This season we are celebrating 20 years since Cheltenham Town lifted the FA Trophy with a series of 'Road to Wembley' features with the players and staff from the Robins of 1997/98. Here winger Keith Knight looks back on a special first season...
Cheltenham-born winger Keith Knight had three ambitions as a child kicking a ball around the back-yard – and during a memorable career at his home-town club he achieved them all.
Knight was Steve Cotterill’s first signing as manager in January 1997 and had a huge impact on the club’s immediate push for promotion in the Southern Premier.
The former Chosen Hill pupil then played a key role in both the run to Wembley in the FA Trophy and promotion the following year, before opting not to go pro in 1999.
But Knight admits his footballing connection to the Robins had actually started many years before those glorious times.
“My first involvement was as a junior and in my late teens when I played for the reserves – I think my first game was as a sub against Darlaston in the West Midlands League. That was my first taste of it,” he revealed.
After starting in the junior ranks at Cheltenham under John Murphy, Knight was to go on and play professionally at Reading and overseas at Dutch outfit BV Veendam.
On his later return to England, Knight was again reunited with Murphy at Trowbridge Town and Gloucester City before the call came to bring him home.
“I was playing at Halesowen Town when Steve Cotterill rang and asked if I fancied coming back. I think it was about my third, and final, return to the Robins,” smiled Knight, who represented England seven times at Under-18 level and played for the England National Game XI in the 1993/94 and 1995/96 seasons.
“I had known Steve a long time, from when we were about 15 or 16 in the reserve team and in local football. Our paths had crossed and he rang and said they had a lad who was Birmingham based and they fancied a swap.
“It wasn’t a hard sell; I fancied coming back and Cheltenham had a nucleus of a very good side. Steve was very ambitious and keen to kick it on from there.
“I was Cheltenham born and bred. It was less travelling, at the same standard and I really felt I had unfinished business with the club.
“I was more experienced as a footballer from the young player who had been at the Robins. I knew the game and, having played Cheltenham, knew the side I was coming into. I wanted to try and win things.
“We had the likes of Bob Bloomer, Jason Eaton and Archie Howells and I knew how good they were - they had kicked lumps out of my playing for Trowbridge!”
What was to follow was a glorious three year spell for the Robins with FA Trophy success coming soon in 1998 – albeit earlier than Knight had ever anticipated.
“Most of us felt if we could just hold our own in the Conference in our first year, stay in it and consolidate then we would do well,” admitted Knight.
“It went much better than that as we finished second to a very good Halifax team and had an exceptional run in the FA Trophy. With a bit more experience we could have won the league that year too.
“I had three ambitions as a child,” he added. “To play professional football, to play for England and to play at Wembley. I managed to tick all those boxes while I was at Cheltenham.
“The final was a fantastic occasion for the club and supporters. It was extremely warm and one of the worst games of football you could ever see – but 20 years on nobody remembers the game, it’s all about the result!
“To win playing for your home-town club at Wembley was incredible. It doesn’t get much better and there was a real sense of pride about it.”
Knight’s impact on the team over those three seasons was clear. A talented and hard-working midfielder who was adept playing at wing back or wide right.
And when Cotterill was asked years later to pick the defining image of his reign, it was Knight’s cross being headed into the net by Michael Duff against Yeovil Town on April 22, 1999: the day Cheltenham secured promotion into the Football League.
“As a group we were an extremely close and we had a bond – on and off the field,” revealed Knight. “We trained as we played - hard! Even five-a-side after training was competitive. Everybody wanted to be in the first team come Saturday.
“Players are often wrapped in cotton wool today, but back then Thursday night training was just as competitive and as feisty an affair as Saturday afternoon.
“We had a great camaraderie, that exists to this day. We all still speak and it’s like it was back then.
“There are one or two spells in your career, if you are lucky, when you get on with everybody in the changing room. I had it at Trowbridge and that spell at Cheltenham.
“It was a pleasure to go training, schoolboy humour was everywhere. It was only funny, though, if you were in our changing room! We still tell the same old stories now when we meet up and still have a chuckle.
“What we also had was a very passionate manager who knew what he wanted and got what he wanted. If you didn’t deliver, you didn’t play!”
Knight’s final spell at Cheltenham was to finish when he opted not to follow the club into the Football League in 1999, moving to Worcester City in the close season.
Spells at Witney Town, Clevedon Town, Swindon Supermarine, Cirencester Town, Cinderford and a return to Gloucester City were to follow.
“I had a good job and decided, because I’d played professional football before, I was better off staying in my career and looking after the family,” he revealed. “I don’t regret it and went on to meet some fantastic characters in the non-league game.”
Knight now runs his own business working in finance from his home in Shurdington and spends his weekends following his son’s fortunes in sport.
And he admits, while he will never say never to a return to football, he is happy to look back on a career that featured some real highs for his club – Cheltenham Town.
“My eldest plays for Frome Town in the Southern Premier League and my middle lad plays rugby to a good standard. I split my Saturdays now between watching Ollie and Tom,” he said.
“But on a Tuesday evening I still pick a non-league game, jump in my car and go off and watch it. I’ll go with someone like Chris Burns and have a natter and catch-up.
“I keep my toe in the water, watch games and if something comes up I might get back involved – but I’m happy with what I had and those special times I enjoyed.”