Football: Pint and a pizza keeps Marples on his toes

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The Independent Online
Chris Marples posed for photographs lying back in his seat, holding a pint in one hand and a fag in the other. "If it was good enough for Leeds in the Seventies it's good enough for me," he said. "They're drinking and smoking in every picture you see."

It was not a normal portrait of a footballer about to play the biggest game of his career, although no one could accuse the Emley goalkeeper of being conventional. He might have been preparing to face the West Indies as England's wicketkeeper; he has a two-foot steel rod in his leg; there is absolutely no chance of his meeting a curfew before the club's FA Cup third-round tie at West Ham on Saturday.

Throw in the fact that he has been Emley's saviour in two penalty shoot- outs, his nicknames (derived from his bright orange shirt and a, shall we say, full figure) are Tango man or Tellytubby, and that the west Yorkshire club from the Unibond League have never been to the second round before never mind the third, and Marples is a bona fide leading actor in the commodity they call the romance of the Cup.

Marples, 33, joined Emley (population 1,800, average attendance 250) after a broken left leg ended a career that spanned more than 300 League games and spells at Chesterfield, Stockport County, York City and Chesterfield again. A phone call from Ronnie Glavin, Emley's manager, persuaded him to try non-League and this season, particularly in the Cup, he has been outstanding.

In the first round he made three saves in the penalty shoot-out against Morecambe and two more against Third Division Lincoln City in the last round.

"I have a routine," Marples said. "I watch which corner the players look at first and study the way they run up to the ball. This year it's come off all right, other times I've looked a right fool. I had a terrible penalty record at Chesterfield."

Against Morecambe and Lincoln, Emley had to score goals in the last five minutes to earn extra time and the shoot-out. Go in to the village and the message is consistent about Saturday's game. West Ham (members 8,000, plus, average attendance 23,00) will probably win but not as easily as they think. Three people were almost word for word the same: "This team never know when they're beaten."

Marples knows more than anyone. His broken leg came when he dived at the feet of a Scunthorpe player three years ago almost to the day. "The lad tried to jump me to be fair," he said, "but my leg got caught in the turf and collided with his knee, breaking the tibula and fibula. It was very nasty. At the time there wasn't any pain, but 10 minutes later I felt it all right."

Three operations and 18 months trying to get fit proved futile in Football League terms and he will play at Upton Park with a quarter-inch rod running through a bone from the top of his knee to his ankle. Fine, unless he gets a serious injury which would entail smashing the tibula completely to remove a piece of metal that will bend but not break.

"I worried about it at first, but the surgeon says I'll be all right if its kicked," he said. "I've been advised to have it removed, but at the moment I'm having no pain, so while it's like this I'll keep it in."

Marples, as he admits, did not always show such fortitude. Big things were expected of him when he succeeded Bob Taylor as Derbyshire's wicket- keeper at 19, playing as first choice for the county in 1985 and 1986. He was young, talented, but too keen to go to the bar.

"I was a young lad then and things were coming too a bit too quick. I'd just won the Fourth Division championship with Chesterfield at football and I had too much time on my hands and I like a pint, so... If it had happened a few years later I'd have handled it better.

"I blame myself. There was talk about me going a long way in cricket, but I didn't prepare myself properly for the game. It got to the stage where you have a drink after the game, you drink at the hotel, with the meal, afterwards in the bar.

"I was my own worst enemy. Geoff Miller and Kim Barnett both had words with me but, being a young lad, you think you know better than anyone else. In some ways I wish I could turn the clock back, but I've had a good football career, enjoyed my life."

Marples probably could not change anyway. Even at the start of the current run, which began at Workington on 13 September and will stretch to nine matches at West Ham, he was out with Barnsley's manager, Danny Wilson, on the eve of the game and he now considers it an essential good-luck omen that he does the same before every Cup tie.

"I'd had a few beers with Danny and on the way home I stopped and had a pizza - a margharita with garlic on it. I get stick off the players' wives saying `you're humming, get away from me' but I've had it every round.

"Danny says I ought to stay up here on Friday, go to the pub with him and he'll drive me down to the match on Saturday morning, but I don't think Ronnie would like that. So Friday night in London I've got to find a nice garlic pizza. And some beers."

At least he will have a presence in the penalty area on Saturday and he expects he is going to need it. "Realistically, we've got no chance. In the old days you used to get more shocks, but now I think the Premiership is pulling away from the rest. Our attitude will be that we've got to enjoy the day. We're not a kicking side, we'll try to play them at football and hope we don't get slaughtered.

"When I came to here I never thought I'd play a Third Division side again never mind the Premier League. If we get beaten five, six or seven, I'll still enjoy it."

As Marples points out, the omens are not promising. Both a dislocated shoulder and his broken leg came in the last two Januarys he played, but at least someone is optimistic. Under the Welfare Ground main stand some one had gone to the trouble to change the lettering on the official notice board. It read: "Emley FC welcomes the directors and officials of West Ham FC to the FA Cup replay. 14 January, 1998."

If it happens no one will enjoy the occasion more than Marples.