In every school around the country, there’s always that one child who ends up being good at every sport they try in PE lessons, regardless of how long they’ve been playing the game. In the case of Sam Baldock, it sounds like he was that kid while he was at school!
Baldock, 29, revealed that he could have pursued a career in cricket or rugby as a youngster, but he ended up being a 100-goal Football League striker instead!
From beginnings in Buckinghamshire, Baldock’s route into professional football was an unconventional one – particularly as he joined the youth ranks at Wimbledon while the team was undergoing the transition to becoming the MK Dons.
Even if he hadn’t become a professional sportsman, the Reading marksman says he has always felt like the outdoors is his natural environment, having regularly been seen playing football at his local park after school as a youngster. His younger brother, George, also plays in the Championship, with the pair set to face off against each other in December with the visit of Sheffield United.
Having had a sporty upbringing, Baldock also detailed the role education had in his life, particularly as his mother was the deputy headteacher at his school!
The striker sat down with The Royal as he spoke about a childhood that could have seen him take another sporting path in life, the pressures of playing a professional football match against a sibling and plenty more…
Baldock’s upbringing was surrounded by sport in the scenic village of Steeple Claydon in Buckinghamshire. He may be the village’s most famous son, but Steeple Claydon also lays claim to being a former residence of Florence Nightingale!
With an idyllic backdrop behind him and growing up in a very sporty family, it was only natural that he would play football at any opportunity he could get – even as he was only just starting school…
On his experience of growing up, Baldock said: “Life was good, I can’t complain! I had a brother who was two years older than me, I was always playing football with him and his friends – and that helped me because they were slightly more physical. I remember being in his Under-7s team when I was 5, being the token little brother who they used to give a few minutes to at the end!”
“My dad took over a team my age and we were fairly successful in the area. I enjoyed playing at the park, going down after school every day and there would be a group of 30 kids of various different ages, jumpers would be down and everyone would be kicking a ball about until the sun went in.
“It’s quite sad now really, because I drive home now past the same park that I used to play on and there will be no kids playing anymore, they’ll all be playing their PlayStation now!
“It was a good village feel when I grew up, I always had a supportive family and my younger brother [George] plays professionally as well now.
“We were always very sporty – with any sport, really. We’d often be seen playing cricket outside the front of the house or kicking a rugby ball around at the park, we were a very sporty family. Naturally, very competitive!
“My brother is four years younger, it wasn’t particularly fair because it’s a huge chunk of life difference, so that wasn’t as competitive – until we played against each other professionally!
“But with my older brother, I had to stand up to the big boys and be tough.”
“You can’t play anymore [as a hobby] sadly, you don’t get the time and I wouldn’t be allowed to! But I still watch other sports, there wouldn’t be a big sporting event that I don’t watch – I enjoy watching most sports.
“I like the IPL cricket – it’s always exciting, I’ve recently got into the NFL and then the Six Nations rugby in the new year, that’ll be good to watch.”
Off the pitch, though, Baldock grew up with his mother as deputy headteacher of the Royal Latin School, a near-600-year-old institution that he attended growing up.
With that being the case, education played a big role in Baldock’s life growing up, as he looked to balance his studies with his burgeoning love of sport. Having a parent nearby at school also meant he kept himself on the straight and narrow, though!
“My parents were very keen that school came first, with mum being a deputy head, she always used to find stuff out so I could never slack off and I’d always be pulled up on things!
“My school was a good school, a grammar school so there was a lot of intelligent people there. I didn’t want to get left behind, so I had to keep it up.
“There are some things you can’t compete with, like some of the brainiacs in class, but sport was always my primary focus and I had no doubts I would go into something sporting.
“I didn’t believe it would be professional football, because no-one had a professional background where I lived, but I always aspired to do something outdoors.”
With the striker being the first person he knew to get into an Academy, he admitted he was just going with the flow at the time and seeing how he could progress on a personal level. Before he knew it, he would be handed his senior debut while he was only 16!
After he had a choice to make as to what sport to pursue, there was only ever one winner for Baldock – despite having natural ability in two other sports.
“I always played football. Never at an Academy or anything like that and no-one I knew in the area had been professional or in an Academy, it was pretty unheard of in my area.
“It wasn’t until I joined Wimbledon at the time, it was a bit of a novelty and I didn’t really know what it could lead to – I didn’t have any realistic aspirations, because I didn’t know the process.
“But I was doing well, scoring goals and the natural progression was to sign schoolboy forms, scholarship terms, it just went from there. I was given a chance in the first team from a young age and then it really turned into serious business.”
