The road that led Nicky Law from the marble halls of Highbury to the home Ilkeston Town built on an old council rubbish dump was full of twists and turns. But nothing prepared him for his first experience of the FA Cup as a non-League player.
Flashback to August. The car taking Ilkeston's Matt Carmichael to the preliminary round tie at Buxton broke down, so a YTS boy of 17 deputised. The striker finally arrived at half-time, went on and scored the only goal. As Law reflected, with a smile and a shake of the shaven head, it would never have happened at the Arsenal.
Ilkeston, whom the 36-year-old Londoner captains, as he did the Gunners' youth team 20 years and as many hairstyles ago, have now battled through six rounds. A Premiership side would have the Cup and a place in Europe to show for such a sequence. The Dr Martens League Midland Division club's reward is a second-round trip to Scunthorpe on Saturday.
For the majority of the mainly youthful squad assembled by Ilkeston's manager, Keith Alexander, pitting themselves against an above-average Third Division outfit may be as good as it gets. Law has known bigger occasions in a career spanning nearly 550 League appearances, yet looks upon the game at Glanford Park as possibly his last chance to seize the spotlight.
Until now it has played hard to get. As an England schoolboy international snapped up by Arsenal at 14, he served his apprenticeship before graduating to the professional ranks and becoming a regular in the reserves alongside Paul Davis, Chris Whyte, Paul Vaessen and Raphael Meade.
In 1979, a fortnight before Arsenal contested the FA Cup final with Manchester United, Law was substitute for the first team at Aston Villa. The 17-year- old defender was not summoned from the bench to join Pat Jennings, Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and Graham Rix and never came as close again to top-flight football.
"The manager, Terry Neill, said he wanted to put me on, but we were getting stuffed 5-1 and Villa were taking us apart. It wasn't the ideal time to send a young kid on."
Fast forward to last autumn. Law had no sooner left Chesterfield, the eighth of his 10 clubs, than they embarked on a run which took them to within a whisker of Wembley. Instead of helping them in the two semi-finals against Middlesbrough, he had to support them from the stands.
His biggest regret, however, is not making more of his time at Arsenal. "I was my own worst enemy," he said. "The opportunity was there and I wasted it. I was earning good money - pounds 150 a week was a lot 18, 19 years ago - but I probably didn't train hard enough and knuckle down to it.
"When my contract was up, they called me in. I could tell what was coming the moment I walked in to see Terry Neill. I suddenly realised I hadn't done enough. It was a sad day but Don Howe took me to one side and said: `You've got something - stick at it'."
Howe recommended him to Norman Hunter at Barnsley, where his time included a quarter-final tussle with Liverpool. Typically, he missed out through injury. Then came Blackpool, Plymouth, Notts County, Scarborough, Rotherham and Chesterfield. "What's kept me going," he said, "is the feeling that I let a golden chance slip by at one of the world's greatest clubs."
Last stop on his full-time circuit was Hereford, in what proved to be their final League campaign and "an absolute nightmare" for Law. "My manager at Chesterfield, John Duncan, said he couldn't guarantee me a regular place. I left a bit hastily and signed for Hereford on the understanding that I'd come in three days a week.
"When things started to go wrong it became six days a week. If we lost on Saturday we had to go in on Sunday. I was driving three hours each way from my home in Nottingham to do an hour and a half's training."
Alexander lured him back to Derbyshire midway through the season. Law has found aspects of the part-timer's life a culture shock - like the three-inch nail he trod on in the shower recently - but after what the manager describes as "a sticky start" this season his experience has been crucial in Ilkeston's promotion push.
Although Law thought he knew all about the lore of the Cup, their run has been an eye-opener. "When we went to Buxton with a few hundred people watching I remember thinking: `This is the FA Cup?' Then we drew Rossendale, who I'd never heard of. And you're wondering: `How many more'?"
RTM Newcastle, another name to test his credulity, came next. Followed by Hyde, Chorley and Boston United. "Believe me, this is the hard way. People in the pro game don't realise how hard some of these little teams graft."
Although Ilkeston will be the little team at Scunthorpe, they are heartened by scouting reports which suggest that their hosts allow opponents to play. Law, who also runs the club's Football in the Community scheme and coaches at Notts County's centre of excellence, acknowledges the size of the task but makes no secret of his third-round wish list.
"Arsenal away would be fantastic, of course. I'd love to go back. So many memories. Or Manchester United. After 10 goals I'd come off and say I was injured! But seriously, though we couldn't pretend to live with sides like that, it would be a great day. It's the perfect incentive for Saturday."Reuse content