Ifill flowers - thanks to premium Bonds

Millwall winger could still have been at college - or playing with his dad
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The Independent Football

As he runs out at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff next Saturday to face Manchester United in the FA Cup final, Paul Ifill will be entitled to a small, disbelieving shake of the head. Is this really happening to me? It is a feeling he will share with many of his Millwall team-mates, most of whom could think of someone who has helped them fulfil this dream. In Ifill's case it is three people, Billy Bonds, Dr Antoni Jakubowski and his mother, Christine.

As he runs out at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff next Saturday to face Manchester United in the FA Cup final, Paul Ifill will be entitled to a small, disbelieving shake of the head. Is this really happening to me? It is a feeling he will share with many of his Millwall team-mates, most of whom could think of someone who has helped them fulfil this dream. In Ifill's case it is three people, Billy Bonds, Dr Antoni Jakubowski and his mother, Christine.

Off his own bat, this 24-year-old son of a Barbadian-English union has overcome plenty of adversity, starting with rejection from Watford's youth team as a 16-year-old. So Ifill went back to his home town, Brighton, enrolled on a physical education course at college and played non-League football in the same Saltdean United team as his father, Everton, who was 44 at the time.

There he was spotted and signed by Millwall, only for injury to hobble him at a crucial time when he was between contracts. Bonds, Millwall's manager then, told Ifill he had a month to prove himself. "That was on a Thursday and I'd only just got fit. We played Charlton on the Saturday and I scored four, and I scored two more the next week. I always thank Billy for the extra month's chance he gave me to prove myself. He took me into his office, showed me a contract and said, 'Sign that or get out'. He was quite intimidating, so I signed."

That was seven years ago, Ifill and the Australian Tim Cahill (Millwall's two longest servers) having arrived the same week. In those days Paul was a centre-forward but he was switched to the right because of injuries and has played there ever since. His back injury soon resurfaced and was preventing him sprinting, a basic requirement for a winger. "I went to see numbers of different specialists, but I was out for three months, couldn't do anything.I thought I would never get back."

Then Dr Jakubowski, who runs the Gonstead Clinic in Harley Street, was consulted. He diagnosed a pelvic flaw pressing on a nerve. "He did something to my back and, bang, I was able to sprint again the next day. It was as good as that. I even sent my mum up to see him because she has had trouble with her back for years and he fixed her, too. He is the man for me."

Ifill's parents split up just after he had arrived at Millwall. Dad will be in Cardiff on Saturday, along with a large contingent of Paul's pals from Saltdean. So will Christine. "My mum has done so much for me," he said. "She is my biggest critic, always ferried me about, moaning about having to do so, but she always did it. If I ever needed money to get trains anywhere she would provide it. Now she comes to every home game with my uncle."

Ifill has played 241 games for Millwall, the biggest one to date being last month's semi-final at Old Trafford in which his pass for a Cahill goal knocked out Sunderland. Soon after, Paul limped off with a groin strain but is now fully fit again. In Ifill's time as a first-team regular Millwall have reached, and lost, the Auto Windscreens Shield final, been in the play-offs twice and been Second Division champions. "So, yes, it has been eventful since I have been here."

Now comes the great moment of his career. "Can you imagine what it would be like, winning the final? Manchester United were never going to win the League this year. The Cup was the only silverware they were going to get, so obviously they'll be up there flying. That makes them more dangerous. But they're only 11 men. So are we. Now we're there we might as well have a go."

And the prospect of scoring the winner? "It's one of those things you dream about as a kid, isn't it? You never imagine getting this close. Now you're there." Ifill praises Wise for lifting Millwall's season when he became player-manager last autumn. "There had been a big bust-up about bonuses and a lot of the lads went into this season out of contract, myself included, so we were a bit flat. Now that's all been sorted out. I could have left on a Bosman at the end of this season but I always wanted to stay here and that decision has been vindicated by the Cup run.

"I liked [the previous manager] Mark McGhee. He did well for me and stuck by me. But I think he had taken the club as far as he could. It needed shaking up a bit and Dennis and Ray [Wilkins, his assistant] came in and did just that. You can see the team spirit now, and a lot of that has to do with people being rewarded for what they've done. Dennis is a leader, we all look up to him as a leader, and having him out there playing with us is a big bonus.

"He has set such a high standard, instilling the belief that we can perform to the highest of levels and have the ability to succeed. And he knows from his days as a player how to treat people, how be honest with them and tell them when they're not doing it. If you need an arm round your shoulder he'll give it to you, if you need a bollocking he'll do that, too."

Ifill admitted he "doesn't have a clue" what he would be doing if he wasn't playing football. "I would probably still be at college, doing all sorts of courses to avoid having to go out and work properly. I am just happy to be here because a lot of my friends are still playing non-League, and I could be too, on £25 a week with goal bonus on top." So thanks from Paul to Billy Bonds, Dr Jakubowski and, especially, Mum.

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