Crossing swords with Chelsea once more: the Scottish striker with a Nigerian name

Colchester's Chris Iwelumo tells Phil Shaw of his hopes for Cup progress, promotion and international recognition
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The Independent Football

The surname gives no clue to his nationality. Yet his patter has a tartan twang and he hopes a Mr Smith might come to watch him. The Iwelumo clan may be relatively new, but he was born of a Scottish mother and Nigerian father in Lanarkshire, grew up in Kilmarnock and, though his wife is English, his heart leaps when the auld enemy lose.

Iwelumo's career has led him from Scotland to Germany, via Scandinavia, the Potteries and Sussex, with an uncharted stop at Celtic along the way. At 27, he has settled well at Colchester, contributing 16 goals to a side who have won 20 of their last 23 matches and are vying for promotion from League One as well as striving to reach the Cup quarter-finals. An international call-up would cap it all.

Whether Walter Smith would pick a player from the third tier of English football is a moot point - it would surely be viewed as a damning indictment of the Scottish game - but Iwelumo points out that he played for Stoke in the Championship. "A few from that division are in the Scotland set-up," he says. "Kenny Miller for one, who's a great finisher. What they don't have is a big, physical target man. I fit that bill."

And how. Iwelumo stands 6ft 4in, weighs 13st and feels he is a better player than when he made Berti Vogts' "future team" trial four years ago. "The idea was to find players for a trip to South Korea with Scotland. Then Stoke City got into the play-offs and I had to pull out. But I'm Scottish, born and bred, so I'd regard it as the ultimate honour."

As a "skinnier and more mobile" teenager, he turned out for Ayr and Kilmarnock before signing for St Mirren and making his debut while still at school. At 19 he moved to Aarhus in Denmark, where he pitted himself against the likes of Brondby and FC Copenhagen.

Iwelumo had long been a Celtic fan, to the extent that their interest in Ian Wright (during his Crystal Palace days rather than when he joined the Glasgow club late in his career) made him "follow" the England striker. So when he was invited to wear the hoops in a behind-closed-doors game against Dundee, he jumped at the chance.

"It was when Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes were in charge at Celtic. We won 3-0 but it never came about for me. I was a bit overwhelmed. I remember being at Parkhead and seeing the likes of [Henrik] Larsson. It was too much, too soon for me. I was very low after that."

Another winter break, another trial. He scored twice for Preston but while David Moyes weighed up his qualities, Stoke offered a test run and a deal. Soon he was at Wembley, coming on in the Auto Windscreens final. "I got my feet on the pitch," he laughs, acknowledging the venue's place in Scottish lore, "even if I did touch the ball just the once."

The FA Cup played a prominent part in his Stoke sojourn. He scored a volley timed at 82mph against Wigan. The visit of Everton, then under Walter Smith, was "90 minutes of rough and tumble" between Iwelumo and Scotland's David Weir. Chelsea followed a year later.

"Their back four was Mario Melchiot, John Terry, William Gallas and Graeme Le Saux. For some reason, I was asked to play on my own in a 4-5-1 system. It was frustrating. When you draw the top sides you can say, 'Get your money, get out and be happy'. But I think you have to go for it. You never know what might happen." Chelsea left 2-0 winners.

Falling from favour at Stoke, he was loaned to York and Cheltenham before joining Brighton and helping them to promotion. He expected to stay, only for Alemania Aachen, of the Bundesliga second division, to "blow the competition away", as he puts it, both financially and by dangling the carrot of Uefa Cup combat.

Alemania came through a group containing Seville, Lille, St Petersburg and Lille, and were within 10 minutes of beating Dutch leaders AZ Alkmaar before exiting. At home they competed with Eintracht Frankfurt, Cologne and TSV Munich. But Iwelumo found himself used as a perpetual substitute for a seemingly undroppable Erik Meijer, once of Liverpool. He began pondering a return to Britain.

Five days after he signed for the German club, his wife, Bianca, had found she was pregnant. "If we'd known," he says, "I'd never have gone to Germany." Their daughter Briseis (named after the love interest in the film Troy) was born 10 weeks premature, weighing 3lb 4oz, but is now 13 months old and a lively regular at Layer Road.

"I played against the manager here, Phil Parkinson, when he was with Reading. He's very special and he's going to be a top manager. He told me other managers said I was always flitting about and reckoned I needed to come back, play regularly and start scoring. I've played every minute of our league games, the goals are going in for me and the team are on a fantastic run."

Colchester's form has carried over into the Cup. They started with a club record-equalling 9-1 win over Leamington, "a strange one because it was 0-0 after 38 minutes and they got the best goal, an absolute whirly from 40 yards". Shrewsbury, Sheffield United and Derby County have also been beaten, but Chelsea away looks to many like mission implausible.

"I expect us to play two strikers and take the game to them," Iwelumo asserts by way of contrast with Stoke's caution. "We'll try our best to get something out of it. Huddersfield held them until late on. If we work our socks off and get lucky, you never know. Petr Cech might finally make a mistake! But these are world-class players."

Iwelumo plans to add to his collection of Chelsea memorabilia. But whichever way the tie goes, a credible Colchester performance may just lead him closer to the other blue shirt he covets.

How champagne and oysters started Layer Road tradition

"I got tremendous satisfaction from seeing 11 players do something which in theory was impossible."

Come tomorrow evening, Phil Parkinson might just be echoing the words of a previous Colchester United manager, Dick Graham, after the Fourth Division team beat the League leaders Leeds United 3-2 in a fifth-round tie 35 years ago.

A star-studded Leeds side trailed 3-0 after 55 minutes before a 16,000 crowd, who produced receipts of £10,500 at Layer Road. Chris Iwelumo's predecessor Ray Crawford, once of Ipswich and England, struck twice. Norman Hunter and Johnny Giles hit back but Colchester held on to complete arguably the greatest giant-killing.

Graham's men lost 5-0 at Everton, the champions, in the quarter-finals. In 1948, as a non-League team, Colchester beat Huddersfield and Bradford before falling at Blackpool. The part-timers, whose feats helped them win election to the League, attributed their success to champagne and oysters.

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