AS a boy growing up in Australia, James Meredith knew all about the FA Cup.
The romance, the upsets and the stories that have made the competition’s appeal endure were as familiar to him as any youngster fortunate enough to be able to watch football live in this country.
Of all those great exploits, the tale of how Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang overcame the odds to lift the famous old trophy is his favourite. He’s not sure exactly why, especially as he was only 39 days old and 11,000 miles away when Lawrie Sanchez headed in the winner to cap one of football’s all-time meteoric rises.
Maybe, though, it is something to do with how John Fashanu, Vinnie Jones et al rose from what was effectively the football scrapheap to beat Liverpool on that never-to-be-forgotten day at Wembley in 1988.
Meredith has been on a similar journey. Brought to England as a 16-year-old by Derby County after impressing scouts in his native Melbourne, the left back failed to make the grade at Pride Park and drifted into non-League.
Lesser characters would have gone home, especially when reduced to training on his own in a park for six months before finally getting a short-term contract with AFC Telford.
Meredith, however, stuck around and his rewards have come in recent years with no less than four appearances at Wembley.
It would have been one more but for illness but the 26-year-old has a chance today to book yet another visit to the national stadium when Bradford City take on Reading in the FA Cup quarter-finals.
“I came to England when I was 16 years old, on my own, to be an apprentice at Derby County,” explains the Bantams defender to The Yorkshire Post.
“I was playing for the Victorian team and there was an academy that was set up by Derby for trials in Melbourne. They brought me over for a trial in England and I was successful so signed professionally.
“Unfortunately, I was later released. Derby were in the Premier League and had a lot of good players, who had cost a lot of money.
“After Derby, I really struggled to get a club – like a lot of players do when they have no experience as a professional.
“I found it really difficult and I was faced with a decision. Do I go back home to Australia or do I really give it a good go and try to make something of myself?
“I decided to give it a good go but it was lonely. I was in the country, on my own. At one point I was without a club for six months. I was running in a park in Derby every day on my own, just like Rocky Balboa!
“I got a club, in the end, but had to go all the way down to the Conference North. From there, I have had to work as hard as I can to build my career.”
Clearly, Meredith is not someone to let adversity get in the way of what he wants. No wonder, therefore, that his favourite Cup tale revolves around a club that went from the Southern League to beating Liverpool at Wembley inside 11 years.
“We didn’t get the coverage of the FA Cup in Australia like you do over here,” said the Bradford defender. “But everyone follows the FA Cup, everyone knows the biggest domestic cup in the world and the great stories that came out of it.
“My favourite is the Crazy Gang. It was brilliant. I read bits about it when I was younger but I watched a documentary on TV about Wimbledon recently and that was fantastic.
“Mind, I am not sure how I would have got on in a dressing room like that. With this tooth I would have had to put on a brave face.”
As Meredith chuckles at the thought of what sharing a room with the Crazy Gang, he also points to his missing tooth.
It has been knocked out a couple of times, the first when he was at York City in the Conference. He has been planning to sort it out but such has been the punishing schedule of fixtures for City recently that a visit to the dentist will have to wait.
By then, Meredith is hoping to be able to look back on another two visits to Wembley as Bradford chase a notable double of an FA Cup semi-final appearance and promotion via the League One play-offs.
If the Bantams do make it back to the national stadium, the club’s resident Australian will know his way around after three previous visits with York and two with Bradford in 2013.
“They were all fantastic occasions,” said a defender who helped the Minstermen to promotion from the Conference via a play-off final win at Wembley over Luton Town.
“Getting there with York was fantastic, especially in the play-offs. It took a lot of doing because the Conference is a very difficult league to get out of.
“But we managed to do it and it was a great thing for the city. I went to Wembley three times with York (two were FA Trophy finals). When you do the bus through the city, it’s just brilliant.
“And when we did it with Bradford, it was fantastic. I missed the League Cup final through illness but the support from the fans was great. The noise was incredible and I am sure people watching on television noticed it. It would have been great to have won the League Cup, of course.
“But Swansea (who triumphed 5-0) at that time were a fantastic team. We made up for it a couple of months later by getting to Wembley in the league and we did the business as well. We didn’t get there and fail that time. We went out all guns blazing.
“All of them were fantastic occasions but this would be even more special because it is the FA Cup. I think the FA Cup is that little bit more special.”