Tom Lockyer: Bristol Rovers defender on relegation & promotion

By Nabil HassanBBC Sport
Tom Lockyer
Tom Lockyer joined Bristol Rovers at the age of 16

Bristol Rovers defender Tom Lockyer has already packed a lot into his fledgling career.

There has been relegation out of the Football League, promotion back via a Wembley penalty shootout, an international call-up, a fractured jaw, displaced teeth, a broken nose and 127 appearances.

For some, this would be the CV of an experienced professional but Lockyer is just 21. His performances this season have helped Bristol Rovers mount a League Two play-off challenge and have also caught the eye of the Football League, winning him December's Young Player of the Month award.

Size does not matter

Matt Taylor and Tom Lockyer
Lockyer has already made 127 professional appearances, despite only being 21

Lockyer grew up in Cardiff and was sports mad as a child. He hated losing. Defeats by local rivals Llanishen Dons would leave him tears, but having chosen football over rugby his talents were spotted by Cardiff City, joining the club aged 11.

He was eventually released as a 16-year-old when the time came to hand out apprenticeships. Cardiff's reasoning was he was too small to play centre-half. It proved to be a turning point for Lockyer.

"From that day on I thought, 'I'm going to prove them wrong'," Lockyer told BBC Sport. "That was my attitude, I started going to the gym, working on strength and speed and it's worked out for me. It was a blessing in disguise."

It was at this point Bristol Rovers became interested in the young Welshman and, after considering an offer from Exeter, he joined the Pirates. It has proved to be a wise move.

Tears, tantrums and teeth

Lockyer's first full season as a professional ended in heartbreak, with Rovers relegated from the Football League on the final day of the 2013-14 campaign. He is still haunted by the feeling of walking off the pitch against Mansfield that day.

"That final day was probably the lowest I've been in football," recalled Lockyer.

"Going in the changing rooms knowing what had happened. It was horrible, people were crying, there were kicks through the doors, there were anger and tears. I sat there with my head in my hands thinking 'what has just happened, where do we go from here?'"

Tom Lockyer fractured jaw
Lockyer still wears a gum shield while playing as a result of his injury

Where they went was into the Conference and Lockyer had a swift introduction to non-league football, losing two of his front teeth, splitting his lip and fracturing his jaw in only his second game.

"I caught an elbow," he said.

"My front two teeth went through my lip and then wedged back into my mouth. They didn't come out, they were pushed back. I spent all night in A&E and then 6am the next morning I was in the dentist and they told me I had fractured my jaw and I had to have stitches in my top lip.

"I've had my nose broken four times, the teeth was the worst."

'My legs turned to jelly'

Bristol Rovers' stay in the Conference lasted just one season, with Darrell Clarke leading the club to promotion via the play-offs on a memorable day at Wembley. Lockyer calls it his "best day in football".

Tom Lockyer, Lee Brown and Lee Mansell
Bristol Rovers were promoted back into the Football League after beating Grimsby on penalties

"Words cannot describe going down, words cannot describe going up," he said. "It was amazing."

Unlike a lot of his team-mates, Lockyer was relatively calm before the game. He describes players being unable to eat at the pre-match meal because of nerves. He recalls the bus being unusually quiet. He was fine until being hit by a "wall of noise" as he walked though the tunnel for the warm-up. "I thought: 'I'm nervous now'," he said. "My legs turned to jelly."

A 1-1 draw, the game with Grimsby went to penalties. Lockyer was down as seventh taker and was dreading the prospect of taking a spot-kick.

"I turned to Andy Monkhouse and I said 'please let him score, I don't want to take a penalty' and he said 'you're saying that, but I'm before you'," said Lockyer.

"Lee Mansell stuck his penalty away [that won the game]. It was a feeling that you cannot describe, it was surreal. If there is one day you can go back to that would be it."

'A surreal moment'

Lockyer's performances for Rovers earned him a call-up for Wales Under-21s in October 2015, recognition that was "two years too late" according to club manager Clarke.

"Singing that anthem is something that will live with me forever," said Lockyer. "It was surreal."

His heroes include Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale and Swansea City defender Ashley Williams, someone he calls an "inspiration". Lockyer hopes a senior call-up will follow but for now he is content learning his trade in English football's lower leagues.

Tipped for the top

Lockyer is keen to play at a higher level, but with the Pirates going well in League Two he sees no "reason why that can't be with Rovers".

Darrell Clarke and Tom Lockyer
Manager Darrell Clarke called Lockyer a model pro after presenting him with his award

Clarke is full of admiration for his young defender, who he has tipped for the very top.

"He epitomises everything I want in a player," Clarke told BBC Sport. "He's a born winner, he can go as far as he wants to go for me. He's got all the capabilities."