FYP editor Tom Maslona sits down with Palace academy product Luke Dreher to talk injuries, breaking into the first team and what the future holds.
Think of the most popular Palace players of recent times: Wilfried Zaha, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Jason Puncheon. The three of them have one thing in common: they are all home grown. The Premier League is big business and the money swirling around the game can make it difficult for fans to relate to players. Resentment can fester so supporters cling to what they know. Local boys who have come up through the ranks at the club are naturally afforded a special place in fans’ hearts.
In the final game of last season, Luke Dreher came on as a late substitute and made an immediate impact almost scoring a late goal. The chant, ‘He’s one of our own’ may have been temporarily retired with Puncheon’s departure in the summer but it may need to be resurrected if Dreher continues to progress.
I met the 20-year-old in London last month to chat about football, his past and the future. Successive Palace managers have been impressed by his ability but Luke is an impressive young man too: polite, bright and visibly enthusiastic. He’s certainly one to watch out for.
FYP: Tell me about your childhood, how did you develop a love of sport and football?
Luke Dreher: Sport is all I can remember. I’ve got a brother who is a year older than me so we were always quite competitive. My dad used to run a football team called Epsom Eagles and I was in the side from the age of 6 or so. I used to play in my brother’s side which makes quite a big difference at that age. To be honest, my brother was the better player then. We’d be out in the garden every evening kicking each other to pieces.
So your Dad ran the team. What was that like?
LD: There were a few Daddy’s boy comments but he spent most of the warm ups trying to split me and my brother up because we’d be fighting. I guess it was comforting as it’s quite daunting at that age playing for an older team but there really wasn’t any favouritism. If I was having a bad game, he’d drag me off. No question. My brother was the centre midfielder then. He was the main guy in the team. Because I was quite small then, I played on the wing as I was quick and tricky.
My Dad was never pushy; he was just honest. If I did well, he’d congratulate me but that worked the other way too. He’d played at a lower level when he was growing up so he knew what he was talking about.
Operation went well🙏🏻 Frustrating start to the season but now time to focus on recovery💪🏻 pic.twitter.com/i4BcK6bnAd— Luke Dreher (@DreherLuke) August 14, 2017
When did you realise that you were good? Not just better than your brother but good enough to catch the eye of pro clubs?
We’d enter tournaments and win them and there would always be scouts watching. I was so young that you wouldn’t pay them much attention. It was a bigger deal winning the tournament than having anyone watching. I ended up going to Palace when I was 8 so I was very young.
Picked up at 8? At that age, do you understand the significance of what’s happening or is Palace just another team?
At that age, I wasn’t thinking too far down the line. I did the rounds with clubs like Fulham and Chelsea and had a look at their development centres. Funnily enough, you end up seeing all of the same kids at the different centres but, at the age of 8, you can’t foresee how it could progress into something more. It all seems so far away.
You said you did the circuit of other clubs. What made you pick out Palace?
Palace were really keen. I only had one or two sessions before they told my Dad that they wanted me to join the Under 9s team. We gravitated towards them because of their enthusiasm really. There was a guy there then called David Muir and he was a prominent figure in running the younger teams. None of the lads from that first side are there any more. It’s funny but I’ve got all of the pictures of the teams that I played in and you see so many boys coming in but they fall away.
So at what point does your attitude change and the dog eat dog attitude takes over and you want to make sure that you don’t fall away yourself?
I can’t talk about other boys but I was about 14 or 15 when I started thinking about how much I wanted this. The one thing all of the coaches said to me growing up was that I needed to become a bit more selfish and develop confidence. I think that they wanted me to realise that it is a dog eat dog world. It could have been that they thought I was too nice and perhaps they thought that I didn’t understand that it is a cut-throat environment. Ultimately, it’s a team sport but all of us are fighting to get an individual professional contract.
Disappointing result but a good experience being on the bench last night at Old Trafford⚽️ pic.twitter.com/eY7ldxYGYy— Luke Dreher (@DreherLuke) April 21, 2016
How do you find that balance as a youngster between the need to focus on your studies in case things don’t work out with the knowledge that all you want to do is become a professional footballer?
