BLOG: “If I would’ve missed, I would’ve left the country”

Liverpool City Council Internal Audit officer Paul Stratton was recently the subject of a heart-warming surprise by Michael McIntyre on BBC One – making his debut for Everton FC – in recognition of his voluntary work helping refugees fleeing Ukraine. In this blog he explains more about the surreal experience…

It’s every kid’s dream to score a goal for their club, but to do it at the age of 44 is just unreal.

My brother Gary is to blame for all this happening, with help from my beautiful wife Joanne.

The BBC wanted to do something for Everton FC’s ‘Match for Peace’ against Dynamo Kiev to help Ukraine, and found some reports about my trips to Poland. They got in touch with Gary’s work, and it all went crazy from there.

Gary had been at Goodison for a work meeting a few weeks earlier and told me he had got the tickets for the game for us, so that made it all very convincing.

But here’s something you didn’t know: it nearly didn’t happen!

Apparently, there was utter panic when I messaged Gary the day before saying I may not go, as there was a leaving party for a work colleague the same night. Obviously, what I didn’t know was Michael McIntyre was in the air over the Atlantic, flying home for just the one day to Liverpool from Los Angeles, just for this surprise. Joanne was told to try and convince me not to go to the party, and my manager was briefed, if all else failed, to tell me the party was cancelled. In the end, that wasn’t necessary as I knew I couldn’t miss the match.

At the game, I was taken to a lovely room they use to sign players and do media “stuff”. I was told I was helping them trial “a new fan experience”. They told me that Frank Lampard wanted to bring a fan onto the bench for some games to thank them for their support. All quite plausible, but I thought it may be just signing a bit of paper and getting a few photos. But then, Frank walked in (I call him Frank, because we are best mates now!), and it started to feel very real. I was in awe. He shook my hand, gave me a big hug and signed the forms making me an official squad member. He handed me my shirt, number 38.

So, there I was, in full kit, shinpads and all, on the bench at the holy ground, my dream. The dream was a little shattered when our coach, legend Ashley Cole, looked me up and down as if to say, “who are you, mate?”. None of the staff appeared to know why I was there, nor did the fans sat next to me, asking what I was doing. I felt like the world’s oldest mascot.

The game went on, the looks got stranger, and the embarrassment and utter disbelief, grew. Are they going to bring me on for a half-time challenge or something? No, I was dragged away at half time to complete a “warm up” and “player physical”.

They placed stickers on my temples to “track my heart rate” (even thought they weren’t hooked-up to anything), practice a few keepy-uppies, and answer a whole load of ridiculous questions – the answer to the most bizarre of which was: “No, I have never been bitten by a goat”. I thought I was on Ant & Dec with the number of ridiculous questions.

Then I was back out for the second half feeling very awkward, but my embarrassment was being helped by my favourite player Seamus Coleman, who was amazing, and Sean the security officer who made me laugh with a few behind the scenes stories. Ben Godfrey and James Tarkowski were also added to my list of awkward handshakes, introducing myself as Everton’s first plus-size player (a year out of the gym, and this happens!).

And then it happened, I could see Frank glancing back at me with a smile and I knew he was going to say something, but did not expect him to say: “Go and do some stretches for me”. My reply wasn’t fit for broadcast!

Now, this would normally be wonderful, and I would have taken in every sight, sound, and smell, but I was terrified, like never before. There I was, like an elite athlete, jogging along past the fans, trying not to make eye-contact. But the laughs and jokes never came, it was all cheers and clapping. I stopped, looked up at the watching faces, and panicked. All I could see was Frank laughing at me, so I did the old “over the garden gate” with both legs (I remembered this move from my convincing office-based warm-up), which led to the laughs I was waiting for, and then I signed a few shirts and game programmes for a bunch of kids, thinking: “What on earth is happening to me?”.

I returned to the bench to laughter from the subs and staff. Then I was whisked away, again, to the office “backstage”. Then rushed out, again, to the tunnel where I was told I would wait for the players to come past.

“Paul, come on, Frank wants you”. Eh, what?

I got the top of the steps to see Frank waiting for me, my number up on the subs board, and being announced on the speakers. Frank then said: “Come on, you’re going on for Dele”. That’s right, me, a 44-year-old council worker getting subbed on the pitch for a former England international. Frank gave me louds of encouragement telling me to enjoy it, then a big hug, then another one from Dele as he came off. I did the worst slow jog in football history to the referee who gave me my orders to only go at the whistle.

I honestly thought at that point it was one of those dreams you can wake yourself up from, in fact if you look closely, as I approach the penalty spot, I am saying to myself: “Wake up, wake up”! I could not believe what was happening.

I steadied myself and waited for the whistle. I could not hear the crowd at this point, I could only see the goal and kept saying to myself: “Don’t slip over”. Thankfully, I didn’t. I would love to say I did the keeper with my eyes, but I kept my eye on the ball and aimed for the corner…you could say it was such an exceptional strike that it left the keeper rooted to his spot, but I think we all know why he didn’t move!

When I saw the net ripple, I didn’t know what to do so I just ran to the Gwladys Street crowd who were thankfully cheering, then executed the shortest and most pathetic knee slide in football history, but I didn’t care. I was mobbed by the players, which was incredible. Tom Davies and Mason Holgate told me they would have missed with that pressure, and Frank loved it! He even commented on my technique, I told him I just thought: “What would Frank do?”.

Then the reveal and all I could think about was “I’m going to be on the telly”! The rest is history.

In case you wondered, Michael McIntyre is an amazing bloke, and incredibly funny. At the theatre in between filming he would not leave me alone, singing “there’s only one Paul Stratton” and calling me “Stratto” (my old nickname) all night. All of it was the most Everton thing I have ever seen and reminded me why I love my club.

I just hope this encourages people to volunteer when and where they can or donate the cost of a coffee to a small local cause – There are loads of opportunities to help people in Liverpool so if you can spare some time, go and lend a hand, you won’t regret it.

Slava Ukraini & Up The Toffees.

Paul Stratton – EFC Player (ish)

You can watch Paul on the programme by clicking the link (from 29 minutes in)

Liverpool Waterfront