Russell Kempson spends time with legendary kitman Les Chapman as Manchester City beat Sunderland in the Capital One Cup Final
It is 2pm on a Tuesday at the Manchester City training ground at Carrington and the first-team players, personal toiletry bags clasped tightly to their chests, are heading for home.
On the way out, in reception, they are asked about their ticket requirements and travel arrangements for the Capital One Cup Final against Sunderland at Wembley in five days time.
The City superstars receive similar requests about another major match - the upcoming second leg of their Round of 16 Champions League clash with mighty Barcelona. City trail 2-0 from the first leg at the Etihad Stadium; it will be no easy task in the Camp Nou. At this stage of the season, there are few easy games.
At this stage of the season, Les Chapman is contemplating the end of the road. Chapman, the long-serving City kitman, is to retire when the 2013/14 campaign is done and dusted, bringing to a conclusion a 48-year career in football that also includes time spent as a player, manager and coach.
Chappy, as he is known, has been there, seen it, done it and got every T-shirt. But, at 65, the desire for a quieter life, finally, has won.
"As each season goes by, it gets more intense, more time consuming," Les says. "We're in all four competitions and you're just never at home.
"And it's much harder, physically and mentally, than it used to be. It's so tiring on both fronts. I just decided that I'd had enough of it really. I want to sit back and enjoy my life a bit more, instead of spending 99 per cent of my time at work, whether that's here at Carrington, all over the country or abroad.
"It's amazing when I think of all the miles I've travelled with this club alone. And that's all after my playing career. Now I'm 65, it's time to step back a bit. Mind you, I've been saying that for about eight years. But this is definitely it."
Chapman, with his spiky hair and glasses, belies his age. And he is as youthful in character as in appearance, a series of witty wisecracks and amusing anecdotes littering our conversation. In a room next to the players' canteen, he expands articulately on his fascinating football journey.
In 22 seasons as a player, Les made 749 league appearances. "I think that's the 17th highest in the country," he says proudly. "But with cup games, friendlies and tour matches, I suppose it was well over 1,000. I played outside left, left midfield or central midfield. I finished at left-back or sweeper. The older you get, the further you go back. Then you eventually end up in the crowd."
Les rarely strayed from the North West, playing for Oldham Athletic twice, Huddersfield Town, Stockport County twice, Bradford City, Rochdale and Preston North End. In 1978, though, he ventured afar, on a summer loan with San Jose Earthquakes in the North American Soccer League.
"I was playing at Oldham at the time but I always fancied having a go in the States," Chapman recalls. "It was a fantastic four months. Out there, they had cable TV with 40 or 50 channels, big cars, fast-food places, shopping malls, everything. They were 20 or 30 years in advance of us back home. Plus there was the lovely weather, of course.
"I wanted to stay but, in those days, the clubs held your registration, there was no freedom of contract. Once your contract was up, they could keep hold of you, even if they didn't give you another deal for months. I was registered with Oldham and it was Oldham I had to return to."
Chapman hung up his boots, at the age of 40, when player-assistant manager at Preston - after a cheeky nudge from a spectator. "We were playing Swansea away and I was sub. We were 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go and John McGrath, the manager, said: 'Chappy, go and warm up'.
"I was stood in a corner of the Vetch Field and some Welsh wag in the crowd shouted: 'Oi, are you their secret weapon, then?' I smiled at him but I did think that perhaps it was time to call it a day."
Call it a day he did, moving on to brief managerial spells with Stockport and Preston. But it wasn't for him. "It was never the sort of job that I really relished," Les says. "I never had great ambitions about being a manager. I think you have to be a certain type of person. It didn't really suit my personality or disposition.
"It's a job of great extremes. If you win a game, it's the greatest job in the world. If you lose, it's the worst. You can come under a lot of criticism and pressure. There's that huge expectancy from the fans, whether it's at Preston, Manchester United or wherever. It's no different at the lower clubs. There's nothing like playing, though. Nothing compares to it."
