Sport Friday, November 4th Words by: Adam Knight, pictures by: Steve Niblett, Sirdic Grant, Westfields FC

The Ghanaian player writing a new chapter in Herefordshire's football history

Sport Friday, November 4th

The Ghanaian player writing a new chapter in Herefordshire's football history

His drive cut the Wembley air. It was the kind of pure hit that somehow stretches time and in those warped moments allows a city’s collective heart to skip a beat.

Sirdic Grant watched as his shot - a shot he thought was in – rattle the crossbar, and history, then a summer followed.

Now, 19 weeks later, the circus is coming to Hereford.

The Football Focus trucks are loaded and ready. Come Saturday, their cameras will be trained as much on the mechanics and mud of the FA Cup’s lowest-ranked team as they will on Trevor Sinclair’s well-powdered head.

Grant will be there once again, having swapped the white of Hereford FC for the blue and maroon of Westfields. If it’s rare to have the opportunity to write footballing history in November, then it’s rarer still to have the opportunity to forever change the first page of a club’s biography.

“It’s history for Westfields,” Grant said of this cup run. “And for all the players who play in it.”

He should know. The soft-spoken Ghanaian could easily have uttered the same thing in May, standing in the shadow of the Wembley’s towering stands, about Hereford FC.

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The Great Sporting History book, when it’s written, will be littered with good players achieving great things. Among their number is a select group who have done so on multiple occasions. And within that group is a ragtag handful of starcrossed athletes who, by some wild twist of fortune, have had a golden career thrust upon them in spite of their own relative mediocrity.

In basketball’s modern era, no player – not Jordan, nor LeBron, nor any other so good they are now known by a single name – has won more NBA championships than Robert Horry. Big Shot Rob won seven rings, with three different sides, while never so much as sniffing a spot on the All-Star team himself.

Even on this side of the water, we live in a world where Franco Di Santo has more FA Cup winners’ medals (2 – Chelsea, Wigan) than Wayne Rooney.

And as interesting and endearing as these anomalies are – both as stories and as quiz-fodder-  among the best narratives to be written in to that Great Sporting History Book, feature players who, through force of their talent or force of their will, have dragged their teams to the pinnacle time and again.

In Sirdic Grant, Herefordshire has a little of both, but, it feels, far more of the latter.

Hereford’s relationship with FA competitions is ingrained as deeply in to the county’s psyche as its taste for cider (and blatant refusal to pronounce consonants at the start of words).

And yet Grant, 7,500 miles from Accra, has been front and centre for two of the biggest moments not to involve rockets or Radfords.

Stranger still, those two moments have come with two different clubs, just six months apart.

Having starred in Hereford FC’s improbable run to Wembley and the FA Vase Final - less than a year after the club rose from the embers of Radford’s own Hereford United, Grant now prepares for the biggest game ever to be played at allpay Park, when ‘Fields take on Curzon Ashton in the FA Cup’s First Round Proper.

If fortune or fate played a role in landing Big Shot Rob alongside two of his generation’s transcendental superstars in Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, then Lady Luck must also take some credit in landing the prodigiously-talented Ghanaian on the books, and in front of the fans, of Hereford’s two top clubs.

While the drive from Accra’s suburbs to Hereford would take you more than five days, and the walk from Edgar Street to Westfields less than five minutes, both journeys taken by Grant has been of a longer and more winding variety.

First starting out at a local side at the age of eight, Grant – a student at Hartpury College – was picked up by a regional academy.

He left home as an 11-year-old to live and to train at the Right To Dream Academy, setting aside his father’s dreams of a future in aviation engineering ("I had no clue what that was. My dad loved it when I’d come home with like 90 percent in maths. ‘You’ll be an aviation engineer’. When I started growing up, I found out it was about planes.") for the chance to play football and perhaps one day emulate the Premier League players beamed in to the Ghanaian front rooms every Saturday.

"If you ask someone in Ghana what team you support they’ll say Chelsea, or United. It’s weird," Sirdic said.

"They hardly show Ghanaian football. At first they did because it was massive – even compared to here. When two big teams were playing the stadiums were always full, 40,000 people. It’s so crazy, the atmosphere. The drumming never stops through the game. Fans are just crazy. They love the game.

