I'l miss chance to play at Wembley - and two other finals - over harsh red card

It's a heartbreaking end to one footballer's fairytale - and Scott Kirkwood is as upset for his family as he is for himself as he comes to terms to being banned for what will probably be his only chance to play at Wembley.

The Littlehampton Town midfielder must watch from the sidelines as his Marigolds team-mates take on Newport Pagnell under the Arch on Sunday - just as he was a spectator for their Peter Bentley Cup final win over Newhaven on Sunday and will be again for the RUR Cup final against Saltdean next Wednesday.

Has any other footballer ever had a three-match ban like it? It's doubtful, and what makes it worse is that Kirkwood is such a universally popular figure in football - best known in recent times for leading the 5k4NHS project alongside Kevin Keehan in the first Covid lockdown that raised more than £50,000 for the health service.

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He's had a great career that's entailed time at Brighton, from the age of nine to 16, then Crawley, Bognor, Worthing, Horsham, Burgess Hill, Hastings, Lewes, Eastbourne Town and Horsham YMCA. He joined Littlehampton mid-season and it looked like a day in the sun at Wembley would be his after his three assists helped Golds beat North Shields in the Vase quarter-final and Loughborough Students in the semi-final.

Then came the moment that ruined everything for him - a mistimed tackle on a Hassocks player in the RUR Cup semi-final resulted in a red card. The Littlehampton camp on the night felt it was harsh - and that yellow would have been punishment enough - and the club's appeal to a Sussex FA panel was rejected.

Were Littlehampton already playing one step higher in the non-league game, which ironically they will be next year, Kirkwood could have requested a personal hearing at which he feels he could have put his case and his background across in a way that would have led to the appeal being successful. He says even the Hassocks player he fouled has tried to help his plea for leniency, but it has been to no avail.

So it is that on Sunday Kirkwood will not play nor even be allowed to sit on the bench as a non-sub. He will at least be able to join the squad in the dressing room and on the pitch before and after the game. If Littlehampton win, he believes he will be eligible for a medal. All a little consolation - but in a way, no consolation at all for missing out on what would have been the high point of 28 years playing football.

Scott Kirkwood in action in the quarter-final win over North Shields when he set up George Gaskin's winner / Picture: Stephen Goodger

To rub salt into the wounds, it was on his 37th birthday he found out hopes of overturning the ban had gone.

Kirkwood sounded emotional when he told us: "I do feel I was unfairly treated on the night with the red card. There was a genuine attempt to get the ball and I was just a split-second late. And I feel I've been unfairly treated since in not being able to have a personal hearing to put my case across. Littlehampton and many others have been very good and have tried to help me - even the player I tackled has backed me. But it's come to nothing.

"It was a boyhood dream to play at Wembley and I thought I was going to. It was only when I was back in the dressing room after getting the red card that it sunk in. I'd like to think my good character would have gone in my favour at a hearing - it's well-known what we did with the 5k4NHS project back in 2020, when Gareth Southgate called me done and Kevin to thank us for what we'd done.

"Sunday will be strange. I'll be there and part of the group and Mitch and George (Hand and Gaskin, joint managers) have been amazing and said they want me to be involved as much as I can. But when your team gets to Wembley, you just want to play, of course you do.."

Kirkwood sounded emotional when he spoke about his family coming to Wembley. They will still be there, but they, like him, thought they'd be going to watch him in action. "My mum and dad have supported since I started playing as a kid. They've taken me up and down the country and done everything for me I could have asked and I think about them not now being able to watch me play there. I looked on this as my chance to repay them for everything.

"Then there's my wife, sister, my nan. My little boy's only two so he won't know too much about it. My grandad passed away not that long ago and he'd have loved it. My nan was looking forward to watching me on the TV.

"I'm not sure what I'll do on the day - maybe have individual chats with players if they're nervous. If I can help in any way, I will. I just hope everyone in the team and the management and our great fans all enjoy it to the full.

"We have a big squad so I'm not going to be the only one missing out on playing. I'm not looking for sympathy, tt's just very upsetting how it's worked out.

"Littlehampton Town is a fantastic club. A lot of the lads have been there together a long time yet when I joined every one of them welcomed me. There is such a community and family feel to the club. I think that's a big part in why we've been successful.

"As for Wembley it's been pointed out to me that we'll have to see if we can get to the FA Trophy final next season! If we do I think I might ask not to play in the few games before it!"

Kirkwood is backing Golds to do well at Wembley. "Every time we have had a big game put in front of us, we've risen to the occasion. We seem to thrive on it and I've no reason to think the lads will give a great account of themselves on Sunday. I'll be feeling like I'm kicking every ball with them."

Kirkwood's final thought on the issue is perhaps a good measure of the man: "I’d really hate for this to happen to anyone else in the future," he said. Few could disagree with that.

* We approached the Sussex FA for a comment on the case....

They told us they appreciated it was an ‘unfortunate’ case, but confirmed Kirkwood was red-carded for serious foul play and after Town lodged a wrongful dismissal appeal, which was processed in line with FA regulations and timeframes, the appeal was dismissed unanimously by a three-person commission, as they could not deem that the referee made an obvious error in dismissing the player from the evidence provided.

They added: "A Wrongful Dismissal hearing is always heard with no representatives present in line with FA regulations. All disciplinary commission decisions for Wrongful Dismissal or Mistaken Identity cases are final and binding on all parties and there is no further right to challenge. All of the above stated regulations are also outlined in the Grassroots Disciplinary Guide."