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Heroes to be made in FA Cup

Ah, FA Cup Third Round weekend. With supporters back in after a year’s absence. Let the dreams begin!

Ashley Hemmings celebrates with Kidderminster Harriers fans
Ashley Hemmings celebrates with Kidderminster Harriers fans

Still one of the most exciting and often dramatic dates on the footballing calendar, even with the games spread out over several days and fans no longer having to nip out for lunch and huddle around their transistor radios on a Monday lunchtime to listen to the draw for the next round.

For Wolves this year however, perhaps not so much.

Nor Sheffield United really.

The romance of the cup is unlikely to be gracing Molineux on Sunday for the ‘Morgan Gibbs White derby’.

Let’s be honest, this isn’t the winner-takes-all of the Millennium Stadium in 2003.

Instead for both teams – who reached the semi-finals together in 1998 and have also done so again since – Wolves once and United twice - it’s about simply trying to book a place in the hat for the next round.

The interest, the nail-biting, the drama, well that is more likely to circle the four non-league clubs involved this weekend, and in that respect, for several former Wolves personnel, a sense of eager and nervous anticipation is very much alive and kicking for the famous old tournament.

Mark Little is only just returning to fitness after injury with Yeovil so the National League team’s FA Cup tie with Championship leaders Bournemouth may just come slightly too soon.

And there is no ex-Wolves influence in the Boreham Wood squad taking on AFC Wimbledon, albeit defender Ben Goodliffe – now with Sutton United – moved between the two clubs in 2017 and then Academy defender Connor Johnson went the other way on loan.

But for the other two non-league teams, Chesterfield and particularly Kidderminster Harriers, there is a sprinkling of former Molineux men aiming to spring a surprise.

Midfielder Jim Kellermann didn’t make a first team appearance during several years at Wolves.

On Saturday he will be part of a Chesterfield squad – currently leading the National League - going up against the reigning Champions League holders Chelsea, at Stamford Bridge.

Twenty-six year-old Kellermann, who slammed home the Spireites’ second goal in their giant-killing against Salford in the last round, could find himself locking horns with the likes of Kante and Jorginho, Mount or Pulisic, and the rest of the star-studded Blues line-up in the early evening kick-off.

What an experience for a player first scouted by Wolves at the age of 14 who would spend six years at Molineux before moving on to Aldershot, St Mirren and Kidderminster Harriers, amongst others.

Talking of the Harriers, themselves harbouring genuine promotion hopes a tier below Chesterfield in National League North, the visit of Championship side Reading to what will no doubt be a frenzied Aggborough offers an opportunity, albeit a tough one, of adding another chapter to their FA Cup heroics of recent history.

Most famously, back in 1994, a run to the last 16 included a third round victory away at Birmingham City lit up by a match-winning screamer from former Wolves forward Jon Purdie. It was some goal.

Twenty years later Harriers were edged out 1-0 at Premier League and Capital One Cup finalists Sunderland in the fourth round whilst, in between times, they nearly pulled off the greatest upset of all at home to Wolves.

It was the last minute of normal time in the third round meeting of 2004 when Alex Rae popped up to equalise for Dave Jones’ side against a Kidderminster team managed by Jan Molby and featuring current Wolves Under-23s coach Sean Parrish within their engine room.

At that time there was a young defender within the Wolves Academy set-up by the name of Keith Lowe, who would go on later that year to make his senior debut at just 18 and enjoy a sustained run in the first team.

Now, aged 36, Lowe is in his third separate spell with the Harriers, and is still going strong.

Back in September, in the first of Kidderminster’s FA Cup assignments of the season in the second qualifying round, he was at the heart of the defence in front of a crowd of 687 on the 3G pitch at the Guardian Warehousing Arena, keeping an impressive and energetic Sporting Khalsa side at bay in a 3-1 victory.

And, loving it as much as he always has.

“I still just really enjoy playing football, and Kidderminster is a great club to be at just at the minute,” says Lowe.

“It’s a team that is pushing for things, not just going through the motions, and for me, still going at my age, that is a real bonus.

“If you have that love for football it doesn’t matter if you are out there playing in a park or in front of thousands at Molineux, it is a game which puts smiles on people’s faces and none more so than mine when I am playing.

“It’s a blessed position to be in to be honest.”

Fans of the 13 clubs which Lowe has represented either permanently or on loan would certainly recognise that quote as the sign of a self-effacing personality who gets on with his job with maximum endeavour and minimal fuss.

Twas ever thus, from the time Lowe, a self-confessed introvert in his younger days, was surprised to be chosen as a substitute for the first team for Wolves at Newcastle in the final Premier League home game of 2003/04.

However, that natural shyness of youth didn’t stop him putting his hand up when the squad were asked who wanted to take a penalty ahead of his debut, a League Cup tie away at Rochdale which saw an early 2-0 deficit transformed into a 4-2 win.

