The door to the Vere suite, venue for the Wycombe Wanderers press conference ahead of their Carling Cup semi-final tonight against Chelsea, was opened by an intense, shaven-headed man in a club tracksuit.
With his scarred cheek and piercing stare, team captain Tommy Mooney would not look out of place as a bouncer. But as this was Adams Park, home of the League Two side, which has earned a reputation for friendliness, decency and honourable achievement in recent years, perhaps Mooney's diligence was not so surprising. His subsequent thoughtfulness, too, belied appearances.
At 35, Mooney believed he had played his last big game. But that was before Wycombe, inspired by new manager Paul Lambert, embarked upon a Cup run to rival that of 2000-2001, when they earned a famous FA Cup quarter-final victory at Leicester City, then of the Premiership, thanks to a Roy Essandoh header, before losing 2-1 to Liverpool in the semi-final. This season, two other Premiership sides, Fulham and Charlton, have been left in Wycombe's wake as they have earned the right to contest a two-legged semi-final against a team Lambert describes as being "from another planet". The first close encounter takes place tonight at Adams Park, with the return at Stamford Bridge on 23 January.
"It's nothing short of monumental for the players to have got this far," said Lambert, who won a Champions' League winner's medal with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 before finishing his career at Celtic under the direction of the man who guided Wycombe into the League in 1993, Martin O'Neill. "We have earned the right to play Chelsea and we will give it a good go."
The club captain, very much the senior figure in a squad composed mainly of those in their early twenties, will be working hard to ensure that Lambert's intentions are carried out.
"It helps me to help the young lads," Mooney said. "I'll go round to them and try and make sure they don't make the mistakes I've made in the past. It's easy to get worried about playing Chelsea, but why would you? There's no need to worry about it - enjoy it. You need to take things seriously until the day of the game, but before the match it should be light-hearted.
"When I was young I worked with some good older pros, like Kerry Dixon at Watford. It's easy to frown upon what they say, but it's only when you become an older pro that you realise they were right. I appreciate it now more than I did then. Kerry was an abrasive player, but off the pitch he was very mild-mannered. I think the way he spoke to people was good. I try to do things in the same fashion."
Could the club captain recall any particular lesson he spent some time resisting? "Perhaps I should have gone home at midnight a few more times," he said with a faint grin.
If anyone is likely to take in the full experience of playing the champions, you feel it must be Mooney.
"Absolutely," he said. "I play each game as if it could be my last. I'm not going to play in the semi -finals again. I will certainly savour it and make sure when I walk off at the final whistle I've got no regrets."
Mooney's career has taken him from Aston Villa to Wycombe via Scarborough, Southend, Watford, Birmingham City, Stoke City, Sheffield United, Derby County, Swindon Town and Oxford United. It has given him a sense of perspective.
"I was never a Premier League standard player," he said. "I flirted with it, I played a couple of games, but I was confident in my ability at what is now Championship level. I was a winner in two play-off finals - for Watford against Bolton in 1999 and for Birmingham against Norwich in 2001. For a player like myself, those two were the biggest games I was going to get."
Lambert met up with his old boss at Villa Park earlier this month while watching the home team hold Chelsea to a goalless draw. He recalled that when he took up his job at Adams Park o!= an appointment which O'Neill strongly influenced with a vote of confidence to the board - the Villa manager had left him a message on his phone. "He said the only bit of advice he could give me was 'just win'," Lambert remembered, adding with a smile: "It was the greatest bit of advice I've ever had."
Wycombe's hope of carrying out O'Neill's precept will be affected by whether their thoughtful midfielder Stefan Oakes has recovered from a bout of flu. They will also look to striker Jermaine Easter, who already has 17 goals, to maintain his record of scoring in every round.
Mooney's hopes have risen, inevitably, with the absence of John Terry and the subsequent booking which has ruled out Ricardo Carvalho. The lack of cover is something he admits is strange. "But that's something I'm sure Jose Mourinho is well equipped to deal with," he said. "He's not going to be losing sleep over what centre-half he's going to be playing against a 35-year-old."
Realism. The gift of experience. But a goal from the Wycombe captain would be a fitting finale for an admirable career.Reuse content