Chapman arrived at Manchester City in 1992 as reserve-team manager under Peter Reid. Even then, he couldn't resist the lure of playing again. At 49. "It was a night reserve match at Liverpool," he says. "I played at sweeper and there was a 16-year-old kid up front for them called Robbie Fowler.
"Robbie got a hat-trick and Liverpool beat us five-something. So I firmly believe that I was semi-responsible for the success in his career. Even then, you could see he was going to be a great goalscorer."
Although Chapman left City for a short stint as youth-team coach with Brian Horton at Huddersfield, he returned to Maine Road in 1997. This time, as king of the kitroom. And there he has been ever since. For eight years, he did the job on his own; now, he has the help of assistants Ally Marland and Brandon Ashton.
"You wouldn't believe the requirements from one of the players, never mind the full squad and the staff," Les says. "We have about 90 bodies to cater for every day, which includes the under-21s, and more and more stuff has been introduced, like compression shirts, cycling shorts, tights, snoods, hats and gloves.
"We do have a checklist to make sure we've got everything but most of it is up here." Les taps his head. "It sinks in and it stays there. Only occasionally do you need to refer to the list."
Chapman takes me downstairs on a tour of his domain. Two washing machines and five tumbledriers are whirring away but there will be eight of each at the new £200 million training complex, the Etihad Campus. Amid the mess of the first-team changing room, music blares out as one of City's superstars changes in a corner.
In the bootroom, there is a blaze of rainbow colour, from the players' footwear, that almost assaults the eyes. "Some of the lads have 15 or 16 pairs of boots," Les says. "And they have all sorts on them - their initials, national flags, the names of their wives or children."
He hands me a pair, size five-and-a-half and appearing to weigh little more than a feather. Which of the superstars has such small feet, I ponder? His name is written on the side of each boot. In the under-21s' dressing-room, a motivational sign on the wall reads: Pride in Battle.
Chapman's pride in his work is obvious. And he has to know when and when not to display the bubblier side of his nature. "I've been in the game long enough to realise that going into the dressing room after a defeat, when everyone is pretty deflated, isn't the time to be doing somersaults or cracking jokes. You learn that over the years."
Learning to cater for a player's special idiosyncrasies, especially on matchdays, is vital too. "One of them wanted new kit for the warm-up, the first half and the second half," Les reveals. "And three new vests as well because he said that when they were washed, they shrunk and didn't fit him.
"He used to wear a nine-and-a-half boot on one foot and a 10-and-a-half on the other. And he would only shake hands with the staff in a certain order." I wonder who that might have been? Les tells me. Well, I never...
Disasters have been few over the years but Chapman still squirms at the thought of arriving for an away game against West Ham United and the kit had gone missing. "I'd set out all the skips and bags to load on to the van at Carrington," he says, "but for some inexplicable reason, someone had moved them around.
"So when I got to Upton Park at 9am on the Saturday for the 3pm kick-off, and unloaded all the skips and bags, there was no kit. It wasn't there. It's the worst sinking feeling that you can ever imagine, I think I went white. Fortunately, we had virtually everything in spares in another bag. In the end, it wasn't a problem."
Players and managers become legends but few of the lesser-known staff. Yet kitman Chappy must approach that status, not only for his longevity in the game but also his overall service to it in so many capacities. A tribute match was held for him at Edgeley Park, Stockport, last year - it drew a 2,000 crowd - and he also had two dinner evenings staged in his honour. "It was all quite humbling," he says.
Occasions most definitely for the scrapbook, along with his top two favourite City matches. The 1999 Second Division Play-Off Final against Gillingham, when City came from nowhere to win promotion; and, not surprisingly, the late, late 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers in 2012 that pipped rivals Manchester United for the Premier League title on goal difference.
