'Portsmouth released me twice - three years later I'm in Holland's top flight getting Ajax boss the sack': ex-Bognor man Josh Flint on defying the odds
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The reigning champions had laboured to seven Eredivisie matches without victory, a dreadful sequence positioning them fifth in the table, seven points adrift of leaders Feyenoord.
The latest unpalatable result under Eric ten Hag’s replacement arrived at home, with relegation-threatened Volendam claiming a 1-1 draw at the Johan Cruyff Arena.
Had it not been for Ajax substitute Mohamed Kudos levelling with 10 minutes remaining, the lowly visitors would have registered a second league away win of the season.
At the heart of last month’s remarkable Volendam rearguard action was Josh Flint, the Waterlooville youngster twice released by Pompey and nowadays an accomplished central defender.
And, almost three years to the day since shown the door at Fratton Park as a 19-year-old, he was instrumental in the downfall of the unpopular Schreuder.
‘We hadn't even left the stadium when we found out the news about Ajax’s head coach – he was actually sacked that night,’ Flint told The News.
‘Going into that match we were second from bottom and they were fourth. Obviously both clubs were not where they wanted to be. It was a good away result for us, but not good for them.
‘I remember visiting the Johan Cruyff Arena with Pompey’s under-18s on a two-week pre-season tour of Holland in 2018 and being shown around the stadium.
‘I’ve got videos on my phone of me walking up the steps, going out onto the pitch and looking around at those fantastic surroundings. It foreshadowed the future.
‘Some four-and-a-half years later and I’m there again, this time in a full stadium. It’s crazy how things turn out.
‘Before last month, the most people I’d played in front of was 8-9,000 with Volendam. There were 54,279 at Ajax.
‘When you’re in the game you don’t really think about it. For the opening few minutes you are looking around a bit stunned, but, after that, you’re focused on the game.
‘Ajax’s fans weren’t happy, they had white flags, apparently it was some sort of planned protest. We knew it was going to happen, so decided to use it in our favour.
‘We played more defensive players, our game plan was to sit back in our formation, and we knew we’d get 2-3 chances. Luckily the first was from a free-kick – and we scored it to take the lad.
‘If you look at the stats, it was a bit like a game of FIFA Soccer! Ajax had 85 per cent possession and 30 shots, of which 25 were blocked, so we defended really well.
’To us, it felt like a win, especially having defended for 90 minutes!’
Flint’s playing association with Pompey began at the age of eight, having caught the eye with Widbrook United.
A boyhood Blues supporter, he had Peter Crouch’s name on the back of his replica shirt, while also idolised Jermain Defoe, Niko Kranjcar, and then Jed Wallace and Conor Chaplin.
The Crookhorn School pupil progressed to earn a two-year scholarship, playing for Mark Kelly’s under-18s alongside the likes of Harry Kavanagh, Bradley Lethbridge, Haji Mnoga, Joe Hancott and Ethan Robb.
However, ahead of graduating from the Academy in the summer of 2019, the attacking midfielder was informed of his Pompey release, with no offer of a professional deal.
Remarkably, five months later, Flint was handed a Blues first-team debut by Kenny Jackett in the number 10 role against Norwich City Under-21s in the Leasing.com Trophy.
To cap an improbable comeback, the former Fratton End season-ticket holder claimed a goal and an assist in that 3-1 victory in September 2019.
‘At the end of my scholarship I was told I wouldn't be getting a third year, I was too small among other things,’ he added.
‘However, as I had broken my right arm and couldn’t play for the last two or three months of the season, I was given an extension to cover that time missed.
‘It happened in the gym, a complete accident. At the time it was heartbreaking, you’re at that point in your career with a big decision coming up, it felt like a set-back, it was a set-back.
‘With hindsight, though, breaking my arm was probably the best thing that happened to me. Talk about every cloud having a silver lining.
‘I spent the summer getting fit and returned for the start of pre-season a completely different person, literally. I’d grown a lot, built into my body. Before that summer I was pretty small, around 5ft 7in, but not when I came back! Nowadays I’m 6ft 2in.
‘I don’t think there was ever the carrot of a new contract being dangled should I impress in that extension, it was just about giving me extra time because of my injury.
‘In my own mind, the idea was to use that extension to get fit so maybe I could trial at non-league clubs and be fitter than most of the boys there who hadn’t had a full pre-season with a professional football club.
‘Me and Harry Kavanagh were always work horses in pre-season with the Academy, we’d go out and train together every night. So we both came back really fit.
‘Something clicked that summer. Not only was I a late bloomer, but I returned for my extension fit and more confident about myself, I almost had nothing to lose.
‘There was never any chance of me sacking it off and just doing nothing, that’s not the kind of person I am. Fortunately, I impressed enough to stay beyond my extension, getting a short-term deal, and then making my first-team debut.