Deep down, whatever the coaches may have thought, I believed that I had the chance to progress so that gave me the confidence to focus on the football side. I was fairly lucky because I was quite gifted at school but I’d be going to training three or four evenings a week so, often, whilst I was there, my mum would be on the computer doing my homework for me. No wonder I got such good grades! My parents were happy for me to have football as my main focus although they wanted me to get good results still.
So at that point, when you were 14, Wilf had got into the first team as had Nathaniel Clyne and Sean Scannell. How much does their emergence make you believe that you’re at a club where you could get a chance?
Yeah, it does. They were a few years older but the age difference wasn’t that huge. Sometimes we’d get the chance to go and watch them train and whilst we were completely in awe of them and they were like superstars to us, they did give us youngsters someone to look up to.
So you’re fairly tall. Did you have a growth spurt or were you like that as a kid?
I went through the growth spurt when I was 15 or so. The club were aware that it was going to happen because my Dad is tall so Gary (Issott) used to ask him what age he was when he shot up so that he could gauge it. I’m 6’3” now and I’m still going. It did change the way that I was perceived. I was no longer the tricky winger and I used to get a few jokes about sticking me in goal. It’s weird when you go from being the smallest in the side to looking over everyone. It does change your style of play. I became quite gangly and leggy so I wasn’t quite so sharp and quick. I ended up in a more central role after that.
Did it feel inevitable to you that you’d get your scholarship at 16 or did you have anxiety over it?
They usually sort out the scholarships at the end of the year but they did mine early which gave me a bit of security. It showed that the club believed in me. People like Gary always have shown confidence in me.
You’d been there for eight years building up to that. It must feel like quite a long process but the two years as a scholar must be completely different. Does your attitude change? Does it become all about securing that professional contract?
It definitely becomes more real. You leave school and all of your mates behind. It makes you realise how privileged you are but football, at that point, becomes the only thing on your mind. It’s a lot more intense considering I’d just been at school. I’d get home from training at 3 or 4 o’clock, have something to eat, make sure I slept well, and it all starts again the next day.
How did you cope with leaving school? How did your mates respond? Was there any envy on both of your parts? They obviously had a lot more freedom than you.
There was definitely a recognition that I had to make a sacrifice. To be fair to my friends, they’ve always been very supportive and were never pushy in terms of trying to get me out. I don’t drink or go out when they do. I hear all of their stories about nights out and part of me wishes that I was there but I have to look at the bigger picture.
I remember being at the Man United game in 2016 when you were on the bench. How did it come about that you progressed so quickly?
It all happened very quickly. It was my first year full-time as a scholar. At the start of the season, I was in and out of the Under 18 side and then, fast forward a few months, I was on the bench at Old Trafford. I got asked to train one day because they needed someone to make up the numbers and I think I impressed Alan Pardew. I knew I was there just to make up the numbers but I was determined that I was going to try to take an opportunity to impress.
I’m more mature now and am used to training with them but, back then, it was quite intimidating. There’s a big enough step up from the Under 18s to the Under 23s whereas I went straight from the 18s to first team training which is even tougher. In a sense, my immaturity helped me because I don’t think I had the understanding of how big it all was. Luckily, the manager saw something in me which he liked and, from then on, he kept encouraging me. That was massive for me when you consider what an experienced manager Alan Pardew is.
On the Peter Crouch podcast, he said that when he went to Liverpool, Steven Gerrard would fizz passes into new signings straight away just to test them out and he’d make judgements on players immediately. Was there an element of that with you?
Yeah, that happened with me too. The main culprit for that was Damien Delaney. He’d smash passes into you and he’d also have a go at you if you hit a bad pass just to see how you responded mentally. I thought I coped with it ok. It’s not just a case of wanting to impress the manager but you want to gain the respect of your team mates too. You come in as a bit of an outsider because you’ve never trained with these players before but once they start talking to you, it gives you a sign that they have accepted you.
Who would you say took you under their wing and looked after you? Was there anyone?
