefully, one day, you'll get that chance."
"All you need is one person's opinion on you, one person to take a chance on you. That's what happened with me. I don't know how many people must have said no to me, but one person comes along and says 'I'll take a chance on him.'"