As far as surreal sporting experiences go, few can rival a team of Nuneaton amateur footballers who lived out their dreams this week.
On a rain-lashed evening at the 52,000-seater St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, CJ’s Bar and Restaurant lifted the BT Sport Pub Cup.
With former Leicester City and Wales international footballer-turned-television pundit Robbie Savage assisting him in a dugout normally occupied by Magpies boss Rafael Benitez, CJ’s Bar and Restaurant team manager Adam Green steered his side to a 4-3 victory over Scottish side The Inn Elderslie.
“To play at stadiums like that, those chances don’t come around much,” said Green, who was recently appointed as co-manager of Midlands League Division One club Nuneaton Griff.
“That’s what I said to the lads, some of you boys will never, ever experience this again. We’ve knocked out last year’s winners, let’s go and put the nail in the coffin. Let’s seal the deal.”
A brace of goals from Ryan Harkin, who has recently signed for Nuneaton Borough, and a strike from Lewis Commins saw the sides enter the final quarter-of-an-hour with the scores tied at 3-3 before Brady Middleton scored the winning goal.
“We started off really well, went 1-0 up, cruising, and then we just collapsed for the next 30 minutes. I got in the changing room and had a bit of a blast at them as Robbie Savage mentioned on Twitter! We came out second-half and turned it back on again.”
Playing Coventry City pedigree players at home of Leicester City
The journey to the final began with a speculative phone call from Shane Coates-Jarman, owner of the Prince in Arbury Road and CJ’s restaurant, located above the pub.
“Shane rang me saying the pub had won a competition and we could enter a team to play at the King Power Stadium (home of Leicester City),” said Green.
“I said leave it with me, I reckon I could get a really good side. Then when I found out it was on a Monday, I thought, I am going to struggle with lads getting time off work.
“There was eight teams in it, two groups of four, seven-a-side with 15 players allowed in each squad. In the end I ended up with eight players. We had one sub, it was hard going.
“We went there just for the crack. We never expected to win it. The team we played in the final had ex-Coventry City Academy players. We ended up winning it on penalties.”
Progressing through Manchester City-based match with 0.5 per cent possession
The next step of the journey saw the CJ’s side head to Premier League champions Manchester City’s Etihad training campus where the 10 regional winners met in two groups of five, playing 30-minute long 11-a-side games.
Green picked up the story: “The top team from each group played a straight off final, there at Man City.
“We had last year’s overall winners in our group, so we thought, this is going to be really difficult. But they lost a game and we won all our games. It came down to us playing them in the last group game.
“We just needed a draw or a win, they had to beat us by two goals or more.
“We just camped in the 18-yard box. I don’t think I’ve ever played in a game where I’ve had 0.5 per cent possession!”
That rearguard action booked a place in the Manchester-based final which CJ’s won 3-2 to secure a shot at silverware at St James’ Park.
Faced with the prospect of a 400-mile trip on a Tuesday night, Green endured a ‘nightmare’ to get his squad together with players juggling work commitments, the team headed north on a luxury coach normally reserved for Premiership footballers.
John Hartson and Robbie Savage go head-to-head – but Greeny is at the wheel
Opponents The Inn Elderslie gained the coaching support of former Coventry, Arsenal and West Ham United striker John Harstson while Green and his CJ’s side had Robbie Savage assisting from the sidelines.
“Robbie was in the changing room with us when we did all the team talk, he sat on the bench with us all through the game, he was helping me, giving me tips.
“He said to me, ‘look Greeny, you’ve done all the work, it’s your team, you know all the lads, I am not going to get too involved but I am here if you want help. At half-time he gave his little bit of advice, he gave us some advice before the game too.
“St James’ Park was unreal. The stadium is massive. You see it on the TV you think ‘wow’, but when you actually play on it, it was like playing on a carpet.”
Having lifted the trophy, the players were treated to a post-match meal and free drinks before the long bus journey home commenced, arriving back at CJ’s at 3am.
Among them was bar/restaurant owner, Coates-Jarman, with a £5,000 BT Sport shop voucher to spend and free BT Sport secured for the pub for a year.
He said: “Fair play to the lads. They were absolutely brilliant, we never thought we were going to win it but Greeny but a great side together. We’re back in it for next season too!”
The final word, of course, goes to winning player/manager Green, who said: “It’s just been a surreal, whirlwind experience. A bunch of local lads thrust into something and giving it a good go, and ending up going all the way.
“It’s something that will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.”