When Ethan Pinnock arrived at Griffin Park back in early July, Brentford boss Thomas Frank spoke about his “unusual” path in the game. “Every time he has made the next step he has not only proved himself, he has reached the top at that level,” Frank said. “We are sure he will step up again in the Championship and do very well.”
As recently as 2016, Pinnock was playing in the seventh tier of English football. Released from the Millwall academy age 15, he had a short spell with AFC Wimbledon before finding himself in the wilds of non-league. It was only after six seasons of first-team football with Dulwich Hamlet that he finally got a move to the National League with Forest Green Rovers and then, one promotion later, to Barnsley. After a stop-start first season disrupted by injuries which ended in relegation from the Championship – Pinnock had leapt five divisions in just over 12 months – he established himself as first-choice centre-back last term as the Tykes finished second and bounced back to the second tier at the first time of asking, conceding only 39 goals in the process. That was the lowest number of any side in the Football League.
Unlike many other discarded academy players, Pinnock had careful guidance during his non-league journey. Initially coming through Dulwich’s Aspire Academy – for a non-league club, their youth set-up is hugely acclaimed and has helped dozens of players to achieve professional careers – Pinnock was mentored by Hamlet manager Gavin Rose, assistant Junior Kadi and former first-team coach Kevin James. “I think Gavin, Kads and Kevin, they all had a lot of input with me,” Pinnock tells i. “At the time, being released and stuff, you can get a bit down and doubt yourself and your ability. Obviously they were really good with me, they helped to get me back focused. They showed me it’s not just about football, it’s about things outside of football as well.”
The Aspire Academy is well known for its focus on developing people as well as footballers, with Rose insisting on strong core values among his players as well as educational and vocational opportunities. Pinnock is listed under ‘Success Stories’ on the academy’s website and, speaking after he got his move to Barnsley, Rose said: “To be honest with you, it doesn’t really surprise us. He’s had a really good attitude, [we] never had one cross word with the boy in six, seven years.”
Back in July, Frank said of Pinnock: “He has a top character and a top mentality.” Does he feel that his time at the Aspire Academy helped to shape him in that regard? “I think especially transitioning from non-league to going into the league, it can be a big step up,” Pinnock says. “But the way they tried to run Dulwich was really professional in terms of even basic things like timing, preparation and things like that. It does help to make the adjustment seem not so big.”
Anyone who saw Pinnock play towards the end of his time at Hamlet will remember a rangy, willowy figure strolling about the pitch, stroking passes about laconically and standing head and shoulders above his fellow defenders. Originally a left winger at Millwall, Pinnock had a late growth spurt which coincided with a gradual positional shift to left-back, central midfield and, finally, the centre of defence. He credits his education on the wing as one of his big advantages as a defender. “It gives you an idea of where other people need to be, where you want other people to be and what you don’t like to face against the opposition,” he says. “Plus you know where you don’t want to be caught out and isolated.”
In those last few seasons in south London, it became increasingly apparent than Pinnock was destined for big things. “I remember him being comfortably better than everyone else, to the point that it began to look quite easy for him,” says Jim Weeks, sports journalist and Hamlet fan. “He was fantastic in the air and seemed to hang there for ages… it was clear, just as with [Erhun] Oztumer, that he could play up several divisions.”
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Former club photographer Laraine Bateman remembers snapping Pinnock at an end-of-year awards ceremony and feeling “star-struck”, but put at ease by how friendly he was. “He wasn’t only a great player who was solid and reliable in the days he developed, but also a character in the club who was just one of us.”
Hugo Greenhalgh, one half of the Forward the Hamlet podcast, has similar memories. “Perhaps more than any player I’ve seen at Dulwich, Ethan was someone I always wanted to make it,” he says. “Every step of the way, he’s carried himself with a humility which I think really resonates with Dulwich fans. I think he learned how to be a footballer first off – that’s what an education at Dulwich Hamlet gets you – then he learned how to defend. That’s why he’s so technically good. That’s why he’s the Barnsley Maldini.”
The Brentford Maldini?