Lowe laughs. “I think it was the other lads laughing when I did that – I suppose I was trying to show I had the balls to step up if needed.

“Going a couple of goals behind was a bit worrying but I just tried to concentrate on my game and do whatever I could for the team.

“I had some really good lads around me – Mark Clyde, Rob Edwards, Incey (Paul Ince) in midfield – they all helped me out and talked me through it and I couldn’t go wrong in that situation.”

It was about a month later that Lowe made his league debut, and then a home bow against Cardiff, in total making 16 first team appearances under the management of Jones, caretaker Stuart Gray and Glenn Hoddle.

For a young lad from Wednesfield, first spotted by Wolves around the age of 13, it was the archetypal ‘dream come true’, although one which would eventually come to an end after several loan spells when new boss Mick McCarthy checked in.

“It was great to play those first team games and it didn’t faze me at all,” Lowe recalls.

“It’s what everyone says, once you are ‘in’ the game it really is just another game of football.

“I do remember though, sometimes if there was a break in the game or after the final whistle I’d be thinking, ‘wow – my school friends are all in the crowd’!

“I loved having my family and friends there, they supported me all the way, and obviously I went out and had a lot of loan spells which built up my experience.

“I felt I did well in the loans and to an extent I was disappointed when I left Wolves as I felt I could have been given another go.

“But when Mick came in, he was straight down the line with me and told me he would be bringing in his own players that he knew and trusted and that I would struggle to get a game.

“He brought in players like Gary Breen and Neill Collins, who he had worked with before, and while it felt harsh at the time, looking back now I realise it is much better when people are honest with you in that way.

“It means that you know exactly what’s what, and can get things sorted and get on with your life, and not spend any time or energy moping around.”

Get on with it Lowe did, with a career now spanning almost 600 appearances and featuring plenty of highlights.

Whilst still at Wolves, one of his loan spells included winning the Football League Trophy at the Millennium Stadium for a Swansea team managed by Kenny Jackett and also featuring Sam Ricketts.

He has since been Player of the Year with Cheltenham, Clubman of the Year with York, and in the National League North Team of the Year in a previous spell with Harriers.

But he counts his biggest highlight, not least down to circumstances, as helping Macclesfield Town to win the National League title by ten points, and return to the Football League in 2018.

“That group of lads were amazing and we had issues including not getting paid at times but from being odds-on to be relegated, went out and won the league,” he recalls.

That having been said, a large chunk – or three chunks – of Lowe’s career have been spent with the Harriers, and for that he is extremely grateful.

On the two previous occasions he left the club it wasn’t his decision, and he is delighted to still be plying his trade at Aggborough.

“Ever since leaving Wolves it feels like I have homed back in on Kidderminster, and I have never ever turned down a chance to sign here,” he admits.

“It is a great club, and the fans are really great with me as well.”

Lowe is not the only former Wolf now aiming to fly high with the Harriers.

The likes of Amari Morgan-Smith, Jaiden White, Sam Austin, Kai Lissimore and Jack Tolley have all experienced different levels of involvement in and around Wolves Academy and development levels.

Manager Russell Penn, meanwhile, is a Wolves fan who was also once a mascot at Molineux before going on to enjoy an extensive playing career, including with the Harriers, before now carrying out an impressive job in the hotseat.

And perhaps one of the many eye-catching sights of this season’s cup run has been that of pacey striker Ashley Hemmings in full flow.

As eye catching as the memorable fortnight back in 2009 when he made his first team Wolves debut, coming off the bench in the title-clinching draw at Barnsley – pitch invasions a-plenty – and then did the same at Molineux eight days later as the curtain was brought down on the Championship-winning season against Doncaster.

“Coming on at Barnsley, what a day that was,” Hemmings, now 30, recalls.

Keith Lowe during his Wolves days

“I’m not going to lie, I was very nervous, everything was going around my head standing on that touchline, but once I got on the pitch and had my first touch it was fine.

“I was up against Darren Moore and, thinking back, with how strong he was he probably could have ended me there and then!

“But it was such a special moment, not least when Reidy (Kyle Reid) got the equaliser and the Wolves fans piled onto the pitch.

“Those scenes are never to be forgotten, something to tell the kids and the grandkids, but coming on at Molineux on the last day of the season was probably even better.

“My Mum was there, loads of my friends from across Wolverhampton, and the lads got to hold up the trophy and go around the pitch and I managed to get a couple of photos.”

Hemmings would make a third and final senior Wolves appearance, his only start, in a Carling Cup win against Southend some 15 months later.

A quirky stat from his three appearances is that in each game, whilst he was on the pitch, Wolves scored one goal without conceding.

Unfortunately though, as with Lowe, a managerial change didn’t help Hemmings’ cause, this time with McCarthy leaving, and having first been picked up by Wolves at the age of nine, it was almost ten years ago that his time at Molineux came to an end.

