Birchall battling back to the big time
The 'magic' of the FA Cup is difficult to define and, supposedly, on the wane, but try telling that to Dover Athletic striker Adam Birchall. His 11 goals in the famous old competition so far this season have not only helped the Blue Square South side win five ties to set up a third-round clash with Huddersfield on Saturday - they might help to fire him back into the Football League too.
You've probably heard a few stories like Birchall's before. A talented young player fails to make the grade at a Premier League club then drifts around the lower leagues for a few seasons showing sporadic glimpses of his potential as his reputation slowly fades, before his professional career peters out - usually long before a footballer's usual retirement age.
The early part of the former Wales Under-21 striker's career certainly followed that script. He was a prolific and highly-rated goalscorer as he rose through the junior ranks during 10 years at Arsenal to make Arsene Wenger's first-team squad but, after leaving the Gunners in 2005 without making a senior appearance, performed far more fitfully during two seasons apiece at Mansfield Town and Barnet. He left the Bees, his last full-time club, in 2009 admitting he was "fed up with football".
What is different, not to mention inspiring, about Birchall is what happened next. He thought about walking away from the game altogether that summer but, on the advice of the then Dover boss, his former Bees team-mate Andy Hessenthaler, decided to sign for him and turn semi-pro instead.
Birchall tasted international football for Wales Under-21s while at Arsenal - photo: Getty
Moving to a club close to his hometown of Maidstone and dropping two levels down the football pyramid seemed a sensible way to rediscover his love for football and life in general, but a much less obvious way of reviving his career too. It has paid off on both fronts, however, because the 26-year-old has definitely got his mojo back now. He has scored 29 times in total already this campaign, including five in front of the BBC Football Focus team, and an army of League scouts, in Monday's 7-2 league win over Thurrock.
What's changed? "I took a step back from everything when I left Barnet because I was so unhappy," Birchall, who is refreshingly candid for a footballer, told me. "I was miserable every day. I decided it was time to grow up and take responsibility for what was happening to me.
"I said to myself that I had to grow up a little bit and understand why things were not going very well. I started working hard on the mental side of my game to improve my focus and I saw that a lot of top sportsmen in the world use psychology to help them out - I spoke to a few people, went on a few courses and researched a few books and it has definitely worked.
"I like to think I'm a clever guy, and I like to think I learn from situations. That was something I was always taught at Arsenal - to keep thinking about the game, and I always do. My attitude wasn't always right to go along with that back then, but it is something I have matured into.
"I first did some psychology work under Paul Fairclough at Barnet, because he is a big believer in mind-power but I think I was a bit young to make the most of it. Now I have embraced it properly it helps me to focus every time I go out on the pitch, and believe I can do what I always thought I might be capable of. Once you know you can do it, well, that's half the battle isn't it?"
Fairclough, who has just taken over as Bees boss for the third time, says he is not surprised to see his former player flourishing, especially when I explained to him the steps Birchall had taken since leaving Underhill.
"He was always a forward-thinking player, who analysed everything he did. In fact I was always concerned he took it too far," Fairclough told me.
"I see mental training as a massive part of football - I use it as much as normal training - and I could tell Adam was open to that sort of thing so we developed a series of strategies to try to keep him at peak performance.
"Sadly, during part of the time he was at Barnet he was going through a period in his life where he wasn't feeling right. He was in a superstar environment at Arsenal and he was swept away from that to the backstreets of Mansfield away from his friends and family.
"He wasn't wrapped in cotton wool anymore and it was a massive shock to the system for him at Barnet too. There are lots of players like him who forget how good they are and, when you do that, you have to find your way back."
From talking to Birchall, it is clear he has found the resolve to do exactly that. And Fairclough is right, too, because part of the process of reviving his career has been to come to terms with the disappointment of leaving Arsenal, and why the Gunners released him.
If he wanted to kid himself that he was just unlucky not to end up as a Premier League player, he has the perfect excuse. A horrific foot injury sidelined him for 10 months soon after he had been promoted from Arsenal's Under-19s to training with the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry on a daily basis.
It happened when he was chasing a hat-trick late in a cup game for the reserves and ran towards goal instead of following instructions to head for the corner flag and play out time.
He can recall the moment vividly: "Me being me at the time, which is a bit like I am now, I wanted more. I was hungry. I cut across the same defender that I had beaten to score my two goals and he slid in hard to try to stop me. My big toe got caught in the ground and, as I twisted my body round, it tore my ligament in half. I will always regret that I didn't just run into the corner and it is horrible living with that."
But Birchall doesn't delude himself that was the reason he didn't make it in the big time. Instead he admits his attitude was all wrong.
"When I was fit again I was just pleased to be training with people like Henry, I didn't think about going further. There were lads there who weren't as good as me, but they were definitely more determined. When you are focused on something, you are hungrier for it and it shows.
"They went on and played for the first team, even if it was only in a couple of Carling Cup games. I'm not saying I definitely would have gone on and done that, but I could have given myself a better chance by believing in myself."
Birchall has scored in the third round before, for Barnet against Swindon in 2008 - photo: Getty
That is not a problem for Birchall now. Against Huddersfield, he will be looking to maintain his record of having scored in every round of the Cup since Dover began their campaign in the second qualifying round, with that 11-goal haul including a stunner against Hessenthaler's current team Gillingham and a double strike against Aldershot in rounds one and two.
The competition has meant a lot to him since he made regular trips to Cardiff as a boy to watch Arsenal play in a series of finals at the start of the millennium and, should the Terriers need any further warning, he says he always feels "brilliant" on Cup days, which also produced some of his best performances for the Stags and Barnet. "It's because you grow up watching all the greats playing in it, and then you are a part of it yourself. It's a chance to try and live the dream."
Birchall is such an enthusiastic interviewee, I cannot help but wish him well - especially with what comes next for him when Dover's Cup run eventually comes to an end. Will he get the second chance he craves?
As Fairclough puts it, "Adam is a Football League player and Dover are very lucky to have him" but, even if a move to a bigger stage than the Crabble does not materialise, the important thing is that Birchall has got his life back on track on and off the pitch. He signed a two-year contract extension with the Whites in November, is due to marry his girlfriend of 10 years in 2012, and keeps himself busy running coaching courses and helping out at a friend's restaurant.
"I am in a win-win situation," Birchall added. "I would love to go back and try full-time football again with everything I have learned in my life and I am much better equipped now. A lot of successful players do go back after seeing what it is like outside the League and I think I could be one of them.
"But the other side of it is that I am really happy at Dover so, if I don't get a transfer then I am happy staying here too and trying to get them back into full-time football. I am just on a journey at the moment, and I am up for whatever happens next."