Pocket-sized Academy midfielder proving it’s brains before brawn as the tide turns in English youth football.
With the unfavourable odds stacked against academy footballers making it through to the professional game, James Hardy might have feared the worst when he was let go by Oldham Athletic in October 2011.
Deemed too physically slight for the rough and tumble of English football by the Latics, Hardy might have joined thousands of talented kids on the footballing scrapheap at the age of just 15.
However, thanks to that all-important blend of hard work and talent, a rare second chance came to this gifted 16-year old and he hasn’t looked back since.
“I was signed at Oldham when I was nine and then I got released in October in 2011,” Hardy recalls.
“I then had a trial for the City development team in December and then another trial in January this year – I played a couple of games and then in May they signed me – it was quite a long trial but I was just so pleased to sign.”
As his manager Adam Sadler pointed out at the start of the season, physicality is just one asset and if, like James, you have the vision, the technical skills and the engine, then when you do fill out physically you stand a much better chance of succeeding at the top level than someone who has relied solely on their build.
“Adam always tells me to play on the half-turn and then I’ll be able to find the last pass, it’s just about trying to find space all the time,” he said.
“I watch a lot of Barcelona and I always watch Xavi and Iniesta are doing, they prove that you don’t have to be big to influence the game.”
James had clearly adapted his game to counteract any issues in his size, anticipating challenges and using his intricate ball skills to turn, to pivot and to play around around hulking defenders – not unlike the players he most admires in the City first-team.
“Shaun Wright Phillips was my hero growing up but now I’d probably say it’s David Silva and Samir Nasri – they’re both small like me and their touch and vision is incredible,” he said.
“It shouldn’t really matter if you’re small, it only becomes a problem if you allow the game to become scrappy because then the opposition’s strength becomes a factor.
“You have to try and move the ball quickly and not let the defenders get near you.”
Trusting the development plan which sets the challenge of playing up the age-groups is part and parcel of their growth as Manchester City footballers but the thrill of pulling on the English champions’ shirt every week is still what gives James the biggest buzz.
“I was a City fan anyway, so it’s all worked out really well so far,” he said.
“I’ve been a season ticket holder at City since the stadium opened so I went to all the games and I went to the FA Cup final and everything.
“It’s just a dream come true, the first time I was at Carrington to train, especially, being around those players was a bit of a shock but now it’s just something I’m used to and I just keep trying to learn as much as I can from them.”