Fabian... from Blues to Grays

AFTER nine years' distinguished service at Portman Road, Fabian Wilnis is spending his last season as a professional in the austere surroundings of non-league Grays Athletic.

Josh Warwick

AFTER nine years' distinguished service at Portman Road, Fabian Wilnis is spending his last season as a professional in the austere surroundings of non-league Grays Athletic.

As JOSH WARWICK discovered, it is the Dutchman's undying love of football that has extended a tremendous career into his 39th year.

IT was FIFA chief Sepp Blatter - once famed for urging female footballers to wear tighter shorts in a bid to attract more spectators - who likened the lot of multi-millionaire Cristiano Ronaldo to that of a slave.

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His opinion was unhelpfully offered as Real Madrid relentlessly pursued the Portuguese winger last summer despite Manchester United's repeated refusal to part with their prized asset.

Quite what abolitionist William Wilberforce would have made of Blatter's twisted logic, one can only imagine.

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Whether the politician and philanthropist had in mind Ronaldo, worth an estimated �18m, when he and his campaigners were drawing up the Slave Trade Act remains to be seen.

Blatter, of course, is known the world over for opening his mouth and wedging his foot firmly down his throat.

But there is a sinister truth lurking in his view of 21st century football - loyalty in the beautiful game is a dying quality.

As wages have rocketed at an obscene rate and power has shifted from the boardroom to the dressing room, the days of the one-club man seem like a distant and romantic notion of the black and white past.

It is hardly surprising then, that the gulf between the game's protagonists and its supporters is wider than the Orwell Bridge.

Today, the working man's sport is contested between millionaires whose aristocratic lives are far removed from those who pay to watch them.

That football's heroes once lived in the same estates as those who squeezed on to the terraces to watch them every other Saturday is almost unbelievable.

Perhaps it is this nostalgia which explains why former Ipswich Town defender Fabian Wilnis has always commanded the highest of respect from Blues supporters.

After all, the Dutchman appreciates more than most the career he has been able to enjoy - the chance to earn a comfortable living playing a game he is as in love with today as he was when he first kicked a ball.

As a child growing up in Rotterdam, young Fabian's passion for football was first fuelled on the terraces of Feyenoord's De Kuip, the giant stadium which stood a goal kick away from the Wilnis family home.

When his father worked as a steward on match days, Fabian tagged along to catch a glimpse of one of Europe's finest teams.

He admits he was transfixed by many of the great talents who wore the famous red and white shirt at the time - principally the world class Dutch duo of Johann Cruyff and Ruud Gullit.

Feyenoord's approach to the game rubbed off on Fabian and the club's motto - Geen woorden maar daden ("Not words, but deeds”) could equally describe the Wilnis ethos.

The 38-year-old remains loyal to his routes and is still an ardent Feyenoord supporter.

Indeed, he is confident De Club Van Het Volk (the people's club) will provide the opposition at his testimonial in July.

"I'm from Rotterdam and Feyenoord was always my club," recalls Fabian.

"My dad used to be a steward and we lived 500 yards from the ground. As a young boy I used to love watching them play.

"I would go to the stadium two hours before the game started with my dad and I'd sit there waiting for my heroes to come out.

"That's why it would be so nice to finish my career against the team I always supported.

"There were some great players at Feyenoord, like Johann Cruyff and Ruud Gullit. They were legends and watching them was something special.

"I suppose my background means I can understand what following a team means to the supporters, because I was a fan before I became a footballer."

Fabian is quick to divulge that his profession has been less a means of earning a living and more an opportunity to realise dreams and ambitions - perhaps obvious from the manner in which he has always played the game.

When Jim Magilton delivered the expected news that he would not be offered his umpteenth contract extension at Portman Road last summer, the easy option would have been to retire.

After all, 18 years as a professional, two of which spent rubbing shoulders with the world's finest in the Premier League, would have been enough to satisfy most.

