LOCAL BOY Karl Baker is flying the flag for other South Devon amateur footballers who believe they could follow in his footsteps towards a professional career with Torquay United.
Midfielder Baker, who was working night shifts at a Totnes bakery only a couple of months ago, has stepped out of South West Carlsberg Peninsula League football with Stoke Gabriel and is trying to turn a four-month contract into a permanent deal at Plainmoor.
"I've got until January to try and get a longer deal, but I don't regret having a go one bit," said Baker, 23.
"I'm loving the lifestyle – I'm the fittest I've ever been in my life and I feel much fresher every morning.
"Now I'm here, I want to do the best I can to get into the pro game."
United manager Martin Ling said: "I wouldn't have taken Karl if I didn't think he had a chance of making it.
"But I also think that it sends out a message to players in the area that we will look at the best ones.
"I don't think the club has signed too many local lads in the last few years, but we're always on the lookout."
Baker thought his chances of a crack at the pro game had gone as a promising teenage career appeared to peter out.
It was former United midfielder Russell Musker, the ex-Stoke Gabriel manager, who persuaded him that he had the talent for a full-time career.
It was on the strength of a pre-season outing for Bideford, managed by another ex-Torquay player in Sean Joyce, against the Gulls that Baker caught the eye of United boss Martin Ling.
"After that game Martin offered me a six-week trial, and now I've got a contract until January," said Baker, a former pupil of Paignton Community College.
"I'm really hoping I can get a longer deal – I haven't had any negative feedback so far and everyone has been very encouraging.
"I was working from 1.30am-6am every night, and this definitely beats working those hours.
"People said I'd find the football harder, but it's the other way around.
"I do believe in myself and, with better players around you, the balls played to you are better and the game gets easier.
"Then it's up to you to make the most of it."
Baker, whose elder brother Richard still plays for Stoke Gabriel, has ended up with United by a long and winding road.
He was a youngster in the club's Centres of Excellence when the original youth scheme was closed in 2004 for financial reasons.
He signed as a schoolboy with Plymouth Argyle, didn't quite make it at Home Park and ended up with a Youth Training deal at AFC Bournemouth.
"I only stayed a couple of months there – I was 16, the life didn't suit me and I got a bit homesick," he said.
Baker played for Truro City for 18 months before settling into local football for Stoke.
"Plenty of people have told me that I could make it as a pro, and others said I'd missed my chance – I've thought that plenty of times," he said.
"But I think I've got something to offer, and now I'm here I want to make the most of it."
Baker recently completed a four-match suspension, which had hung over him from last season, and he's looking to make his mark in a series of reserve matches over the next few months.
United boss Ling is confident that midfielder Nathan Craig, who limped off just before half-time in last weekend's 1-1 home draw with Burton Albion, will have recovered from an ankle problem in time to face Chesterfield at the Proact Stadium this Saturday.
The Gulls, who have lost only one but drawn five of their first eight matches this season, have no other new injury worries as they prepare for games in Derbyshire and then home to Aldershot next Tuesday.
The club is offering a 'Two-For One' ticket deal in all areas of the ground for the Aldershot match.