About 10 minutes before kick-off at Wembley for the FA Cup Final, Gavin Peacock will do what he always does before a match. Most players have pre-match rituals. Wearing their lucky suit. Putting their kit on in a certain way. Hoping for luck in an uncertain world.
Gavin, Chelsea's midfield star, worth at least pounds 2.5m and scorer of the two goals that saw them through the semi-final, doesn't go in for such earthly superstitions. What he does is pray.
He finds a quiet spot, in the bathroom, perhaps even the toilet, closes his eyes and addresses the Lord. Out loud, if he is alone, otherwise quietly in his head. No need to draw undue attention.
Gavin may be the only committed Christian on that pitch, as far as he is aware. Several might have an inherited religious allegiance, but only Gavin has been born again. He saw the light when he was 18. Since then, he has tried to conduct his private and professional life in a way he thinks God would like.
So, Gavin, will you pray to score the winning goal? 'That wouldn't be right,' he smiled. 'I pray that the Lord will look after my family, keep them safe, that I'll be kept free from injury. I pray that I'll be a good witness for the Lord God out on the field of play . . .'
You don't have to know much about footballing life to be aware that in the heat of the moment footballers tell the odd fib. 'Our ball, ref,' they cry, when it clearly isn't. Awful oaths escape them at awful moments. Strikers have been known to dive when in the penalty box. There are those who set out to hurt others. Not very Christian.
Off the pitch, there are terrible temptations awaiting every player. Even the smallest club has dodgy hangers-on, offering dubious deals. Inside clubs, there are often cash inducements, under-the-counter attractions. Players in groups do dreadful things when drunk. Star players, married or not, are offered sexual favours, or go in search of them. Goodness, it's not easy, having moral standards in football.
Gavin sits solemnly, slim, dark-featured, still in his tracksuit, though training is over for the day. He's in the study of his modern semi in semi-rural Bexley, Kent. They call it the study as they have a bookcase there, filled with children's books collected by his wife, Amanda, some religious books, bit of Shakespeare, bit of history. Baby Jake, one year old this month, is asleep in the bedroom above.
Gavin nods when I go through the temptations, but doesn't want to spell them out himself. Not in his words. He fears the tabloids might pick sentences out of context. Nor does he want to criticise his fellow players. Oh, and by the way, he must not talk about the Cup Final. He's in the players' pool, which happens with every Cup Final team. They sell their pre-match quotes, their services, their photo opportunities, and the proceeds are divided.
Gavin will talk about his religious life, and has done so in a paperback out today, Never Walk Alone, which traces the careers of two Christian footballers. The other player is Alan Comfort, who also signed as a boy for QPR, went on to play for Middlesbrough. While Gavin has gone up the ladder, Alan dropped out prematurely after injury. (In July he starts a new career, when he is ordained as an Anglican priest.)
Gavin is 26, the son of Keith Peacock, who turned out 532 times for Charlton. 'I wasn't brainwashed as a boy. It was all I ever wanted to do in life - play football.' At 15, he played for England Schoolboys, which brought the big clubs sniffing around. He liked QPR best, thinking he'd progress quickly in a not-so-glamorous club. He also admired their manager, Terry Venables.
He carried on with his studies, doing two A-levels at night classes. He got a B in English, failed history and met Amanda, who was also studying for her A-levels in the evening, working in the day as a nanny. 'She was surprised when I told her I was a professional footballer. I think she expected someone with long hair who went to night-clubs and was a womaniser.'
She was also surprised when he told her he was a Christian. He had recently become one, thanks to his mother. 'I thought church was for little old people, not for people like me. But then I noticed a big change in my mother. Things that used to upset her didn't worry her any more. She'd been a very heavy smoker, but becoming a Christian helped her give up. It was a minor miracle.
'I went along to her Methodist church, met the minister, met the youth group, and they all seemed to have something I hadn't. They talked about Jesus as if he was one of their friends. I started praying to God, to let him into my life. There was no flashing of light. Just a gradual awareness. I was confirmed into the church and felt at peace. Amanda later did the same. No, my father has not joined. He's still considering it.'
