Of all the players competing in the third round of the FA Cup this weekend, few will have experienced a journey quite as eventful as the one that led Jesurun Uchegbulam to Chesterfield.
Born in Nigeria, Uchegbulam spent several years at AC Milan’s academy and experienced playing at the San Siro, one of the most iconic stadiums in world football.
When his family moved to England, the winger had an extended trial at Everton cut short by a health scare which resulted in heart surgery at the age of 16.
“They found a cyst growing on my heart and I had very high blood pressure,” said Uchegbulam, who only turned 22 on Sunday.
“They had to cut me open and insert a tube. I was told if I didn’t get it done then I could collapse or even worse.”
Several months later, eager to play again after making a full recovery, he joined Stockport Town in the 10th tier of English football.
Uchegbulam had gone from playing at the San Siro to the North West Counties League in the space of two years.
After joining National League Chesterfield last summer following spells at Mossley and Matlock Town, he hopes to help the Spireites deliver one of this weekend’s biggest surprises when West Brom, from three leagues above, visit the non-league club.
“I’ve always told myself to get back up and keep going whenever I’ve had setbacks,” added Uchegbulam.
“Chesterfield is my first professional contract. It is a dream that I still haven’t woken up from.”
Inside AC Milan’s famous talent factory
Uchegbulam was born in Lagos and grew up in Italy after his parents, Donatus and Gloria, moved to Venice when he was one.
He was seven when he secured a place in AC Milan’s academy, one of the world’s most famous talent factories whose graduates include Paolo Maldini, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Uchegbulam recalls one particular season when he scored more than 100 goals for the under-13s while playing as a centre-back.
“We’d have 50 to 55 games each season and we used to play against the likes of Roma under-13s and beat them 14-0,” he said.
“At Milan, I always played in teams at least two years above my age. When I was 14, I was playing for the under-17s.”
On his experience of playing at the San Siro, Uchegbulam added: “We played Inter Milan in a youth team fixture which we lost.
“There was quite a big crowd. Because I was so young, it was just like walking out onto any other pitch.
“Now I’m older I get goosebumps walking out to play for Chesterfield.
“Back then I didn’t pay too much attention to nerves or anything like that. I just wanted to get on the pitch and have fun.”
Uchegbulam’s dream of making it at AC Milan, the seven-time champions of Europe, did not last and after his parents lost their jobs, the family moved to England in search of a better life.
It was not long, however, before the player was reeling from another setback.
‘Heart surgery news was devastating’
“The economy in Italy had become bad and people were losing their jobs. My dad was working in security and lost his job and mum lost her job in a care home,” said Uchegbulam.
He was 15 when the family arrived in Harpurhey, Greater Manchester. Within a year, Uchegbulam had caught the attention of an Everton scout while playing amateur football.
“After growing up playing as a centre-back at AC Milan, I realised the best position for me was further up the pitch,” he says.
“I was strong, I was powerful, I had pace with an eye for goal.
“I was at Everton for about six weeks and during that time I was training at Finch Farm with players like Anthony Gordon.
“I was enjoying myself but then came the news I needed heart surgery. I was devastated.
“I’d always felt fine playing football but I had a hospital check and that’s when I was told my blood pressure was not normal.”
Further tests revealed a cyst on his heart which needed to be removed.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” he said. “The operation lasted for about three hours and even after the surgery I was in hospital for a further three weeks. When I did eventually leave, I couldn’t walk or do anything for several months.”
Will non-league Chesterfield surprise West Brom?
With his health problems behind him, Uchegbulam is looking ahead to a positive future after signing for Chesterfield, a full-time club in the fifth tier of English football.
The Spireites – semi-finalists in 1996-97 – are set to welcome a 9,000-plus crowd for their second successive appearance in the third round following last season’s 5-1 defeat at Chelsea, who were then European champions.
Excitement is growing in the Derbyshire town that the team managed by former Wolves midfielder Paul Cook can spring a major surprise and beat Championship side West Brom.
As well as defeating League Two clubs Northampton Town and AFC Wimbledon to get to this stage, Chesterfield are chasing automatic promotion back to the Football League after winning their past six home games in the National League.
“We certainly have the potential to cause an upset especially as we are playing in front of our own fans,” said Uchegbulam.
“It’s pure joy playing in front of them because you are doing something you love and trying to put a smile on the faces of fans.”
Uchegbulam has largely been used as an impact substitute in his first season at the Chesterfield as he adapts to the full-time game.
He has quickly established himself as a fan favourite after some impressive performances from the bench, which include scoring an 88th-minute equaliser at Yeovil on 17 September.
“As a footballer, who has come from the journey where I have come from, there was no better feeling,” he says about his first professional goal.