When Grimsby Town walk out at Wembley on Sunday 24th March to face Wrexham in the final of the FA Trophy, the majority of the starting 22 players will not have played on a grander stage. As fans, we’re all looking at it as a nice day out and hoping for a good result. But for the players it’s just another day at the office – albeit bigger office, with more people judging them. So how do they deal with the occasion?
It’s the home of football. A crowd of more than 40,000 will be watching. More than usual cameras and reporters will be pitch side. Your family and friends will be in the stands. Despite a partisan atmosphere, the environment is unforgiving.
So do the players relish the centre stage or do nerves get the better of them? To understand what the day entails, and to appreciate the psychological approach players take in the run-up to the big game, I spoke to a former Town player who knows what playing at Wembley is all about.
Nick Hegarty was in the starting XI for the Mariners in their 2008 Football League Trophy final against MK Dons, which they lost 2-0.
“Playing at Wembley is an unbelievable occasion for any footballer,” says Nick. “It’s a great moment to get together with friends and family. It’s the kind of occasion when you say thanks to everyone who’s helped you get to that point.
“When the day came in 2008 it was a case of the management trying to keep the same procedures we’d had all season, so things felt familiar and nothing was too out of the ordinary. It helped us keep our feet on the ground and reminded us that it was just another game of football.
“From the moment I saw Wembley in the distance on the coach the butterflies started to surface. It was all positive energy, though. I knew where my family and friends were in the stadium so I could say hello before the game. It was a regular warm-up on the pitch, but when we walked back out for the match it all changed. There was the entry announcement, the music, the fireworks – the cheers of the crowd – and meeting the dignitaries. It was awesome.
“But after that it was auto-pilot. From the moment I turned to shake hands with the opposition, followed by the last-minute stretches, it was just the same as if I was on the Blundell Park pitch.
“Obviously I can’t speak for everyone but I felt good. In the quiet times, when I thought about where I was and what I was about to do, I got more excited than nervous. I’d imagine that there may have been one or two players who perhaps got worried about letting people down or not performing on the day, but once we were playing in the final, it was just another game of football. Nothing else mattered.
“In terms of nerves, I probably felt worse playing in the semi-final against Morecambe. I remember feeling like I wanted to shit myself in both the home and away games. Just before Bolly (Paul Bolland) scored in the first leg they had a goal disallowed. I was devastated when it went in, but then when I realised the referee hadn’t given it I was ecstatic. Then we went up the other end and scored. There were a lot of emotions in such a short space of time.”
Much has been said about Town’s form leading into the FA Trophy final, which has seen them lose three games on the trot and slip from the race for automatic promotion. Nick says it’s just human nature to have such a big game on your mind, but argues that players remain just as competitive and committed in league games.
He said: “No one tries to drop form before the final, but when it came to the week before the match I think it enters your subconscious and thoughts of getting injured start creeping in. I had a pretty upbeat attitude about it and tried not to let it consume me. I knew I could get injured at any time anyway – even doing something simple like walking around Freshney Place – so I tried not to dwell on it too much.
“When there’s a 50/50 challenge a week before a Wembley final, I’d say 90% of players, no matter how much they thought about it, would make that tackle and push themselves a bit further for their team because, in that instant, they’re ultra-focused on that game. The thought of Wembley at that moment isn’t there.”
Once the team made the final, did the occasion get to any of the players? And were there any regrets?
Nick adds: “In terms of the final, I certainly didn’t think anyone suffered from nerves in our squad; we coped well. We just came up against a very good team on the day. We had a specific game plan – and if we had taken our opportunity in the first half with the penalty then it may have worked out perfectly.
“I loved the trip. Obviously I was gutted we didn’t win and I was gutted the lads didn’t get something for their hard work, but it was an absolute privilege to play there and I’m very proud to say I did it.
“In the past year I’ve been playing my football with a more relaxed attitude and in some ways I wish I could step back and play out the whole Wembley occasion again but more relaxed in order to soak everything up. It really did go by in the blink of an eye and not many players get the chance of a second bash.
“Grimsby is still close to my heart, so I really hope they bring the FA Trophy back to Blundell Park because the fans deserve some success after sticking by the club through some tough times.”
Nick currently plays for Australian side Hume City in the Victorian Premier League. Check out his “flying backheel” goal on 101GreatGoals.com.