SOUTHEND High School for Boys’ PE teacher Stephen Thomas was a proud man on Saturday when two of his former pupils finished the football season playing in the Championship.
It was not that long ago that Thomas remembers Josh Rees and Morgan Fox inspiring his Southend High side to countless borough and county trophies –- now they are professionals at two of the Championship’s biggest clubs.
Former Arsenal trainee Rees made his Football League debut for Nottingham Forest on Saturday, coming on in their defeat to Brighton in the 76th minute.
While Fox, from South Woodham Ferrers, has forced his way into the Charlton Athletic at the back end of the season.
“They are both great players and were both great all-round sportsmen when they were here,” said Thomas. “And it is great to see them both in the Championship now.
“Our team with those two in was a very, very good team. We won five borough titles and only lost one county cup I think.
“One game sticks out for me was when they were in Year 8 we beat King John 3-1 in the county cup final and Morgan scored one goal and Josh got two, both headers from corners taken by Morgan.
“We had 10 or 11 very good sportsmen in that year group and they all played everything: football, rugby, basketball, athletics and Josh and Morgan excelled in them all.
“They were part of our team that went to the national cross-country cup final, Josh did the discus and 1500m on the track and Morgan the pole vault and the 800m. They played basketball and were very, very good rugby players.
“They had good hands, good spatial awareness from the football and good endurance.
“I remember in Year 9 we won the county sevens tournament and Morgan did not miss a conversion. He’s got a lovely left boot.”
Despite their all-round skills - as well as their academic talents “they got A*s at GCSEs,” said Thomas. “They’ve got the intelligence and the sporting talent to go with it” – football was always going to be their main passion and when they left the school at 16, that’s where their focus turned.
But it has been not been an easy path for either player and Thomas says it’s a testament to the characters of the two 20-year-olds that they are now enjoying the fruits of their hard work.
“It’s not gone all their way, but they have stuck with it and that is a great example to our current pupils,” said Thomas.
Rees, from Hadleigh, was earmarked for stardom from an early age, with Arsenal getting him on to their books before he had even joined Southend High.
The midfielder won England caps as a youth international but was released by the Gunners this time last year.
Trials at League Two side Cheltenham and his local club Southend United did not work out but Rees did enough to impress then Forest manager Billy Davies in a handful of under-21 games for the club and was handed a deal.
Fox has had to battle rejection, too. He was released by both Norwich and Colchester United before Charlton picked him up.
He has had to bide his time at the Addicks and was sent on loan to League One side Notts County in December where he impressed in six games at left back, even scoring once against his former side Colchester United.
Charlton liked the reports coming back to them and he was brought back to South-East London for the final few months of the season, making his debut against Sheffield United in an FA Cup quarter final before playing six Championship games, helping the Addicks keep their place in the division.
The pair can now look ahead to potentially meeting next season when their sides go head to head.
They could also be team-mates again in the future for Wales, something that would make Thomas, himself a proud Welshman, extremely proud.
“Morgan’s dad is Welsh and he has been capped at under-21 level,” said Thomas. “And Josh has Welsh eligibility too through his grandparents I think so that could happen.
“It must have been the way I spoke to them,” he laughed.
Southend High School for Boys have three teams in Essex Cup finals next week, the Year 7 and Year 8 teams both have finals on Tuesday while the sixth-form team play at Roots Hall next Friday.