FA Cup record breaker Curtis Weston might get closer to his idol Paul Scholes today than he did facing him in the 2004 final for Millwall against Manchester United.
Weston made history when he replaced Dennis Wise aged 17 years 119 days and remains the youngest player ever to appear in an FA Cup Final.
Half a lifetime later, he’s still playing for National League leaders Chesterfield while his opponents that day Gary Neville, Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt own Salford.
In a neat twist, the two clubs meet in the second round this afternoon for the unlikeliest of reunions.
‘I didn’t expect to be a substitute in the cup final let alone get on the pitch,’ recalls Weston about his big moment.
‘I grew up a United fan and Paul Scholes was my favourite player so it was extra-special. I did as much jogging on the touchline as I could to get the best view, Cristiano Ronaldo doing rabonas and all that stuff.
‘The first thing I did coming on was run towards Scholes. I looked at him, looked at the ball, looked back again and he was gone. I realised the difference in levels with the top players. I made a point of trying to get a slide tackle on Ruud van Nistelrooy just to get close to someone.’
In 2004, Weston became the youngest ever player to appear in an FA Cup final
Although United won the game 3-0, Weston’s late appearance made headlines.
He’d joined Millwall at 14 after they’d seen him score from the halfway line for his school team in Kent but he’d only made his first-team debut as a substitute a fortnight before the final, against Bradford.
‘I did OK so they kept me in the squad, it just happened to be the next game was the FA Cup Final,’ he smiles.
‘There was still no expectation of me playing so there wasn’t any noise about me becoming the youngest player. I didn’t even know until I was in the dressing-room afterwards and my team-mate Darren Ward spotted the existing record in the programme.
However, he was on the losing side as Manchester United beat Millwall 3-0 in Cardiff
Cristiano Ronaldo scored the opener, before Ruud Van Nistelrooy grabbed a brace
‘Wisey was player-manager and I think he shouted towards Ray Wilkins (his assistant) that he was coming off and the kid should come on.
‘So Ray called me over and told me to get ready. I was nervous even though there were only a few minutes left.
‘At the end, Mark McCammon got Ronaldo’s shirt. I got Mikael Silvestre’s shirt. It’s still in a frame with my own shirt, my medal and a match ticket.
‘It’s a bit ironic to be playing Salford but I’m sure the Class of 92 won’t remember me. They won so many trophies, for me that cup final was the biggest game of my career, for them it was another day at the office.’
Millwall reached their first ever FA Cup final in 2004 without meeting a Premier League club
The surprise was that Weston, a gifted midfielder, didn’t go on to have a stellar career. The cup final represented the summit for that Millwall team rather than heralding a new era. Tim Cahill joined Everton that summer and Wise resigned a year later after changes in the boardroom.
In 2006 Millwall were relegated from The Championship and Weston went on a free to rejoin Wise at Swindon. The pair later linked up again at Leeds but Weston candidly admits responsibility for not maximising his potential.
‘There was an element of getting too much, too soon. I’d played in a cup final at 17 and thought I’d made it. I didn’t realise that’s when you have to work even harder, not take your foot off the pedal.
The members of the Class of 92 and former United legends own League Two club Salford City
‘I’ll always kick myself I didn’t take the opportunities. Leeds would have been a great platform. But I was living in the city centre, going out a lot, I didn’t learn my lessons.’
At 25, Weston slipped down to Barnet in League Two but to his credit stopped the slide and didn’t fall out the game altogether.
He changed his nutrition and will celebrate his 35th birthday next month with no thoughts of retirement and hoping to return to the Football League with Chesterfield where he is active in the local community and a mentor to younger players.
Salford’s strong United connections will also make him think of another former Old Trafford player, Wilkins, who made a big impact on him at Millwall.
Player-manager Dennis Wise (left) and assistant manager Ray Wilkins had a big impact on Weston during his spell at Millwall
‘Ray was such a humble guy and thoughtful person. I wasn’t on the same money as the other Millwall lads so he had a word with the chairman to make sure I didn’t pay for any cup final tickets and my family could go,’ he recalls.
‘You could tell he’d been a great player. When Wisey asked him to take a corner, he’d reply “Left or right foot, feller?” He’d put it on the money every time.’
Weston never had the career of a Wilkins or Scholes but he’s rightly proud to be back on live terrestrial television this afternoon when victory would see Chesterfield in the third round hat – and the potential of another rematch with United.