There can be little doubting the potential pitfalls for a club from outside of the Football League in bringing in an inexperienced player on a loan deal from an EFL side. For example, pro clubs can tend to insist on clauses in loan contracts, compelling the non league outfit they are dealing with to pick their asset to play. If there aren’t also conditions regarding recall of the player at short notice, then there are plenty of other issues to consider.
Often the young players have come fresh out of under 23 football; competitive matches, sure, but really the kind of preparation to set youngsters up for the boot-flying blood-and-thunder of non-league soccer? And – as with any signing – what if they aren’t a good fit, what if the attitude isn’t quite what you’d want or expect?
Maidenhead United delved into the loan market in their winter of discontent of 2018. After a slow start to the campaign, Maidenhead suddenly clicked, winning five out of eight games. Then big spending Salford came to Berkshire and walked away with a 3-0 win whilst the following week title-favourites Orient also won in SL6. The losses continued, six in a row in the league with the nadir coming at Westleigh Park and a horrific 7-0 loss against fellow-strugglers Havant. Devonshire had to act and a defensive unit which had shipped 23 goals in losing those 6 matches to plunge the team back into the bottom four was augmented by the signing of 20 year old Alfie Kilgour from Bristol Rovers.
Alfie who? At least he shared the same name as a certain Mr Mawson who graced the parish of York Road across three separate loan spells from Brentford in the Conference South under Johnson Hippolyte. Mawson would go on to become a Premier League player and move for an eight-figure transfer fee having oozed class as a teenager on ‘work experience’ at Maidenhead. For all the quality Mawson displayed, there can be little doubt that ‘the other Alfie’ had more of a dramatic effect on the team’s fortunes; Kilgour played in each of the next 17 league matches during which the previously leaky Magpies conceded just 17 goals, the team picking up a vital 24 points from those games to move towards National League safety.
Like Mawson, Kilgour’s attitude was top class. The quietly spoken Bath-born Pirate went about his business diligently and – along with his family – bought into the non-league ethos of having a soft drink in the bar amongst the Maidenhead supporters after the game. Perhaps this tradition had been drummed into him by years watching his father, Mike, play non-league football for the likes of Forest Green, Gloucester, Salisbury and Weston-super-Mare. Alfie recalls: “My earliest memory of football would be at the age of 4 being a mascot for my Dad, being carried out for a game and the smell of deep heat and the sound of studs on concrete as we walked out. I knew I wanted to be a footballer from then on.”
Kilgour junior has been on the books at Bristol Rovers for many years and recalls: “I joined Rovers at the age of 8. After a summer tournament at Yate just outside Bristol, I was invited for a six week trial that coming season and after my first session they wanted to sign me to which I was over the moon about. I only played for one team before joining Rovers and that was my local team Melksham Town from under 6 to Under 8s. Midfield was always my position up to the age of 15. I loved every aspect of the position growing up, being a big lad and good on the ball I was able to get forward and have an impact on attacks with assists and goals but also what I loved even more than that was getting back and helping the defence out. It was strange because I used to enjoy the feeling of a big crunching tackle or goal line clearance more than scoring which was unusual for a young lad. I believed it is just ingrained in me.
“Even now, the harder the battle or more pressure I’m under the more I thrive. Every time I make a block, header or tackle I always think in my head ‘they are the bill payers, that’s your bread and butter’ although being comfortable on the ball and able to play as a centre half is massive in the modern game and being a midfielder help me develop my all round game to what it is now.”
As under 23 captain, Kilgour was involved in the first team match day squad on a number of occasions but the breakthrough still hadn’t come along for the youngster. Loan spells at Cirencester and Hungerford Town had given Kilgour a taste of senior men’s soccer and he wanted more: “I believe the loan move was a joint effort from myself, Chris Hargreaves and Tommy Widdrington getting in contact with Maidenhead and making them see what I can offer to better the team, what I could bring to the table as a player and as a young man in bettering the team in surviving that season in the National League after a really difficult start to their season.”
This move was one which benefitted all parties immensely. Maidenhead benefitted from the use of a player who seems destined for a bright future. Kilgour got much-needed match-minutes. And Rovers perhaps gained a man who had left – albeit temporarily – as a boy. York Road embraced Kilgour, and Kilgour embraced York Road: “Maidenhead United is a friendly, hard-working club with a great community spirit. An unreal, fantastic loyal band of supporters who are still and always will be very close to my heart for the love and gratitude they showed me though out my time there. Clearly the club is punching at their maximum to survive in such a tough and hard league with some big clubs with even bigger budgets but I believe Maidenhead has everything it takes to do so.” And having been brought up as a young boy in a non-league environment, Alfie thrived under a non-league managerial legend: “Alan Devonshire was a brilliant old-school manager with an obviously great knowledge of the game after his playing career. He taught me a lot about the game and I loved playing under him. He could see what I could bring to the table as a player to help the team and ultimately gave me the chance to improve as a player and young man which I will always be grateful for.”
Kilgour clicked with his new team mates and defensive partner from day one: “Alan Massey, The captain, leader, legend. We built up a really good and successful centre half partnership along with (full backs) Rene Steer and Seth Twumasi in my time with the Magpies. Massey is everything you want in a centre back and captain for a team like Maidenhead, being loyal, reliable, loud, committed, a good all round player but also just bringing a massive blockhead at the back – whilst also being a really funny and loveable character off the pitch to all the lads as well. Myself and ‘Pops’ as I like to call him built up a real friendship, with him being someone I could rely on in games and what made it really special was he felt he could rely on me being only 20 years of age along side him at the back. We still speak to each other all the time.”
Seven wins and three draws from those 17 National League games provided Kilgour with memories for life: “For me there are two games that stand out. In the February we travelled to league leaders Leyton Orient beating them 1-0. In the first two minutes I got across to do a goal line tackle and I feel that set the tone for the game. All the lads were a different class that day, from Pentney in goal to Coms (James Comley) and (Ryan) Upward in midfield to the big man (Adrian) Clifton with his volleyed goal to get us the win and of course not forgetting the 800 fans who didn’t stop singing for 90 minutes. Also what stands out was my last game in a Maidenhead shirt and my last kick of a football in a Maidenhead shirt. In the last of five minutes added time we were trailing to fellow strugglers Dagenham & Redbridge when I found myself running forward because I felt we had one last chance to get a goal. The ball fell to me from a poor defensive header, I had a touch across my body and hit it as hard as I could with my left foot from 20 yards out. Watching the ball skim across the muddy box and nesting in the net to running to the corner and getting piled on from my team mates, it was all very special and great memories.”
That was a fitting way for Kilgour to sign off. Rovers had noticed his progress and brought him back to the Memorial Stadium. A week later he made his Pirates EFL debut and Kilgour hasn’t looked back since: “This last season for me has been great. Playing a total of 45 games in all competitions, it is everything I could have wished for of my first full season with Bristol Rovers. I can’t wait to get back playing and ultimately improving every week playing for my boyhood club. It is the best feeling in the world, walking out every week and doing what I love and for the club I love, having been a fan since 8 years old. All the dedication and commitment has paid off and now it’s all about maintaining my hard work so I improve and keep progressing as a player and achieve my new target and goals I’ve set myself.”
The quality that Kilgour possesses was shown to a wider audience when his net-buster against Blackpool in February this year was awarded Sky Bet League One Goal of the Month. Whatever Kilgour goes on to achieve, he’ll be fondly remembered in Berkshire.