The Monday Profile: Marlon Pack
In this month’s When Saturday Comes, Andy Lloyd-Williams considers youth development in English football and the benefits of coming through at a smaller club. Citing Bournemouth and Plymouth as examples, he argues that it’s better — surely — to spend one’s formative years at a club at which progression to the first-team isn’t reserved for pure prodigies only.
It’s a fair point well made, yet the case of Cheltenham Town’s current man of the hour — Marlon Pack — demonstrates that a thorough schooling at a top side isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it fails to result in a breakthrough at that same club.
Having completed an apprenticeship at Portsmouth in 2009, midfielder Pack impressed his coaches enough to earn a professional contract. By then, the level of the club’s financial problems were already well documented, yet quality players still remained and Fratton Park was a difficult environment for a first-year professional to step in to. Had Pack graduated a year or two later then he may well have forced his way into the starting eleven; as it was, he was shifted out on loan to Wycombe and Dagenham of Leagues 1 and 2 respectively.
Neither spell was particularly remarkable, but that didn’t stop Mark Yates — a former player and colleague of Portsmouth manager Steve Cotterill — taking Pack to Cheltenham on a season-long loan ahead of 2010-11. At that point, Yates had only been at Whaddon Road for six months and was far from secure in his position, having only just managed to keep Town in the Football League on the back of Martin Allen’s forgettable tenure. Pack’s signature — along with various others including Steve Elliott, Keith Lowe and Jeff Goulding — represented what was effectively an overhaul as Yates went about making his mark.
A frustrating year followed as the Robins fell from a promising position to finish 17th, winning just five games between January and May and going down 8-1 at Crewe in the process. As for Pack, it was a solid first full term but 30-odd games in an underperforming side failed to earn him a look-in back at Portsmouth and, shortly after the season ended, Yates moved quickly to sign him on a two-year contract.
Having come through at Portsmouth when they were a Premier League club, Pack’s decision to drop down to League 2 on a permanent deal may have seemed like a bold move on the face of it, but his words upon sewing up his move demonstrated a certain clarity of thought beyond his tender years: “It’s great to feel wanted – the fans were great and their support helped me want to be here. There was interest [from other clubs], but Cheltenham was my first choice and I’m glad I’ve got it done now … I didn’t feel like I was on loan – I grew close to the lads here and close to the club. The main thing is getting my future sorted and I’m really happy that it’s in a Cheltenham shirt.” For any one who has witnessed Pack play this season, however, that sensible, well-grounded interview may not come entirely by surprise.
Although built powerfully, this is someone whose technique and vision now mark him as a stand out individual in League 2. At a level where good teams and individuals are largely characterised by athleticism and the ability and experience to play percentage football to good effect, central midfielder Pack has now emerged as one of the division’s most promising players and was duly named in the PFA League 2 team of the year, as well as being shortlisted for the League 2 player of the year.
Prior to this, it’s probably fair to say that Pack’s light was a little obscured. With little televised coverage in League 2 besides a reeled off replay of the day’s goals on The Football League Show and Whaddon Road far from the centre of the division’s attention, it’s perhaps taken a little longer than it might have for Pack to get his name out there. Going into Sunday’s play-off final against Crewe, however, and it seems clear that this is no longer the case. Having already picked up his fifth goal of the season in the final day win at Plymouth — for which Pack was one of few survivors in a much-changed line-up — his wonderful lobbed free-kick in the play-off semi-final at Torquay sealed Cheltenham’s passage to Wembley and his will be one of the first names pored over by journalists, pundits and bloggers ahead of League 2’s season finale.
At 21 years-old, Pack is by no means the finished article. When I sampled opinion on the be-tattooed player through Twitter, for example, one person was quick to point out how Pack is hardly blessed with pace and that he’s been fortunate to have Luke Summerfield’s quicker legs around him in midfield this season. Yet equipped with the ability to pick a pass — both short and long — as well as line up a fearsome dead ball, and seemingly in possession of the kind of drive and composure that would put many a senior professional to shame, Pack should have a bright future in the game. He also knows how to ‘Delap’ it, which helps at pretty much every level of the English game these days.
Cheltenham’s revival of late hasn’t been just about Pack, of course. Others — such as Summerfield, Alan Bennett, Steve Elliott, Jermaine McGlashan and Jack Butland — have played key roles for the Robins at points this season. Yet with his levels of form peaking at just the right time, the headlines seem to be there for the taking. Whatever happens, one suspects that Pack’s immediate future lies beyond the confines of the Football League’s basement division, and probably his old paymasters down on the South Coast, too.