It famously eluded the great Stanley Matthews twice before he crafted his own little piece of history in 1953 and was notoriously the one trophy that the great Brian Clough never managed to hold aloft despite coming agonisingly close in 1991, the national cup in any competition is always the premier knock out event and has provided some of the most romantic moments in football history.
Unfortunately for Rutherglen Glencairn goalkeeper Laith Al Naeme he shares the rarefied air with some of footballs greatest names having not yet fulfilled his dream of lifting the SYFA Challenge Cup, something he would have achieved last season at Campsie Black Watch before a mid-season transfer saw him attain league success instead. Speaking recently he explained how he became involved in the sport, his fondest memories and what he hopes to achieve in his final two years at youth level.
“I’ve loved football ever since I was in primary school and grew up idolizing the Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar as I saw a lot of similarities between us; we’re both not very tall, both left footed and I see my shot stopping as one of his and my strongest features so that’s the style I try and emulate when I play.”
“My family were a big inspiration growing up as my father featured for the Iraq under-21 team as a young man but was forced to give up the game when he moved to Britain in order to become a doctor and I still send pictures to my great uncle in Iraq who was the national team goalkeeper in the 1950’s”
Transferring from an established youth set-up like Campsie Black Watch to a team that had only existed for a few seasons it was always going to have its risks and many people doubted the wisdom of such a move but the intelligence of Laith’s decision was confirmed with three pieces of silverware eventually adorning the Glencairn trophy cabinet at the end of the season and the goalie admits it was nice to prove people wrong.
“Although disappointed not to win the SYFA cup last season was still the most exciting of my career as I joined Glencairn from my boyhood club and we took the title race down to the wire, needing only a draw to win against nearest rivals Knightswood in our final game. It had special resonance for me as I’d broken my thumb saving a penalty in a league decider the previous season before eventually losing so I knew what it felt like to put your body on the line and still leave empty handed.”
“In the end we fell 2-1 behind heading into the 90th minute and the opposition fans had already started celebrating which put us under a lot of pressure but I managed to gain possession in injury time before sending a long ball down the pitch for one final effort and with the last kick of the ball our striker sent an unstoppable effort goal wards to equalise at the death; securing the title and my first ever league winners medal in dramatic fashion.”
Coming through the ranks with such a strong outfit is always going to have its advantages but unfortunately where goalkeepers are concerned there can be only one and sometimes you have to move on to find a place of your own.
“I think [current Campsie goalkeeper] Martin Storey is very good but when I moved up from under-19 to under-21 I felt I had a real chance to establish myself as the number one. Unfortunately for me the coaches were happy to retain him as their first choice and, with both of us set to play at that level for the same length of time, I had to look elsewhere for first team football.”
“As a player I’m driven by confidence and when I’m in the right mind-set I feel I’m unstoppable so moving to Glencairn was the best possible move I could have made as not playing week in week out was beginning to affect my attitude. My biggest dream before leaving this level of football is to win the national cup and I could have done that at Campsie if I’d stayed but I want to achieve it as part of the starting 11.”
Fitting straight into a new set up so quickly shows the kind of person Laith is and he’s incredibly grateful that his new team mates are so willing to accept him into the fold, especially considering that as well as a new recruit he’s also a devout Muslim and has to balance the respective demands of his sport and his religion. It’s an issue that is becoming more prevalent at the highest levels of the game following an influx of players of African origin like Demba Ba, Mohammed Diame and Yaya Toure.
“One of the most testing parts about being a Muslim footballer is Ramadan, having to combine fasting with both playing and training, however this season my coaches were incredibly understanding and let me go at my own pace whilst doing everything they could to help me. Fortunately being a goalkeeper Ramadan isn’t quite as tough on me as it could be but I’ll admit playing pre-season tournaments during long, hot summer days does take a lot out of you!”
“I don’t have any issues regarding my religion with my teammates although I will admit that until a few years ago it wasn’t something I’d be keen to bring up as I’m a Glasgow boy and it’s not something that occurs very often in football circles. However the boys here have been great and always keep me well stocked on Red Bull when we go out together to the social club.”
Having waved goodbye national glory this season following a dramatic turnaround against Tower Hearts that saw his side go from 2-1 up with twenty minutes remaining to 4-2 behind at the final whistle focus will now turn to improving league form and competing in various regional tournaments. There are still trophies to be lifted this campaign and Laith obviously hopes his side will win as many as possible but the biggest of them all will have to wait for next year when he’ll have one final chance to realise his dream.