It was a pretty good bunch. People like Scott Dann and James McArthur were good for me and Kevin Keen was a huge support. He’d been at Liverpool and had coached Steven Gerrard so it meant a lot that he took the time to help. Keith Millen was really good too. He was a massive help and was the main coach who interacted regularly with the players.
I think it’s fairly well known that Alan Pardew was a big fan of yours. How did that relationship develop?
He wanted me to train with the first team every day. I’d only just come out of school so it was tough for me physically but he was constantly talking to me, encouraging me and telling me who to try and watch and learn from in training. We had Flamini at the club then and the manager would remind me how much he’d achieved in his career and urge me to watch the small, professional, things that he did every day. Yohan Cabaye was unbelievable to train with too. Pardew was a massive fan of his so he’d play me alongside him so that I could learn from him. It was a privilege to train with him.
So how did you feel at Old Trafford? Did you feel that you deserved to be there?
I remember sitting on the bench and I couldn’t believe it. I suppose it’s natural to doubt yourself until you’ve had the chance to prove it. It gave me confidence but I had to pinch myself when I was sitting there watching the game thinking that I could be brought on at any minute.
How difficult is it as a youngster to process the fact that you’d been given that opportunity just for experience and not be disappointed when you’re not then on the bench for the following matches?
I wasn’t getting too far ahead of myself. It drove me on to do better in training. I was so young that I was happy to be there rather than expecting anything to come my way. And then, suddenly, this career which has progressed so smoothly takes a significant downturn.
I heard so many people in the game as I was growing up talking about the ups and downs of football but I’d got to that age and there hadn’t been any negatives at all so I wondered what they were talking about. But I picked up a big injury which kept me out for a while. I hadn’t gone through anything like that. I was told that it was a 6-8 week injury but I think where I’d gone through the growth spurt, my body hadn’t quite kept up. I kept developing niggling injuries.
It was difficult. I went from being the person that everyone was talking about to feeling quite forgotten. I was doing my rehab with the first team and Connor Wickham was out at the same time and he really helped me to stay focused and keep positive. People see that you’ve got an injury but they can’t see the mental toll that takes so Connor was someone who could relate and that helped. We developed a good friendship.
One of the other developments at that time was the change of manager. Some more experienced players might have been happy to see Pardew go but that must have been a wrench for you?
It really was. I knew that he liked me and believed in me and he gave me so much confidence. He’d often take me into his office and talk to me about youngsters that he had worked with at other clubs and he made it clear that he wanted me to be the next one to come through. It was a big disappointment when he went and I’d never experienced losing a manager before.
To be fair, Sam Allardyce came in and he seemed to be quite keen on me too but then he left and Frank de Boer was only the manager for a short period of time. It’s difficult for a youngster because you come through the age group sides and you’re used to having the same manager all the time and developing a consistent relationship so it was something new to deal with.
Did you worry with the injury that you may not come back at the same level?
Definitely . Especially as I kept getting setbacks. If I’m honest, at one stage I wondered whether I’d come back full stop. That was the most difficult time. I kept coming in to training and all the players would go out together and I’d be stuck inside doing rehab and I felt that I was falling further and further behind them. There were quite a few tears. Palace were great; they were supportive. Even when I stopped being talked about, they would involve me in things. My parents helped too but that experience will stand me in good stead later on in my career if I get difficult times. It was so lonely. I’d go in and do an hour’s rehab and then would get home at about 11 or 12 o’clock and then I’d have so much time to think.
How hard is it once the physios tell you that you’re fit to trust your body again?
I was like a dog being let off a leash. The physios were constantly trying to rein me back in but it was such an overwhelming feeling of relief. Psychologically, once I was out on the training pitch, I was able to forget about the injuries and let go. The trickiest part was the rehab when you wonder if you’ll ever get back again.
Managers are under so much pressure in the Premier League which can make them more reluctant to play youngsters and take chances. Has Aaron Wan-Bissaka helped the young kids at the club to believe that it can be done?
The manager has shown trust in me. He’s had me training with the first team every day. I’ve known Dave Reddington a long time too and he’s always been really positive as well but Aaron having such a big impact obviously helped massively. He was a year older than me and I got used to seeing him every day and then, suddenly, he was not only in the first team but more than holding his own. It showed me, and all of the other youngsters, that it’s possible if you get given an opportunity.
