Life, and football for that matter, work in strange ways sometimes. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, it produces magic out of thin air, a scratch-your-eyes moment, or a little piece of unexpected history. You can never be too experienced to escape it, either.
Kevin Ellison may well have laughed had you told him this time last year he’d be playing in another Wembley Final, and with good reason.
Nine months ago, he’d made peace with the fact his playing days were up. Approaching 42 years of age, he’d lasted longer than most footballers could ever dream of, featuring in all four of England’s top four divisions along the way. Following a near decade-long stay at Morecambe, where he’d become a club legend, it was time to plan for a life after the beautiful game.
Then, a lifeline, a divine intervention, in the form of a phone call from Newport County AFC. Had the call come the following day, or even a few hours later than it did, we could be talking about Ellison the footballer in the past tense, but life – and football – don’t work that way. It was a moment which would mark the start of the striker’s second coming and, on the evidence of this season alone, there’s always room for magic.
“I’ll be honest with you… last August, I was looking to start a factory job,” he says, speaking after helping to fire his new club to Wembley. “Newport called me at six in the morning and asked me to come down, just a couple of hours before I was supposed to start my first shift, and before I knew it I was heading down for a training session. I’ve gone from just about to start a warehouse job to playing at Wembley. It’s incredible.
“I’ve done my coaching badges, but football isn’t that easy. I’ve been around the game long enough to know people, but COVID hit football massively and I had bills to pay. I have two kids to feed and the thought of going into a factory didn’t scare me; it’s not about the ego of Kevin Ellison, I worked before football and I know I’ll work afterwards. It would be great if I can stay in football, but is that easy? I don’t think it is.”
Ellison knows as well as anyone that football and easy are rarely a match. Having made his debut for Southport in 1996, the Liverpool lad has worked tirelessly for over a quarter of a century to be in the position he’s in today, playing for no fewer than 10 League Clubs and even making a solitary top-flight appearance for Leicester City, the season after their most recent League Cup triumph.
Having spoken openly about his own struggles with depression away from football, counselling was another route he considered when temporarily hanging up his boots. Ellison is a role model, who wants to use his experiences to help others, whether that’s on matchday or otherwise.
“I’ve done my counselling courses too, because I’ve got a passion for helping others with their mental health,” he adds. “I did my level two course last year and was hoping to start level three before COVID hit. I want to help others and, if I can’t stay in football and coach, I’ll go down that route because it puts a smile on my face. If I can’t help on the pitch, I’ll help off it.
“At my age, I know I’m not going to play every week, and I know I need to be ready for whenever the manager calls on me. I’m here to help and make an impact and, when you look at the games against Port Vale and Morecambe as well as the Semi-Final against Forest Green, I think I’ve done that this season. I know I’ll make an impact and I’m focused on doing that. It’s about being right mentally and I know I can still do it at this level.
“When the gaffer signed me, he said ‘you’re going to make an impact, I’ve got games for you’ and I think I’ve come on and done that in games. We won 1-0 against Port Vale and I scored in the 90th minute, we had a top-of-the-table game against Morecambe and I scored. But it’s more about Newport, and hopefully we can go one better than we did last time.”
Indeed, without Ellison’s goals, Newport wouldn’t have made this season’s Play-Offs, and so when his team needed a goal in last weekend’s Semi-Final second leg, it seemed like fate that he should be the man to provide it. Trailing 3-0 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate to Forest Green with 20 minutes to go, Ellison’s spectacular effort set in motion a change in fortunes which County fans will remember for years to come.
It was a goal which defied not logic, but expectation. Twenty five years of Kevin Ellison told us he was capable of such brilliance, but had anyone seen it coming? Perhaps manager Michael Flynn had. It was the kind of impact they’d spoken about on that Monday morning phone call, and not for the first time.
In one swing of his left boot, Ellison had become not only the Play-Offs’ oldest-ever player, but oldest-ever scorer too. Better still for lovers of football’s great narratives, it was a moment which helped set up a Wembley reunion with his old employers, Morecambe.
“I didn’t know about the record!” he says, laughing. “I remember Dean Windass scoring for Hull here a few years back, but it’s an honour to have that by my name. I’m stood here talking to you now at the age of 42 and still playing professional football… boy, I’ll take that. To score in the Semi-Final, it’s up there with the highlights of my career, but there’s still a job to do.
“People are saying to me it’s written in the stars and that it’s me against Morecambe, but it’s not that, it’s Newport against Morecambe. I’ve done my utmost against Newport in the past so I’d like to think I’m paying them back, and hopefully I can do just that today. I had nine good years at Morecambe and if I could have picked a team to play at Wembley it would have been them, but I’m a Newport player now and I want to win for Newport.
“It’s just amazing to be back at Wembley and I’ll enjoy this moment. Hopefully, I can play my part again.”
And so while it might seem futile to try to predict what might happen next for Ellison, there’s plenty we do know. If football is the factory, he is one of its finest goods. Wherever this match - and life - take him from here, his career has been the stuff of dreams. Ellison might not yet be willing to commit to any specific plans beyond this weekend but, then again, a magician never reveals his secrets.
“I still feel good, and I want to play for as long as I can,” he concludes. “Could that goal in the Semi-Final have been my last kick in the EFL? Maybe.
“If it was, I’ll have gone out with a bang.”