AUSTRALIANS normally grow up dreaming about surfing, cricket and rugby, but Joel Porter fell in love with the FA Cup. Chief sports writer Luke Edwards reports.
WHEN Joel Porter flung some clothes and his football boots into a rucksack and flew to England to pursue a dream, he had never heard of Hartlepool and would have had more chance of finding a polar bear in the outback than the seaside town on an atlas.
The pursuit of happiness, however, can lead to unexpected places and after six years and almost 200 appearances for Hartlepool United, the boy from Adelaide will try to put one of the league’s most unfashionable clubs on the football map with an FA Cup win over West Ham United today.
Porter’s journey has been an epic one, from Croydon Kings in the South Australia State League to Bolton, Sunderland and Wigan, via Australia’s National Soccer League. Yet, it is upon such tales that the magic of the world’s oldest and most prestigious cup competition endures.
No domestic club game is watched by more people around the world than the English FA Cup Final and Porter can still remember its importance in the family calendar Down Under.
While his friends talked excitedly about one day representing their countries at the famous cricket grounds in Sydney and Melbourne, Porter (pictured below) was drawn to Wembley’s Twin Towers and the romance of a game played more than 10,000 miles away.
“I used to watch the FA Cup final in the middle of the night when I was a really young kid,” said Porter, who will start against the Hammers today in the biggest game of his career. “But it’s the 1990 final between Man United and Crystal Palace that really left a lasting impression on me because Mark Hughes ended up being one of my favourite players and I became a Man U fan.
“The cup final used to be the centrepiece of a charity night to raise money for the club in Adelaide. Dads and sons were there so the atmosphere was brilliant. Other than that we used to watch the Premiership highlights.
“We didn’t hear much about the FA Cup until the final so it was a really big day for us all and that’s when I first started dreaming about English football.” Dreaming is one thing, turning it into a reality is quite another. Although a success in Australia, the 30-year-old found the gap between the top sides in Australia and Europe befitted the 42-hour return journey he made for an unsuccessful trial at Bolton Wanderers.
Having failed to impress Sam Allardyce, Porter returned to Australia before making one final attempt to prove he was good enough to play in England in 2003.
He said: “It was a case of now or never.
“My agent had a few sides lined up, including Wigan where I spent a month and then Sunderland for 10 days, with Mick McCarthy, but things didn’t work out there. It was then they recommended Hartlepool and we went from there. Mick was fine with me, but he didn’t want to take a chance on me, plus he had other better-known players on trial.”
It was not quite the outcome Porter had envisaged when he returned to the UK and he admits, at first, the prospect of playing for a small club in England’s lower leagues did not fill him with joy. “I was tempted to quit when things fell through at Sunderland,” he said. “I spoke to my agent and said I’d had enough and he said just give Hartlepool one last chance. I got on a train and they were keen to sign me.
“The manager at the time, Neale Cooper, gave me the good news and that meant I could fulfil a boyhood dream, having loved English football and watched it back home.
“It would have been fantastic to play in the Premier League, but that’s not to be. It’s never been easy but it’s been a great experience because everyone is so passionate about the game.
“I have enjoyed my time here at Hartlepool.
“There have been lots of downs with the rejections and knee injures, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Those knee injuries have, perhaps, prevented Porter from playing at a higher level and with that in mind, today’s cup clash is a chance for him to prove himself against some of the best players in the country.
Hartlepool’s FA Cup history is not a particularly proud one and a victory over Gianfranco Zola’s side would be their biggest giant-killing act.
Before the 2-0 third round victory over Stoke earlier this month, Hartlepool had only ever beaten one top-flight side in the competition, Crystal Palace back in 1993, and Porter would love to make it two in one season.
He added: “It would be a dream come true to score the winner against West Ham.”