Perceptions about the modern-day non-league footballer are changing. Nick Westby meets a model semi-pro in Harrogate’s Chib Chilaka ahead of tomorrow’s big FA Cup second-round tie.
Remember the good old days of the postman at left-back, the firefighter at centre-half and the village butcher coming off the bench to nod the winner at the back post?
Every-day Davids slaying superstar Goliaths was why the nation fell in love with the FA Cup, and why – despite being an afterthought for the majority of rich clubs – it retains that sparkle beyond its own borders.
The early footballing weekends of November, December and January are filled with such stories.
It is the magic of the FA Cup.
But time moves on, money gets more important and the landscape changes.
The Conference has become more professional with every passing year, the knock-on effect being an increase in standards down through the pyramid.
The days of the bus driver lacing up his boots to take the field against millionaire footballers are decreasing.
There is a new breed of non-league footballer; part-time players with a full-time mentality.
There remains the odd night-shift worker here and there and the the occasional honest labourer.
But by and large, non-league football comprises young professionals trying to break back into the Football League and wise old ex-pros still living the footballers’ life.
Among them there remain plenty of stories that rekindle the romance of the FA Cup.
Plenty of reasons to get behind these noble Davids.
Take Chib Chilaka for instance, and his club, Harrogate Town.
Harrogate were slayers of Football League side Torquay United in the first round, and are now 90 minutes away from a potential dream ticket in the third round.
Ironically, they assume the role of Goliath tomorrow, playing at home to Hastings United, a team two rungs further down the ladder.
Chilaka was Harrogate’s match-winner at Plainmoor as the Conference North side defied the massive odds against them to register the greatest victory in their modest history.
Chilaka embodies the non-league player of the modern day.
He trains Tuesday nights and Thursday nights with the team, a regime that is reduced to one night a week if they have a midweek fixture.
When he is not training, he is not down the pit or sat behind a desk, he is religiously sticking to his own fitness programme that he carries out every weekday morning.
“You don’t find that sort of thing at Harrogate,” he says when asked about the stereotypical non-league footballer. “The manager (Simon Weaver) has found a lot of young pros coming out of the professional game.
“They still live the full-time life even though they’re in a part-time game.
“And even the older players like Paul Bolland, Adam Bolder and Dave Merris work as football coaches during the week, either for the club’s junior sections or for other clubs’ academies.
“We’re all in that football mindset and you can tell the difference on a Saturday. There’s no excuses, no one arriving late to a game because they were working late the night before.
“Everyone is tuned in; they’re eating right, looking after themselves and making sure that on a Saturday they’re at their optimum threshold.”
The club have got a gym that their players use regularly through the week, but when he is not there, Chilaka can be found at Rossett School in the town, running the club’s football in the community course with a group of recovering addicts.
“It was only supposed to be a one-off in March but I told the manager I’d like to keep on doing it,” he says.
“It’s very rewarding. We took the guys down to a tournament in Doncaster recently and they won it. You could see what that meant to them.
“Football takes them away from their vices and their life. It gives them something to really work for.”
Chilaka adds another dimension to the 21st century semi-pro footballer. The Nigerian-born 26-year-old has a degree in human biology from Hull and a masters in business from Leeds Metropolitan University.
He went into further education when his first professional contract with Notts County ended when he was 18.
His reward for four years’ studying and banging in the goals in the lower leagues for Hinkley, Bridlington and Leeds Carnegie was a contract at Bradford City.
“The day I handed in my masters thesis was the same day that Peter Taylor called me to offer me a contract,” recalls Chilaka. “What a day that was.
“But Bradford were having a tough time and Peter Taylor was under a lot of pressure during my time there. He didn’t want to throw me into a losing team.
“I went to Harrogate Town on loan and began this relationship with them.”
Chilaka signed permanently for Harrogate in February after a spell with Braintree. He craves a little stability in his football, and is also considering moving into part-time business consultancy in the new year. That is, if the shop window of the FA Cup does not show at him at his best.
“Saturday is massive, and we’re all just eager now for that first whistle,” says Chilaka, who with nine goals – four in the FA Cup – is the club’s second highest scorer.
“Lots of us have had knock-backs in the game, so for us to reach this point and to be involved in the FA Cup with the opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the country now within touching distance, is exciting for us.
“It’s something we can look back on despite the knock-backs.
“The FA Cup is a high standard, and one we’re all trying to aspire to.
“There will always be nerves. There’ll be a big crowd at the game and there’s a lot of excitement around the town and people are in high spirits.
“Hastings are dangerous, they beat a team from our league in the last round.
“We’ve got to make sure our mentality is right. If we go in thinking they’re two leagues below us they’ll trip us up.
“This is an attitude check for us. We have to approach it in the right manner.”
From Benfica all the way to Wetherby Road
Chib Chilaka’s tale is one of many fascinating stories in the Harrogate Town team.
Town’s goalkeeper Jose Da Viega began his career with former European champions Benfica.
The 35-year-old Portuguese-born player finds himself in Yorkshire via a host of clubs in his native country and then Hereford United and Macclesfield Town.
He was signed as a replacement for Mark Cook, who made the bold decision to move to Peru to play his football in the summer after being spotted by former Newcastle winger Nolberto Solano, who now manages in South America.
Hull-born Adam Bolder scored twice for Sheffield Wednesday in the Steel City derby in April, 2008, during a loan spell from Queens Park Rangers.
The 32-year-old midfielder joined Harrogate Town in the summer from Burton Albion.
Rotherham-born Dave Merris arrived at Wetherby Road at the end of last season to begin a third spell with Harrogate Town. The defender, 32, has never played in the Football League and his only other clubs have been York City and Guiseley.
Another 32-year-old, Paul Bolland, was born in Bradford but did not make it with his home-town club, playing only 12 times for the Bantams.
He has played League football for Notts County, Grimsby and Macclesfield and is at Wetherby Road on a loan deal from Mansfield Town.
Harrogate’s top scorer this season, Paul Beesley, was signed from neighbours Harrogate Railway last October.
Luke Dean, 21, is a young professional trying to climb his way back up the ladder, having been released by Bradford City in the summer.
The game – which kicks off at 1pm – is not all-ticket although the club have already sold more than 2,200 and hope to reach their 3,300 capacity. Admission on the day is £12 for adults, £7 concessions, £5 students, £3 Under-16s and free for Under-5s.
All seating is sold out. Gates open at 10am.