It’s safe to say that Stephen Wearne has become hot property over the last six months.
The 22-year-old has emerged as one of the season’s most talked about prospects in the National League, hitting double figures for goals and assists combined with not even a quarter of the campaign played after recording six in 11 fixtures for Gateshead last season.
Wearne has bagged his first senior hat trick, and also been named the club’s August Player of the Month, having gone from strength to strength since first arriving in March.
The attacking midfielder is very much a different player to the one he was even a year ago, and though he feels there is still much to learn, the process of doing so is well underway.
“I’ve still got a long way to go in where I want to get to,” he said.
“I’ve put in a lot of work in terms of my revision of the game, especially over the summer and at the start of this season.
“I’ve watched a lot of players at the top level in my position, seeing how they get in goal-scoring positions.
“I like to watch James Maddison the most, he’s obviously doing well at Spurs, but really any attacking players who are doing well in terms of their output.
“Over the years, I’ve found myself coming off the pitch after a game having played well but not had any output in terms of goals or assists.
“The game now is so stats based and everyone looks at goals and assists, so if you’re not getting those then you aren’t really worth anything to clubs, especially as an attacker.
“Previously I’ve maybe been guilty of playing a nice pass or doing a nice bit of skill, but then that being it, and I’m just watching the pattern play out in front of me.
“I think I’ve definitely matured, I can feel myself learning and naturally now getting in positions and making runs I wouldn’t have made before, just because of that revision.
“I’ve had to knuckle down in looking at how I can affect games more.”
If Wearne’s goal was to affect games, then he is achieving that without question.
Whether deployed as a number 10 or as a wing-back in Gateshead’s system, his electric attacking performances have caught the eye of fellow players and pundits alike, with former Gateshead forward Macaulay Langstaff and TNT Sports pundit Aaron McLean just two to shower him with praise in recent weeks.
He is on course for his best season to date in terms of raw statistical output, though ironically it is the intentional avoidance of that becoming his sole focus which has brought it to fruition.
“I think a big thing of me starting the season so well is that I’ve stopped going into a game and thinking ‘I need to score’ or ‘I need to assist’,” he added.
“You end up coming away from the rest of your game if you do that, whereas I know here that if I just stick to my normal game I’ll get a chance.
“I might miss that chance, but then I’ve just got to make sure I get in that position again so I can score.
“When I was younger, I’d come off the pitch having played well and thinking ‘why haven’t I scored?’
“I’d look back and realise that I’d maybe had one shot during the game, whereas now if I’m looking at my stats, I’m sometimes having five or six shots.
“We have a laugh here about xG [expected goals], but I do actually pay attention to it.
“As long as that’s up there, then statistically I’m going to score more goals.”
Things haven’t always gone swimmingly in Wearne’s world though, and were you to go back just 12 months, you would find a player struggling just to get minutes on the pitch.
A move to newly-promoted Grimsby Town at first seemed to offer a shot in the Football League for the midfielder, but after featuring in six of their seven opening games he would find himself mostly out of the match day squad.
A lack of game time brings with it concerns of falling under the radar, especially with many players on the fringes of the Football League existing on year-to-year contracts, and a loan to Torquay United followed in November.
It would be Wearne’s second spell at Plainmoor in as many seasons, though this time he was battling to show himself in a team struggling at the wrong end of the division.
“I don’t know how the manager viewed me [at Grimsby],” he admitted.
“We had a big squad so I was sort of in and out, then it got to a point where I wasn’t getting any minutes, and as a player you just want to play.
“I ended up going back to Torquay – they’d lost a lot of players from the season before, so it was more difficult, but it was good just to play some games.
“I love what I do, but people see you’re a footballer and think it’s just a luxury life.
“They don’t see the side to it where you’re on a one-year contract, not playing games or you’ve picked up an injury, and then all of sudden you’re without a club.
“Most players don’t have a plan B if football does come to an end, they’ve got nothing to fall back on.
“At the top level it’s different when you have the Championship, League One and League Two to fall back on, but at this level it can be difficult to stay in the game if you end up without a club.
“It was frustrating and I didn’t feel like I got the opportunities I deserved, but that’s football, it’s nothing personal.
“I wouldn’t change it, because sitting here now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
If Stephen Wearne is happy, then there’s a good chance that Gateshead are happy too.
For every move that doesn’t pan out for reasons you can’t quite put your finger one, there are those that just work – and Wearne’s to Tyneside has certainly fallen into the latter.
It is far from a one-man show though, and he knows that full well.
“The one big factor in why I’m enjoying playing so much in this team is because every player knows their role and is suited to how we play,” he said.
“The coaching staff have recruited really well, bringing in good technical players who can deal with the ball.
“With respect to clubs I’ve been at previously, the style of play and formations possibly haven’t suited me, which is maybe why I haven’t really got the best out of my game like I am here.
“We create so many opportunities, especially for a player like me – I’ve probably missed more chances than anyone!
“It’s so enjoyable to play in, and the gaffer is really good with the mental side of things – he allows you to not beat yourself up if you miss a chance.
“I’ve just got to trust in my ability, and know that the rest will take care of itself.”