"But two big teams were playing and there was a massive disaster. Fans were fighting, and people died – a lot of people died. From there, the number of people going to stadium decreased. People lost interest and since then football in Ghana has dipped massively.

"Every young kid dreams to play football – because of the background, the place we’ve got, and the money in it. But apart from the sport, in terms of work and education Ghana’s quite good. A lot of people are educated. When you are young what your family say is ‘you’re not playing football, you’re not playing sport – what I want you to do is go to school’.

His parents would travel up to watch their son play once a month – his father’s honest critique of Sirdic’s performance only becoming more honest as a result of the two-and-a-half hour drive – but the talented youngster adjusted, and then excelled in his new-found independence.

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By 14 he was captaining his age-group team, four years behind Ghana striker and Palace target Majeed Waris. When he reached 18 he was named Academy Captain, a prestigious position at a prestigious academy.

The same year he led his side to victory at the storied Gothia Cup in Sweden - which counts the likes of Alan Shearer, Xabi Alonso and Andrea Pirlo among its former winners – before taking them to the UK, where they played 10 of the top academy teams, including Manchester City, Wigan and Sunderland.

They beat every one.

"You see players on the TV and you think you are nowhere near them – but then you play them, you are beating them, you are playing better than them, you get to a point where obviously you can play at the level they are.

"Denis Suarez – who plays for Barcelona now – he was playing for City against us. And Lee Cattermole was playing for Sunderland. He doesn’t care if you are young or old. He came straight through everyone. He was big, he was tall and swearing."

Like Waris, Grant chose Hartpury to continue his studies. The transition to a new routine and a new culture was, if not seamless, relatively painless. A year later, he’s still yet to find a good Ghanaian restaurant in western Gloucestershire.

"When I woke up in the morning, every morning I was like ‘this is so cold’ but at the end of the day you know where you want to get to so I have to keep pushing myself.

"I think in Ghana our mentality is very, very different. When you get in to a different culture, you have to make sure whatever you do, you do right.

"A lot of the boys here think that they’ve got everything already – everything is there for them, the facilities, the pitch – you just have to get up and go and play. But for someone who has come from Ghana where football is good, but you haven’t got the facilities – you have this willingness to go out and work harder, and know where you come from and produce every day.

"We train here like full-time players. I was playing with people who had just come from school and were trying to enjoy their football. I had been doing that since I was 11."

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On the field however the diminutive midfielder was made all too aware of the difference in football ‘culture’.

"In Ghana we’ve got the same physique – playing here against people who are 6’2,  6’4 – some of the time I was like 'what is that?' – but with the weather, you need players who can head a ball."

It was a period of adjustment not without cost.

Grant, a technical midfielder who admires the Spanish and Dutch styles of pass-and-move football, was miscast by Man City coaches as a sitting midfielder in the mould of Yaya Toure during a spell training with their academy last year. Of the four Right To Dream graduates on trial, he was the only one not to be picked up by the club.

"At the end of the day, you’d be hoping to get on a programme – and that didn’t happen."

However, this freed him up to return to Gloucestershire. And from there to join up with fellow African starlet and Hartpury student Mustapha Bundu and, with Peter Beadle’s reformed Hereford, take his first steps in senior football in front of 3,000-strong crowds.

"On my debut, all I did was hide in the game because I was so scared to give the ball away.  I think I tapped the ball, like, once."

But an approach of diligence and discipline - "A lot of the time when I talk to my parents back home what they do is pray because we are very religious - we pray a lot - and they say make sure you get to the pitch on time, train and work as hard as you can" -  led to Grant fast-becoming a fan-favourite, with his pace and instincts often proving to be unplayable against MFL defences.

His performances grew in confidence and earned him the praise and more importantly the trust of Beadle – an odd couple if ever there was one, with the hulking former Spurs striker towering over the Ghanaian.

"The sky’s the limit," the Hereford boss, said of Grant – and Bundu - at the end of the season. "They are very good players and hopefully they’ll achieve great things. They can certainly play at the top-level."

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Beadle repaid that trust in handing Grant a start at Wembley. And as Hereford fans emptied onto southbound busses, a family in Ghana gathered around a TV, every bit as interested in the outcome.

