On the pitch, he is already feeling at home. He was named as a Player of the Month nominee in September despite only arriving at the club in late August, and his tenacity has struck a chord with Wanderers fans and staff alike. With Dorking starting to feel more and more familiar, Pybus sat down with us to reflect on his life and career; from Sunderland starlet to an unattached 20-year-old, and a resurgence that led to Meadowbank.
With ten years under his belt at Sunderland’s Academy of Light that started as an eight-year-old, Pybus spent much of his childhood on the edge of the professional game. His early years in this setting don’t conjure many memories though, as a local boy he was just happy to wear the gear and play the game. But with age, the realities of balancing everyday life with the demands of elite-level football became clearer.
“I remember I probably got to about 14, and the Premier League academy structure changed with category one, category two, three, and I think four. Sunderland were obviously a top academy at the time, so they were category one,” he says. “That meant as a 14, 15-year-old you had to meet certain criteria in terms of hours spent training. So I remember I got to that age, that would’ve been my first year in high school and I used to get picked up every single day at lunchtime [to train].”
These added commitments provided a glimpse into his potential future, but international call-ups to England’s under-16 and under-17 sides offered more than just a sample of life at the top.
“I remember my first England appearance, that was on Sky Sports against Scotland. So we went for the week, so I got the week off school, and then obviously the game was on Friday night on TV, so yeah that was brilliant.”
“I was fortunate, my headteacher went all the way up through Leicester’s academy until the reserves and didn’t quite make it so he was very understanding of football, and he was good to me.”
At 16, Pybus took the inevitable next step on his journey as football became a full-time job with a scholarship contract at Sunderland. But if his earlier years had seemed to be near-faultless, the realities of the professional game became hard to ignore as he began mixing it with older, more experienced players.
“You’re still maturing, you’re still growing. I found the first year difficult, I think that my body probably wasn’t up to it more than anything. Then you can lose a bit of confidence because you’re going from flying at 16 to suddenly you’re playing against lads a year older than you, in that scholarship environment and there you can fall away a bit.”
To most, a long-term injury layoff at this stage would have been disastrous; hampering development and isolating them away from their peers. But for Pybus, he described a four-month spell on the sidelines as “the best thing that happened,” to him. With his rehabilitation allowing him time to work in the gym, build his stature, and better prepare himself for the men’s game. By the time his second scholarship season rolled around, Pybus was captaining his side, and contributing to their success with several goals from midfield.
But with first-team opportunities limited at Sunderland, he made the decision, despite still having time on his deal at the club, to go in search of senior football. He joined Bradford in 2017, making a handful of appearances for the club before Stuart McCall, the manager who had bought him to Valley Parade, eased him into the squad, and made him feel at home, lost his job. Unfortunately, Pybus didn’t develop the same relationship with McCall’s successor Simon Grayson. “That’s where I really learned that, as a youngster, it becomes more difficult when one manager likes you goes and a new one comes in. I lost my way a lot and ended up getting released by Bradford.”
After leaving Bradford, Pybus, now aged 20, found himself on the outskirts of the game. A three-month stay in southern Norway, with third-division side FK Tronsberg, offered some competitive football, but he spent the best part of a year without a club after a double hernia operation hampered his fitness even further. There were no options on the table, eighteen months on from his successes at Sunderland, Pybus’s fledgling career looked to have ended before it had even begun.
“There were multiple points where I thought about going doing something else,” he says. “But my mum and dad kept telling me that you can go do any job in the world at whatever age you want. If you want to be a doctor at 50, there’s no one saying you can’t do it. But you can’t go become a footballer at 50.”
Eventually, after months of solo training, a chance came. Pybus travelled to Scottish Championship side Queen of the South for a trial, and with his evident talent coupled with his now up-to-scratch fitness levels, he signed a one-year contract with the Dumfries-based club.
Scotland provided the stability Pybus had been missing throughout his career until that point. He spent three seasons north of the border in total, two at Queen of the South, and one at Dunfermline where he was awarded the Players Player of the Year award. It was there that he began to enjoy football again, it was also the perfect breeding ground for his now notable style of play.
“A lot of people will be surprised about this, but I used to never close people down. And then I think when I had a few reality checks with where my career had like turned a little bit, I thought that, yeah, bloody hell, I need to start doing that.”
“I went up to Scotland and the football is not on the floor in Scotland. It’s in the air. I really learnt the off-the-ball stuff a lot better and I was humbled by what had happened in the previous years. So I sort of went in with the mentality of I’m just going to give a hundred percent on the ball and a hundred percent off the ball.”
It’s that approach that has since come to define his game as a dogged midfielder, composed on the ball and ferociously determined when in search of it. He showcased his talents in the National League last season with York City, originally joining the club on a one-year deal before his stellar performances earned him a two-year extension.
But when Pybus found himself free to leave York this summer, several National League clubs were clamouring for his signature before a voice message from Marc White greased the wheels for his move to Meadowbank.
“I remember I got a voice note from him and I thought it was one of my mates having some banter with me at first. So I ended up calling him and he had me laughing on the phone, and he just told me straightaway he really wanted me,” he explained. “He knew all my stats, which impressed me, knew everything about me, really sold the club, and yeah, the rest is obviously history. I signed, and I’m loving it.”
Pybus joined the club officially on 22nd August and was named on the bench just four days later, against his old club. He recalled the boos from the travelling fans as he entered the pitch for his Wanderers debut, and the taunts as we fell behind. “Not today, please.” That was all he could think to himself before a late Jason Prior equaliser spared him the ignominy of a debut defeat against his former teammates.
Since that heart-in-mouth first game, our new number four has cemented himself in the Wanderers midfield, playing in every game – excluding a suspension against Ebbsfleet United – of the National League season since. And with his feet now firmly on the ground, his initial admiration for the manager has only grown stronger. “I can see why the players run through a brick wall for him, he’s so passionate. He believes in all of us as players, but he believes mostly in himself and where he’s going to take the club. I think that gets passed down to the players.”
Pybus’s arrival has coincided with a general upturn in form for Wanderers, despite a recent sour patch of defeats that has knocked the club back down the National League table. But as far as Pybus is concerned, there is much more to come.
“I think as a team, we know we can challenge for the playoffs, I think it’s just now trying to do it on a consistent basis and just not being naive.”
“Like three wins in a row, shoots you right up the league three losses and you’re in the bottom four. But I think whether it’s this season or next I think we’ll definitely be amongst the playoffs and I truly believe that he will get this club out this division.”
For now, Dan Pybus will continue to settle in Dorking and gel with his teammates as the season progresses. But for a player that fell away from the game after so long knocking on the door of professionalism, he is determined to savour every minute of it.
Interviewed by Zac Welshman