Meet Jack Bodenham, Cardiff City's nearly kid plotting a different journey to the top and why he is tipping 'special' pal for big things
For all the success stories of Cardiff City's recent academy graduates, there will always be those who invariably slip through the cracks.
That is, as they say, the nature of the beast.
But for the thousands who follow Cardiff's youth system closely, the release of Jack Bodenham this summer was one of the tougher ones to take.
The Cwmbran-born defender was an ever-present in the Bluebirds youth sides after joining at the age of 14. He was handed the captaincy by Craig Bellamy for the under-18s and wore the arm band right up until his departure in the summer.
For Bodenham, who was a season ticket holder for a decade following his first-ever trip to Ninian Park with his old man at the age of four, just donning the City jersey was a dream come true.
Having left now, though, there is a tinge of regret that he never received that first-team opportunity.
"Looking back, it's mixed emotions," Bodenham tells WalesOnline. "When I first signed, that was all I ever wanted, it was my dream to play for Cardiff.
"I was loving every minute of it, earning a scholarship, working under Craig, I couldn't have asked for any more. It was perfect.
"I moved up to the under-23s, became captain, had a couple of loan moves and I felt everything was moving in the right direction.
"But — and I don't think this only goes for me — a few of the lads who were going on a similar journey to me, the missing step is the link between the under-23s and then moving into the first team.
"That's where a lot of the lads have got lost over the years.
"Whether that's not being quite good enough or not being given the opportunity or the manager not liking certain players. There are so many different reasons why it might not work out.
"I just felt, towards the end of my time there, I wasn't really given the opportunity. Maybe I'm biased but I thought I maybe deserved it."
Bodenham was certainly a popular member of the under-23s. This writer's Twitter timeline would be filled constantly by questions pertaining to his lack of first-team involvement.
But then again, with the emergence of so many talented youngsters, where do you fit them all in?
Joel Bagan, Rubin Colwill, Ciaron Brown, Tom Sang, Sam Bowen, Tavio d'Almeida, Oliver Denham and Mark Harris have all been brought into the first-team fold in recent months and there are only so many available positions.
For Bodenham, though, who captained most of the above during their progression through the under-23s, he admits it was a blow to the gut to see so many of them promoted ahead of himself.
But he is adamant that he is rooting for them now they have been afforded their chance to shine.
"I am genuinely happy for them all that they've got into the first team and I hope they play for the club for years," he adds.
"I want the boys I've played with to represent the club I've always supported. I like seeing them in the first team.
"I'm not bitter in terms of wishing it was me, it wasn't meant to be.
"It's just disheartening. I was their leader in the teams I played in for years.
"I felt like, if they had been given an opportunity, why wasn't I?
"If I was given the opportunity but I wasn't up to the standard, then you can live with that. That's the thing that will always play on my mind, that I never got given the opportunity, that's the worst thing about it.
"I never personally thought I was given a fair crack."
The centre-back enjoyed positive loan spells at both TNS in the Cymru Premier and Hereford in the National League during his time with the Bluebirds and felt he came back a better player each time.
He enjoyed a strong connection with Bellamy at under-18s level and that, he feels, is when he grew most as a player and a leader.
"Craig Bellamy made me captain of the under-18s team and he brought out the leadership skills in me a lot more," he recalls.
"I had a really good relationship with Craig. Growing up, being a Cardiff fan, he was one of my biggest idols when he came to the club.
"When I worked with him it was a bit surreal! But I saw eye to eye with him on a lot of things; the way he did things was really professional, disciplined and his tactical knowledge made me see the game differently.
"He was the coach who helped me the most in my career so far."
Bodenham's point of difference was perhaps how accomplished he was with the ball at his feet. He himself claims to be a ball-playing centre-half — given his childhood hero was Jason Koumas you can see why that might be the case — but that might have worked against him when you compare it to the first team's style of play.
He is also 6ft 2in, which is not short by any stretch, but compared to Cardiff's giant first-team centre-backs it makes him look positively miniscule.
Nevertheless, there was no doubting his ability. Indeed, in an interview with WalesOnline earlier this year, Sol Bamba tipped Bodenham as one of four players he could see breaking through into the first team in the months and years to come.