Roy Hodgson is significantly older than you. He’s managed Liverpool, Inter Milan and England. How is that relationship? How has he gone about making you feel wanted?
He’s been really good to me. He’s been at the club for a couple of years but he hadn’t seen me play until about 3 or 4 months ago but, even so, whilst I was injured he’d come and speak to me and tell me that he’d heard that I had done well and that he was looking forward to seeing me play. He didn’t have to do that. I’d been injured for some time and he had so many other things to worry about so it meant a lot that he took the time to talk to me. Once I got fit, he brought me in to train with the first team full time and said that he’d been impressed with me.
You’d trained with the first team before your injury. Did you think you coped better this time around?
I think that I was better mentally. I was more mature and could deal with things better. I might have missed a lot of football development over the past two years but I’ve grown up as a person and I definitely didn’t feel as intimidated. They felt like a bunch of normal guys to me now whereas I was in awe of some of them before. I feel more confident in myself.
So compare the Luke that sat on the bench against Bournemouth at the end of last season with the Luke who sat on the bench at Man United?
The couple of years I’d had out made me feel more grateful and took some of the pressure off. I wasn’t nervous at all during the Bournemouth game. I was enjoying it whereas when I look back to that day at United, I was shaking. It was a massive difference. All of my family were there but it genuinely felt like another game to me. I can’t lie; I’ve felt more nervous before Under 23 games. My friends have asked me how that can be the case. It helped that it was an end of season game but I set out to enjoy it. I thought of all the sacrifices that I’ve made and the negative feelings I had with the injury and I was determined to make the most of it.
It must have been a strange feeling for you. You must have been one of the few players who didn’t want the season to end.
Definitely. I had just got to full fitness and was feeling really good about myself so I was quite disappointed that it did end there. The other way of looking at it is that it’s a lovely way to finish and keep me positive over the summer. It gave me a taster and I want more of it so it’s given me more motivation. I’ve had a couple of weeks break but I can’t deny that it’s always in the back of my mind that I might be close.
I read somewhere that Richard Shaw compared you to Bryan Robson in terms of the way you play. Does Bryan Robson mean anything to you? He was a hell of a player.
I’m not too familiar with him. Richard throws all of these names about and I haven’t heard of many of them. People have told me that I should be pleased and that it’s a compliment. My idol was Steven Gerrard. I think I’m an all-round midfielder and that I can tackle and pass, win headers and I also try to chip in with a few goals.
I saw your goal against Farnborough a couple of years ago (it can be seen on Luke’s Twitter account). That was a hell of a goal. Was that typical of you?
I’d like it to be! Sometimes the manager will play me a bit deeper as a number 4 to try and dictate things but there are times where I’ve been played further up the field so I can get forward and try to chip in with a few goals.
If you could write your name anywhere on Roy Hodgson’s team sheet, where would it be?
I’d put myself as one of the two in front of the holding midfielder so that I have the licence to get forward but also have to take responsibility defensively too. I like to be in the game. I’ve got long legs and can get about the pitch. It’s a big year ahead and I’m really looking forward to it. Like we’ve said, people like Aaron have shown me what could be. I’m hoping I’ll get a look in during the pre-season games as there will be a few players on international duty. It’s a massive time for me as there will be opportunities and I need to make sure that I take them.
Is it hard to make sure that you don’t get ahead of yourself?
The trick is to treat every game the same and stay level headed. If I can do that then hopefully I can impress the manager.
Let's end with a bit of quickfire!
Ronaldo or Messi? Messi
Pep or Klopp? Pep
Premier League or Champions League? Champions League
Score a hat-trick and lose or play badly and win but get dropped for the next game? Oh, score a hat trick and lose. I can’t get dropped!
Arm around the shoulder or throwing tea cups? Arm around the shoulder
Take a penalty in a shoot-out or watch a team mate have it? Take a penalty
Hit the post from 25 yards or a big sliding tackle in front of the Holmesdale? I’ll take the big sliding tackle!