Football: Guppy the left flank artist

Leicester's late developer aims for more than fifteen minutes of fame.
AS DREAM moves go it was like turning up in a Pickford's van outside that spooky- looking place on Elm Street. Yet, ostensibly, it had all appeared so propitious when Steve Guppy had been elevated from Third Division Wycombe Wanderers to Kevin Keegan's brash, vibrant Newcastle United, to play alongside the likes of Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley.

Steve Guppy recalled his Newcastle debut with typically wry humour. "I came on as substitute against Manchester United in the Coca-Cola Cup. It was 0-0 when I came on and we won 2-0 but I had nothing to do with either goal. I must have sensed that I'd never get another chance because when the goals went in I went mad, like it was me that had scored. I went running round waving at the crowd and milking their applause."

It could have been his 15 minutes of fame, which Andy Warhol decreed everyone should have, because that was as good as it got for the Winchester-born winger at St James' Park. Just three months after Keegan had signed him for pounds 150,000 in August 1994, the manager called him into his office and said, `Port Vale have made a bid for you. We've accepted and think you should go'."

That was a little over four years ago, and for some it might have been the beginning of a downward spiral to the obscurity of non-league football from where he had risen. Instead, like Ian Wright, the late-developing Guppy has prospered with age, so much so that at 29, and enjoying his best season yet, he is ranked by many as the best left-sided player in the country and a contender for Glenn Hoddle's next England squad, to be announced on Thursday week.

Certainly, his manager at Leicester, Martin O'Neill, has no doubts about the man who lined up for the England "B" team against Switzerland last year, claiming that he is "the best one-sided player in the country". O'Neill should know. Guppy played for four seasons under him at Wycombe - the first three in non-league - before moving to the North-east, where he returns on Tuesday for the Worthington Cup semi- final first leg against Sunderland. "I couldn't believe it," he said at the time. "I'm a brickie by trade and I thought they must have wanted me to help build the new stand at St James'."

He may as well have done so, the impact he made. "Maybe it was too big a jump at the time, in one go," admitted Guppy, whose principal regret is not being at Newcastle when David Ginola arrived. "Sometimes things work out for the best because I had two great years at Vale Park." They included a 2-1 defeat of the FA Cup holders Everton in the fourth round three years ago, although he nearly failed to make it. "I left at the usual time, but I got stuck in traffic because everybody was coming from work. There was something like 20,000. I knew I wouldn't make it, so I ran a good couple of miles, then hitched a lift with a couple of Everton supporters. I just got there in time, but while most of the lads were doing their warm-ups there was me on the treatment table having a rest. It all turned out brilliantly, though, because I made the winning goal for `The Hostage', Jon McCarthy."

Then, O'Neill, that master of polishing uncut diamonds, reclaimed the player who had been one of his squad that won promotion to the Football League in 1993. Indeed, Wycombe versus Carlisle away remains Guppy's best memory. "It was Wycombe's first game in the Football League and I scored the first goal in a 2-2 draw," said Guppy. "I went so crazy, I got cramp celebrating and I had to come off."

He added: "The gaffer gave me my chance in Premier League, when it didn't look as though anyone else would take a chance, to be honest. He kept faith and every game I play I'm repaying that. My dad, Keith, who played in goal for Winchester City and who had Terry Payne in his side at the time, comes to every match, and he tells me where I'm going wrong. I wouldn't be here if not for his encouragement."

Before joining Wycombe, Guppy had a trial at Southampton, the club he supported as a youngster, when his heroes were Mick Channon and Keegan, but failed to attract the club's interest. "Eventually, I stopped working as a bricklayer and went training on my own, doing fitness and ball work, and survived on the pounds 100 a week I was getting from Wycombe. I only turned pro at 23, so I was a late starter. Hopefully, there is better to come. I think that progressing the way I have has helped me appreciate what I've got."

Guppy has seen both sides of Wembley. "I played in a play-off final with Wycombe, and the FA Trophy twice and won all three, but the last time I went there with Port Vale in the Anglo-Italian Cup we were 4-0 down after 10 minutes against Genoa. It finished 5-2 and it was a terrible day." He missed out on playing in Leicester's 1997 Coca-Cola Cup final victory because he was cup-tied. "I just hope I get the chance to return, but it will be two tough games. They say winning's a habit, and Sunderland have got that at the moment."