On a brisk Friday afternoon in the aptly named ‘Queen City’, I sit in an archetypical American restaurant located on the banks of the Ohio river awaiting the imminent arrival of a fellow Brit abroad. Cincinnati itself may not appear on most English people’s list of must see places in the United States however it is considered a major city that lives for its sports teams. The Cincinnati Reds, the oldest franchise in Major League baseball, and the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL are the two foremost teams in the city but in the last two years another team has been stealing all the headlines. Futbol Club Cincinnati or more affectionately known by the locals as ‘FCC’ only had its first competitive league game on 26 March 2016 and has since hosted Crystal Palace and Valencia at Nippert Park in front of record crowds. Fast forward 18 months this club is the reason I am sitting down to chat with former Arsenal starlet Justin Hoyte, who considers the current LA Galaxy left back Ashley Cole as his mentor, about his football journey from Leytonstone to ’the Natti’.
Justin arrives dressed in a black baseball cap and stylish bomber jacket with red patterned army fatigue design. He has come straight from training and noticeably seems in a good mood which always bodes well for an interview. After we greet each other with a handshake and I utter the words “what’s happening mate” there is a distinct air of familiarity and ease between us. Albeit being from opposite ends of London I put this down to us both being expats with similar accents and can instantly relate to one another. The fact that we are both English also does not go unnoticed by the waitress who has come over to take our drinks order. She appears very cheerful, enthusiastic and inquisitive about why we are in Cincinnati which Justin handles with the charm and banter of a media trained professional footballer. In the absence of the waitress we joke about her reaction to us and exchange stories of daily idiosyncrasies that we experience in this country when attempting to communicate with locals. The one that stands out for him is using the term ‘football boots’ which continually perplexes team mates and club officials whom only recognise them as cleats. Anyone who has been to America will be more than aware that interactions with them can tend to be very humorous and drawn out affairs before they fully comprehend what you are saying.
After the young lady returns with two glasses of water and food menus, the interview begins and I find out that Justin was born at Whipps Cross University Hospital in Leytonstone which coincidently is the same hospital as another famous expat who crossed the Atlantic. Not only was Justin born in the same hospital as David Beckham but both east Londoners share a similar football journey that started in London, took them to the north of England and found them calling America home in the twilight of their careers. He goes on to say “I grew up in Leytonstone so Leyton Orient was my local team and from there I also lived in Essex. A lot of footballers have come from my area”. The most notable ones being the aforementioned David Beckham and Paul Ince who both captained England with distinction at World Cups and European Championships. From his generation there are also several recognisable names who have made a name in the game. Former Charlton Athletic and Leeds United winger Lloyd Sam who now turns out for DC United was in the same school year. “We went to the same primary school, Fairlop Primary and played against each other, with each other and there were always little challenges with each other which was good.” From there he went onto Hainault High School were he would meet and represent the school, district and England U21 with Curtis Davis.
As we talk about his football beginnings, Justin reminisces with a fondness and passion all professional sports people have. The conversation thenceforth turns to his parents, upbringing and how Arsenal came about to set him on the path to a professional playing career. Some call it unique or special however I like to think of it as being fortunate to have two parents who were also elite Olympic athletes. Wendy Hoyte won a gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in the 4×100 and is still the current UK women’s 50m indoor record holder. From a genealogy and professional guidance standpoint it can be said that their sporting ability and experience contributed to Justin and his younger brother Gavin becoming professional footballers which he also attests to. “Yes I would say so. They were in sport all their lives and have given feedback on sport in general. Athletics is different to football but they have passed on their knowledge, experiences and coaching which can be applied to football. I used to do athletics also to keep my fitness and speed which has helped me throughout my career and still helps me now.” He continues “More so people that have been in the sports industry can better guide and help you through the tough times, so it’s been good to have family”.
