JAMIE Chandler admits he sometimes can’t believe how much he has already crammed into a short football career.
At 25 years old, he is already a seasoned pro, with heartache, ecstasy, relegation, trophy success and England caps etched on his CV.
Not to mention being named man of the match at Wembley for Darlington, before seeing the club go under just 12 months later when the chairman pulled the plug.
He insists, however, he wouldn’t change any of it, learning from each experience, which has made him a stronger person and a better player.
And now, Wembley has come around again for Chandler, the latest high in a rollercoaster career.
The Gateshead midfielder is preparing for the club’s biggest game in 54 years, a Conference play-off final against Cambridge United at the national stadium. The winner-takes-all prize on offer: a return to the Football League.
Yet there are no nerves on display for the former Sunderland Academy graduate, just a steely determination and focus as he looks to take the next step forward on what has, at times, been a rocky path.
“I enjoyed an unbelievable time at Sunderland,” recalled Chandler. “I did 11 years there and that was my base.
“I loved it at Sunderland, playing in the reserves and training with the first team most days, and I’ve got friends for life from that club.
“There’s not many that make it through, I was close and played for England numerous times, but it was one of them where I knew I had to step down. I went to a great club in Darlington, enjoyed a great time there, winning the FA Trophy at Wembley and captaining the club, but I’ve come here and worked hard.
“Last year we endured a horrible relegation season, so at the age of 25 I seem to have done everything. I’ve had a relegation battle, a play-off battle, won a trophy and goneto Wembley twice. It’s all good experience.
“It’s all made me a stronger character. Mentally, you learn to take a bit of stick. When I left Sunderland there was probably people who were happy to see me not make the grade there in a funny way, but over the years I’ve turned it around.
“I’ve had a couple of good years here and it’s nice to see some old faces from school and around the local area delighted to see me do well in my career.”
And those old faces from Boldon, where he grew up and still lives, are now planning on following the schemer all the way to Wembley this Sunday to see if Chandler can help deliver Gateshead back to the promised land.
Buses have been put on especially, while Chandler’s family and friends are turning out in force to support their man.
It seems they’re more excited than him – but then, he’s getting to be an old hand at this.
Three years ago, he was the star of the show as Darlington won the FA Trophy with a last-gasp extra-time win over Mansfield Town.
“I remember we went the day before and it was probably the best thing that happened for me,” recalls Chandler. “I was there with my phone out, taking pictures, videos, then come the next day I was fine.
“I wasn’t nervous (come the match), I just wanted to get out there and play the game. I was so excited for it.
“I had a good game on the day and was man of the match. The way we won it, with the last kick of the game, was incredible, an amazing way to top it off.
“My experience for the first time was incredible – the noise, the atmosphere, Wembley as a spectacle, it was just an amazing day.
“Four or five of the older lads (at Gateshead) have played at Wembley, but there isn’t many. I’ve been blessed, to be 25 and to be going back to Wembley for a second time is incredible. There’s players who have the best careers in the world, play in the Premier League and the Champions League and they don’t get the chance to play at Wembley.
“When you’re a kid growing up that’s all you want to do, you want to play at Wembley. For me, this time it will be a bt more relaxed than the first time in the sense of “I’m going to Wembley, I’m going to Wembley!”
“It’s more of a day out for my family, my friends and my girlfriend. I’m delighted they can come and watch me there.
“For me, I’ve just got the job in mind, and that’s to go and win there again.
“Immediate family and friends, I think there’s about 30, but from around Boldon I think people are talking about putting on a couple of buses from the local bars. It’s unbelievable.”