“When I was 14, Barcelona offered me a 10-year contract. Ronaldinho was my favourite player at the time so they sent me a signed poster from him. I’ve still got it at my house in London. It said: ‘To John from Ronaldinho.'”
If you are familiar with the name John Bostock then you’ll know he didn’t sign that deal.
Instead, more than a decade later, his footballing journey has included 13 stops – Crystal Palace, Tottenham, Brentford, Hull City, Sheffield Wednesday, Swindon Town, Toronto FC, Royal Antwerp, OH Leuven, Lens, Bursaspor, Toulouse and Nottingham Forest.
The south London-born midfielder – now aged 28 – is in search of his 14th club, and tells BBC Sport about being dubbed the next big thing, handling rejection and why he almost quit the game.
Bostock joined Palace, the club he and his family supported, when he was five.
Technically gifted, athletic and with a wand of a left foot, he’d often play above his age group, competing against players three or four years older.
He was called a ‘wonderkid’ – a once-in-a-generation talent.
“You name the club, I had interest from them,” Bostock recalls. “Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool – the who’s who of European football.”
At 14, while most of his friends were choosing their GCSEs, he was deciding which of Europe’s elite clubs he’d like to play for.
Bostock only made a handful of first-team appearances for Palace – his debut as 15-year-old in a 2-0 defeat by Watford in 2007 means he’s still the club’s youngest ever player.
“I remember I was too young to change in the same dressing room as my team-mates because I was still a minor.
“I think I came on for the last 20 minutes. It was like ‘wow!’ I’ve watched this team play for years, sat in the stands with my little bag of sweets – it was a surreal moment, one I’ll never forget,” he says.
Death threats and ‘banned’ from Selhurst Park
If his arrival at Crystal Palace was a dream then his exit was a nightmare, according to Bostock, whose first transfer took him to Tottenham.
“My family and my agent thought it was in my best interests to go to Tottenham. The plan, the set-up, the players I’d be training with. They thought it would be best for my development. If I’m honest I didn’t really have a voice. I was 15 – I saw paper on the table and I was told to sign it.”
As a teenager, Bostock knew any decision he made not only affected him but his family and friends. Even then he understood that football was one of the few professions where one contract could set you up for life.
Palace and Tottenham were unable to agree on a fee, meaning the case went to a tribunal, which arrived at a reported fee close to £2m.
Palace’s chairman at the time, Simon Jordan, openly voiced his disappointment at the outcome – even threatening to retract the family’s season ticket.
“We didn’t expect the backlash. Obviously football is a business you understand that and you respect that,” Bostock says.
He says he would regularly visit online chat forums where fans would discuss his transfer.
“They just see a subjective situation and think ‘he’s chasing the money’. I’d get death threats – they’d write things like, ‘I’m going to do this when I see him in the streets’.
“I’m very grateful that I had my family network, more so mentally – people around me I could speak to about mental struggles. Some people just see the football game for what it is but behind it there’s a life, pressures and expectations. I was just a young man trying to chase my dreams.”
Back to basics
Bostock made his competitive debut for Spurs in the Uefa Cup against Dinamo Zagreb in 2008, aged 16 years and 295 days, becoming their youngest player too.
But the teenager found himself unable to cement a place in the first-team squad.
“At the time it didn’t feel bigger than Palace. But it was a different size of club. You look at the players that were playing ahead of me – a future Ballon d’Or winner in Luka Modric and there was Gareth Bale.
“Every position had at least two internationals,” he says.
Bostock was told a return to the youth team might be best for his development. The news devastated him.
“From as early as I remember I wanted to be the best player in the world and to win the Ballon d’Or. I saw Ronaldinho win these trophies and I just thought I want to be that guy. I pinned my identity on that and I thought if I didn’t achieve that I was a failure.”
On to the loan carousel
Bostock admits that not being in first team affected his self-belief and performances. He’d often overplay to try to live up to the hype surrounding him.
During his five years at Tottenham he had loan spells at several clubs, with varying success.
“Before you know it you start questioning ‘well am I really that good? Am I really that amazing a player?’
“Then you start to look at people’s opinions of you – it’s a dangerous spiral for any person, especially in sport, once you start to question yourself.”
When his contract at Spurs ended Bostock says he wondered whether football was even the game for him, though he says his faith – he is a devout Christian – gave him the belief and drive to continue.
‘I do have regrets’
After Spurs, Bostock dropped down to Belgium’s second division before spells in Turkey and France.
He jokes that with 13 clubs under his belt, he and his wife have become quite the experts at getting a suitcase ready at short notice.
“I have been married for 10 years and she has been my best friend, my help, my champion. She’s believed in me at times more than I’ve believed in myself.”
The couple, along with their young son, are now back in the UK where Bostock says he wants to remain.
“I do have regrets. Maybe the big regret wasn’t even not joining Barcelona but leaving Palace.
“I think that’s part of life, knowing that you could have made a better decision. But I wasn’t really in a place to make those decisions. I had people making them for me and I genuinely know they had my best interest at heart.
“It’s been an uncomfortable journey, but one I probably wouldn’t change.”