Kodi Lyons-Foster – Aldershot Town
A large proportion of non-league players have had a level of exposure to the professional academy system during their development. Some, such as Jamie Vardy, have made it back to the elite levels, whilst some sadly drop out of the game altogether. Others, go on to have long and fulfilling careers outside the professional leagues – in what is widely recognised as the most comprehensive and respected non-league structure in world football.
One player who is still working out what his path will be, is Kodi Lyons-Foster, of Aldershot Town. At 23, Kodi has spent seven years in the academy environment, with Tottenham, Aston Villa and Bristol City, before making the transition to National League level with the Shots. In a Zoom call from his home in south London, Kodi talked to me about the highs and lows he’s experienced so far, and what’s next for him in his football journey.
Brought up in Islington’s Elthorne Estate, a seven year old Lyons-Foster started playing youth football for a local side named Finsbury Park, before moving to AC Finchley aged ten. It was around this age that Kodi started to really develop, before being picked up by the Tottenham development system a year or so later. Somewhat surprisingly, Kodi actually got scouted through his younger brother. Four years younger than Kodi, Brooklyn Lyons-Foster had just been signed by Spurs, from Watford, and the development team at White Hart Lane learnt that Brooklyn had an older brother. They went to watch one of Kodi’s games and signed themselves a second Lyons-Foster in short order.
Originally a midfielder, it was Tottenham Academy Manager David Dodds who saw a future at centre back. During his trial prior to signing, Dodds asked Lyons-Foster to drop into defence for twenty minutes, just to see what it was like. The Academy Manager saw something he liked, because Kodi was offered a six-week trial, and was signed to a four-year contract after that. During his time at the club, Kodi saw Tottenham grow from a Europa League side to one challenging for the top four on a regular basis, and the change was evident in the structure of the club. “It was really interesting to be a part of. The facilities now are just second to none. When I first went there we were still training at Chigwell, and just to be a part of the club as it was building and evolving was an amazing experience. I was there at a perfect time.”
Whilst the club themselves were developing, so too was the young defender, and he enjoyed the exposure to a high-class, professional training set up. “I remember doing sessions and working on skills I’d never really paid attention to before. Going from Sunday League where I was so raw, it was just a real eye-opener to see what the game was about at this level. We’d be working on core skills for 30-40 minutes, and after that everything was broken down to the individual, from a young age.” One aspect that Kodi discusses is something that is often lost in the conversation around elite youth development, and that’s the time away from the club. Tottenham gave each player training to do at home, elements of their game they should work on in their own time, and Lyons-Foster would often spend his evenings in the small garden of their Islington flat working through his individual homework assignments.
It’s at this point that the subject of Lyons-Foster’s dad, and his approach to raising his children, is first mentioned. Sadly, when Kodi was eleven, his mother passed away, and his father, Steve Foster, was faced with the responsibility of raising their children alone. A traumatic position for the family, Steve was the force that kept them together, and despite all the pressures, he insisted on finding time to take his sons to their football training and matches, almost every night of the week. It’s no surprise that Kodi Lyons-Foster speaks about his dad in almost reverential terms.
Indeed, it was Steve who kept Kodi humble during his years in the youth system. Even when England came calling aged 14, his father never let him get carried away – “when I got called up to England my dad would always keep me grounded, keeping me modest and understanding that I hadn’t made it. He’d be pushing me, “well you’ve achieved that but what more can you do?” If I ever did get ahead of myself, my dad would be there to keep me on a level.” Kodi was initially surprised when he was called up to the training camp for the U15s, and again when he was selected for the Victory Shield alongside the likes of Ola Aina and Reuben Loftus-Cheek. Playing for his country is a huge source of pride for Lyons-Foster, and something he still looks on fondly now. In 2018, his younger brother Brooklyn was also called up to represent the Three Lions. What did that mean for the family, to have had them both represent their country? “For my dad, after everything he had done – for us to both play internationally, was as much a recognition of his efforts, as it was of our own.”
During his time at Tottenham though, Lyons-Foster never considered himself one of the best, despite being a regular part of the national age group environment. Playing with the likes of Josh Onomah, Harry Winks and Luke Amos, Kodi never considered himself part of that special group. “I’ve always been quite a modest person, I’d always looked at other players with a bit of awe. In my age group, the top three boys were Luke Amos, Harry Winks and Denzeil Boadu. They were always on four years contracts. Then, when I got offered a four year contract, I still didn’t think of myself as one of them – I always looked at those boys like they were the benchmark.” This humility is an admirable trait, but in the hyper-competitive world of development football, you can’t help but wonder if it may also have been a disadvantage at times. Whilst Lyons-Foster might not have recognized how good he was becoming, Tottenham certainly did, and he was often pushed to older age groups early.
As he was coming towards the end of his contract, Lyons-Foster was waiting for a new deal to be offered, and as that took longer and longer, he decided to look at other options. Despite interesting a number of clubs, it was Aston Villa that felt the right fit for Kodi, and his decision was made. “At a lot of clubs you can feel quite isolated and lonely, but at Villa I never felt that. I got on with the players quite quickly, and from a footballing perspective everything just felt right for me to develop there.” That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a tough transition. It’s easy to imagine how hard it must be for a sixteen year old to move to a different city, completely alone but when I ask how Kodi dealt with the move, his answer is surprising – “of course it’s hard, you’re a long way from home, but I didn’t really think about that. I just knew it was something I had to do, to realise my dream of being a professional footballer. I just kept that in my head all the time.”
