This article previously appeared in UTAS Issue 4. Photos courtesy of Ben Phillips.
Kids have all kind of dreams, some grow up wanting to walk on Mars, or drive a Formula One car around Silverstone. Others dream of scoring winners in the FA Cup Final, or playing for England. Mine were a little closer to home (although, it would transpire, no closer to reality). Since a young age, all I wanted to do was to play at the Abbey Stadium.
I’d been on the pitch before, after the playoff semi-finals, and a couple of sneaky incursions after matches (sorry Ian) when I’d been a hospitality guest, even managing to put the ball in an empty NRE net on one illicit attempt. But really, none of these counted for anything, and at the age of 35, four stone overweight and with a dodgy knee and turn of pace that would make John Dreyer look like Usain Bolt I’d started to accept it probably wasn’t going to happen for me.
Every year, United aided by sponsors Mick George host a charity football match for fans and ex pros at the Abbey. A few of you might have played in one yourselves. The games weren’t especially cheap, but eventually they came down in price to an amount I was able to afford. A hundred quid to charity later and that dream was a step closer to reality.
But first, I had to get some boots, and then get fit. Imagine if you will a ‘Rocky’-style training montage here, three weeks later I was ready.
Driving in to the players car park I was nervous for sure – it had been years since I’d played at any kind of standard, yet here I was about to line up for United alongside Ian Miller and Omer Riza. As I entered the staff entrance the friendly, legendary face of John Taylor was there to greet me, but still the nerves were kicking in.
The away changing room at the Abbey has seen some illustrious backsides on it’s benches, Wayne Rooney, Mark Viduka, Neville Southall, and now mine was about to join them. My shirt, with my name on the back, was hanging up next to Omer Riza’s, one of my favourite players from an exciting period at the club. There was little time to savour the dressing room though, as warmups were about to begin.
After that, we were back into the dressing room, promotion winner Andy Duncan our manager for the evening with a quick team talk then we were ready. Lining up in the tunnel, about to walk onto the floodlit Abbey pitch as – in my own head at least – a Cambridge United player. Our little stadium might not be so big, but in that minute I could have been at Old Trafford, the Maracana, Camp Nou or anywhere. The atmosphere, despite the crowd numbering a couple of hundred at most was electric, every hair on my body was standing on end.
The game started with myself in central midfield, and within minutes I’d already been put on my arse by an opposition player. I didn’t have my glasses on so couldn’t see the members of my family in the crowd screaming at the ref for a card, but I’m assured they were. After a while the game settled into a rhythm, and players found their positions. I was initially overjoyed but then quickly dismayed to find myself up against Luke Chadwick, that’s right, me, the slowest, fattest player on the pitch marking a man who had played in the Champions League. As much as I’d like to say I dazzled Chadwick with my silky touch and tough but fair tackling, the truth is I got nowhere near him – he was a class above anyone else on the pitch in terms of fitness and quality.
And then it happened – my chance. My chance to be a hero, to emulate Dublin, Claridge, Butler, Taylor, Kitson and Sam-Yorke. A cross came in, the ball was headed on and fell just in front of me, six yards out. Time froze, the ball sitting there, defenders twisted in agony, and me, running in with a clear shot on goal. I was already planning the celebration in my head when I swung my foot back. Of course what I hadn’t seen was the ball bobble up slightly, so instead of connecting with it nicely and sending it into the back of the net, I blasted it over the crossbar and into an empty Newmarket Road End. Still Angel DiMaria put one out of the ground from a similar position and he cost seventy million quid.
The rest of the game went by in a blur if I’m honest. John Taylor switched sides in the second half and set me up nicely for twenty-five yard shot that was saved by the keeper, and before long the final whistle went and we were back to the changing rooms, where having realised I’d forgotten a towel I quickly changed out of my kit and back into the clothes I came in, still dripping with sweat.
So that’s it, that’s what it’s like to briefly, badly fulfil a childhood dream and play at the Wembley of the Fens. Despite aching for about three days afterwards, I’d do it all again tomorrow, and Ben Strang, I know you were watching, so if you need someone to run the midfield now Hoolahan’s buggered off you know where I am. (Editors note: Hoolahan came back, putting an end to Owen’s footballing ambitions once and for all. U’s fans everywhere can rest easy.)