If Pinnock can carry that nickname into the next stage of his career, tongue-in-cheek as it is, Brentford supporters will be more than happy. Given Barnsley’s record last season, expectations are high. Brentford have been widely tipped to break into the play-offs this season, with Pinnock citing their upwards trajectory as one of the main reasons he decided to join the club. “In the last five seasons they’ve finished every season in the top half,” he says. “They’re a club really looking to progress and just take that next step and make it into the play-offs. Obviously with the new stadium coming as well, those are all components that make it a really appealing place to come. Also, being that I’m from London originally as well, I’m back home.”
Frank has identified Pinnock’s aerial dominance and strength at set pieces as two key attributes – he has certainly bulked up since his non-league days – but has also praised him for having “the courage and composure to move the ball forward and find passes that we want to play.” Under Rose, Hamlet have long defied non-league’s hit-and-hope stereotype and looked to keep the ball on the floor, with Pinnock taking on the role of a ball-playing centre-back during his time at Champion Hill. Asked whether that laid the groundwork for his style of play today, Pinnock says: “Yeah, I’d say so. At Dulwich, the coaches there wanted us to play by passing it around and moving the ball quickly. I think being able to play that way is always a plus.”
Promoted once with Hamlet, once with Forest Green Rovers and once with Barnsley – making up for the single relegation on his CV from his time at Oakwell – signing Pinnock has been a good omen for clubs looking to go up. He is still finding his feet at Brentford, having performed well in an opening defeat against Birmingham City before, conversely, giving a hit-and-miss performance in a win away at Middlesbrough and missing the draw against Hull with a knock. Part of a back four at Barnsley, early signs suggest he will be playing on the left of a back three alongside Julian Jeanvier and Pontus Jansson. “Obviously it’s different going from a four to a three,” he says, though his experiences as a winger should again come in handy.
“If you’re playing either side you end up in wide positions a lot more. There have been some adjustments but obviously the coaches have explained a lot to us and put in many details on what they want from us. We’ve been working on it, I feel like from the start of pre-season we’ve got better at it. There’s still room to improve,” he admits.
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Though Jansson, who was signed from Leeds not long after Pinnock arrived from Barnsley, is also new to the side, Pinnock is unfazed at the prospect of playing alongside an unfamiliar face. “The main thing is just communicating a lot and telling each other where you should be and what you need from each other,” he says when asked how he gels with new teammates. At Barnsley, he struck up a formidable partnership with Liam Lindsay, now at Stoke, in the centre of defence. Was he sad to see that partnership broken up?
“In football everyone has their own path,” he says. “A lot of the time you end up building relationships with players for two or three years and then you carry on and do your own thing. Lindsay’s a great player, a great guy as well. But, you know, I think he felt it was time to do something new as well and to move on. Obviously there is that side of football, but you have to get on with it.”
Made in non-league
Looking back on his time in non-league, Pinnock is grateful for his unusual path into professional football. “When you’re young you always want to get as high as you possibly can as quickly as possible,” he says. “But, you know, many times it can happen too early for a player. I think the path I took, it was better for me going straight into a senior team rather than going into a professional club but being in their youth team. I’ve played a lot of men’s football, I played over 200 games for Dulwich and I definitely think that’s helped. No matter what level you play at, if you’re playing regularly it’s always going to be really beneficial.”
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Pinnock was at Hamlet at a time of profound change for the club, with attendances skyrocketing thanks in no small part to the progressive brand of football he helped to shape. “It was quite surreal because, in my first couple of years there, for home games, we’d get like a few hundred. All of a sudden, a season or two later, we were getting average gates of like 2,000 people. It was really fun to be a part of,” he says.
While Pinnock has come on leaps and bounds as a player, he retains some of the non-league ethos which he learned at Champion Hill. “It makes you more empathetic, definitely,” he says of non-league, where teammates so often juggle full-time jobs and the daily grind with their love of football. Pinnock is a long way from that now and no longer has reason to doubt his ability. “It can’t help but fill you with pride when you see his journey up the Football League,” says Greenhalgh. “It’s an inspiration for any young footballer and I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes all the way to the top.”