It's not often that a footballer can say: "Vinnie Jones saved my career." Threatened to end it is the more usual declaration. But when Nevin Saroya takes the field today for the most eye-catching tie of the FA Cup third round there will be a quiet word of thanks for the former Wimbledon midfielder who lifted the trophy himself in 1988.
Saroya's gratitude comes from a more recent experience, and one to do with Jones's subsequent film career. "I never expected to be in a blockbuster movie," says the 24-year-old defender. But then again he probably never expected to be playing for Yeading, from the Ryman League Premier Division, against Newcastle United, live on television.
Critics may question elevating Jones's 2001 bread-and-butter remake of the old Burt Reynolds film The Mean Machine to the status of blockbuster, but Saroya doesn't care. After all, he was an out-of-work former Brentford player who had also fallen out of love with football when the opportunity arose to put a bunch of actors through their paces in preparation for the film. And now he is swapping one big stage for another.
Saroya takes up the story. "I had done a two-year apprenticeship at Brentford and was fortunate enough to turn professional. But then, after a year and a half, Ron Noades [the then manager-owner] decided to release me." The experience, after he had broken into the first team, affected him deeply. Despite interest from Conference clubs, Saroya admits he was "disillusioned" with football, "so I stopped playing".
Six months were spent, unemployed, at home until he got a call from the one-time Brentford coach Wally Downes, Jones's former Wimbledon team-mate, who was helping out on the film. "I had always got on well with him, so he asked me if I would come down here to Yeading and help the actors get fit and show them a few ball skills," Saroya explains. The film is about a footballer - played by Jones - who goes to jail and turns out for the prison team. Saroya, at an imposing 6ft 3in, was soon recruited to be one of his team-mates. "And I ended up doing two months' filming."
During that time Saroya's confidence returned - as did his love of the game. "He [Jones], along with the other actors, became my friend, and was pushing me to get back into football and give it another try," Saroya says. "It gave me the boost I needed, and the hunger. It was a massive compliment, obviously, and Vinnie doesn't mince his words. But he's also a gentleman and looked after everyone around him and, yeah, he told me I should be playing football, basically."
In one of those serendipitous moments, a schoolfriend of Saroya's then dropped by his house "and asked me to come down to Yeading. The manager offered me a contract and I've been here ever since."
Yeading - "The Ding" - have only been in existence for 40 years, growing out of a youth team based at a nearby pub called The Industry. They survive on gates of just 132, supplementing their income by renting out their ground for films such as Mean Machine and Bend It Like Beckham and television adverts. Their collection of van drivers, plasterers and warehousemen - Saroya is a courier - are paid between £30 and £70 a week, among the lowest wages in their league, which they lead by nine points. Only once have the club ever paid a transfer fee. "We pay to play, basically," says Saroya. Yeading and Newcastle are not only six divisions apart - it is claimed to be the biggest-ever gap between teams playing each other at this stage of the Cup - but worlds apart.
"It's a bit surreal," acknowledges Saroya. "We could not believe it when the draw came out, because just getting to the third round was such a massive feat. It's a huge thing for the club financially, as well as an amazing game to remember." Yeading will benefit by around £250,000. They tried to comply with Football Association rules and play the tie at their tiny Warren ground, on an Middlesex industrial estate near Heathrow, but that was impossible. Instead it has been switched to Queen's Park Rangers' Loftus Road stadium - the ground where Jones ended his own playing career.
Saroya admits Yeading's chances of a Hereford-style upset are somewhere between "slim and none". "We know that Newcastle are a better team, and that nine times out of 10 they are going to beat us," he adds. But there is extra motivation. "We want to come out and show people that we have got some ability," Saroya says. People such as those at Brentford. "Very much so," he agrees. "I've had people telling me I should be playing a lot higher, but until you've done that, and someone takes a chance on you, it's no good. But after being released I feel I have got something to prove - not just to myself but to other people."
He still harbours dreams of a professional career ("I don't think there's any point playing if you don't dream of doing so at a higher level") which intermingle with daydreams of today's match. "I find myself at work thinking about scoring the winning goal or making a last-ditch tackle," Saroya says. The latter, he admits, is more likely, even if there is also a rugged disciplinary record to live down. Saroya missed the season's start because of a sending-off at the end of the previous campaign. On his return he was dismissed in a reserve game and received a 35-day ban. "I play football with a passion," Saroya says. "I wear my heart on my sleeve and sometimes I get a bit carried away."
It's probably why Jones - who invited Saroya to the film's Leicester Square premiere "but the manager wouldn't let me go as I'd already missed one match!" - took a shine to him. The defender will certainly not lack in commitment. "We're going to fight 100 per cent, and if that's not good enough on the day then we'll just hold our hands up," he says. "We've got nothing to lose. Indeed, we're expected to lose. If we get beat 8-0 it will not be a shock. So I'm just hoping that myself and the other players can show what we can do, and if we can cause an upset... well, we've got our fingers crossed."
And the ending of Mean Machine? The underdogs won, of course. "Let's see if it can happen again," says Saroya. Now that would make some script.Reuse content