WEM­B­LEY WAY

Bris­tol City and Wal­sall get set for Johnstone’s Paint Tro­phy fi­nal

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

WHEN Luke Free­man walks out un­der the Wem­b­ley arch to­day, he will not just be Bris­tol’s City’s tal­is­man.

The mid­fielder – 23 to­day – will be the JPT fi­nal’s star at­trac­tion; its Messi, its Ali, its Hulk Ho­gan or Ul­ti­mate War­rior. The man widely tipped to be League One’s player of the year in May is the player ev­ery neu­tral wants to see. And yet, by his own ad­mis­sion, it has taken Free­man a long time to live up to ex­pec­ta­tions.

Aged just 15 when he made his de­but for Gilling­ham in 2007, the fresh-faced school­boy was the youngest player in FA Cup his­tory. A week later, he was play­ing in League One.

Gills boss Mark Stim­son called Free­man a “spe­cial tal­ent”.West Ham and New­cas­tle of­fered tri­als and made bids. Ar­se­nal even­tu­ally won the day, pay­ing a fee of £200,000.

Asked to re­call those days, when most kids are squeez­ing GCSE re­vi­sion into a packed sched­ule of Playsta­tion and dou­bles down the park, Free­man laughs.

“At the time, you don’t even take it in,” he says. “I was too young. Now, I look back and I think ‘Bloody hell, did I re­ally do that?’ It was a big achieve­ment. I think I’m still the youngest player in the FA Cup to this day. I was play­ing for Gilling­ham’s first team.

“But at 15, you’ve got no per­spec­tive. It’s just the next step. Your mum or dad picks you up at school, drops you at foot­ball, you get told where to go and what to do.

“Then one day some­one says ‘You’re in the team’. I just drifted through the whole thing with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing that it was even un­usual.”

Ed­u­ca­tion

But then Free­man dis­ap­peared, swal­lowed up by the academy sys­tem. He learned from the best. He played with the best; Jack Wil­shere, Fran­cis Co­quelin, Wo­j­ciech Szczesny.Yet in four years at Ar­se­nal, he played just 20 first team games – 13 of them for Yeovil and the other seven for Steve­nage.

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Free­man. “I’m very grate­ful to Ar­se­nal. I don’t think I’d be the player I am to­day with­out them. Ev­ery day is a foot­ball ed­u­ca­tion and from what I was then to where I am now – in a tech­ni­cal sense – is night and day.

“But you have to re­mem­ber that I’d had a taste of first-team foot­ball at 15. I didn’t want to be play­ing in youth and re­serve games. I wanted to play in big games in front of big crowds. I wanted it to mean some­thing. That al­ways played on my mind.

“Be­sides, I’d seen the way other play­ers chucked them­selves in at the deep end at an early age and reaped the benefits later in their ca­reer.”

It doesn’t come much deeper than Steve­nage, the club Free­man joined in Jan­uary 2008. Though just 30 miles and a cou­ple of train stops north of the Emi­rates, Broad­hall Way may as well have been a dif­fer­ent planet. For Free­man, though, it was the per­fect next step.

“I left Ar­se­nal think­ing ‘I need to re­store my rep­u­ta­tion’ but the truth is I didn’t re­ally make a name for my­self in the first place,” he says.

“It’s not like I left Ar­se­nal as some kind of won­derkid who’d played in the first team. No­body re­mem­bered Gilling­ham. I was es­sen­tially start­ing from scratch. That’s why I went to some­where like Steve­nage. I wanted to prove I could make a name for my­self on per­for­mances, not just be­cause I’d been at Ar­se­nal.”

He did, too, scor­ing 17 goals in 128 games, help­ing Boro reach the League One play-off semis in 2012 and sweep­ing the board at last sea­son’s player of the year awards.

More­over, a man many re­garded as a luxury player thrived un­der the man­age­ment of Gra­ham West­ley, whose de­vo­tion to uber-fit­ness, dou­ble train­ing ses­sions and ob­ses­sive

anal­y­sis have bro­ken many an ex­pe­ri­enced vet­eran. At the end of the day, every­body has dif­fer­ent thoughts and philoso­phies on how to play the game says Free­man, who who joined bris­tol City in the sum­mer fol­low­ing Boro’s rel­e­ga­tion to League two.

“Gra­ham’s is just an­other one. You’ve got to be men­tally strong for it. You’ve got to work hard. But it didn’t hin­der me.

“Some play­ers, it maybe gets too much.They can’t han­dle the phys­i­cal de­mands and lev­els of fo­cus he re­quires. But, for me, I just bought into it and cracked

on. “It has done me good be­cause I’ve de­vel­oped that phys­i­cal side to my game. I some­times speak to peo­ple who haven’t seen me for a few years and they say ‘You’ve changed – you can do the mileage as well’.

“You need that as a player. You look at some­one like Alexis Sanchez, who has come to the Pre­mier League and ab­so­lutely lit it up.That’s not just be­cause he scores goals – it’s be­cause he works in­cred­i­bly hard off the ball. The mod­ern-day player has to do both sides.

“It’s funny, be­cause if you’d told me how my ca­reer would pan out when I was 15, I’d prob­a­bly be dis­ap­pointed.

Unas­sail­able

“But look­ing at it now – go­ing to Ar­se­nal and get­ting the tech­ni­cal as­pects, then to Steve­nage and learn­ing the phys­i­cal side – I see it as the per­fect ed­u­ca­tion.”

It is this com­bi­na­tion of beauty and brawn that has helped City climb to an al­most unas­sail­able po­si­tion atop League One and odds-on favouritism in to­day’s fi­nal against Wal­sall.

Steve Cot­ter­ill’s Robins have won all but one of their last seven games and Free­man says to­day is due re­ward for sup­port­ers who have spent the last five years watch­ing their team on a grim down­ward spi­ral.

“The last few years have been a real strug­gle,” says Lon­don-born Free­man, who will have 22 friends and fam­ily watch­ing from the stands. “But you just need to come to our games to see that there is real buzz around the city again.

“Right from Au­gust, the manager has seen what we are ca­pa­ble of. And the longer the sea­son has gone on, the more we’ve re­alised it, too.

“There’s so much be­lief and the team ethic is the best I’ve known.The club is go­ing places and it’s great to be part of it. We’ve dom­i­nated this sea­son – I just hope we dom­i­nate to­day.”

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Images

YOUNG GUN: Play­ing for Ar­se­nal RUN­NING FREE: Luke Free­man on the burst for Bris­tol City against his first club, Gilling­ham

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