An apprentice plumber from Wythenshawe gets his moment in the spotlight

'When they said Spurs I was just jumping around the room'

Good afternoon members — this is a bonus story that will give you something to do at 5pm today: tune in to watch an apprentice plumber — who came to Manchester from Cameroon as a child — play against Tottenham in the FA Cup.

We don’t usually publish on Sundays and we don’t usually cover sport, but we loved Neil’s story and wanted to tell it on one of the biggest days of his life, as he gets an incomparable chance to prove himself as a footballer. Dave spoke to him this week.

If you missed yesterday’s story about a Manchester high street and how its traders have coped with the pandemic, you can find it here.

By David Barnett

As a young boy in Cameroon, Neil Kengni was obsessed with football. There were no organised sessions or clubs where he lived, so he honed his skills playing in mass games in the streets with other children. He loved Manchester United and as he kicked a battered ball about he would fantasise about playing in the English Premier League.

Neil was ten when he moved with his family to the UK, settling in Wythenshawe with his parents and three siblings. “We came because there were better opportunities,” he says. Swapping the climate of Cameroon for the weather of Manchester (“Yeah, it’s a bit different,” he laughs) brought with it an opportunity for Neil as well: the chance to play organised football.

Now aged 20, he has a definite Manchester accent and works as an apprentice plumber around the city while learning his trade at Trafford College. He attended St Paul’s Catholic High School and began his footballing career playing for Rochdale on a youth scholarship until the age of 18, before moving to Stalybridge Celtic for two years. He then joined Marine FC in Crosby, Merseyside — first on loan and then as their first summer signing last year. They play in the Northern Premier League Division One North West.

At no point in his early footballing career has Neil played anywhere near the limelight. But that changes this afternoon when he will be facing off against the mighty Tottenham Hotspur in the third round of the FA Cup, live on BBC One. It’s the most-anticipated game of the weekend, and an extraordinary chance for the apprentice plumber to prove himself.

There are 160 places in the football pyramid between Tottenham and Marine, who play in the eighth tier of the game. It’s the widest disparity between two teams in the FA Cup’s 149-year history, and Neil’s team have already won seven games to get to this stage of the competition.

When they were drawn with Spurs, he could barely believe it. “I’d just come in from work when they did the draw for this round of the cup,” he told The Mill. “The ball came out and I didn’t know who the number was and when they said Spurs I was just jumping around the room.”

He's yet to find out whether he’ll be starting at 5pm against Spurs, but as one of the club's top-scoring strikers, he’s hopeful. With the possibility of facing off against stars such as Gareth Bale and Harry Kane, depending what sort of squad Spurs boss Jose Mourinho fields on the day, nerves must be taut.

“We’re more excited than anything, because this is our opportunity to show ourselves to the world,” he says.

So is he a bit of a local hero with his plumbing mates at the apprenticeship and at college? “I don’t talk about it too much, the football,” he says. “But a couple of people found out and then when there was the draw and we got Spurs… yeah, a lot of people know now. They’re all really pleased for me.”

Due to Covid restrictions, there won't be a crowd at Marine’s Rossett Park ground on Sunday, which is sad for the fans missing out on the biggest game of the club’s history, but it will be shown on the BBC. 

Though aiming to make a go of plumbing, Neil has one eye on his footballing career, and is hoping a good performance today will boost interest in him. “Hopefully this will help me get my name known and I can continue to move up in the future,” he says.

And if there’s a bit of that old FA Cup magic and Marine do bring down the giants of Spurs, who would Neil like to see his team take on next?

A little of that Cameroonian sunshine creeps into his laugh as he becomes that small boy playing football on the streets again, just for a moment before he heads off into the night for evening training ahead of the big match, and he says without hesitation, “Manchester United!”

Marine FC vs. Tottenham Hotspur, 5pm, live on BBC One.