Unfortunately, it was in Birmingham that Kodi also learnt another of the facts of life for professional footballers – injury. In the final year of his contract, a torn medial collateral ligament, resulted in almost a year out of action. That injury proved costly, as Lyons-Foster was told he wouldn’t be offered a new contract – although the club would support him with his rehabilitation until he found a new team, something Kodi remains grateful for. Once his rehab was done, Kodi found a new opportunity with Bristol City, and made the move down the M5. After a season at Bristol, Lyons-Foster felt he’d had a good year, as captain of the U23s, but manager Lee Johnson explained that with no route to the first team in the foreseeable future, they couldn’t offer him a new contract. With Zak Vyner and Taylor Moore already playing first team at the same age, there just wasn’t space for Lyons-Foster – “they just said there wasn’t a clear window to the first team, so I had to look for regular football elsewhere”. Another lesson in football – luck. “At the end of the day, when you look at the number of people who want to play football, from the playground at Primary School right to the professional leagues, there’s always going to be an element of luck in why some people make it and some don’t.”
Kodi went on the hunt for a new club, and possibly a new home, for the third time before the age of 21. Is there ever a time when as a professional footballer you just feel tired of the instability? “Absolutely, you know unless you get a long-term contract there isn’t any security there, and life goals are difficult to pursue. I want to put down a deposit on a house, but you don’t know where you’ll be living in a year. I’d like to have a family, things like putting kids in school – it’s difficult. But, when the opportunity is there, these are sacrifices you have to make, and I’m happy to do so.” Aldershot Town followed for Lyons-Foster, which was quickly followed by a month’s loan to Whitehawk under Steve King. Ashton Gate to the Enclosed Ground in the space of three months was quite a culture shock.
Unfortunately, Aldershot under Gary Waddock was a difficult period for Lyons-Foster. Kodi acknowledges Waddock is a good manager, and has a great reputation in the game, but after getting sent off against Eastleigh after half an hour of his debut, he felt he was always fighting a losing battle to earn Waddock’s trust. It was no surprise therefore, when the Shots allowed him to move to Whitehawk on a free transfer in January 2018. “Honestly, that wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do – I wanted to prove I was a National League player, but I just needed to get games. Steve King was the manager at Whitehawk at the time, and based on his reputation I decided to go and play for him for a while. Even though Whitehawk were rock bottom of the league below, people had spoken highly of Steve, and the opportunity to work with him swung it for me.” Whitehawk’s end of season run under Steve King was incredible, with a team featuring the likes of David Ijaha, Gold Omotayo and Kyjuon Marsh-Brown. It was too little, too late though, as the Hawks suffered relegation to the Isthmian League.
Going out of the division from the other direction were Brad Quinton’s Braintree Town, and Kodi’s performances had done enough to convince Quinton to take a chance. Lyons-Foster moved to the Essex club, and was playing National League football once more. The environment at Braintree was challenging though, and many have remarked on how the organization and infrastructure just wasn’t set up for the National League. Quinton was replaced by Hakan Hayrettin in October, who was in turn replaced by Danny Searle in January. Player turnover was huge, with over 50 players representing the club, and only Ben Killip and Kodi Lyons-Foster survived the whole season. “It was tough, particularly as a centre back trying to get consistency. I think I played with about five different partners – Michael Clark, Josh Hill, Dan Matsuzaka, Joe Ellul, Rob Atkinson – all good players, but it’s hard to build that trust when it’s changing all the time. That said, for me, I enjoyed my time at Braintree – it was a big year for me. I’d not had a chance at Aldershot, and I felt like I proved I could play National League.” Danny Searle brought about an upturn in form for the Irons, but couldn’t save them from relegation. Whilst he couldn’t save Braintree, Searle did do enough to attract Aldershot’s attention, as they sought to replace Gary Waddock. Taking the job in the summer, one of his first actions was to approach Lyons-Foster to join him in Hampshire.
One of the most difficult aspects of life for a semi-professional footballer is walking that tight-rope between day-job and sporting commitments. For Kodi, that became most apparent when Searle offered him that opportunity to go full time again last summer. Having spent the second half of his season in Braintree training to work as a Leakage Engineer for Thames Water, and getting stuck into a job he enjoyed, he was faced with the decision – to risk his job security chasing the dream, or to carry on as he was. For Kodi, whilst it was a decision, it was also an easy one. “For me, the priority is always going to be football. It was a no brainer. I enjoyed my job at Thames Water – but the decision was clear: stick with a job I’d learnt to enjoy, or go back to one I’d loved since I could remember”. Fortunately for Lyons-Foster, Danny Searle wanted him enough to offer the security of a two-year contract, and the decision became easier still.
A two-year deal at National League level is something of a rare beast, with the vast majority of players signed to season long contracts. Kodi acknowledges that to be offered those terms showed the manager’s trust in him, and is something he’s keen to repay. “I’ve always thought some players feel like the gaffer owes them something, but I’m the opposite. Every time I put on the shirt – in training or in a match, I feel like I owe it to Danny Searle to repay his faith in me.” Searle is a well-liked character within the game, and Lyons-Foster has nothing but praise for the Aldershot boss. “He’s a top guy. He’s very reasonable – you can always talk to him. He’s always got time to give you.”
After making 31 appearances across the season, Kodi feels that the Shots had a decent first season under Searle, but believes they can do better in 2020/21. “We’ve got the infrastructure, the fan base – I think we should be pushing for upper midtable to play offs.” At 23, the book is still being written for Kodi Lyons-Foster, and this season could be key in determining where his footballing career goes.