As a young Reece Rusher looked around the Southampton FC youth academy training facilities, he saw the prepubescent faces of some of today's biggest sports stars.
Players who would go on to become England internationals such as Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse were still learning their craft, even if their natural talent was obvious. He watched Matt Targett, who now plays in the Southampton first team, ping a ball 40 yards and have it land exactly at his target's feet at the age of 7, and Rusher could see that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was half a second quicker than everyone else in every aspect of the game.
For many, getting to see these players, even at a young age, would be something to brag about for a lifetime. But for Rusher, this was just another standard day and another training session with his team. He, too, was in the academy and just a few steps away from playing in the Premier League.
Rusher was first noticed by Southampton scouts at around 6 years of age after taking part in an after-school coaching session run by the club. Like almost all players who make it into Premier League youth academies, he was naturally gifted and was quickly invited to further coaching sessions with the club.
Around a year later, he finally got the invitation to join the academy and have a spot on a team that accommodated only around 16 players per age group.
"It's quite a surreal feeling," Rusher said. "But at that young age, I was always full of confidence, I was quite greedy on the ball; I was always confident about myself. Yeah, it did feel good. Then when you step up to the age of 12, 13, you start playing the big boys and go to Arsenal, Chelsea, West Ham, the really good academies, and you see all these good facilities all the time.
"It does feel like a dream come true."
It did, anyway. For the best part of five years Rusher played alongside some of the most recognizable names in soccer. While he might not have been the best player in the team, he was certainly in the very top percentile of players in the country and had a future that looked very bright. But the day before his 14th birthday, he was called into a meeting room at the academy and released from the club.
For the best part of five years Rusher played alongside some of the most recognizable names in soccer. While he may not have been the best player in the team, he was certainly in the very top percentile of players and had a future that looked very bright. But the day before his 14th birthday, he was called into a meeting room at the academy and released from the club.
"I was training with the same squad for four straight years, maybe five," Rusher said. "And so that's Tuesday and Thursdays, some extra sessions on a Saturday and long journeys on a Sunday for four or five years, week in, week out. To then go into an office and get released, it was heartbreaking. It's not family, but it feels like it, you know what I mean? So it hits you really hard when you do get released, if you get released."
Despite the setback, Rusher still believed he was good enough to play at the top level and had trials at other top-level academies. However, just months after he left Southampton and before he really had time to find another club, he tore his meniscus, keeping him out of soccer for 18 months and effectively ending his youth career. The dream of playing in the Premier League seemed further away than it ever had before.
But years later, an opportunity to return to the pinnacle of the sport arose for the 22-year-old, albeit in a digital arena.
Like most kids, Rusher loved video games. At around the age of 10, he got an Xbox and started to play a lot of FIFA and Call of Duty. While he loved both titles, he found excelled at FIFA, constantly beating his friends and almost anyone he was matched with online.
It seemed his natural talent on the pitch transferred to the virtual one as well.
"I've always been good but never really knew how good, if you know what I mean," Rusher said. "I didn't even know how the competitive side of things worked. I'm a very competitive person, and as soon as I realized there was something higher to go into I was like, 'Oh my god, I wanna be like that.' And I still do now. I still wanna get there, to the very top."
When FIFA Ultimate Team Champions was introduced and the competitive scene in FIFA really started to expand, Rusher had his chance to get involved. He started to rise up game leaderboards, climbing into the top 100 at times, and got noticed by some of the top players in the world. As his online performance kept improving and he picked up wins against the very best players, he decided to try to find an organization to represent.
Initially Rusher signed with No Fuchs Given, the esports team owned by Premier League footballer Christian Fuchs. However, this was short-lived, and Rusher soon joined the Lightning Pandas, where he remains as the star of their FIFA division.
His online performances continued to improve, and then came the announcement of the ePremier League. Rusher knew this was his chance to once again represent Southampton, eight years after being released from the youth academy.
All 20 Premier League football clubs are involved with the ePremier League, with each club holding online and offline qualifying events to find players to represent it in the grand finals on March 28-29 in London. Any FIFA player in the United Kingdom was able to compete in the online qualifiers for a club of their choice, with the top players being invited to that team's stadium for the offline qualifiers.
Rusher easily made it through the online portion of Southampton's qualifiers and booked a trip to St. Mary's. He was one step closer to once again representing the club he played for as a boy.
"I was always confident going into it, but I kept myself composed and stayed strong," Rusher said. "Quite early on, one of the people who I thought I'd maybe meet in the final went out, so I was quite shocked. But it just gave me more confidence to go on and say this is my tournament. And, luckily enough, I won it all. I say luckily enough; I won every game."
Can't wait for the EPL finals!! https://t.co/xhaxLI1teq— LP Rusher (@RRusher7) March 9, 2019
After dominating the competition at St. Mary's, Rusher has once again joined Southampton FC. At 13 it seemed almost inevitable that he would be pulling on the iconic red and white jersey of the Saints as a professional player one day, but back then it wouldn't have crossed anyone's mind that it could be as a pro FIFA player.
He still has hopes of playing soccer professionally and currently participates at a semi-pro level for Melksham Town FC. His team went on an impressive FA Cup run, and he hopes that over the next few years he might still be able to break his way into the higher leagues. But for now, he has a more pressing task on hand: representing the club he played for as a boy in the ePremier League.
"I'm playing the Premier League, mate," Rusher said with a dash of awe in his voice.
It's almost as if he is still struggling to believe what he has achieved. A journey that began when he was just a child is a few games away from a fairy-tale ending, and even with his dream just a week away, there might be a few chapters to write.