As in most cases with professional footballers, Justin started as a striker for Redbridge United at Sunday league level where his pace and ability to beat defenders and score goals got him noticed at the age of 12. It was not long before an Arsenal scout approached Les Hoyte about the opportunity to bring his son to Highbury for training. Successfully impressing the coaching staff, he was signed and progressed through the Youth Academy, culminating in FA Youth Cup triumph in 2001 with a team that featured Jerome Thomas, Jermaine Pennant, Rohan Ricketts, Steve Sidwell, Jeremy Aliadiere and Moritz Voltz all of whom went on to establish themselves as Premier League players. “The squad that won it was great and one of the best teams I’ve ever seen. When you play with the likes of them you knew you was going to win every game. Me fitting into that team was easy, I just gave the ball to Jerome or Pennant and they done the rest. To be part of it was fantastic.” His professional debut came as an 18-year-old against Southampton in May 2003 in a game that they were already leading 6-1. “Pennant scored a hat trick and Pires scored as well. I remember getting the call a day before from Neil Banfield who said I would be involved in the first team. I thought I was just going along to be a squad player then found out I was on the bench. I got on at the end and for me being an Arsenal fan and supporter that came through the academy it was unbelievable. Going through the marble steps at Highbury was amazing…great feeling.” As he talks about his first professional outing a wry smile beams across his face as if he is suddenly transported back to that moment. I get a sense of pride and achievement emanating from him which is undoubtedly justifiable having just fulfilled a childhood dream for your club. He adds “It must have been adrenaline or something but I couldn’t even tell you who I lined up against because I was buzzing. Compared to youth team and reserves the level was a lot faster than I thought it would be and the quality of players was completely different”.
When asked about Arsene Wenger, Justin reflects on the man who gave him his chance in the game and speaks with the utmost gratitude. “For me as a coach he was great, the best thing he ever told me was ‘when you play just go out and play like you play with your friends in the park’. His take on it was that you got to this point by enjoying football so don’t change. Training with him everyday I learned a lot and his attention to detail about timing of your runs and passing into space was fantastic. I still take those things into games now.”
In the season following his professional debut came the “Invincibles” team that went the whole 2003/2004 season unbeaten and boasted Premier League stars such as Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas, Dennis Bergkamp and Ray Parlour to name a few. Justin started the first game against Norwich City to kick off that campaign but the return from injury of Lauren saw him used as a back up which ultimately made it a developmental year for the youngster. His stand out memory of that team was “togetherness”. He explains that “they had everything on the field and off the field. I remember looking at them and seeing that they knew they were going to score, win or get the result they needed in every game no matter if they were down”. He even credits that team for making him the player he became. “Me coming in as a young player into this group raised my game and standards because I didn’t want to be the one looking bad in training.”
It is undeniable that training day in day out with players of that ilk would improve any young player, none more so than Thierry Henry. It is very difficult to leave out the Frenchman in any debate about greatest Premier League players of all time. Similarly, it would be difficult to do this interview without at least mentioning the Arsenal legend. Probed about his most memorable experience with the forever immortalised hero amongst gooners, Justin doesn’t have to think long or hard because it is a memory that he will personally remember for the rest of his life and is also written in the Premier League history books. “The one that stuck with me about him was my first goal for Arsenal at Emirates. I played a one, two with him to score and we were both celebrating, laughing and joking. He was happy for me because the week before he was playing UK Rap (Lethal B at the time) and I was buzzing he liked it, so before the game he put it on for me, so when I scored we carried on the celebration.” That goal against Charlton Athletic on 2 January 2007 would also go on to make Justin the first Englishman to score at the Emirates Stadium. He made 36 appearances for Arsenal that season including starting in the League Cup Final loss to Chelsea. That same year he would also be involved in another historic match between England U21 and Italy U21 on 24 March 2007. This fixture signaled the first official match at the new Wembley Stadium and saw him line up with current England internationals Gary Cahill, James Milner and Ashley Young.
Unfortunately, when it comes to football the highs are inevitably accompanied with times of difficulty and challenge. Every top sportsman in the world will tell you that it is at these times, and how you overcome them, when you should be judged. Justin speaks with no regret and almost looks back with a certain determination when asked why he left Arsenal for Middlesbrough in the summer of 2008. The plain and simple answer was “To get more games”. He elaborates “Basically I spoke to Wenger and he was honest with me and said at this stage in my career it’s best that I go out and play games. I could have stayed just to be part of the Arsenal team or just to say ‘I’m at Arsenal’ but for me personally I wanted to play more games and make a name for myself. I left on great terms and learned a lot there from being a kid wondering ‘will I ever make it’ to playing first team”. It was England manager Gareth Southgate who saw the potential in him and signed the youngster for a reported £3m. It is this period of his career where he considers himself to have become an established Premier League player and stayed for seven seasons at the Riverside Stadium making over 162 appearances until 2014.
After stints with Millwall and Dagenham & Redbridge respectively, his journey brings us to today and the Yard House Restaurant which is positioned directly in-between Paul Brown Stadium and The Great American Ball Park with a 350 yard walk in either direction to watch American Football or Baseball. From George Best and Pele to David Beckham and Thierry Henry, America has always had an allure for footballers from ‘across the pond’. Perhaps not for the quality of the league or level of play per se, so it is always fascinating to hear from players why they choose to come here.
