AT A scouting seminar several years ago, the face of Tom Eaves was beamed onto a screen for the assembled would-be talent-spotters.
“This,” intoned the grizzled doyen upon the dais, “is what you don’t do.” So began the story, embellished but broadly true, of how Eaves became a cautionary tale.
In July 2010, Eaves scored a hat-trick for Oldham in a pre-season friendly against Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers.
Eighteen at the time, the towering striker had played just 15 times for the Latics. Coyle, however, was so impressed that he had to be almost physically restrained from making an offer on the spot.
According to the legend, scouts and coaches tried to talk him down. Too soon, they said. Too raw for the top flight. Coyle, though, would not listen. The Liverpool-born hitman was signed for a fee of £1m, never made the grade and was finally released six years later.
From a scouting standpoint, Coyle’s folly is supposed to demonstrate the virtue of rigour. Never buy on impulse, less still on the evidence of one good game.
Behind the parable, though, is the very real story of a man who had his dreams dashed and is only now, at 28, hauling his career back on track.
“I’ve always had a positive outlook,” says Eaves, now at Hull City after two prolific seasons in League One with Gillingham.
“But there have been times in my life when it was difficult. Injuries. In and out of teams. Setbacks.
“I went from Oldham to being bought by a Premier League team, then dropping all the way back down to sign for Yeovil in League Two. I’d basically taken a massive backwards step between the ages of 18 and 24, which is hard to get your head round.
“Looking back to when I signed for Bolton, I probably should have stayed at Oldham, playing week in and week out. But, at the same time, I did get told a lot of things that didn’t turn out to be true. I was told there’d be a development programme, which there wasn’t.
“I was told I’d get opportunities, which also didn’t happen. I went out on loan twice and came back with a good goalscoring record in League One. I was ready. I was confident. But I never started a single league game at Bolton, even when I thought I’d earned it.”
For Eaves, the nadir came during the 2015-16 season, when a serious hip injury meshed with Bolton’s parlous financial situation to force an extended period of isolation.
“It was terrible,” recalls the 6ft 3ins forward. “At the time I was confused. Frustrated. They just wanted me out of the club.
“I didn’t want to go. I wanted to play. I knew I was good enough for the Championship but I was pushed out. Even after I picked up the hip injury, I was made to train with the youth team every day. In the end, it got so serious that I had to have an operation.
“A week later, I was lying in a hospital bed trying to move my hip and every inch was agony. I was thinking, ‘This could be me done here’. Just being able to walk again seemed impossible, so a career in football – no chance.
“I remember going to the gym every day and rehabbing my hip. Just thinking ‘Wow, how has it come to this?’ Playing football for a first team just felt so far away.
“Even when I first started jogging, it felt like my whole body was barely holding together. You feel a million miles away from being a professional athlete.”
Bitterness and cynicism might have been become the bedfellows of such experiences. In Eaves, however, those lost years fostered only resolve, determination and an unwavering sense of self-belief.
He also embodies the notion that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Asked to name his greatest achievement for a feature in the Hull programme, he wrote ‘Having phenomenal hair on a daily basis’.
“You can’t take life too seriously,” says Eaves. “And you have to stay positive, no matter what life throws at you. Put the work in. Believe you’re good enough.
“Not everybody around you always believes that. Often, you’re the only one. But as long as you believe in yourself, anything is possible.
“When I was playing for Yeovil, I never doubted I was good enough for the Championship. To me, that was the minimum requirement. Now I’m here.
“I think the power of the mind is the most vital tool for anybody, in life and in sport. If you apply yourself and refuse to lose faith, there’s no ceiling to what you can achieve.”
Hull are living proof. Widely tipped for relegation in August, the Tigers have clawed their way into play-off contention. Though the brilliance of Kamil Grosicki – who joined West Brom on transfer deadline day – and West Ham-bound Jarrod Bowen had been pivotal, so, says Eaves, has the spirit fostered by manager Grant McCann.
“Everybody wrote us off, but that’s one thing you can say about the gaffer,” he says. “He’s been brilliant at instilling belief and confidence into the squad. He refuses to accept that we’re overachieving and that’s been a massive factor in the standards we’ve set.”
Pre-weekend, Eaves himself had scored seven goals, three of them in an FA Cup victory over Rotherham last month. Having bagged 44 in 97 games for Gillingham over the past two seasons, that tally is naturally a source of disappointment.
“I need more goals,” he admits. “More chances, more getting into dangerous areas. I’m working on that, but it’s taken a bit of time.
“I’ve gone from a team in Gillingham who put crosses in the box and gave me three or four chances a game, to a team in Hull where I have to hold it up and anticipate second balls around the keeper. It’s frustrating at times, but Kamil and Jarrod are both brilliant players, so it’s understandable that we played to their strengths.
“I just have to adapt, and be patient. All strikers go through purple patches, and you just have to wait for them to come along. The best strikers in the world go through barren spells. It’s part of life.”
As is change. As Eaves was speaking, news broke of Bowen’s impending move to West Ham for £20m. The 23-year-old wideman netted 54 goals in 131 games for the Tigers and had been pursued by several top-flight clubs.
“It’s no surprise,” says Eaves. “He’d be a good addition to any team in the Premier League, and I mean any team. He’s been fantastic, a top-drawer talent, but he’s also humble around the place. He deserves everything that comes his way.”
Typically, Eaves is determined to follow suit and finally vindicate Coyle’s leap of faith that was so scorned by the scouting fraternity.
“The next level from here is the Premier League, and that’s what I’m aiming for now,” he insists. “It didn’t work out the first time, but you don’t always get what you want in life. In general, though, I think you get what you deserve.”