Sylvan Ebanks-Blake: 'I'm going into the top flight wide-eyed but confident'

Forced to cut off his dreadlocks before being allowed to join Man United as a schoolboy, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake's rise to the Premier League with Wolves has been far from ordinary
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Sylvan's Delight was the name of the horse backed by his father 23 years ago, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake thinks.

Sylvan something or other, anyway. And the winnings were still in his dad's pocket when he was born a few days later, hence his distinctive first name. But from tomorrow he must evoke a thoroughbred in deed as well as name. Nobody can question his goal-scoring pedigree in the Championship, but the division's most prolific striker in each of the last two seasons now steps up, with Wolverhampton Wanderers, to the Premier League. And he can hardly wait.

"I've never played in this league but I expect to learn pretty quickly," he says. "I will go in wide-eyed but confident. I don't think I need to make drastic changes to my game. In and around the box is where I pride myself. I can hold the ball up, mix it in the air, and I'm predatory. I know I won't get as many goalscoring opportunities this year, but I didn't need a lot of chances to score goals last year. If I got two or three chances then more often than not I had a goal."

As a teenager, Ebanks-Blake was on the books at Manchester United, so in his mind he has a fat asterisk next to 15 December, the day Wolves visit Old Trafford. "I'm really looking forward to pitting my wits against those defenders, having trained against them. And December's a big month, because we've got Tottenham and Liverpool away as well as United, and I've always been a Liverpool fan. But every game will be a massive challenge, starting with our opener against West Ham. There's not a game I'm not looking forward to, and every game's on Match of the Day, which I've grown up watching. But we're by no means here as spectators. We're here to mix it."

Last November, he mixed it in a less savoury sense, attacking a nightclub doorman in Plymouth and duly pleading guilty to a charge of actual bodily harm. He was given credit by the judge for his guilty plea and it is not a subject I wish to rake up, but all the same, could it be that the Premier League is about to be saddled with another badly behaved footballer, overpaid and, after a drink or two, overwrought? Those who know him insist not. They say he's a decent lad who made a mistake. But there will be those, perhaps in the pubs and clubs around Sutton Coldfield, where he lives, who seek to tease more mistakes from him. Is he ready, emotionally, for life as a Premier League striker, as closely scrutinised off the pitch as on? Is he happy to be entering the world of Baby Bentleys? Does he, indeed, covet a Baby Bentley?

"I don't, no. I drive an Audi. I'm very cautious with money, not tight, but tight enough. Material things don't motivate me. The motivation for me is competition and success. If I have £10m in the bank at the end of my career and no medals, I won't be satisfied. Not everyone's in a profession where they can win medals, but I am, and I want some. I'm competitive in everything I do, which is why I stopped playing computer games, because they determine my mood for the rest of the day."

Had this answer been scripted by the Wolves media liaison man, which I'm sure it wasn't, it could hardly be more fluent or impressive. And he is similarly eloquent when I ask him what his ambitions are.

"My ambition is to be the best I can be, and the only way I can do that is to perform well for Wolves. I want to help this club be successful and if I do that then there will be opportunities for bigger, better things." Those bigger, better things might include England. Ebanks-Blake has already played once at Under-21 level, and this football season, of course, culminates with a World Cup. Is South Africa 2010 even vaguely on his radar? "Not at all. I haven't even kicked a ball in the Premier League yet. If I score 10 goals in the first 15 games then I've every chance, but I'm not one to get ahead of myself."

Still, while we're playing hypotheticals, what if he enjoys a fantastic debut season in the Premier League, and finds himself pursued next summer by Liverpool and Manchester United? Which of the two would he rather join? He laughs. "I'd love to play for Liverpool but instinctively, probably Manchester United. To leave and then go back would be a huge achievement. But listen, that's pie in the sky..."

Wouldn't it be humble pie in the sky for Sir Alex Ferguson, though, if he was wanted back at Old Trafford three years after Fergie sold him to Plymouth Argyle? "Not really. In fact, maybe I'd be proving him right, not wrong, because if I'd stayed would I be in the first team, playing Premiership football? Maybe it was the right thing for me to go away for a few years."

