As headlines go, "Lower-division footballer forced to join Chelsea" sounds about as plausible as "Tartan Army to support England at Euro 2004". Being sold into slavery at Stamford Bridge would be most players' idea of heaven, but then Roger Freestone is a goalkeeper. Madness, he maintains, is in the job description.
Whether through craziness or courage, Freestone has been plunging at the feet of forwards for more than half his 35 years, and will do so again today when Swansea City visit Tranmere Rovers to contest a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Had things gone differently, he might have been guarding Chelsea's net at Highbury. But while the "silly money" thrown around by Roman Abramovich would have been useful, he values contentment in South Wales over cash in West London.
Freestone underlined the point by spurning a lucrative offer from Queen's Park Rangers to stay at Third Division Swansea two seasons ago. His Chelsea debut had been at Rangers, so long ago it was on the plastic pitch, much as his first FA Cup appearance was at Derby's old Baseball Ground. Which was in keeping with a career that began at Newport County's Somerton Park, where he started the eventual demolition by sticking a foot through the floor in the loft above the boardroom.
"Being in there 'helping' the groundsman when I was 17 was the nearest I'd been to the boardroom," Freestone recalls. "Then I was summoned to see the chairman. I'd played just 13 matches but Newport were broke and bottom of the Fourth Division. I was told 'You'll be signing for Chelsea tomorrow'. Not 'Will you talk to Chelsea?'. With hindsight I should have thought it over, but I was rushed into it and forced into signing."
Freestone's new manager, John Hollins, soon thrust him into the first team. "The last game of the season was before a full house against Liverpool in Ian Rush's final match before joining Juventus. He scored, of course. It was an unbelievable experience yet also a massive culture shock. It was too much, too young for me. I was just a homely Newport boy. But you learn from your mistakes."
There were consolations. He improved by working under Peter Bonetti and alongside Dave Beasant and Kevin Hitchcock. Household names like Pat Nevin and Kerry Dixon made him feel welcome. He even liked Ken Bates. "I remember going in to sign a new contract and Ken saying, 'I'm going to make you a very wealthy young man'. I thought, 'What's he going to give me?' It was something like an extra tenner a week!"
Chelsea loaned him to Swansea in 1989 and again two years later, when Frank Burrows, the first of his 10 managers there, made the deal permanent. He has seen some wild fluctuations in fortune at the Vetch Field: a victorious Autoglass final and a last-minute play-off defeat, both at Wembley; a Third Division championship triumph at Rotherham, tarnished by the death of a Swans' fan; and a last-day escape from the Nationwide Conference nine months ago.
In between the latter events came a remarkable, almost bizarre, one-off in 2000. Freestone was "chuffed" simply to be in the Wales squad for their end-of-season friendly but, having never been capped, he did not expect to play. Mark Hughes had other ideas and plunged him in at the deep end - against Brazil, before 72,000 in Cardiff.
"I used to watch the rugby on TV and see the Welsh players lined up, singing the national anthem. It was always something I wanted to do. When it actually happened, I was very emotional, almost choking. We kept them out for an hour, and though Rivaldo and Cafu scored and Brazil won 3-0, I look back on my one cap with genuine pride."
Tranmere's Gareth Roberts also faced the past and future World Cup-winners, and Freestone looks forward to seeing his Wales room-mate again. For both clubs, he suggests, disappointment with the draw has given way to a feeling that a place in the last eight is within reach. "If we'd gone to Old Trafford we'd have had a lovely day out and made enough money to keep the club going for quite a time. But the chances of winning would have been very slight. Now, without being overconfident or disrespectful to Tranmere, we've got a realistic chance."
Though this is his best-ever Cup run, if memories were medals his trophy cabinet would be groaning with gongs instead of housing his wife Sue's china cats. On his introduction to the competition with Chelsea, Peter Shilton was in Derby's goal ("TV billed it as 'The Master against the Novice'," he laughs) and Freestone saved a John Gregory penalty.
Amazingly, in the next round he kept out Brian McClair's spot-kick at Old Trafford but could not prevent Manchester United from winning. A year later, a third-round drubbing, 4-0 at Barnsley, cost him his place in Chelsea's side and set in train the events that led him back home.
With Swansea it has been famine or feast in the Cup. Take the mid-1990s. One year they were "lucky even to get a replay" against non-League Nuneaton and duly lost the replay; the next they beat Middlesbrough, Bryan Robson's First Division champions-elect.
Twelve months on, they crashed 7-0 at Fulham in the first round - "one of the lowest points of my career". Two years later came one of the highest in the form of two tussles with a West Ham side that included Rio Ferdinand, Frank Lampard and "Razor" Ruddock. "At Upton Park we were 1-0 up late on when Julian Dicks hit one through a crowd of players which went in under my body. I was devastated but the chairman was delighted because it meant extra revenue. He almost offered me a five-year contract on the spot!
"In the replay I made this vital save from Ruddock and we won. The press said I'd gone from zero to hero. Goalie is an unforgiving position. You can be brilliant for 89-and-a-half minutes. Then you make a mistake and you get flak. You must be mentally strong - as well as mad."
Which is where we came in. Swansea is where Freestone hopes to bow out, though not for a few years yet. His feeling for the club is strong, but life could have been different had his second loan spell gone badly. "I might not have been here," he reflects, as the self-mocking thought forms in his mind. "I may have still been at Chelsea, a multi-millionaire."Reuse content