Defender’s long journey from Arsenal to the Orient

Sunday’s FA Cup tie is extra special for one player

WHEN Arsenal were drawn against Leyton Orient, there were more than a few smiles from those fans who have had always had an affection for Arsenal’s near neighbours, who they have not met in any competition for 33 years.

But there was an even bigger smile on the face of the Orient defender Ben Chorley who, if things had turned out a little differently, could be in the visiting dressing room rather than the home one at Brisbane Road on Sunday afternoon.

The 28-year-old centre-back started out at Highbury, but was released in 2003 without playing a first-team game for the Gunners.

A respectable lower-division career has taken him to Wimbledon – who became MK Dons – Gillingham, Tranmere Rovers and, two years ago, back to London with Orient. But he has never had the chance to face his first club, until last month’s FA Cup fifth-round draw paired them together.

“It’s one I’ve always hoped for,” Chorley admitted ahead of Sunday’s clash at Brisbane Road. “I’ve never really got close to it before to be honest, so I’m over the moon that this one has come out.

“I’ve had 10 years as a pro – I’m 28 now – so it has been a long time coming. I’m really looking forward to the game.”

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A powerful, combative centre-half, Chorley was one of a long line of defenders labelled as ‘possibly the next Tony Adams’ when he was coming through the ranks in the Arsenal youth academy a decade ago.

In 2001 he captained Don Howe’s young Gunners to FA Youth Cup glory, scoring a goal in the second leg of the final which Arsenal won 6-3 on aggregate against Blackburn Rovers.

A glance through his team-mates that night shows the quality that Arsenal side had, even if, like Chorley, none of them was to really make the grade in an Arsenal shirt.

Steve Sidwell, Jerome Thomas and Jermaine Pennant all now ply their trade in the Premier League, while Moritz Volz, Jeremie Aliadiere and Rohan Ricketts have also done so.

For most of them that night of Youth Cup glory turned out to be the pinnacle of their Highbury careers.

Chorley was handed a professional contract in 2001, but Arsenal still had defenders such as Adams, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon. That summer. Sol Campbell also arrived at the club. Competition was fierce, chances rare.

When his contract expired two years later, Chorley had not forced his way into the reckoning, was released and snapped up by Wimbledon. However, he is still looking forward to seeing familiar faces again on Sunday.

“There’s still a few old friends there, obviously the manager hasn’t changed and neither has the assistant [Pat Rice]. I’m looking forward to seeing the kit man Vic Akers, he helped me a lot when I was there.

“I don’t really know any of the players they’ve got any more, obviously I left there about eight years ago. So a lot has changed.

“But I’ve got so much history with the club and going through what we achieved and how successful we were as a youth team and reserve team, it will be nice to catch up with a few people.”

There will, however, be more than pure sentiment involved for Chorley on Sunday. Having battled through four rounds and won impressively at high-flying Championship sides Norwich and Swansea in rounds three and four, the O’s are gunning to be the first ever lower-division side to knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup during Wenger’s 15-year reign.

“We’ve been away in every round up until now,” says Chorley. “Dagenham [in the first round] was a tough game, then we had Droylsden and I think after beating Norwich and Swansea, we deserved a big tie.

“I felt like we’d played the two teams in the Championship with the best home records and we beat them both, so I felt we needed a reward and it’s nice to get Arsenal.”

Chorley harbours no ill-feeling towards Arsenal or Wenger, but on Sunday he has the opportunity to show them what they missed out on.

“For sure we’ll give them a game,” he said. “This is the kind of thing you think about all of your life. With all of your family here and your loved ones, you don’t want to disappoint anyone.

“We know it’s going to be very tough, but we’ve got to go out and give everything. We’ve got to play our game the way we play and you never know. If the Gods are smiling on us on Saturday then we might have a chance…”