"Against Gillingham, we were 2-0 down with the 90 minutes almost up," Chapman says. "But Kevin Horlock got what we thought was just a consolation goal and then we equalised through Paul Dickov deep into stoppage time." City then won the penalty shoot-out 3-1 to move up to the First Division. "It was just remarkable," Les says.
"It was very similar against QPR," he adds. "At 90 minutes you're as good as gone, then Edin Dzeko scores in the 92nd and Sergio Aguero in the 94th. We'd won the league, what an unbelievable turnaround in such a short space of time. Even as a kitman, there's still a huge amount of excitement, thrill and disbelief. It was astonishing."
Capital One Cup Final day arrives. Helicopters buzz above Wembley Stadium, there are massive queues for the match programmes, well-heeled supporters disembark from a succession of stretch limos and both sets of fans take photographs in front of the much revered Bobby Moore statue. It is so cold and yet many fans opt for team shirts only. They are a hardy bunch.
The City fans are in good voice shortly after kick-off and perform the Poznan - turning their backs on the play and jumping up and down in their hundreds. But their enthusiasm is dampened when Sunderland go ahead through a cleverly taken goal from Fabio Borini. At half-time, a workforce of 20 men repair the hallowed turf with pitchforks.
After the break, City attack the end where their supporters are sitting. Their momentum gathers as the rain lashes down, with superb goals from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri edging them ahead. Jesus Navas makes it 3-1 in the closing minutes and the first domestic trophy of the season is decided. By common consent, it was one of the best Wembley finals in years.
Several Sunderland players slump to the floor, exhausted and distraught. In stark contrast, the City players and staff embrace joyously. Ricky Hatton, the former light welterweight world boxing champion and City fan, has a huge grin on his face as he is interviewed on radio; City captain Vincent Kompany high-fives well-wishers on his way up the steps to pick up the cup.
'Blue Moon' and then 'Hey Jude' blast out over the PA, glitter and streamers pour down from the sky, fireworks explode. The team shows off the silverware to the adoring City hordes and, amid all the mayhem, Chapman takes in what would be his last match at the Venue of Legends.
Les had been at the stadium since 11am, checking and double-checking that all was in order in the City dressing room before the players arrived at 12.40pm. "You could sense a bit of tension among them but that was only to be expected," he said. "There's always a few nerves on these occasions.
"There was a bit of disappointment on the bench when we were 1-0 down but those two wonder goals gave the team so much more confidence. At the end, we were all on the pitch hugging each other. I was carrying some of the champagne bottles and got sprayed with it everywhere.
"It was celebration time in the dressing room as well. The club photographer was taking pictures and the lads were doing the same on their mobiles. When we left, it was like a bomb-site. As I've said many times, they might be able to hit the net from 35 yards but they can't hit a kit tub from about three feet."
Chapman later went on to the reception at a London hotel. "It was quite low key, quite calm," he said, "because a lot of the players had to go off for international duty the next day. But it's always great to go to Wembley and to win is so special."
Les had hoped to bid farewell back there in the FA Cup Final. Or perhaps in the Champions League final in Lisbon. They would have been fitting stages on which to bow out. But City lost to Wigan Athletic in the former and, maybe not so surprisingly, against Barcelona in the latter.
Instead, it will be at the Etihad on 11th May, with City hosting West Ham in the Premier League, when Chapman will fill his last skip with kit. Perhaps Mr Aguero can provide some more last-minute title-winning heroics to send off Les in style.
Thereafter, no more early starts, no more late finishes, no more endless travelling. More time to spend with his daughters Tiffany - the former Brookside actress - and Suzy. And his granddaughters, Phoebe, six, and Betsy, four. And his fiancee, Sara.
"Miss it? Of course I will," Chapman says. "Mostly that day-to-day involvement in the dressing room, which has been part of my life for so many years in professional football. But I want to change now, I want to ease back, I want to relax. And just think: I might be able to have some weekends off. That's staggering."