I was at passport control at Gatwick Airport in January 2015 when I got a text from Margate press supremo Ryan Day to tell me that striker Freddie Ladapo was on his way to Hartsdown Park.
At that exact moment, it wasn’t my number one priority, but I’m sure if pushed, I would never have predicted that 21 months later, he’d be on the books at a Premier League club and scoring on loan in the Football League.
And score he did yesterday, Oldham Athletic’s leveller in what ended up being a 2-1 win just up the road from Margate at Gillingham.
Now while I obviously enjoy the final outcome of that match, I’m even more pleased for Freddie.
Now 23, over his time at Gate I got to know him fairly well in that journalist/player way. I even once woke him up with an unsolicited phone call at around 9.40am one day. We spoke several times after games, and I was very fortunate that my relationship with him and the club was such that I had all the inside track on his move to the Eagles.
He’d arrived at Gate technically from Kidderminster Harriers, who had loaned him out to Grays Athletic, where he’d banged in plenty of goals in the first half of that 2014-15 campaign. He kept on scoring for Gate, a hat-trick at Met Police being among the highlights – we spoke after that game and he admitted he’d forgotten to ask for the matchball that he was gleefully clutching – and set up the winner as Margate won the play-off final, 1-0 at Hendon.
Like most of the Margate side, he struggled in the early stages of last season, but once Nikki Bull took over, he was an absolute revelation. Usually in a lone striker role – one that I think even he had a few doubts about initially – he grew in front of our eyes.
His form in December and January that season was sparkling, and the transfer talk started. After the game against Bishop’s Stortford two days before the window shut, I managed to talk to him. I knew what was going on in the background, but he showed his maturity by simply insisting he wanted to focus on his football.
Offers from Grimsby and Barrow were snubbed by either the player or the club, and he kept banging the goals in. His decision to stay at Gate was vindicated when he got the chance to go on trial at Crystal Palace. A hat-trick against Watford U21s later and Freddie was in with a shout of a dream move.
It was a protracted move, happening around the time of big changes at Hartsdown Park, but as we spoke on the phone during it, Freddie remained level-headed, but incredibly excited at the opportunity. He had worked his backside off for this chance – he never had a job away from football as a part-time player, spending his time in the gym or running in a bid to be in the best shape possible.
Again, we spoke just after the deal was done and he was great. He certainly got better at the interviews as we went along – and without blowing my own trumpet, I think I helped him. In one of my final chats with Bull before I left my old job, he told me of another player who had grown from the experience of being at Gate, even being interviewed by the likes of me was a massive thing for them. That’s another big cross in the Trinity Mirror ‘non-league football isn’t worth covering’ box…
Freddie grasped his chance at Palace and played a bit for the first-team in pre-season, and was even on the bench in a couple of early Premier League games. Then came the loan move to Boundary Park. He’d always been expected to go to League One or Two, but Oldham seemed a tad surprising – and a tough one for him to go in to.
But he’s done it now, and that moment for him at Priestfield – where he once scored for Gate in a Kent Senior Cup semi-final – is one he will cherish.
It’s not an Ian Wright-style rags to riches story – he began his career at Colchester so has been in the system before – but to see a bloke who two years ago was playing against the likes of Peacehaven & Telscombe netting in the Football League is, simply, bloody brilliant.
I hope it’s the first of many for Freddie.