"My brother [now an analyst at Right To Dream] was sending me screenshots of me running around. Everyone at home was so keen because everyone has grown up watching it. That’s where Wayne Rooney plays.

"When I got in to the changing room, I was like 'this is something else, this is what we all dream of'. I stood at the side of the pitch and it felt like the stadium was covering up the sky.

"The first half hour we played really well, we should have killed the game off. I think sometimes the occasion takes over. On a normal day, I think if we play them ten times, and we’d beat them ten times.

"The players feel we choked a little bit. I think every single player choked a little bit. But when we went to the fans end and clapped, and they showed their appreciation, that’s when everyone was like ‘Come on - we won the league. We won three of the trophies out of four, and we’ve done so well'. There are not a lot of teams that got to do what we did.”

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And then, through some bureaucratic quirk of the Home Office handbook Grant was without a club. His visa, like ‘Moose’, prohibited him from playing higher than the fifth tier in the FA pyramid – a tier MFL winners Hereford had just exited.

While Bundu took up a contract at top-tier Danish side Aarhaus, Grant chose to return to Hartpury and complete his studies, and signed that summer with Westfields.

While the re-emergence of big-spending Hereford, and their year-long slugfest with Alvechurch for top spot, overshadowed almost anything else in the league, Westfields own performance the previous year had belied a side that for years contended at the top end of the league.

Their stated ambition this season was to follow Hereford up the ladder. Freed from cross-town distractions, and emboldened by several elite signings – Grant among them – Sean Edwards’ side ran roughshod over early season opposition.

Their high-scoring style – they averaged more than 4.5 goals a game in September – was in a large part down the the lethal marriage of Craig Jones’ distribution from the middle of the park with a pair of electric wingers in Aiden Thomas, and now Grant.

The latter was voted Player of the Month in September, and currently holds that token of most begrudging respect – the highest number of MoM performances, voted for by Fields’ opposition teams.

Jones said: "Sid has been a great boost for us, when we play with him and Aidan on the wings, we look frightening. It makes my job so easy and I don't even have to look sometimes and I know exactly where he will be."

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With a 100% record through 18 games, Fields drew Leiston – a table-topping side, two leagues higher than the allpay Park side – in what was billed as the biggest game in club’s 50-year history.

"Before the games I don’t talk a lot, but when I got in to the changing room I said to my players, 'we will win this game'," Grant said.

"They were very good. We had to dig deep, defend out box. We had to do everything we could to win. But when we got it, we couldn’t believe it."

Grainy phone videos of Richard Greaves’ late winner flew around Facebook, and the team’s topless changing room celebrations grabbed the hearts of the nation and the headlines of the round as talk of minnows and giants and heavy pitches and the kind of honest to goodness footballing values abounded ahead of the First Round draw.

"At Westfields players get paid, but the atmosphere is very different. You might have seen videos of us when we win a game; it goes so mental.

"The banter is great, there’s no pressure. You don’t get pressure from the fans. Sean is relaxed, at the end of the day we will win some, we will lose some – that’s the mentality he puts in your head, and so each person is really enjoying their football."

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When ball 62 came out of the bag, it was not matched up with Bolton Wanderers or Coventry City – or even rivals-by-proxy, Shrewbury Town. Fields were drawn against Curzon Ashton, a National League North side perched on the edge of the Manchester Ring Road.

With one win in five, they are on league, but just four de facto places above Leiston in the league structure.

"On the day Curzon might be the best team we’ve ever played, but I think it’s a good draw for us.

"To be honest I wanted a big team, but to play them at allpay Park. Bring them down here. Because when they come in to that environment, and they come and see the stands, and have them thinking, 'what am I doing here? I don’t want to be here'. Everyone knows that you don’t just win here.

"I keep saying we just need to keep playing like we’re playing and we’ve got nothing to lose – we’ve just got to put in a good performance and if we play well, we’re going to get the win. Playing home against anyone is a good draw for us."

Home has meant many different things to Grant in his young career.

But this on Saturday, for him and for the dreams of a proud club, home means a small corner of Widemarsh Common - and another shot at history.

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