Former non league hotshot Ross Hannah on why pro football with Bradford City, Grimsby Town and Chester has never been ‘work’
This is the striker’s fifth season as a professional, after nine years in non league with the likes of Worksop, Belper, Gainsborough and Matlock.
He’s played in a Yorkshire derby at Elland Road, scored against his boyhood heroes and been to Wembley twice.
National League side Chester are the Sheffield man’s current employers.
But the 29-year-old got his big break in May 2011 thanks to Bradford City, who signed him after a stellar 52-goal season at Matlock.
And although his dream became a reality, fledgling professional Hannah quickly discovered that reality bites.
“From the age of 15 to 24 I had not been full-time in football, so I had to use pre-season as a massive learning curve, it really opened my eyes.” he said.
“To jump so many leagues was a big challenge, it took me quite a while to get used to training day in and out.
“I was playing catch up to get in shape and as fit as the lads were, and I was up against lads whop had played in the Premier League, the Championship.
“Peter Jackson (then Bradford boss) used to laugh and joke about me scoring 300 goals in a season, he got me into the group in that first week.
“But it was a massive eye opener and I did find it tough.”
For all the hard work, Hannah’s memories of his first professional season will stick with him forever.
“My debut was at Elland Road, I came off the bench with 15 to go, live on Sky in the Carling Cup.
“It was a Yorkshire derby with 30,000 there, it was incredible. I’ll never forget warming up.
“From where I had been playing, no disrespect to teams like Frickley, to Elland Road, arriving in a massive bus with a police escort in front of the Sky cameras.
“I didn’t score, I had a bit of a half chance from outside the box that went over the bar.
“I was a bag of nerves, to come on like that, having never experienced it, but I was so excited with all my family watching on TV, all my mates and lads I had played with.
“I just wanted the ball to fly into the top corner.
The following game brought his first professional goal, a last minute equaliser off the bench at Oxford.
“That was even better than my debut,” he admitted.
But instead of alieviating the pressure he felt as a newcomer, trying to look the part at a club playing three leagues higher than Matlock, it increased it.
“Bradford had a history in taking lads from non league, like James Hanson, and because I scored quite early on the fans got a bit carried away.
“They were thinking they had a right diamond, and I could feel the pressure.”
Hannah’s next appearance was a full 90 minutes in a defeat that cost Peter Jackson his job, and altered the course of the striker’s career.
He said: “It probably didn’t help me in my Bradford career, I wasn’t that fit yet, I still had to shed a few pounds and with a change in manager I didn’t know how it could influence things at that level.
“In non league, at Matlock, when Mark Atkins came in he couldn’t just change the players who were on contract, but in the league, they could bring their own players in.
“Phil Parkinson came in and that stalled me a bit - I was unknown to him.”
Hannah thought he was doing enough to impress his new gaffer, with goalscoring exploits.
“I didn’t start his first game, but then I came on and and scored a 94th minute equaliser at Morecambe and jumped into the fans.
“The following Tuesday in a reserve game against Hartlepool I scored a hat-trick.
“I was expecting to start the next first team game, but didn’t and as a young pro I took it badly, the confidence I had gained just went.”
An encounter with the club he had supported since an early age, and one with their bitter rivals, saw his fortunes see-saw.
“I played against Sheffield Wednesday in the Johnstone Paint Trophy.
“As a Wednesday fan, that was brilliant. I scored the winning penalty to knock them out, which was so surreal, with mates in the Wednesday end.
“In the next round of the trophy I started at Sheffield United - I was getting that buzz back, Phil was playing me.
“As an Owl, playing against Blades live on Sky, I missed a header from six yards or so, an absolute sitter.
“I saw the net and thought it was going in but it went just wide - I can still see that cross coming in, but it wasn’t to be.”
And then a pulled hamstring put Hannah out for over a month, and Nakhi Wells came in to take his place.
“That was probably the turning point, looking back,” he said.
“Me being injured opened a door for someone else, and I couldn’t really get back to where I was.
“Our form started to drop and the fans were worried about getting relegated, and Phil had to get a few lads out to get more experienced lads in to get them out of trouble.”
Hannah was given a contract for another year with the Bantams, and sent out on loan to Halifax in the Conference North for the rest of the season.
He hit the net nine times in 11 games and helped the Shaymen to the play-0ff semi-finals before defeat by his former club Gainsborough.
A summer of continuous training had him in better shape for his second season as a professional, and he scored in all but one of Bradford’s friendly games.
But the signing of Alan Connell limited Hannah’s chances, and another loan spell beckoned, this time at Grimsby in the Conference Premier.
Eleven goals in 18 games made him a firm favourite with the Mariners fanbase.
At Christmas he returned to Valley Parade, and despite promises that he would be involved, Hannah found himself without first team football and questioning his future at the club.
Grimsby came to his rescue, signing him permanently.
“It was a no brainer, they are a big club at that level,” he said.
“I went there in the second week in January and spent three years with them in total, three years I enjoyed.
“I had two Wembley appearances and 28 goals in 53 starts which isn’t bad.
“We got to the play-offs in every season but just came up short every time.”
While the hitman concedes that last season wasn’t his finest as a professional, he still expected to be a Grimsby player this term.
“Last season I never really got going.
“In my second season I was leading scorer with 18, but last season I got injured before the first game, I pulled my calf and was out for six weeks.
“I never really took off from there.
“I got back in the side and scored a few, but the manager decided to change the system to go one up front, a big targetman.
“Clubs wanted me on loan in January but nothing materialised.”
This summer, no contract offer was fortcoming, and Hannah’s time at Blundell Park came to an end.
“I felt this season was going to be our season. I made a good bond with the lads and Paul Hurst, I wanted to achieve.
“The fanbase for the level, it’s a big club and I wanted to help them get back to where they belong.
“But it wasn’t to be, the gaffer felt he needed to have a bit of a clearout and a bit of a change.
“There was no contract offered and I started looking for a new challenge.”
Hannah might have been in unchartered terrority, scouting around for a new job, but he didn’t have to look far.
“From leaving the ground and when it got out on social media that I was going, my phone never stopped ringing.
“I had a chance to get back into League Two but it was a bit too far to up sticks and leave home. I’ve got a mortgage, a little boy and I didn’t want to be away from him and my partner. I’ve got responsibilities that come first.”
In came Chester boss Steve Burr with an offer that would allow Hannah to stay in Sheffield, car sharing with new team-mates, and crucially remain a professional footballer.
“I’ve always been told to play as high as you can for as long as you can, and you have to make sure all your boxes are ticked.
“As soon as I spoke to Steve Burr, I knew it was right for me.
“I stayed a pro, and every year you stay a pro is an achievement - you see how hard it is for lads to get a club these days, even lads with league appearances are dropping down to Evo-Stik level.”
“Chester is a new club for me and starting again is quite exciting.
“Steve is an attacking manager, the forwards love it and I’ve enjoyed it up to now.”
Still not quite experienced enough to be dubbed an ‘old pro,’ Hannah’s boyish enthusiasm for the game shines through when he talks about it.
And he’s adamant his nine-year non league career gave him a grounding that means he’ll never find his job as a football player arduous.
“I kow how hard I have worked to get here, but when I started at Bradford I’d hear lads call it work, at training, and I understand why, but it’s not work, is it?
“When you graft for eight or 10 hours and then go and play 90 minutes at night - that’s work.
“I work hard, still, because the game has changed and you have to be at the top of your game physically and mentally, but I still can’t call it work.”