Richard Sutcliffe meets the man who saved the day and enabled North Ferriby United to reach tomorrow’s FA Trophy final against Wrexham at Wembley.
‘FROM Sunday League to Wembley’ sounds like the far-fetched storyline from the pages of a comic.
But, for North Ferriby United’s semi-final hero Adam Nicklin, such an unlikely journey is about to become reality.
The 26-year-old, twice rejected by Hull City as a junior, is about to follow in the footsteps of countless goalkeeping greats and tread the sacred turf of the national stadium.
Just six years on from playing parks football for his local pub, Nicklin’s meteoric rise – after saving two penalties in the shoot-out win over Bath City, he is even now being recognised in his ‘day job’ as a gym instructor – has left even him shocked.
“It has been pretty crazy,” the Villagers’ goalkeeper told The Yorkshire Post. “People keep calling me a ‘hero’ after what happened in the semi-final, even at work.
“But it was a team effort and I was just needed at the end. It was a great feeling, though, when we got through.
“I suppose it has been quite a steep rise, from Sunday League six years ago. I played for a pub team.
“I did have trials twice with Hull City. I was 10 the first time and 15 the second time. But they didn’t work out because City already had good keepers at the club.
“After that, I just kept myself to myself and worked hard. I did go to a goalkeeping coach when I was younger but not since I was 15 or 16. Since then, I have developed myself.”
Nicklin’s big break in non-League came when playing for Central Midlands League side Westella. A move to Hall Road Rangers was mooted but a call was put in to Billy Heath, now North Ferriby manager but, at the time, in charge of Northern Premier League outfit Frickley.
Heath moved quickly to get his man and Nicklin went on to make 99 appearances for the club before following his manager to Church Road in 2011.
Since then, he has become a mainstay of a side that won promotion from the Northern Premier League in 2013 and came so close to reaching the Conference last term.
Nicklin was also the hero against Bath in the semi-final after saving the first two penalties of the shoot-out. The cushion his double-save subsequently provided his team-mates was, according to winning spot-kick taker Jason St Juste, crucial in ensuring North Ferriby held their nerve to book a trip to Wembley.
“I have had a good season with penalties,” said the 26-year-old when asked to relive last month’s semi-final against Bath City, which finished 3-3 on aggregate.
“Funnily enough, I’d had a bad record before this year. But now I have kept five or so out. The semi-final was great, though I did ask our assistant manager (Bobby Carroll) before the shoot-out what I should do and he just said, ‘Do what you want!’
“Not the greatest advice I’ve ever had. So, I thought I’d do it myself and managed to save the first two. That helped the lads settle for when their turn came. Everything worked out well.”
One consequence of being the man who played such a crucial role in North Ferriby getting to Wembley became apparent on his first day back at work.
“I am a gym instructor at the Willerby Manor Hotel,” explains the Villagers’ goalkeeper. “I have been there seven years and really enjoy it.
“All the members who come in to the gym know me now from reading the newspapers and seeing me on Calendar.
“I’d been interviewed straight after the semi-final by Calendar and Look North. I didn’t think much more about it but then I started getting texts saying, ‘Just seen you on the telly’.
“Then, I went into work and all the members were coming up to talk about the game. They have been great and seem to take more notice of North Ferriby now.
“Before, they didn’t know who I played for. But now, nearly everyone seems to know. In many ways, it is a strange feeling.
“I am not really a person for having a bit of fame and all that. I don’t really feel that comfortable. I like to keep myself to myself. But it is a bit of fun as well. And this is my one opportunity to play at Wembley so I am determined to enjoy it.”
Nicklin’s Wembley dream had seemed to be in doubt due to an ankle injury sustained during the first leg at Bath’s Twerton Park.
He missed the trip to Hednesford that was sandwiched by the two Bath ties before playing through the pain barrier in the successful second leg.
Since then, Nicklin has been sidelined but a return to training nine days ago means, selection permitting, he should be between the posts tomorrow.
“It has been getting more real in the last few days,” he said. “We had so many games and then I had my injury, a torn ankle. But I trained (a week last Thursday) for the first time. I felt really good.”
Ferriby have played at the old Wembley before, losing the 1997 FA Vase final to Whitby in front of an 11,098 crowd.
Tomorrow, though, will be on an altogether different scale, not least because opponents Wrexham expect to take more than 10,000 fans to north London to celebrate the club’s 150th anniversary year.
“We had a press conference (11 days ago) at Wembley with the FA,” said Nicklin. “Just to be pitchside was incredible. A great feeling, a special moment.
“It was my first visit and we all had our camera phones out, taking lots of pictures. I didn’t realise how big the stadium is until I was on the pitch.
“We had a look round as well, going in the England dressing room. They had all the shirts up, ready for the stadium tours.
“It was a surreal moment stepping into a place where professionals play. North Ferriby is just a little village but we are going to be playing at the same place.
“I enjoyed the chance to visit but with the fans there it will be interesting to see how different things are. Everyone is determined to enjoy the day and we all want to take it in.
“We want a good day but we also want to play the game as well. We want to win.”