‘That was unbelievable. Any Pompey fan and any lad in the Academy, that’s what they dream off. My shirt against Norwich is framed and hanging in my dad’s office.
‘There were a few of us from the Academy playing in that match, with myself, Eoin Teggart, Leon Maloney and Joe Hancott all starting, so we gave each other confidence.
‘Teggart was like Usain Bolt that day. For my goal, he ran down the left and crossed it to the far post, with Ellis Harrison heading it back across.
‘I met it with a header, which the keeper saved, so I followed up by spinning around and firing in a shot which hit the post and went in. Although it wasn’t until I heard cheers that I realised it had gone into the net!
‘My assist was better than the goal. Andy Cannon gave me the ball and I put through a nice ball for Ellis (Harrison) to finish.’
Flint would retain his starting spot for the final Leasing.com Trophy group match at Oxford United the following month.
Yet that 2-2 draw, which saw him substituted at half-time, would signify his final Blues outing and, following a three-month loan spell at Bognor, he was released in January 2020.
Flint subsequently joined Jack Pearce’s side permanently and totalled 21 appearances and one goal before the season was curtailed in March following the coronavirus outbreak.
It was Duncan Pratt, a team-mate of Chris Kamara and Steve Foster during Pompey apprentice days, who would initiate the youngster’s life-changing move.
As an 18-year-old midfielder from Leigh Park, Pratt rejected a Fratton Park deal after graduating, instead favouring moving to Holland, where he represented Haarlem in the Eredivisie alongside Ruud Gullit.
Having spent 25 years in the country establishing prominent footballing contacts, Pratt alerted Volendam manager and former head of Ajax’s Academy, Wim Jonk, to the talents of Flint.
Following a successful three-week trial, he left for a new adventure in Holland in September 2020.
The former Queens Inclosure School pupil said: ‘I had a good chat with Kenny Jackett, who explained that the path to Pompey’s first-team was probably a bit too big and they wouldn’t be offering another deal.
‘It’s not nice to hear, but, looking back now, completely understandable. It actually gave me the opportunity to grow as a person and a player.
‘The manager told me I probably wasn't ready for full-time first-team football at that level, that I needed another 2-3 years – and he was right. I cannot disagree.
‘Having been on loan at Bognor, that was the logical step to take and massively important. It was my first first taste of men’s football, you learn the little things to bring into your game, the physicality of it, the communication, the need to get three points.
‘I’m friends with Leon Maloney, who joined Volendam from Pompey in January 2020, and then approached his agent and mentor Duncan Pratt for a meeting to see if he could help my career.
‘With his Dutch links and me being keen to move to wherever football took me, it seemed like the perfect step.
‘We had a little group of myself, Leon and Harry (Kavanagh), who would train 2-3 times a week at Denmead Park in the summer of 2020. There would be running, sprinting, one-v-ones, long-range passing, everything.
‘Duncan oversaw all that. He has been massive for my career, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, he watches most of my games and offers encouragement and advice.
‘Volendam was initially on an amateur basis, playing for their under-21s – Jong Volendam – who compete in the Tweede Divisie (third tier), which is a men’s league. That gave me the best of both worlds to progress and learn.
‘Now I’m in the first-team and while at the start of the season we struggled to come to terms with the new league following promotion, the World Cup break has definitely been a momentum shifter and we’ve come together as a team.’
Volendam are back in the top flight after clinching promotion from the Keuken Kampioen Divisie in April 2022, following a 2-1 triumph over Den Bosch.
With immaculate timing, Flint registered his maiden goal in that success and totalled 15 appearances in what would be a breakthrough season.
However, a groin problem sustained over pre-season ruled Flint out of the opening three months of Volendam’s return to the Eredivisie after a 13-year absence.
After making his comeback in December, the centre-half has now featured five times, including starting their last three matches, helping them into 15th place.
The 22-year-old, who is out of contract at the season’s end, added: ‘Obviously I want to play at the highest level I can.
‘Considering how I’ve progressed in the last few years, if I can keep doing that, working hard and learning, I don’t see why I can’t go higher.
‘Obviously the dream would be the Premier League – and I believe I have the mentality and work ethic to reach it. Now it's just about progressing and playing well.
‘Even though you’ve played at these big stadiums, you are never done, you are never finished, you always want to keep improving. I’m looking forward to what the next step is.
‘Pompey released me twice, but my mentality got me through. You’ve got to stick at it, it’s only one person's opinion that has led to your release.
‘It’s not the end of the world, although it may seem like it, and there are lots of other clubs out there. You just need to stick at it, stay true to yourself and keep working hard.
‘I certainly didn’t think I’d be playing against Ajax in front of a 54,279 crowd three years later!’