Huddled in the warmth of a corporate box at Southampton back in 2009, I looked out at the desolate St Mary’s stadium, save for Charlton’s defeated players warming down in sub-zero temperatures after Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat.
Carl Ikeme jogs alone, steam rising from perished head. Floodlights shine at nothing. A lone groundsman prods at the mud. A nomadic time of life to grab people’s attention when nobody was really watching.
It’s a funny old game. You spend years trying to get noticed at Tuesday night consignments like these, and the moment you’ve finally cracked it is when you’ve never felt lonelier.
A Homebase car park to be precise, and a call to be told you’ve got cancer.
Most of us know the Carl Ikeme story, but not the one he portrays in his ‘Why Not Me’ book, which anyone with Wolves DNA must take the time to read. I implore you to do so, to appreciate the warrior we never really knew we had.
This quite brilliant book (aided by the written excellence of Paul Berry) is the most joyous, triumphant and occasionally harrowing autobiography you’ll ever come across. And for the sake of Carl’s indefatigable spirit both inside and outside Molineux, it deserves a place at your bedside.
Juxtaposing chapters between football career and cancer treatments, you’re soon left in no doubt how Carl Ikeme victoriously defied the odds in the end, when given just a 30 to 40 per-cent chance of living at the beginning.
‘I was happy with that though, and ready to accept that prognosis. In my head, when I first had that phone call in the car park, I thought I was gone. Finished. So as soon as I was told I had a chance, I knew I had to focus all my energies on what was needed.’
Crass as it may sound, but the odds were similarly stacked against him ever making it at Wolves, when farmed out on loan to eight different clubs and more exotic keepers fancied. He would win that battle handsomely, too.
It became very clear in the book, very early on, that Carl Ikeme is an obdurate, obstinate and downright obsessive son of a gun, prevailing from a modest upbringing when he didn’t ask for much (apart from a pair of Puma Kings) to a place in our folklore when he’ll never want for a thing.
Beating Emi Martinez and company should have been the hard part, but that was being done in the chapters in hospital, when one account of a camera down his throat to determine a life-threatening sepsis complication made me feel genuinely nauseous just reading it. In gallows humour not lost on a goalkeeper, he also lost his sight too, with no guarantee he’d ever get it back.
Like freezing fixtures in round 2 of the JPT, he resolved to ‘ride it out.’
Or the time he swerved his daughter’s birthday party as he recovered from chemotherapy, too protective to tell his little girl what a dose of kids’ germs at the Wacky Warehouse would do to him. Too resilient to flinch as her teardrops fell.
‘I felt so guilty I had ruined her birthday and that was the first time I had cried in a very long time. She was distraught and it broke me.’
Reading this book didn’t just make me proud to have cheered on Carl Ikeme, but proud he was ever a Wolves player in the first place.
He rose through the academy when by his own admission, other keepers had more intuitive flair for the role. Other keepers didn’t clean out a penalty area to claim a corner at an academy game like Carl did early on though, which he cited as the beginning.
‘I was 14 or 15. I was confronted with a crowd of players but smashed through a few opponents, caught the ball and thought ‘yeh, I really enjoyed that!’ Maybe I could do this goalkeeping stuff after all, that this could be it.’
Some might say the ending came too soon…
…Huddled in the warmth of his family home with only Saba, Mila and Maya watching, Carl Ikeme might beg to differ.
Why Not Me (hardback) can be purchased for £18.99 from the Wolves Megastore at Molineux, Waterstones in Victoria Street, Wolverhampton, or online at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Why-Not-Me-Carl-Ikeme/dp/1527250644