“I visited America a lot as a youngster and always wanted to play here. At this stage in my career I just wanted another experience completely different to England where I’ve been all my life. It’s a different standard of living, different standard of facilities and different challenge of play.” As he talks unequivocally I cannot help but connect players that he knows personally or played with that may have indirectly or directly influenced his decision to see what the ‘American Dream’ has to offer. Lloyd Sam (DC United) as previously mentioned, Bradley Wright-Phillips (NY Red bulls), Liam Ridgwell (Portland Timbers) and Seb Hines (Houston) to name a few who currently ply their trade here. As I connect the dots, he echoes my thoughts “I’ve had friends that have come to America and done well; they have told me how they have enjoyed it and knowing the type of person I am, I would also enjoy it and fit in perfectly. I also lived with Kei Kamara when he was at Middlesbrough and he said I should give it a go”. When one thinks of America the obvious places that spring to mind are typically New York, Florida and California partly because they are popular British tourist destinations but also because these are the places that high profile players end up. What most Brits don’t realise is that there are 58 professional clubs across the country that compete in three different leagues. Major League Soccer (MLS) comprises of 22 teams whilst The United Soccer League (USL) has 29 and The North American Soccer League (NASL) fields 7. This brings me to my next question. Why Cincinnati, Ohio?
“The funny thing is, before I signed here I was trying to get to America for the past two years and put my name out to several teams. There were situations where there wasn’t a right back needed or they didn’t have any international slots left to bring in a foreign player which is fair enough. Luckily this year the manager of FC Cincinnati got in touch with me and told me to come over. The age I’m at they wanted to see what I’m like around the place and see that I’m not just here for a jolly up. All I needed was that opportunity and I backed myself that I will get a contract because that’s were I want to be and play.” Before he got to Cincinnati Justin is honest enough to admit that the only time he had ever heard of the city was when it was announced that the new club would be joining the 2016 USL season. Unlike in the UK or Europe it is common for a new club to be established in America so long as there is a benefactor or ownership group prepared to back it and spend the millions required as an ‘expansion fee’ to enter the league. Step forward Carl Linder III the billionaire businessman and CEO of American Financial Group who surmised that another professional club was needed in Ohio to rival Columbus Crew. The Club’s maiden season in 2016 proved to be a huge success under the management of former Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County midfielder John Harkes. On field performances took them to the quarter finals of the play offs and enabled them to break USL attendance records three times that year with 20,497 against Louisville City FC, 23,375 against Pittsburg Riverhounds and 24,376 against Orlando City B. The 2017 season saw John Harkes replaced by Alan Koch who sought to add experience to the squad and he brought in the former England U21 defender. Upon the signing the manager commented in the local media “to add a player that has Premier League experience is a major addition to our squad. For someone who has already achieved a significant amount in the game is enriching for our group. Our younger players can use him as a mentor as they grow their careers”.
As we sit here today FC Cincinnati once again made the quarter finals of the play offs but were knocked out by a familiar face to those back on the British Isles. West Ham’s child prodigy, Joe Cole now of Tampa Bay Rowdies played a full 90 minutes to help defeat Justin’s team 3-0 on 21 October. The club also had a magnificent run in the US Open Cup which is the oldest ongoing national ‘soccer’ tournament in the country and is their equivalent of the FA Cup. They reached the semi final. However as coincidence would have it, Justin would come up against the New York Red Bulls and one of his friends who initially encouraged him to come to America. Bradley Wright-Phillips bagged a brace in an exciting game that produced two world class goals from FC Cincinnati but was not enough as young Writey scored the winner in extra time to beat them 3-2. On the whole Justin can look back on his first USL season as a success having made 25 appearances and playing every game in their cup run. It is clear from speaking to him that he has really embraced America and the new environment. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed is that you will play a home game then travel to a new city and state which is completely different with regards to its culture and environment.” When asked to describe some of the main differences between football in England and America he said “it is a really good level with a lot of young players and the obvious difference is the way it’s set up here. I’ve played all my life on grass but everything here is turf so I had to get used to that”. Considering the size of the country which the most recent census taken in April 2016 has at 323,425,550 game planning by coaching staff also differs greatly. “Match day preparation is different to England because sometimes you might be on a 10-hour bus journey to another city, whereas in England the longest journey you’re doing is probably 3 hours on a train.” The most obvious question from any football enthusiast however ‘is the level as good as England?’. “If I was to compare it to back home I would say League One level. Players that I have come up against could probably cut it there, a few more in the championship and maybe one or two in the Premier League.”