“My school sports coach was keen on me pursuing rugby a bit more, one private school nearby asked if I was interested in taking up a sports scholarship there, but it was just fun for me – it was a chance to be outside. I was never in any after-school clubs or anything like that, but I literally just played everything.
“I turned down a county trial in cricket because I had my local rivals in the village team – it was a big game for us in the league! It was always my number one, football always had my heart.”
With well-reported tensions and trepidation about Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes in the early 2000s, Baldock was right in the middle of it while it was going on – but he happened to be one of the beneficiaries of the move.
As Wimbledon’s catchment area for potential players changed, Baldock happened to be the first trialist from the Milton Keynes area to have a chance of playing for the new team in the area. It certainly didn’t take him long to impress…
“My trial game was for Wimbledon in Milton Keynes against a rep team from the league I was playing in at the time. So I was playing against boys that I had played against, but the Wimbledon Academy came because they had started sending their scouts to Milton Keynes – I was the first one to have a trial, I ended up scoring four against that rep team for Wimbledon and then I got invited to another trial game against Millwall. I scored a hat-trick against them and they signed me there and then!
“I had to travel for a bit because my age group was still in London, whereas everyone had started being in a development age group in the Milton Keynes area.”
With the upheaval associated with a well-established football club changing location – and the media attention to go along with it – Baldock says he was aware of what was going on, but his career could have taken a very different path if the move hadn’t happened. He spoke of the pride he felt by representing what became his local side, as someone who grew up nearby.
“Wimbledon had been playing in Milton Keynes as Wimbledon for a couple of years. I knew what was going on, but I could never really see it as a bad thing.
“It was always really positive for me to have my nearest city have a Football League club in it. To be able to have free tickets to go and watch a game nearby, featuring all these big-name footballers on my doorstep was always a big thing for me.
“Being in that first Academy in Milton Keynes made it feel like there was a bit of a bubble around me, I was representing Milton Keynes players for the club so I’m forever grateful to the club for giving me that opportunity – I don’t know where I would be now if the move hadn’t happened.
“I know people think there was a bit of a sour taste from it, but for me personally it was all positive. I was just riding the path and seeing where it took me, I didn’t have any realistic goals going into it but I was plodding along and seeing where it went. Every step that I took was getting closer and closer to a first-team contract, so they were exciting times.”
Baldock’s younger brother, George, is also a Championship player – with Sheffield United. Having already come across each other on the pitch as professional players, Sam spoke of how it felt to face his sibling when the stakes are high on the pitch. Of course, their parents were hoping for a draw…
“I played him twice when I was at Bristol – that was a strange experience, especially the first time,” he elaborated.
“It was my first time back at Stadium:MK as well, I’d been gone a few years and George had made his rise into the first team as a regular, he was playing and playing well. It was the beginning of the League One season, I scored quite early on and they got it back level.
“I scored again in the second half and then they got back level again.
"George tried to shoulder-barge me really hard, but I knew he was going to do that to try and shake the ‘brother’ tag off his back. I managed to slide away from that one!
“It was a good day for the family, definitely. He played right-midfield that game, so we didn’t really come together too much, we all went out for dinner as a family afterwards, which was nice. Both games we played that season, we drew 2-2 and I scored all four goals, so my parents were quite pleased that neither of us lost!”
Fast-forwarding to this campaign, after a stop-start time at Brighton where he found his game time limited after injury, Baldock has enjoyed a regular run of games in the Royals team – already with four goals to his name this season after signing a three-year deal in the summer.
With a big squad here in RG2, he’s well aware that he has to stay at the top of his game if he wants to keep his place and help the team going forward this season.
“I’m not taking anything for granted – if I don’t perform, I don’t expect to be playing. I’m feeling good, you can’t beat the feeling of scoring a goal, especially a winner or a crucial goal.
“It’s good to be back out there regularly because it was a frustrating year for me personally, it’s just that game-day buzz that I’ve not had for a while properly, and I’m getting it back here, I just want us to get up the table.
“Off the pitch I think I’ve settled in well, it’s a friendly group of lads. Everyone to do with the club, from the coaches through to the canteen staff are all really friendly so it’s a pleasant environment.
“We’d obviously like to have a few more points, to be pushing and playing with different pressures but hopefully that’ll come later in the season.
“We know that when it clicks, it can click really well. We want to continue progressing and drive up the table.”
The Long Read is an ongoing series of extended interviews with Reading players and staff, found first in our matchday programme, The Royal!
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