Ebanks-Blake was 15, on schoolboy terms with Cambridge United when he was summoned for a two-week trial at Manchester United's Carrington training ground. "It was two weeks out of school, which was nice, and it couldn't have gone better. The first day I got there, with my family, he [Ferguson] knew my name. I don't think he'd seen anything of me, but he was obviously aware of all the ins and outs of the club, which impressed me. And at the end of that two weeks I got a phone call offering me a contract. The only thing was that I had dreadlocks, and they wanted me to cut my hair before I signed. That was a big thing for me because I'd grown them all my life. I thought, 'Why do I have to change my appearance to play this game?'

"But I got on with it, and I was given digs in Sale with a nice family, Janet and Terry. I shared with another boy, Luke Steele, a goalkeeper, who's now at Barnsley [and was man of the match in Barnsley's famous win at Anfield in the FA Cup last year]. Eventually I got a start in the Carling Cup, against Barnet at Old Trafford. We won the game 4-1 and I scored towards the end in front of the Stretford End. So one start for United, and one goal."

He was twice a substitute, too, in Champions League fixtures. One was the 3-0 away defeat by Fenerbahce in December 2004, the other a tie against Lille at Old Trafford the following October. "Van Nistelrooy scored a late winner, if I remember rightly." He doesn't, it was 0-0, but never mind. What, I ask him, did he learn from his Champions League experience?

"I got to see how the manager deals with some of the biggest stars in the world, and how much mutual respect there was. There wasn't much telling individuals what they should be doing, actually, they were just told to express themselves. It was brilliant as a young boy to see that. And it was a massive thing for me to have a Champions League squad number." A laugh. "Even though it was 40."

He broke his leg while he was at United, but bounced back and scored a couple of hat-tricks for the reserves. Ferguson also sent him on loan to Royal Antwerp – "a mixed experience, but an experience nonetheless" – but finally advised him to pursue his career elsewhere.

"I went to see him in his office and he told me there'd been an offer from Ian Holloway at Plymouth. He explained that United were in a transitional period, making it harder for the younger boys to get a game, and that in two or three years I'd be a good player, but that I should probably get some experience of first-team football. Ultimately it was down to me. He didn't force me out of the door, but his advice was second to none."

To meet Holloway and see the Argyle set-up, Ebanks-Blake travelled down by train. He chuckles, recalling what seemed like an interminable rail journey. "I thought 'Where am I going here?' but once you're down there it's a nice part of the country. The manager told me I was top of his list, and he had a No 9 shirt with my name on to try to force my hand a little bit, which was a nice gesture. He was brilliant to me and I learnt a lot down there, living by myself for the first time and all that. I was completely happy there. But there was a clause in my contract saying I could leave for £1.5m, and when Wolves expressed an interest in me in the [2008] January transfer window, it seemed right. I came and met the manager [Mick McCarthy] here and he said, 'If you sign this week, you'll play Saturday'. So I signed Thursday and played Saturday."

And? "And we got beat 3-0, Crystal Palace." A huge laugh. "I missed a header, a chance I should have done better with, and when we watched the video the manager said it was the same old story, missing chances. I thought 'What have I come to?' But I got off the mark pretty quickly after that, and I haven't looked back."

Towards the end of last season he was declared Championship Player of the Year at the Football League Awards at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, and also got the gong for the goal of the season, a humdinger against Charlton said by an older member of the Molineux faithful to have been the best goal he'd seen by a Wolves player for 40 years. But its scorer didn't turn up at the awards ceremony, for which he was lambasted by one newspaper columnist, citing him as an example of a spoilt footballing ingrate. "I thought that piece was harsh," he says equably. "It was my little niece's birthday party that day, and I'd promised my family weeks before that I'd be there. I was hugely grateful for the award, but my family comes before everything. I spoke to the manager and the chief executive about it, and they were understanding enough. I know I did the right thing."

Whether he did or didn't, he has made headlines this year for the wrong as well as the right reasons. Now he has a chance to consign the negative stories to history, and as he sits having his photograph taken in the boot room at the Wolves training ground, it again becomes apparent that, one nightclub fracas notwithstanding, this is no run-of-the-mill footballer. I ask him what other sports he enjoys, fully expecting the footballer's standard answer: the odd round of golf.

"Tennis," he says. "I like the mind games in tennis, the fact that it's just you with nobody else to blame. In football you can blame 10 others, shit pass or whatever, but in tennis you can't hide." He smiles. He has no intention of hiding on a football pitch, either.

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