Wednesday 01 January 2014
"I wasn't there on merit. I was there because there was no choice."
Neil Finn had become a full-time goalkeeper at West Ham United in the summer of 1995 after joining from a Youth Training Scheme and was busy plying his trade in the reserves when his one shot at the big time landed on New Year’s Day 1996.
West Ham were due to face Manchester City and the first-choice goalkeeper Ludek Miklosko was suspended. After manager Harry Redknapp's attempts at bringing in a goalkeeper on emergency loan had failed, Les Sealey, the goalkeeping coach, was due to appear between the sticks. Finn takes up the story.
"I got a call from Frank [Lampard] Sr that I had been given the heads-up that I may travel for a just-in-case scenario. On the way to the team hotel a few of the boys, such as Julian Dicks, asked me whether I was nervous. 'No, I'm all right!' I replied.
"But when we got to the hotel I learnt that Les had pulled a calf muscle in training the day before. I hadn't known about it because I had been training with the youth team. But Big Frank, who knew, just told me I'd be travelling.
"It was a bit of a shock. I'd supported West Ham as a kid, so had my old man, and all of a sudden I am going to play for them. But Harry and Frank were very good and supportive."
Before he went on to the pitch at Maine Road, West Ham had to sort out his kit.
"I had to wear Ludo's No 1 shirt and I am not particularly small but it was huge on me!" Finn said.
As Steve Bacon, the former West Ham club photographer and a chronicler of events there in the book 'There’s only one Stevie Bacon', recalls it was a hasty job.
"They had to sew a No 3 to add to Ludo's 1 and tape Neil's name on the back," Bacon said. "But the tape was strapping tape from the physio’s medical box and during the match it peeled off."
For Finn, while West Ham went down to a defeat it was not a chastening experience.
"We lost the match 2-1 with two goals from Niall Quinn but I did all right," he said. "But I had been expecting the ball to be under my crossbar all game, to be bombarded, especially with Quinn in attack. But they didn't.
"It was surreal. The fans were singing "Who the hell are you?" or words to that effect! I can remember that."
At 17 years and 3 days Finn became the youngest player to have appeared in the Barclays Premier League at the time, a record since usurped, with Matthew Briggs, of Fulham, the present holder at 16 years and 65 days. For Finn, it was the only appearance he made at that level but it is not something he regrets.
"I have never had any grief that I didn’t make it," he said. "I did two years pro and was proud of what I did, but I was not Premier League standard. But I enjoyed what I did.
"I wasn’t there on merit. I was there because Harry had no choice. He was public in saying that he had tried to bring someone in on an emergency loan but couldn't.
"After leaving West Ham I did the rounds. I had a year at Barnet but never played. I had a trial at Orient and I was at a few top non-league sides, Aldershot, Ashford, in Middlesex, then Ashford in Kent. But I needed a job so I got one. I met my girlfriend at the job and through her signed for Romford FC after three years out of the game. I had eight years there playing and two as a coach."
Now 35, Finn works for Strata Stone, a natural stone importer for the stone and tiling industry, and is proud to have retained one record that is likely to stand for some time to come.
"I am not sad the overall record [for youngest player] was taken off me but I still believe I am the youngest goalkeeper and I doubt that in this age with greater goalkeeper back-up the record will still be taken off me."