Talk of Jesus in a football changing room can lead to a bit of stick. 'I expected it. If you wear a new tie or have a new haircut, you get picked upon. Becoming a Christian was something a bit different, so there was, let's say, some jovial ribbing. When they realised I was sincere, I think most people respected my beliefs. I was nicknamed the Rev, of course. When there were arguments in training about whether the ball was over the line, I'd be asked to adjudicate. I couldn't tell a lie, being a Christian. But, of course, if I went against my team, they'd say huh, call yourself a Christian?'
At the age of 19, Gavin had broken into the QPR first team, but not become a regular. He decided on a gamble, dropping two divisions to join Gillingham, where his father was manager. Ten weeks after joining, his father was sacked - 'unjustly', says Gavin. 'I felt very bitter.'
After 18 months he moved to Bournemouth, then Newcastle, helping them last season to win promotion to the Premier league, playing most of the season as captain. At the beginning of this season, Chelsea paid pounds 1.2m for him, Glenn Hoddle's first signing as manager. The Blessed Hoddle is also a born- again spiritual person. Was this a factor? 'I don't know. I haven't talked to Glenn about God or religion. He's the manager and I'm the player. We have a manager-player relationship, not a social one.'
Has God made you a better player? 'Well He hasn't given me another yard of pace, which would be handy, but He has guided me in my career, helping me with all the decisions I've made. He gave me the talents to be a footballer, and as a Christian, I realise you have to maximise and use the talents you are given. My faith has helped me to relax, get things in perspective, handle the ups and downs, so it has made me a better player in that sense.'
Do you swear? 'Not in my normal life, but I might on the pitch. I'm not perfect. Christians admit their imperfections. In a heated situation, I might lose my reasoning powers, and let out a swear word. But I'd never cheat or go over the top to injure someone. But I am aggressive. Football demands that. I play to win.'
When it comes to more boisterous off-the-field activities, Gavin usually makes an excuse and leaves. He doesn't go drinking. He rarely goes to night-clubs, preferring to read his Bible, which he does every night.
Once a month he meets with other Christian players - Cyril Regis of Wolves, Chris Powell of Southend, Ric Huxford of Millwall, Stuart Munday of Brighton and Dennis Bailey of QPR. 'It's good to meet up with other people facing the same problems. We pray together.'
So far, he has not had to put up with any taunting from rival fans, as his Christianity is not generally known. 'I play in the middle of the pitch, so it is hard to hear what people are shouting at you.'
The main reason for accepting the move back south, which surprised and upset many Newcastle fans, was to be nearer his and Amanda's families after the birth of Jake. He was born with half his right arm missing, from below the elbow. 'It was a chance in 10,000. Nothing to do with any drugs. A baby is held in an amniotic sac in the womb, but by some fluke, one of the threads in the sac got loose, wrapped itself round Jake's arm and stopped it growing.
'I was present at the birth. It was a very hard one. Amanda was in labour for two days. I went from being the happiest I've ever been in my life, seeing it was a boy, to being the saddest. All in a few seconds.
'But after that initial shock, he's just become, well, Jake. A lovely baby. If anything, his development's been ahead, with things like crawling and walking. He can already do three steps, and he's not even one yet . . .'
'Five steps,' corrected Amanda, bringing Jake down from his sleep to play in the living-room. He has a false hand, like a doll's hand, which he can slip into and use, enabling him to pick up a ball.
'In six months he's going to be fitted with an electric hand,' said Gavin. 'It will look like a real one. There are sensors which mean that when he moves it in a certain direction, the fingers will automatically open and close. So he should be able to use it to pick things up.'
Was there ever a moment when you felt God had let you down? 'Of course not. We don't blame God. Jake is perfect for us. He has the body he has been given him, and he wouldn't be Jake, otherwise. It's strengthened our faith, if anything. We put our trust in God, and He has seen us through. Jake is the best thing that's ever happened to us.'
Even better than getting to Wembley? 'No question.'
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies