What it’s like for a mediocre footballer to play at Wembley
What it’s like for a mediocre footballer to play at Wembley
After Arsenal's FA Cup Final heroics this weekend, Joe Ellison reveals what happened when a decidedly average player got a chance to live out a Wembley moment
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a footballer.
Yes, more Jimmy Hill than Henry Hill, I've always believed myself a decent player. Capable of 100 or more keepie-uppies, the type who never passes in five-a-side but somehow manages to bang in a few goals, and while not quite Sunday league ringer, certainly not the worst on the pitch either. A decidedly average 'good' player. You might well be one yourself.
I can even remember the day, many summers ago, that my local U14s side were invited by Liverpool Football Club to take part in a practice day at their first-team training complex at Melwood. For most of us it was a major chance to impress. Obviously, given that you've probably never seen a replica shirt with Ellison on the back, you won't be too surprised to learn that I fluffed my lines. Woefully, in fact; spurning chance after chance and hitting short passes like Rory McIlroy would later do drives. Nerves simply got the better of me. Deep down I already knew I possessed neither the God-given skill or on-field awareness to make the grade professionally, I just hadn't expected to realise this by falling flat on my face in front of top-flight coaches. 'Oh well, Gérard Houllier’s loss’, I kidded myself, yet the memory remains raw.
14 years on and full of that same erroneous belief, like millions of other men who stubbornly refuse to write off a Premier League career until they're 35, I was hoping for one more chance to mix it on the biggest stage, just once. And then the call came from Vauxhall England, inviting me to realise a boyhood ambition and play a match at Wembley. Not just a kickabout either, but a full-length 90 minute game in which I would be captained by Soccer AM’s Tubes, against a team led by Ian Wright, for the former striker’s last-ever football game.
It must have felt like a career come full circle for Wright, who so brilliantly announced himself to the world when scoring past Manchester United for unfancied Crystal Palace underneath Wembley’s Twin Towers back in 1990. However, I had other images in mind as I descended onto Wembley Way, looking ahead where iconic twin towers once stood and now a space-aged arch drooped: Gazza’s hazy ball-juggling antics vs Scotland at Euro 96; Bobby Moore grinning with the World Cup tightly squeezed in his hand; and more recently two rousing Champions League finals.
By the time I arrived in a box to meet the other players (a mixture of celebs, former pros and random guys recruited by Tubes and Wright over Twitter) my stomach was in knots. Thankfully I already knew one of my teammates: work colleague Dave Fawbert, who would repeatedly tell me that if I got the ball anywhere near goal then “just f*cking shoot”. Wise words.
Arriving in the dressing room (huge - much bigger than you’ll have seen on Football Focus this past weekend), things got even more surreal when our special guest manager arrived. Enter former England manager Graham Taylor, jokingly rubbing his eyes in faux disbelief before promptly walking out again because we’ve “no f*cking chance”. A natural, likeable character with a Partridge edition Encyclopedia of anecdotes, he immediately put us at ease.
Still, nothing prepared me for the hair-raising walk out of the tunnel to the vocal embrace of hundreds of spectators (granted, it was 89,500 short of being a sell-out) as we walked past the dugouts and took to the pitch for the national anthem. Parlour. Keown. Ellison. The shirts didn’t even look right next to one another: some of the guys standing next to me were footballers I had admired for years, and here I was, next to the Romford Pele and the like, desperately hoping not to embarrass myself in front of them.
Barely able to take my eyes off the arena around me, I couldn’t get near the ball during my first ten minute on the pitch, finding myself mostly on the periphery of things. Besides, I also had to keep a close eye on the wiry frame of Wretch-32, who left me for dust with one unchecked burst down the left, the marauding rapper's body lost in the distance, a blur. Not much came of the attack but the pressure persisted and, shortly before half-time they took the lead through former footballer and middleweight boxer Kelvin McKenzie.
I was soon able to impose myself on the game with a few corner kicks. All I wanted to do was beat the first man. Everyone knows you beat the first man. Well I didn’t, not even close, but luckily the ball was fizzed back in and we got another corner, giving me a chance of redemption. This time I hit it with more of a Pirlo-esque knuckleball technique, a glorified toe-y if you will, which sailed over the first defender, then over the second, eventually missing everybody. Peter Crouch would have buried it, mind, I am sure of it.
Truth be told, I hadn’t really got into the game at all by that part, nervily letting it pass me by. The whistle blew for half time and the nerves were no more. From there I only had a keenness to get on the ball and take advantage of a super glossy pitch with plenty of room. In the second half, now 2-0 down, I moved more centrally where I bossed midfield opposite Ralf Little (there's a sentence I thought I'd never use), who is a cultured, silkily-skilled veteran of the all-star circuit. His grace and poise made playing little give-and-go’s a joy. Minutes later, my moment of potential glory arrived.
I’d spotted Wright receiving the ball deep in his own half a couple of times and been unable to close him down. So I stuck closely to him and eventually pounced, prodding the ball through the former Arsenal man’s legs, dispossessing him. I scampered straight for the box. Jinking with some close control, I gave myself time to think. ‘Pass or shoot?’ I could hear Dave screaming for the latter out of my right earlobe in the distance.
Normally when faced by an oncoming defender at Wembley, I do what any man would: I use R3 to perform a 180 degree turn before deftly pressing L1 + Circle to lob it over the keeper, taking a celebratory swig of Red Bull as it lands in the net. But this wasn’t PlayStation, this was 70 minutes in to a real game of football, and the defender stood between me and possibly the greatest moment of my footballing career? Michael Duberry, a man mountain of a player whose sheer body size eclipsed most of the goal I so desperately wanted to aim at. All went quiet save for the cogs whirling around in my head.
After selling him another cheeky dummy (like Nando’s, they’re always cheeky), I decided to coolly slot in an overlapping teammate to my left. I’ve still no idea how I knew exactly where the guy was when I laid the ball off, I simply knew it had to be weighted perfectly. It was. He duly finished with aplomb, tucking it away in the bottom corner and I had an assist - at Wembley - I was delighted (skip to 8 seconds in the video below to see the replay). Particularly when the stadium announcer wrongly credited me with scoring the goal. Naturally I took all the acclaim.
Making my way back past the centre circle and mimicking every guttural roar you hear after consolation goals scored in Sunday League every weekend, I croakily shouted: “We’re back in this, lads”. I wasn’t wrong: two minutes later and Little sent a peach of a ball over the top, right to the feet of our striker who took it around the goalkeeper to brings us level at 2-2.
I should have asked to be substituted there and then. I was ready to drop to the floor, happy to settle for a draw having helped the team come from behind. but all of a sudden I hear Tubes screaming at me to pick up Wright, who has decided to have one final surge upfield. Only a second or so in front of me, I’m busting a gut to get there, praying he takes an extra touch to allow me to get back and tackle. Instead he hits it first time, scoring the winner to nick the game 3-2. A fitting end for his last game at Wembley but tragedy for our team.
As every player on the opposing side piled on top of Wright before toppling over like human Jenga, the sheer exuberance and love for the game made it a bittersweet moment for me, karma restored between me and the man I'd dispossesed before setting up a goal. It couldn't have been a more fitting end for either of us. An incredible end to an incredible day. We even got to climb the stairs to collect our
losers runner-up medals.
In fact, the experience as a whole didn’t really sink in until later that evening, sat on my couch and stuffing my face with Monster Munch (the post-match diet of kings). My Dad phoned to tell me to switch to Sky Sports News, and lo and behold: there I was, filmed walking out of the famous tunnel and taking the pitch alongside giants like Keown and Parlour. And for the briefest of moments I wondered if Houllier was watching somewhere.
And in case he's reading this: yes, I am still available.