May 25, 2014
Few footballers have seen highs and lows quite like Iain Hume. After a tumultuous 14-year career in England, Canada’s former U-20 superstar is set to make his long-awaited Wembley debut in Monday’s League Two Playoff Final.
The famous walk up Wembley Way, from the tube station to the steps of national stadium itself, measures barely half a mile.
For most stadium-goers, it is a leisurely stroll on a rare day out in London’s springtime sunshine.
For Brampton-raised striker Iain Hume, the road to Wembley has resembled something more akin to an ironman course. But after 14 years as a professional footballer, 486 league appearances and a near-fatal head injury – the moment has finally arrived.
Hume, the Canadian player with the most all-time appearances in English football, will finally walk out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Monday when he takes part in the League Two playoff final.
Hume will be playing as a loan player for Fleetwood Town, a most modest of sides from the very North-West of England who are chasing promotion up into the third tier of the English football pyramid for the first time in their history.
“It’s a day that I’m never going to forget,” Hume told me over the phone from his home near Liverpool.
“I’ve waited this long in my career to my finally get there, so it’s something I’m extremely excited about.”
It would seem for Hume that football has had a knack of handing him the moments of his dreams but in ways that he likely never expected.
Like many young Canadians raised by British immigrants in the 80s and 90s, Hume spent countless Saturday mornings crammed into a handful of dark, smoky pubs around Toronto.
Back during that period, European football had yet to arrive on mainstream Canadian television.
“I would go down to the pub and watch the two games on a Saturday morning with my brother and my dad,” he said.
“Come the end of the season you would have the FA Cup Final at Wembley, and the other finals. As young kid in Canada those were always the moments you dreamed of being part of.”
Remarkably, as a highly-rated teenager, Hume nearly helped his first club, Tranmere Rovers, all the way to the FA Cup Final on two occasions – with the side making back-to-back quarter-final appearances in 1999-2000 and 2000-2001.
Indeed Hume had quickly outgrown what Canadian football had to offer him at the time and he became one of youngest-ever professional debutants in England by making his senior debut at the age of 16.
“From when I moved over here, with the progression of Canadian football where it was at the time, we were few and far between in Europe,” Hume said.
Having recently turned 30, Hume is now closing in on the rare milestone of reaching the 500-game mark in his career. He would be the first Canadian international to do so in England.
“To be still playing at a decent level and to have done it for as long as I have, it’s a great achievement in my eyes and in family’s eyes,” he added.
Canadian soccer hasn’t just had a makeover in the 14-plus years that Hume has been playing league football in England – it has fundamentally transformed itself into an entirely new landscape, barely recognizable to its former self.
When Hume left Toronto, the only professional game in town, the Toronto Lynx, were a bit-part collection of up-and-comers and wannabe professionals, playing in front of crowds of mostly family and friends scattered across the crumbling concrete steps at the old Varsity Stadium on Bloor Street.
The antiquated cinder track that encircled the bobbly pitch, complete with the dilapidated stand on the East side of the ground symbolized the state of the country’s footballing infrastructure at the time.
Canada was a football wasteland.
Once or twice, but only briefly, there had threatened to be some form of sustainable professional environment – but by the late 1990s that dream has long since sailed into the distance.
For the generation of promising youngster like Hume, Paul Stalteri, Julian De Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson there was only one option: go abroad.
So overseas they went, forming a kind of Canadian soccer Diaspora taking the country’s meagre footballing riches to foreign shores.
For Hume, that journey overseas held, for a time, the promise of a possible breakthrough to the very highest levels in the game.
After impressing in England with his goals, tricks and work-rate during a spell as a first-team teenager – Hume really turned heads at the 2003 FIFA U-20 World Cup in UAE.
Hume, alongside Atiba Hutchinson and Josh Simpson formed the core of Canada’s best-ever youth side – a team that made a remarkable run all the way to the quarter-finals before being eliminated by Spain in extra time.
Sporting his signature red-and-white hairdo that he donned when playing for Canada in those days, Hume dazzled in the quarter-final, scoring a late equalizer and rattling the bar with what would have been a winning goal in the dying minutes of the game.
His performances at the tournament gave real hope to Canadian fans who, even back then, had been desperately starved of goals.
The good times continued to roll from there for Canada’s promising young striker.
Hume was signed by Leicester City in the Championship for £500,000 on transfer deadline day in August 2005.
He went onto enjoy a prosperous spell with the Foxes, finishing the season as the club’s top goalscorer with 11 goals – but despite his personal success during the campaign – Leicetser were relegated on the final day of the season.
But for Hume, there was to be another summer of reward, as Barnsley came in for him, purchasing him from Leicester for the fee of £1.2 million.
It was a price tag that spoke for itself.
Things at Barnsley got off to a flying start when Hume scored just five minutes into his debut but things were about to take a dramatic, and frightening turn for the worse.
On November 8th, 2008 Sheffield United’s notorious hard-man Chris Morgan caught Hume in the side of the skull with a vicious elbow.
Those that know Hume well will know that he is man of notable grit and tenacity, and unsurprisingly he did all he could to dismiss the seriousness of his injury in the immediate aftermath of the game.
But as his condition worsened, his family rushed him to hospital the next morning and when he fully came to days on from the initial injury, he had undergone a major, emergency procedure in order to rectify the internal damage inside his skull.
Hume now bore the external signs of the trauma, a haunting scar running the entire length of the left side of his head.
It was an injury that nearly killed him.
“Everything that comes to me now is welcomed with open arms,” he said reflecting on his time of crisis.
“I know I’ve worked through everything that I possibly could. I’ve worked through the toughest parts of my career and my life to get to where I am now.”
Hume’s mere return to professional football is nothing short of a miraculous comeback in itself.
But it should perhaps come as no surprise that the Canadian footballer who most embodies the grittier characteristics of our nation’s sporting ethos was simply not going to be held back from returning to the game he has loved since the earliest days of his childhood.
You sense, for Hume, that football isn’t just the central thread of his life – it is his life.
Things have returned to relative normality in his career, he has since scored goals for Preston, Doncaster and Canada once-more.
And although he does not disguise his sense of bemusement that he is now playing his football at League Two level – he neither makes any attempt to hide his unbridled pleasure at getting the chance to fulfil his childhood dream of walking out onto the pitch at England’s showpiece stadium on Monday.
For Hume, the steps of the pre-match walk-out procession at Wembley will be the final paces in one the longest, most tumultuous journeys by any Canadian footballer in the modern era.
It’s safe to say that far away from Fleetwood there will be a nation of die-hard Canadian supporters backing him every step of the way.