The Burnley experience: before there was Nahki, there was Ne-Jai
Nahki Wells’s £5 million transfer to Burnley in 2017 may have made the headlines, but there was already a Bermudian at Turf Moor — and he is still at the club.
Ne-Jai Tucker, 18, moved to England with his family at the age of 11 after playing for North Village from age 4, and then moving to ABC Valencia.
Things happened pretty quickly for him at the age of 14, when he was spotted by a scout playing for his youth team in Manchester in May 2016.
So quickly, in fact, that the next day he was in Burnley kit, playing for their under-15 team. It is a weekend the young Bermudian will never forget, even though he can’t recall Burnley’s opponents that day. He does remember playing the whole match, though.
”I was playing for my grassroots team, Urmston Sports Club,“ said Tucker, who also spent 2½ years at the Manchester City youth academy before joining Burnley.
”It was my last match for the season and a scout happened to be there with the opponents and asked for my information. Within one hour, I was called and invited to play in the Burnley under-15s’ last match at Turf Moor stadium, where the first team play. That was when it became exciting.
“I was more surprised by the opportunity to play for Burnley, as it happened so quickly. I never even got to train with the team; I literally went from my grassroots match on the Saturday afternoon and the next day playing for the Burnley under-15 team. I played the entire match!”
Tucker did get to see Wells at the club before he went on loan to Queens Park Rangers and then signed permanently for Bristol City this year.
“I joined when I was 14 years old, I had been at the club a year before Wells was signed,” he said. “I saw him all the time. He was a mentor for me if I needed any support.”
As Tucker knows from experience, things can happen quite quickly in football, as was seen with another Bermudian, Ajani Burchall, who recently made his debut for Bournemouth at age 16.
“So far this season is going good,” he said of his season with the under-23s. “It’s been rough with the whole pandemic situation and not being able to play for six months.
“But now I am in training more and back doing what we are meant to do.”
Tucker has gotten used to the weather somewhat, although he still misses some things about Bermuda.
“As I have been in the UK since the age of 11, the weather has been the same,” he said. “It rains all the time in Manchester; I still don’t like it!
“I miss Bermuda sometimes — mainly family, friends and swimming. I have many friends in the UK still pursuing their football.
“It’s not easy to see them as we all live in different parts of the country, but when we have the time to catch up, we do.”
Maceo Dill, who coached Ne-Jai at both North Village and Valencia, has high regard for the youngster. “When he was younger, he was a proper number 10, but he has transitioned now more to a goalscoring winger after moving over to the English game,” Dill said.
“His family relocated to Manchester and through Shaun Goater during my time at North Village, I had a relationship with Manchester City where I used to have the coaches come down here.
“Once Ne-Jai transitioned to living in Manchester, I was able to create the connection for him to join the Manchester City youth academy.
“Anias Rawlins was also at Man City for a bit, but I think the travel was a bit much as he lived a good hour and a half from the training ground. Whereas Ne-Jai’s parents stayed within ten minutes from the training ground and that worked out well for him.”
An e-mail in 2015 from Nick Power, the Junior Academy assistant manager, to Dill detailed Tucker’s progress, reading: “Ne-Jai is doing well, and has played a couple of games with the academy group. This is a big jump in level for him, but credit to him for creating that opportunity for himself.”
Tucker said the time he spent at Manchester City helped greatly in his development. “My experience at Man City taught me a lot,” he admitted.
“The facilities and coaching were amazing. Coming from Bermuda, it showed me how to push hard for positions, as no one knew me here.
“I had a lot to prove. It was hard work but I enjoyed every bit of it.”
Dill is confident Tucker can go on to make his mark in the game in England, one of many young Bermudian players looking to follow in the footsteps of Clyde Best, Goater, Kyle Lightbourne, Wells and others.
“He’s a totally dynamic player, I would describe him as a match-winner who likes to get on the ball and score,” Dill said. “From a young age he loved football. Football keeps him disciplined and progressing as a human being.
“He’s what I would call a proper Village player, from 42nd Street and Pond Hill, on the level of Ralph ‛Gumbo’ Bean, Mel Bean, ‛Punchy’ and Parks Dill.”
Maceo Dill is assisting Goater in setting up his football academy in England.
“Shaun recognises that we can capture all those Bermudian players who are prepared to move over there,” Dill said.
“We can transition them a little bit quicker into the English game because Shaun would know the culture of Bermudian players. These are projects that I’ve been working on with Shaun to create pathways for Bermudian kids to grow via football.
“The only reason he didn’t start it this year in September was because the pandemic happened. It’s in the works for Shaun to start his own academy that delivers football, education and residential.”