But Fabian was determined to play on, no matter if that meant roughing it in the non-leagues.

Unsurprisingly given his faultless service to Ipswich Town, there was no shortage of offers, but in the end he signed for unglamorous Essex outfit Grays Athletic.

Fabian could have been excused for wincing at the blood, mud and thunder of life in the Blue Square Premier, but he has taken on his latest challenge with the enthusiasm which has become his trademark.

Along with the opportunity to continue his playing career, his switch to The New Recreation Ground has allowed him to keep in shape in preparation for his testimonial this summer.

"When I found out Ipswich had given me a testimonial, I decided I wanted to stay in shape,” he said. “The last thing I wanted was to play and have the fans boo me off!

“As well as staying fit, I have been able to get some coaching experience.

"I have met a lot of new people and a lot of new friends. The people at Grays have been great to me and unbelievably helpful.

"Sometimes you have to take a step back to take two steps forward.

"There are plenty of big-time players around but I have never been like that. You have to deal with the situations you are in.

"The pitches are not as good as I'm used to but you have to get over it and get on with playing. Moaning about these things is a waste of energy.

"There are plenty of differences, of course. Grays don't have the facilities Ipswich have and the game in the lower leagues is a lot more physical.

"Unlike in the Championship where sides try to pass the ball, it's much more direct, too. The keeper gets the ball, bang, it's aimed at the centre forward. The right-back gets the ball, it's aimed at the centre forward. That's how the game is played.

"But for me, the main thing is that I'm fit and healthy and I can still do the thing I love the most while making a living.

"It's not about the money because it doesn't compare to the Championship - it's the pure love of the game.

"I am very fortunate that I can still play at this level, that I am still fit and still running around like a madman.

"The moment you stop, you can't go back - that's why I have played for as long as I have."

Having played at the highest level, Fabian is a popular figure in the Grays dressing room.

"The guys keep asking me about playing in the Premier League," he said. "They look up to me, I think."

Fabian's decision to continue playing at Grays has been partly fuelled by his ambition to move into coaching. The club has welcomed the defender's technical input, allowing him to lead sessions and pass on his wealth of experience.

The aim is to eventually become an assistant manager, gain the necessary experience and then take over as a number one.

So could he one day be back at Portman Road as manager?

"You never know," said Fabian coyly. "If you are a coach you are never sure where you will end up…but managing Ipswich would be very special."

What is abundantly clear is that a decade at Ipswich Town has left an indelible mark on Fabian's heart.

Supporters had to look twice when he appeared in the North Stand for Town's recent victory over Bristol City - but don't be surprised if Fabian is back on the Portman Road terraces soon.

"I'm a huge Ipswich Town fan," he said.

"If you play for a club for ten years and don't support them, there must be something wrong with you.

"Town's result is always the first I look for.”

If Jim Magilton's team can achieve promotion, expect Fabian to lead the celebrations on the Cornhill.

"I really hope they can make the jump into the Premier League. People are so negative about Town. We have to be a little patient. Jim bought in a lot of players and it takes time to gel."

Fabian enjoyed cult status as a Town player. Crucial goals - one against Norwich City - helped earn him the fans' adoration, but so to did his fidelity to the cause.

In a game fuelled by rumour and speculation, transfer gossip involving Fabian rarely if ever surfaced. Meanwhile, his reputation as a consummate professional and a decent guy earnt him respect from both supporters and management.

"Nowadays there's not much loyalty in the game," he said. "You rarely see a player stay at a club for ten years, which is a shame.

"I always gave my 100 per cent when I was wearing the shirt and I was always myself on the pitch.

“Perhaps that's why the fans liked me."

Before Fabian steps into management, he is setting about launching his own charitable foundation, which will support youth football, particularly in the Ipswich area.

He also has bold plans to put the town back on the footballing map by organising a world youth tournament.

Fabian said: "If I'm back in Holland and I mention Ipswich, people still talk about the murders but I want to put a more positive spin on the place.

