Boro meet Arsenal in FA Cup clash - 04/10/2002
Three years ago, a highlight of Wollongong teenager Luke Wilkshire's soccer year was the annual get-together with family and friends to watch the late-night live telecast of the English FA Cup final.
Tomorrow, the now 20-year-old midfielder is poised to live out every soccer-loving boy's dream by playing a part in his team's bid to be a part of the big match itself.
Wilkshire these days is a professional player in England's Premier League. After three years in the youth and reserve teams, his struggle to establish himself with Middlesbrough has begun to pay spectacular dividends in recent months as he has become a regular part of coach Steve McClaren's first-team plans.
In sport, as in life, timing is everything, and now Wilkshire finds himself 90 minutes away from an FA Cup final appearance as Boro prepares to take on Premier League championship-chasing Arsenal in the semi-final of the world's oldest and most prestigious cup competition.
He finds himself in the company of another, rather more well-known, Australian - Socceroo goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who has been Middlesbrough's first-choice keeper for several seasons.
The winners will meet the victor of the other all-London semi-final between Chelsea and Fulham in the final next month.
Wilkshire, a product of the New South Wales Institute of Sport development program, has made only five first-team starts but has come on the scene at a critical time of the season. His other main appearance was as a substitute at Old Trafford, when he came on after only 20 minutes and was part of one of the surprise results of the season when Boro beat defending champion Manchester United 1-0.
It was not perhaps the fluke it was regarded, as the team from England's industrial north-east also knocked United out of the cup earlier in the season and, as Wilkshire points out, Boro has a pretty good record against United at Old Trafford over the years.
Nevertheless, it was the biggest thrill of his short career.
"It was a great occasion and great experience for me. To be on the same pitch as people like David Beckham and Ryan Giggs, players like Juan Sebastian Veron, was just fantastic. It was one of those things that if people had said you would be doing that a few years ago when I was back in Wollongong, you would have laughed," Wilkshire said.
The experience means that not even an FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, with its galaxy of World Cup and European championship-winning French superstars such as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord, will worry him too much if he is selected.
"Once you have played in a game like that against Manchester United, the other games are like another 90 minutes. Reputations don't mean anything," he said.
Being this close to the big occasion and being involved at all is something Wilkshire would have only dreamt of when he left home as a 17-year-old in July, 1999, to trial at Middlesbrough under the NSW Institute's "Big Brother" program, a similar initiative to that which delivered Harry Kewell to Leeds four years earlier.
"It was a young age to go, but when I left, I was ready for it and it was always what I wanted to do. When I found out they were interested in signing me, I pretty much wanted to go straight away," Wilkshire said.
The reality is sometimes less glamourous than it might appear, and Wilkshire, like any young man who leaves his home and family and ventures to the other side of the world to pursue a career, found his character examined and his mental toughness tested.
"I learnt and I improved. I went into the youth team and got better and then played in the reserves. It was a frustrating time over here because you are waiting to get an opportunity at a higher level. You go along and at times you feel that you are not going to get a chance, but the way things have gone for me shows you how things can change so quickly in this game.
"You have to keep believing and hope that you get your chance. They always keep telling you that you are young and you will get a chance, but it is frustrating waiting. You have to be patient."
Things could now move at a rapid pace for the youngster, who has already played for the Australian under-20 team. There has been plenty of speculation that he could be one of a handful of "the next generation" who will be called up for the national team for the Oceania championship in July.
"I definitely would not knock it back," he says. "I would love the opportunity to play for my country, if selected."
First, though, there is the matter of Arsenal . . .
c2001-2023 - All rights reserved - Official Player Sites -