Football comes first for the Simons family
As the Premier Division’s MVP and leading goalscorer, Nahki Wells was already an established player when he left Bermuda in 2010 to seek a professional career in England.
The next summer another young footballer was embarking on a similar mission, although the name Rai Simons was not known by many. After all, he was only 15 and still had not played a senior game for North Village, his boyhood club.
Come next season, Simons could join Wells in the Sky Bet Championship, as he will soon join League One side Chesterfield, who are pushing for promotion via the play-offs. Simons signed for the club two weeks ago but will finish the present campaign with non-League Ilkeston Town before joining up with his new team-mates after July 1.
It is something Simons is very much looking forward to, although for now he wants to repay Ilkeston by helping them to achieve promotion from the Evo-Stik League Northern Premier League premier division.
“On Saturday, the [Ilkeston] first team is playing for a position in the play-offs,” Simons said. “If that is accomplished and we make it through to the final, the last game of the season will be on May 2. Also the under-21s are two games away from winning that league, with their last game on May 4. Hopefully I’m a part of both successes.”
Then it is off to Chesterfield, 45 minutes away and a club that had been scouting him for some time. “I’m still so anxious about next season joining Chesterfield,” Simons said.
“They are doing really well this season and still have the chance to get promoted into the Championship.
“Being a signed pro League One player is a dream come true on its own, but being a Championship player at the age of 19 will feel unreal. There are some quality players in the Championship and also Nahki is there flourishing. I will love to be at that level trying to do the same.”
Simons initially stayed with cousins Dale Eve, the Bermuda goalkeeper, and his older sister Taylor in Stoke, attending school and getting his opportunities as a young striker.
“I made the decision myself that I wanted to move to England at such a young age,” he said. “As anyone could imagine, it wasn’t the easiest thing for me to do. Leaving my family and all my friends to have to adapt to a totally different lifestyle was a task, but I managed.
“I just had to keep my ultimate goal as my driving force to make sure I endured. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been since I was staying with family when I first moved out here and that helped me massively.”
Simons added: “Chesterfield they have accommodations sorted for me for when I start. I’m really happy with that, as it gives me one less thing to worry about — I can give the football my entire focus.
“I’m really impressed and pleased with how Chesterfield is run as a football club. They play some really good football, with some good young players, which is encouraging for me.
“My goal for next season is hopefully to become a regular in the first team and ultimately score some goals for them. I will put in every effort to establish myself as a professional at Chesterfield.”
Parents Karen and Arthur Simons are pleased to see that things are starting to pay off for Rai.
“What Rai is doing now is living a dream that has been a part of our lives since he was born,” his father, a former North Village left back, said. “I put a ball in front of Rai before he was walking and he used to push the ball with his hands or use his head. He always had the ability to become a professional footballer. It took a few years for him to prove it to me, but in the last six or eight years, I saw nothing but raw ability.
“I’m more than happy, but I’m not really surprised; it just took us as a family to get him out of here [Bermuda] and pursue this opportunity. Four years ago, that’s what we did and two weeks ago it came to fruition. I’m overwhelmed.”
Despite the many obstacles, there was never any question of the young Simons giving up on his dreams; his father made sure of that.
“I’m an aggressive guy and I had to stop playing early myself because of injuries, but I had nowhere near the ability that Rai,” his father said. “I made sure that I stayed on him, even when he was down and feeling homesick.
“There was no coming home. I told him, ‘This is what is going to happen; this is what you’re going to do and for it to happen, you have to stay out there’.
“Numerous times he felt depressed, but I can’t recall one time when he said he wanted to come home.”
Simons also roomed with fellow Bermudian footballers Antwan Russell and Lejuan Simmons while at Ilkeston. He endured when things got tough.
“I encouraged him to stay focused and jump over whatever hurdles came in front of him,” his father said.
“He understands that he only has a two-year contract and the first year is so, so important in order to get an extension.”
Simons will be back in Bermuda next month to begin preparing for Bermuda’s World Cup qualifying matches with Guatemala in early June.
“He’ll be resting for a few days and then get with a personal trainer,” Arthur Simons said. “We’re looking for him to have a successful World Cup campaign and, as soon as Chesterfield announce the date for pre-season training, we want to have him in top shape for that.”
Mother Karen was prepared to make the initial emotional sacrifice of letting him go to England at just 15. “He went over, went to school and played for a grassroots club and persevered,” she said.
“Then he got seen by Newcastle Town in the Midlands, then Ilkeston saw him and picked him up.
“We’re proud of him as this is what he wanted to achieve. But it is not the be-all, end-all; he’s just signed up for more responsibility.
“A couple of times he said ‘I don’t know if this is for me, I’m really not sure’, but I told him this is always what you wanted to do; stick it out. Home is not an option and what you want to achieve is not here [in Bermuda]. This is a breakthrough for him but it is only the beginning.
“Chesterfield and his agent have made it quite clear as to what he needs to do in preparation and he says ‘I’m ready’. He’s going to get the job done.”
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