"I would love it if we could stage a tournament like the ones held in Ireland and Holland, with teams from all over the world competing.

"That's my long-term dream and ambition. Ipswich is a lovely town and I want to do something to promote it. It's going to be hard work but I think it will be very rewarding. It means that wherever I go, I will still have that link with Ipswich.

"The club has given me so much. This is my way of paying something back.”

Fabian's focus is now on his testimonial, which will take place on July 25 at Portman Road.

A number of high profile stars, including ex-Town players Kieron Dyer and Darren Bent, have been invited to play.

Up to 20 per cent of the proceeds will go towards Fabian's foundation project.

He will use the emotional occasion to formally announce his retirement from the game.

His older brothers, mother, father, uncles, aunties and three daughters - who he admits are all “Ipswich girls” - will also be there to mark his last stand.

"It will be a real family day and I hope everyone will come along with their own families," said Fabian.

“It will be a fantastic way for me to bid farewell.”

- To find out more about Fabian's testimonial, visit www.fab10.co.uk

- What are your lasting memories of Fabian Wilnis' time at Ipswich? Write to Sports Desk, 30 Lower Brook Street , Ipswich , IP4 1AN or e-mail starsport@eveningstar.co.uk

IT took just 90 minutes for George Burley to decide that he wanted Fabian Wilnis to become an Ipswich Town player.

After Mauricio Taricco left Suffolk for Tottenham Hotspur in 1998, the former Blues boss quickly identified Fabian as the man to fill the Argentine's void.

Fabian said: "I was playing in Holland for De Graafschap when I heard George Burley was looking for a right wing back.

"He only watched me once and he was convinced. I can remember the match - I think we were playing AZ Alkmaar and I remember having a good game.

"I was interested in the move straight away. I fancied a challenge abroad."

Burley invited the Dutchman to watch Town beat Portsmouth 3-0 on Boxing Day 1998 and he was instantly sold.

"The stadium was a typical English ground with the crowd close to the pitch," said Fabian. "The atmosphere and the crowd and the style of football...I loved it all.

"There was a good team, too, with Kieron Dyer, David Johnson and Richard Wright.

"It is a big club in Holland and I knew the history, with Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren. The place had a special feel and it didn't take long for me to choose to come here."

After David Sheepshanks sanctioned a bargain �200,000 deal, Fabian's career with Town got off to an inauspicious start as the Blues slumped to a 1-0 home defeat to Grimsby Town.

But happier times were around the corner, with promotion arriving in only his second season.

Fabian recalls with a smile the many highs and occasional lows of a career in Blue.

"My biggest highlight has to be promotion and playing at Wembley, as well as that first season in the Premier League.

"Playing against the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United was fantastic. As a young boy you dream of playing at that level.

"I can remember scoring in the first home game in the Premier League against Man United. It was the day before my birthday so the goal was the perfect present.

"As a defender you don't score many goals, especially against teams like Manchester United - that's why I was so happy and you can see it in the expression on my face in the pictures.”

His biggest low - and what appeared to be the curtain call on his Town career, came in Sweden.

"I was taken off at Helsingborg in the UEFA Cup five minutes before the end of the first half,” he said.

"It was the beginning of the end of my time with George Burley and I thought it was the end of my time at Ipswich, too.

"I was sure I was leaving but my luck, if you can call it that, changed when George got the sack and Joe Royle came in and told me it was a new beginning.

"From then on, I played nearly every game.

“It's strange how things work out.”

Fabian Wilnis: Fastfacts

- Fabian Lloyd Wilnis was born on August 23, 1970 in Paramaribo, Suriname

- He made 325 starts for Ipswich scoring six times

- The Dutchman was voted player of the year in 2005/06

- Before signing for Ipswich, Fabian played for NAC Breda and De Graafschap

- Fabian's last appearance at Ipswich came in an FA Cup defeat to Portsmouth in January 2008

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