What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago a young and inexperienced forward was returning from a loan spell at Bishops Stortford to join up with the Dagenham & Redbridge squad for pre season training. Fast forward a year and that same striker has joined Premier League new boys Crystal Palace, something that seemed inexplicable twelve months ago. From Stansted to Selhurst Park, it's fair to say Dwight Gayle's career has really taken off.
Just under a year ago, I wrote an article on Dwight stating his qualities and just how far I thought he could go. But to complete such a remarkable rise in such a short space of time has confounded even I. His rise has been notable. After being released as a kid from Arsenal for being too short, Gayle soon joined Stansted where he scored an astonishing 57 goals in a single season. This prompted interest from several league clubs. First to act however were Dagenham & Redbridge. With a rich history of bringing through rough unpolished gems, this would prove to be the perfect place for Dwight to begin his professional career.
Unfortunately due to budgetary constraints at the Daggers, Gayle was forced to spend his first season out on loan at Blue Square North outfit, Bishops Stortford. Scoring 29 goals in 42 league games, Gayle continued to impress, prompting calls from the assistant manager at Stortford that Gayle could possibly eclipse the feats of Steve Morison. Scoring a hat-trick in his final game, a 4-0 win over Eastwood Town, Gayle returned to Essex as Stortford's record goalscorer, netting 42 times in total throughout the season.
The bar was now set for Gayle, with the only question being whether he could transfer his non-league form into the Football League. Having played best in a 4-3-3 formation out on loan, Daggers adhered to what suited Dwight best and true to form he shone. His pace and trickery caused problems for opposition defences from the word go, leaving established centre halves on the spot as he breezed past to cement himself as one of the divisions most dangerous attackers.
He became the focal point of the Daggers attack. His quick feet and ability to draw defenders in created valuable space for others to pick away at defences. His shrewdness in the box meant players were forced to tackle him, bringing penalties and ultimately goals. He is best described as a talisman. And when you have that sort of player in your team, you're onto a winner. In 18 appearances for the lower mid table outfit, he scored 7 goals - which isn't a bad return.
A lot of credit has to go to John Still and his scouting team for picking Dwight out. Where others were sniffing around him, John and the team acted and it proved pivotal. Despite Stilly no longer being with the club, this could yet prove to be the most shrewd piece of business we've ever done. He nurtured Gayle in his time here and hopefully the pint-sized forward will always remember his first Football League club, because we'll always remember him. It's testament to John that his setup has found one of the best young talents in English football.
In late November, Gayle was in demand. Interest from several clubs higher in the pyramid was rumoured to have materialised, but Peterborough United were the only ones to show significant and prolonged interest. There's a long history of deals between the two clubs, so it came as no surprise when Gayle signed on loan with a view to a permanent move. And in-keeping with his previous three clubs, he proved an instant hit.
Scoring in six consecutive games soon after his move, Gayle helped lift Peterborough away from the relegation zone. One performance in particular at runaway league leaders Cardiff where Posh won 2-1 summed Gayle up. His intrepidness, skill and pace was showcased on an unprecedented scale. At the unbeaten home of the champions elect, Gayle tore them apart. He showed no disdain for who they were. No pity, just malice, leaving the Bluebirds in awe of his striking capabilities.
Despite a lull in goalscoring form during the first two months of 2013, Gayle remained key as Posh continued their fight against relegation. He returned to notoriety however in March. A 16 minute hat-trick in the first half at Ewood Park against Blackburn catapulted Gayle into the limelight once more. People were now beginning to stand up and take note of the former Essex Senior League striker as his stock continued to rise.
His talismanic displays continued. When he wasn't scoring, he was providing constant problems for opposition defences. In total he scored 13 goals in 28 appearances for the London Road outfit, but even that wasn't enough to keep them up. Ironically it was his foul on Jonathan Williams of Crystal Palace that led to the goal that ultimately sent Posh down to League One and catapulted the Eagles up into the Play Offs.
It's weird how coincidences like that work in football. But it's even weirder to think that this time last season we were all speculating on a player that had scored 99 goals in the non-league. No-one thought he'd end up in the Premier League 12 months on. And no-one thought that he'd be worth a solid £6 million, the figure being quoted by The Peterborough Telegraph last Friday afternoon.
But whatever the price, it shouldn't be a burden on Gayle. He's been fantastic for the past three years and a move to the Premier League will only enhance his credentials. With main striker Glenn Murray out for the best part of seven months for Palace, the stage is set for Gayle to showcase his extraordinary array of talents. With his quick pace and predatory instincts, he reminds me and others I've spoken to of a young Jermaine Defoe.
His rise is more than that though. His rise shows that there are some fantastic gems hidden in the non-league. And that the big boys don't always get it right. Released from Arsenal as a junior, Gayle could turn up at the Gunners next season and show Arsene Wenger what he's been missing for the past few years. Players like Gayle show that you don't need to go abroad for talent. If you search hard enough, you'll find someone just as hungry with bundles more potential in the lower reaches of English football.
There's no question he'll have to up his game in the Premier League. But I have no doubt that he'll manage to do that and then some. He's fearless, young and raring to take a hold of a chance that at one stage seemed a million miles away. But more than that, he's an all round striker. He has pace and trickery, complimented by the strength which isn't always evident in the smaller calibre of player. But most of all he has determination, and that will take him far.
For my club it means much more than that. We now have a significant amount of money that will act to keep the club afloat. It ensures that we don’t have to sell another one of our players to keep the wolves from the door. But also, it gives us the pride of saying we produced that player. We can say we’ve seen him score goals for our club, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Having conquered the non-league and the Football League, it's just the Premier League and the International stage to go now for Gayle. If his development continues at such a rapid rate, he could confound us all. It was a pleasure watching Gayle in his short time at Victoria Road, and I sincerely hope he goes on and has a wonderful career in the game. Ironically enough we will see him again in a pre-season game against Palace at Victoria Road next month. I can’t wait for that and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this talented young forward.