Chris Iwelumo on Saints, Celtic and ‘that’ miss

Only one subject is off limits for chatty Iwelumo… and it’s not ‘that’ moment at Hampden Park
St Johnstone striker Chris Iwelumo. Picture: Ian RutherfordSt Johnstone striker Chris Iwelumo. Picture: Ian Rutherford
St Johnstone striker Chris Iwelumo. Picture: Ian Rutherford

CHRIS Iwelumo is a friendly, open sort. He is generous with his time and happy to natter about most things but there is the odd topic where he is slightly more reticent.

It’s not “that miss” at Hampden that causes the shutters to slide down, though. Full credit to him, Iwelumo is gracious enough to discuss that and says it no longer gnaws away at him. But the St Johnstone forward is wary when it comes to talking about his publicised affection for this afternoon’s opponents. Reports suggest he grew up a fan of Celtic but when asked about that some alarm bells sound in his brain. “When I got into my first Scotland squad, I was always told never to answer any questions about who I supported!” he says.

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He is polite and apologetic but he won’t elaborate. Back in the day he wasn’t so shy. The internet documents his self-proclaimed allegiance to the current league leaders. In another case of what might have been, he even went on trial at the Glasgow club. Just like his Scotland debut, it was another dream that didn’t pan out quite the way he’d hoped.

“Kenny McDowell, when he was the development/U21 coach, got me along. He had been my assistant manager at St Mirren and when I was in Denmark, they got me over. I was actually at Celtic for two, nearly three weeks. It was when John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish were there. They just wanted to have a look at me and I think we played Dundee and it was a fantastic experience but it was maybe a bit too daunting for me at that time. It’s a massive club and a very well-run club and there were some very well-known people there but it wasn’t to be and I had to go and ply my trade elsewhere.

“[Henrik] Larsson and all that were there and as a striker to train with someone like that, someone who is an absolute legend, was something special. It was a daunting thing to go out and train with these kind of guys. I have not had any regrets. There is no point being too disappointed it didn’t work out because you can’t hold on to things, everything happens for a reason and you have just got to take the good with the bad and keep moving forward.”

But Iwelumo is eagerly anticipating this afternoon’s return to Celtic Park. His loyalty, though, is to St Johnstone. Signed on a short-term contract until the end of the current campaign, it is a welcome return to the Scottish game, even if it is a return he had not planned.

“I always thought I wouldn’t come back to Scottish football, although I have always stayed interested in the Scottish Premiership,” says the 35-year-old striker as he relaxes ahead of training. “But coming back to play with a great bunch of lads, at a great club, who do so much for me, with hindsight, it’s been a fantastic decision. As soon as the gaffer expressed an interest, it set off something in my head and I thought ‘Why have you not considered this sooner?’”

The honest answer to that is that, having separated from his wife, Iwelumo wanted to stay close to his two daughters, nine-year-old Prisais and seven-year-old Novia. “Make sure you give me credit for the names,” he insists. “Prisais means ‘precious one’ in Greek, Novia means ‘newcomer’ in Latin. They are my life and that did play a part but it turns out coming up here is one of the best things I could have done.

“Someone said to me that I have been away 16 years and it’s quite strange to think it’s that long. All my family is up here, in Coatbridge, Airdrie, Kilmarnock, and my mum and my brother came up and stayed with me last week and it’s great. My daughters are up this weekend and it’s bizarre to think I can take them round all my family. They have seen them, obviously, but not as much as they should have so it’s great to have that chance now.”

Iwelumo wakes up to a text from his girls every day and they chat by computer video link regularly. “And you have to remember that down south you are travelling so much that you are in hotels on a Monday, Tuesday, Friday, so they are used to me not being there full time,” he says. “They are looking forward to this weekend as well so it’s great to get them up.”

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The girls have followed their dad’s career from club to club and have replica shirts from each with “Daddy” on the back as mementos – which, given Iwelumo’s CV means they have a pretty sizeable collection. “Ha, yeah, they have loads of them now,” he laughs.

His career started out at St Mirren and although Tony Fitzpatrick had offered him a new two-year contract, at 19 he set off for Aarhus Fremad, in Denmark.

“That was probably the hardest thing I could have done. It prepared me and set me up for whatever came from then on. The Bosman ruling had just come in and I didn’t think it was the right time to stay at St Mirren but I had to move to another country and I had to stay out for at least a year so I signed a three-year contract but when I was out there Stoke City came in for me and brought me to English football.”

A long list of clubs followed, with a successful career played out predominantly in the English Championship. There was also a spell in German football at Aachen Alemania. It was another testing time but Iwelumo embraced the culture, learned the language and ended up loving it.

It’s testament to a personality that is constructive rather than destructive. “I love the game and it has brought me so many amazing rewards and opportunities and I have been on an amazing journey. I just wanted to go out and play football and score goals and wherever that was, I was happy.”

For a few days after his Scotland debut that wasn’t necessarily the case. The delight of getting his first full cap, against Norway, in 2008, was diluted by that infamous error when he missed an open goal from a few yards out. The demons, though, are long-since exorcised.

“It was so close, I was a few centimetres away from being a national hero and it would have been unbelievable but you have to be positive. To be in that position in the first place meant I was lucky enough to be playing for my country and it also helps build character.

“It happened when I was probably in the best form of my career but it did happen and I can’t change it. It was one of my lowest points. I had to take it on the chin and learn to bounce back. I scored something like ten goals in six matches for Wolves after that match and it just showed the form I was in. I don’t feel I have come up here with any monkey on my back. If people want to tarnish me with that then so be it, it is a game of opinions and everybody is entitled to their opinion.”

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He considers himself thick-skinned and fairly self-aware. As he joins his team-mates on the training ground, there is hard graft and hearty laughs, and it’s easy to wish the clock could be turned back and that errant ball could be tucked inside the post. It may not trouble him any more but, having met him, the overwhelming feeling is that karma could have been kinder.