As much as we tease the Americans for their use of the word soccer and other phrases that amuse the Brits it is fair to say that based on Justin’s experience and the fact that countless other Brits are playing here, their leagues are competitive and also dispel the misconception that they ‘cant play’. Justin’s observation during his first year in Cincinnati concurs with this and suggests that America really is the land of opportunity. Evidence in recent years further suggests it has become a country to resurrect your career or begin your career instead of yester year when it was just a place to end your career. The best two example of this are Jack Harrison and the aforementioned Bradley Wright-Phillips. Jack left the Manchester United Youth Academy as a 14-year-old and by the time he turned 18 was recognised as the best young player in the country before being drafted by Major League Soccer and is now a star player for Manchester City’s affiliate club New York City FC. Bradley on the other hand arrived on these shores at 27 years old having been released by Charlton Athletic. He was offered the basic salary of $50,000 per year as an incentive to prove himself. He finished his first full season as the League’s top goal scorer with 27 and equalled the long standing record for goals in a season. Needless to say he proved his worth and he is now considered a marquee designated player with the salary to match. When Justin says that he ‘loves it here’ it is not hard to see why and the benefits it can afford an English player looking for something new or different.
It is always difficult to judge how an interview will go but as I look out of the window to notice the sun is beginning to set on the Ohio River, I quickly realise that we have been talking for well over two hours. Justin was candid, honest and forthcoming throughout which made for a very good conversation with another football fan or friend rather than an interview.
I asked Justin to sum up his thoughts on his new city and the most eye opening thing for him off the pitch. “The city is fantastic; I haven’t seen it all but what I have seen is really nice. Just going downtown, the stadiums are close with big walkways near the water. The main thing for me has been without a doubt the fanbase for FCC. It’s crazy and unbelievable for a team that has only been going two years. The support they have from the whole city you’re not going to get that in many other places out here. I was lucky enough to see the marching before games and the love they got for us is unreal.” “I will also say that I have noticed how big everything is here from cars to food portions. How they do things is not small, it’s always big or an announcement so that’s been new.”
TA: “Who is the toughest opponent you have come across in USL this year?”
JH: “The young guy from New York Red Bulls…Tyler Adams, I think he’s a really good player with a lot of talent and ability. He can play right back, left back, centre back and number 10, he’s a big talent for sure.”
TA: “During the course of the season who have you rated the most and thought could play at a higher level?”
JH: “I don’t want to upset any team mates so I would say the striker for Charleston Battery, Romario Williams. Jamaican guy, he was always scoring goals and was a very effective striker.”
TA: “What is your biggest achievement of the season?”
JH: “Making the play offs. It’s all anybody cares about here and I didn’t realise that so to make it in my first season was special.”
TA: “What would you say is the most significant moment in your football career?”
JH: “Earning my first contract at Arsenal. Because at the time I was actually going to be released, no one knows this but Paul Davis said we should keep him he might turn out to be good. I then went from a striker to right back and that was the defining moment that changed the game for me.”
TA: “What was the most challenging moment in your career?”
JH: “Millwall!! I left Middlesbrough to go there and play but they sacked Lomas who brought me in. Ian Holloway came in and for whatever reason didn’t play me. Everything he asked of me I did but still couldn’t get in the team and when I did play I would get brought off at half time then told I was being protected from the fans. Some days I would have to train with the 16’s and not given a reason. So it was very challenging mentally. At the end of the day I didn’t kick up a fuss, I continued to train and be professional”.
TA: “Who is the best player you have ever played against?”
JH: “Arjen Robben! He’s a handful who can go left or right, cut inside or outside. He’s got everything. More often than not he comes inside from the right and everyone knows it but you still can’t stop it. When he was at Chelsea when I played him he was even faster.”
TA: “Who’s the biggest joker you have met in football?”
JH: “One team mate has to be Emanuel Eboue, he is a comedian. As a team I have to say the England U21 team I was in. There was Anton Ferdinand, Keiran Richardson, Ashley Young, Darren Bent, Nigel Reo-Coker, Leroy lita, Wayne Routlege. It was the funniest group of players I have ever been with. We had such a good team and the bonding was such a laugh on every trip”.
TA: “What does the future hold for you after playing?”
JH: I think I want to go into coaching. I’ve started my badges and would prefer to be a coach instead of a manager. I am also involved with an Energy drink called Youth Energy which is going really well. We are looking to launch in the US very soon so hopefully within the next few years it’s the drink everyone is drinking.
TA: “Who is Justin Hoyte the man today?”
JH: “Good questions!! I’m a player who has evolved from a young man at Arsenal to an experienced family man now and learned a lot of footballing and life lessons along the way”