Spurs cup-tie a shop window for non-league player Neil Kengni

FORMER Stalybridge Celtic player Neil Kengni is hoping non-league Marine’s remarkable exploits in the Emirates FA Cup will serve as a shop window for a route back into the EFL.

The 20-year-old forward, who was a scholar at Rochdale, is combining playing non-league with working as an apprentice plumber.

Kengni is hoping the fairytale third-round tie against Premier League leaders Tottenham earlier this month will raise his profile and that may soon enable him to put away his toolbox for the foreseeable future.

“I am still young, and I think there is still time to improve and make it back into the Football League,” he explained.

“If you ask any part-time player, their dream is to be full-time, something I was lucky enough to do at Rochdale.”

Neil Kengni playing for Celtic Photo Martyn Everett

And Kengni almost caused an upset by putting minnows Marine ahead against the might Spurs when he struck the crossbar when the game was goalless with a stunning shot from 30 yards.

“Had that gone in, it would have changed the game,” said Kengni whose side eventually lost 5-0 to a star-studded Spurs side.

“As soon as I received the ball it was in my mind to shoot and it so nearly went in.”

It was a measure of the respect Spurs showed for Marine they brought a near full-strength side, except Harry Kane who did not travel.

Kengni said: “It was a great experience to face players you see week in, week out on television.

“And the way we played in the FA Cup to get that far, I think we deserved to play a strong side.

“It was definitely the highlight of my career to play live on television against top players. It was special.”

As the players were unable to swop shirts because of Covid-19, Spurs brought along a set to give to Marine and Kengni claimed one belonging to Argentine international Erik Lamela.

Kengni said the only sadness was supporters were unable to witness the greatest day in Marine’s history – their tie represented the biggest-ever gap between two teams in the competition’s history.

“The messages of support we received were amazing and a massive thank you to the fans,” he said.

After his moment of fame, Kengni’s feet were back firmly on the ground as 14 hours after the end of the game he was on day release to college for his plumbing.

Marine’s cup run – they were only the second club from step eight of the football pyramid to reach the third round – has certainly done Kengni’s football career prospects no harm.

Yet he admitted it could have been different as he revealed Stalybridge Celtic wanted him to re-sign in the summer.

Kengni, who had been on loan at Marine since January, said: “My contract was up with Celtic in the summer and they wanted me to re-sign.

“Celtic loaned me to Marine for my benefit as I had lost form. I enjoyed it, played well and got my joy for football back.

“It proved a good decision to loan me out and the change of scenery did me well. And it made the decision to join Marine permanently that much easier.”

Kengni has enjoyed the cup run, though he admitted it was nearly over before it had begun as they scraped past North West Counties League side Barnoldswick in their first qualifying match.

“It was a scare as we were 1-0 down with two minutes to go and scored two late goals to win 2-1,” he explained.

Marine went on to beat higher-league Chester FC, Colchester United and Havant and Waterlooville to set up the glamour tie against Spurs.

“We have had some difficult games, especially as League Two side Colchester, but we have managed to pull through them all,” he said.

And in the second round against Havant, there was a dramatic finish as Niall Cummins scored the winner in the last minute of extra time.

Kengni had returned to his home in Wythenshawe after a day’s work plumbing when the third-round draw was made.

“I was watching the draw at home and I was so happy, buzzing when we got Spurs at home. The lads deserved it.

“It was an unbelievable draw – it could only have been bettered had it been my team Manchester United.”

Kengni made 68 appearance for Celtic between August 2018 and January 2020, scoring 14 goals.

After being released by Rochdale aged 18, Kengni was playing for Malpas in the Cheshire League when Celtic manager Simon Haworth came knocking at the door.

“Malpas was the local team for one of the Rochdale coaches and that is how I came to play for them,” he said.

Kengni admitted being released by Rochdale at the end of his scholarship was something he had to deal with.

“You either give up the game or take it on the chin and prove people wrong,” he explained.

In Kengni’s case it is playing part time and learning a trade for the future, something he believes is imperative.

But he admitted it is not easy and comes with its challenges.

Kengni said: “I work during the day and then train two nights each week.

“It is quite demanding but, when you love football as I do, I will not let it get in the way.”

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