Bamba wasn't to know, of course, but just days before that interview, Bodenham had been told by the club he was going to be released in the summer.
So while the Ivorian's words offered some comfort to the young defender, it was bittersweet.
"I seen that. It was a weird one because literally a few days before that interview I was told I wasn't going to get another contract," he says.
"I saw the interview and obviously he tipped me to progress into the first team, but he wouldn't have known that I had been told.
"When I seen that, it was lovely to hear and I'm glad Sol came out and said that. People respect Sol's opinion. So it's just another tick in the box for me.
"But it was bittersweet, because I knew I wasn't going to be going into the first team."
Of those who did progress into the first team, though, for Bodenham there is one clear standout.
Rubin Colwill's emergence this year is nothing short of astonishing. From being on the bench for the under-23s at Christmas to starting against Belarus in a World Cup qualifier this week is a remarkable rise and Bodenham saw first hand that the change was almost overnight.
When asked which of his old pals he tipped to go on and make their mark, there was no doubt in the centre-back's mind: "I'd have to say Rubin. The transformation in him over six months, wow, I've never seen anything like it!
"He couldn't get in the under-23s before Christmas last season, then by February time, he was unbelievable.
"Every training session he was a level above. Even when we were training with the first team, he was just the standout player. It was crazy.
"Then he got into the Euros squad, bloody hell, I couldn't believe it from where he was at Christmas. It was bonkers.
"He is a big lad, he is about 6ft 4in and the way he moves with the ball and manipulates it is something special I think.
"I don't think there are many people that tall who moves the ball like he does.
"He was growing and then came to terms with his body. He went through a phase where he looked gangly, almost like he hadn't come to terms with it. Then he just became a different player."
As is natural, and is the case for so many others who have been moved on, Bodenham is left frustrated with his lack of opportunities.
He was named on the bench just once for Cardiff, by Neil Warnock in a 3-0 Carabao Cup defeat by Luton in August 2019, and never got a sniff again.
But when he reflects on his journey as a whole, he is grateful for the opportunity Cardiff, the club he has always adored, gave him to pave his own path.
"I am really thankful for everything," he says.
"I was always one of the core members of the team, whichever team I was playing in, so to be let go and to see some of the other lads there, yeah it was tough to take.
"But everyone has got their own journey in football and I just have to do mine a different way."
His way has taken him just about as far afield as he could have gone on these shores.
He has upped sticks from Cwmbran and gone to the North East, having signed a two-year deal with South Shields.
Although the club, who spotted him while he was on trial at Hartlepool, is in the seventh tier of the English football pyramid, Bodenham is excited by the project and predicts big things ahead.
"I didn't know a lot about South Shields because of the level they are playing at," he says.
"But it's full time, they've given me accommodation here, they are building a new stand at the ground. It's really exciting to be a part of.
"It's a club that wants to go in the right direction.
"I need to be playing games and that's what they were able to offer me and they are a club trying to climb the leagues."
When talk returns to his own journey, he makes a rather salient point.
"I think goalkeeper, centre defence and central midfield are the three hardest positions to break into the first team the higher up the leagues you go," he says.
"No one wants to put their trust in a young lad. Everyone wants someone who has played 200 games, but how are people supposed to gain that experience without getting the opportunity?
"You look at the centre-halves at Cardiff and where they started. None of them started in the Championship or the Premier League.
"How many centre-halves can you name under 22 or 23 playing in the top two tiers? Not many. And I've got to realise that."
That is true, of course. Sean Morrison began at Swindon Town in League One, while Aden Flint began with Alfreton Town, where he turned out more than 100 times in the same tier as South Shields currently play.
Curtis Nelson largely cut his teeth in League Two with Plymouth Argyle and Ciaron Brown began at Bedfont Sports in the eighth tier before transferring to Wealdstone in the National League South.
New recruit Mark McGuinness has had only one real year of League One football on loan at Ipswich, too, which is evidence that there is certainly more than one way to skin a cat.
And that, for Bodenham up at South Shields in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, is the motivation now.
"I've just got to think it's perhaps a case of going the long way around for me and, hopefully, I can end up where I want to be."