Johan Abdoul was at Aston Villa’s academy for two years between 2015 and 2017.
The 21-year-old, who is now playing for an amateur French club, initially underwent a trial with the English side in early 2015 before joining them in the summer of that same year.
Former footballer Gregoire Akcelrod played a key role in not only bringing Abdoul to England, but also unearthing the defender in France.
In a telephone interview with Sport Witness, Akcelrod explains how an unexpected event saw him become a football agent. His decision to return to football, this time as a representative, was crucial in bringing Abdoul to Villa.
“I used to work in motorsport. During a meeting, I met my former youth coach,” he said.
“I was not expected to meet him. He was working as security at the agency where I had a meeting scheduled.
“When I went there, I had to give my ID to the security. That’s when the security asked if I don’t recognise him and he was my youth coach. It was a coincidence I met him.
“And he told me, ‘Greg, you need to help me with an amazing youngster. He’s a 15 years old striker. His mum is cleaning houses and he has no dad. He needs you to go to a professional level’. I told him I’m not interested and I don’t want to be in football anymore.
“But after he insisted, I went to a game to see the player and then I called a friend in Liverpool. When I took the player, who was playing in the seventh division in France, to Liverpool, it was totally amazing.
“In France, you need to climb gradually. It’s step by step. I took him to Liverpool and spent one week with him. He took a picture with me and tagged me on social media. I was then approached by several dozen players to work with me.”
Although the youngster was never signed by Liverpool, Akcelrod was approached by other players from France. He details how a weekend routine led him to identify Abdoul at a local park in France’s île de Puteaux
“Every Sunday, I go to a park for a walk, which is around 500m from my place. There’s a small pitch where youngsters play. I watched one game and I found a kid very interesting. I liked his attitude and I spoke to him after the game,” the agent explained.
“I asked him if he wants to play in England. I think I can take you [to England] if you show me that you can work hard. Then I talked to his mother. I told her that Johan can be a professional player.
“Then for one month, I told Johan to exercise in the morning. I asked him to run at 6am in the morning for 45 minutes. I felt if he did this, he would have been ready to undergo a trial in England. That’s because there’s a big gap between England and France.
“Every day, he used to send videos after he finishes his 45 minutes session. Along with him, I bought another player to Aston Villa for trials.”
— One Soccer Agency (@onesocceragency) September 10, 2015
When asked if Akcelrod’s experience of playing professional football helped him to give the right guidance to Abdoul, he said: “Yes, I think so. The truth is I was playing for PSG’s amateur team. I myself had trials with Bournemouth, Norwich City and a few others. I perfectly know what people are looking at.
“I meet him in the park and I talked to Johan. After one month, I organised a friendly game with only young players. I asked a friend of mine, who’s a scout at Aston Villa, to look at these young players. Because of this, he had a trial at Villa.
“Villa were looking for a left-back. I took two left-backs for trials. Johan’s best position was centre-back and I didn’t know this until we saw him at Villa.
“During the trials, the coach asked Johan to play centre-back and the other player as left-back. In fact, the left-back was good, but Johan was amazing at centre-back. But the truth is they signed him as a centre-back.
“In France, his position was left-back. Villa were happy that Johan can play in both positions.
“At Villa, he was mainly used as a centre-back and was always playing with one category above him.”
Abdoul had an opportunity to train with Villa’s first team during the 2015 pre-season, when Tim Sherwood was in charge at Villa Park. The ex-Tottenham manager wanted to give the Frenchman an opportunity, but was unable to do so due to the contractual situation.
“When he arrived, it was amazing. They asked to train with the first team during the preseason. Tim Sherwood was the coach,” Akcelrod said.
“He didn’t have a contract with Villa first. He had to wait until October [until he turned 17] to sign a professional contract. Sherwood was closer to giving him opportunities in the first team during the pre-season as he was the youngest player of the squad, but he couldn’t because of the contract.”
— Gregoire Akcelrod (@GAkcelrod) May 27, 2019
Abdoul left Villa for Spanish side Xerez CD in 2017 and that was his last outing as a professional footballer. Akcelrod, who no longer manages his compatriot, explains how his former client lost opportunities in his final six months with the English club.
“With Aston Villa, he was amazing with U18 in the first season and then promoted to U23 in the second season,” he said.
“In his last six months, they sent him back to U18 and I don’t know why he didn’t even play with the U18s. In January 2017, they bought another promising central back Jacob Bedeau from Bury FC for €1m from League Two.
“I tried to find options for him with other Premier League clubs. Leicester City and Burnley took him on a trial. The problem if you do too many trials, you start to think too much.
“The difference is when you are not inside the professional system, it’s then a chance of a lifetime.
“But when you’re inside the system, there is a possibility you could be out of a system when you take another trial. It’s different pressure and it’s bad pressure. Because you’re scared to lose everything.
“When you don’t play in the first team, you don’t exist. When you are 15, 16, it’s easy to be found. When you are 18, 19 years old, it’s very difficult. For a player, when you’re at an academy and play with the first team once, twice or thrice, it changes everything.
“What clubs want is first team experience. When you are 19 and you don’t have first team experience, it’s very difficult.
“As his agent, I did help him a lot. Took him from a local park to Villa and then I tried to find clubs in the Premier League.”
Akcelrod is delighted to have taken Abdoul from a local park to Villa Park and he is planning to write a book about similar stories, which is expected to be released in November.