Also like Lowe, Hemmings’ career both with and without Wolves has involved several different loan spells and several different permanent ports of call, but also with plenty of highlights.

He had a couple of enjoyable years at Walsall, and later Dagenham & Redbridge, was around the Burton Albion squad which reached the League Two play-off final, was Player of the Year and top goalscorer with Boston United, all on top of England Under-17 honours achieved at Wolves.

Now, that decade on, Hemmings, who lived in Pendeford in his formative years and has returned to the city now, still values the time and learning from his lengthy stay at Wolves.

“Of course it is always going to be disappointing to leave a club like Wolves and I would have loved another chance but Mick had been sacked and things were changing,” he recalls.

“It was a time to thank Wolves for everything they had done for me, but also time to move on and find a new permanent base where I could play regularly and have that added responsibility.

“When I think back, so many of the players helped me out at Wolves – George Elokobi in particular was great for us youngsters at the time, also Jody Craddock and Matt Murray.

“They would have a laugh and a joke and put us at ease but in training and on the pitch they showed what was needed to be a footballer and what it meant to be a footballer and I learned so much.”

Bringing it back to the Harriers and the present day then? What chance a Right Royal upset at Aggborough on Saturday afternoon?

Both Lowe and Hemmings have also contributed to the cup run with Lowe being named in the Team of the Round for the first round win over Grimsby, and Hemmings for the second against FC Halifax, as well as scoring in both.

They also share a view that Harriers is a club heading in the right direction with an ambitious ownership and an excellent manager and assistant in Penn and Jimmy O’Connor.

“It feels like a Football League club in National League North,” says Lowe, whose cult status recently saw a limited edition run of ‘KEEEEEEEITH' mugs produced which were quickly snaffled up. He did manage to grab one himself!

Hemmings meanwhile appears to have hit the most consistent form of his career, and the Harriers are certainly benefitting.

“From the day I left Wolves this is definitely the most happy I have been – at Kidderminster now,” he insists.

“With the way the club is, the owners, Russell and Jimmy, it feels like it is all coming together.

“Things happen for players at different stages of their careers, and with this staff and team-mates around me, and the great backing from the fans, just maybe this is my time.”

And now, the time is Reading. Time to add to previous FA Cup highlights?

In his first spell with the Harriers, Lowe was part of the team which reached the competition’s third round before losing to Coventry at the Ricoh, whilst Hemmings started for Dagenham & Redbridge in a third round defeat to Everton at Goodison Park.

“We know how important the league is to us but this is different isn’t it? The cup, a one-off,” says Hemmings.

Jim Kellermen is facng Chelsea

“It’s a huge step-up to play against a team from the Championship but it’s a great test for us and, like every game, it’s eleven against eleven.

“As you get older, and your career moves on, you realise just how special games like this are and I can’t wait to be walking out on Saturday.”

“It promises to be a great occasion,” adds Lowe.

“We’re at home, with fantastic support from a sellout crowd, and the lads will be buzzing.

“Times are a bit strange at the moment aren’t they? You just never know what might happen on the day.”

Events at Aggborough and Stamford Bridge will certainly be followed with interest from further afield, from those involved in the early stages of the careers of those ex-Molineux personnel.

Former Academy recruitment chief Bob Bennett kept records of all those who have been associated with Wolves youth ranks and there will be many scouts taking a keen interest in those they spotted during these cup ties.

Bennett himself picked up Hemmings whilst he was playing for Argyle Young Guns, as well as White from within the club’s community set-up, Lowe was scouted by Tony Parkes when with Danesmore Casuals, Kellermann by Jeff Gregory at Stourport Swifts and Kidderminster Lions, Morgan-Smith, a Wolverhampton schoolboy, by Les Green.

The players themselves remember who it was that gave them their opportunities, and the coaches too, Lowe citing the major influences on his early career as Keith Downing, John Perkins and Terry Connor.

Bonds are also formed in dressing rooms, and there was a particularly strong group of young players who graduated into the professional ranks whilst Hemmings was at Molineux.

Danny Batth, Sam Winnall, David Davis, Jamie Reckord, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Nathan Rooney and Sam Morsy are among those with whom Hemmings has remained in contact.

Also worth mentioning at this point that Davis and other Academy graduates Elliott Bennett, Ethan Ebanks-Landell and Harry Burgoyne could be part of a Shrewsbury squad looking for an upset of their own against Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. Burgoyne, lest we forget, has been there before in that respect.

“It is great that so many have gone on to have a career in the game and it’s always nice to see friends have some success,” says Hemmings.

Whose turn will it be to etch their name into FA Cup folklore over the coming days? There will be one or two, surely, somewhere.

That’s the beauty of the grand old competition and particularly the third round. It is a weekend which makes heroes

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