Big Interview: From non-league unknown to national fame, Chorley ace Lewis Baines recalls a crazy few months
Craig Salmon talks to Chorley defender and FA Cup hero Lewis Baines
Can you just pull your face mask down for a moment?”
Lewis Baines was somewhat taken aback by the unusual request from a fellow shopper while out enjoying a spot of retail therapy in the sleepy county of Cumbria.
The Chorley defender looked around for a moment to fully digest the situation when the member of public added, ‘Sorry, I just wanted to see if it really was YOU!
It quickly dawned on Baines that the man stood in front of him requesting to see his face was a big football fan.
Not accustomed to being recognised too often by complete strangers in public, former Fleetwood Town trainee Baines slipped his mask down below his chin – while maintaining a safe social distance of course – to put his face on full view.
“I knew it,” the man added. “You’re Lewis Baines aren’t you?”
It was a nice moment for Baines and a realisation of just how much the Magpies’ incredible FA Cup run had captured the hearts and minds of football supporters up and down the country.
The part-timers’ history-making run to the fourth round of the competition which saw them knock out three Football League outfits in the shape of Wigan Athletic, Peterborough United and
Derby County before losing narrowly 1-0 to Premier League Wolves at Victory Park, is one of the biggest stories of the 2020/21 football season.
It catapulted the names of Chorley non-league stars into the national spotlight. Baines – a 22-year-old left-sided defender who has never featured in the Football League previously – barely grabs the headlines on a routine week-by-week basis in the local newspaper, never mind the national media.
But he became the unlikely hero – and recognisable across the country – when he struck the winning goal in Chorley’s 2-1 victory over Peterborough at London Road in November.
The strike has been attributed to his team-mate Mike Calveley as the ball glanced off the midfielder on its way into the net, but morally the goal was Baines’s.
The ex-Bamber Bridge loanee also provided the assist for Connor Hall’s equalising goal 15 minutes into in the second half as the Magpies hit back to turn the tie on its head after Posh – who have incidentally gone on to win automatic promotion to the Championship – had taken an early lead.
Featuring prominently on Match of the Day later that evening, Baines was also a guest of the BBC alongside manager Jamie Vermiglio when the draw for the third round was made live on television a couple of days’ later.
“It was a crazy time,” said Baines. “I was getting phone calls asking me if I could go on this radio station, go on this zoom call, go on live TV for the third round draw.
“I actually got noticed and recognised a few times in different places.
“I remember thinking at the time that I’m just a non-league footballer but people were just loving the story, the underdog story.
“I was out somewhere in Cumbria when a guy came up to me and asked me to pull my face mask down.
“He said, ‘You’re Lewis Baines aren’t you? You scored for Chorley in the FA Cup.
“I was looking at him and thinking, ‘Are you having me on here?’
“But he was deadly serious. He was just a football fan who loved what we had done.”
Baines admits he still pinches himself when he recollects the club’s FA Cup run – something which he and his team-mates may never experience ever again in their careers.
“I think in years to come, nobody will ever forget what we did last season,” Baines said. “What we managed to achieve in the FA Cup and without fans being able to attend the games as well, beating the teams we did, it was a different level and I don’t think it will be done again.
“It’s strange in a way because this season has been such stop-start, I don’t think I have really fully digested it.
“Even now I don’t think it’s fully sunk in how big it was – I think it’s only when people come up to you and mention it.”
Chorley came from behind to beat both Wigan and Peterborough and while their win over Derby was slightly tarnished by the fact that a Covid-19 outbreak had ravaged the Rams squad, the record books will still bear witness to a 2-0 victory.
In the fourth round, Wolves fielded a strong side with players such as England international Conor Coady , Portuguese star João Moutinho and £35m centre forward Fabio Silva in their line-up.
In the end, it took a 35-yard wonder strike from Vitinha to end Chorley’s cup run.
“We more than matched Wolves in all areas,” said Baines.
“It took a wonder strike to beat us and I think on the day, we were the better team.
“I think you can say the same when we played Wigan and Peterborough. they were full-time teams, but we played some good football against them and played really well.
“The difference was we showed them a bit more aggression than what they showed us.”
After a disappointing start to the 2020/21 National League North campaign, the cup run – which also included wins over Gateshead and York City in the qualifying rounds – certainly galvanised the Magpies’ fortunes in the league.
From rock-bottom, they pushed up the table and were within sight of the play-offs when the season was curtailed due to a dispute over funding in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Baines – who has agreed a new deal to remain with the Magpies next season – believes he and his team-mates can push for promotion when the new campaign gets under way.
“We had such a brand new team at the start of last season,” said Baines.
“It was always going to take us time to gel but then it all came together around the FA Cup run.
“We started picking up points, got in and around the play-offs but then sadly the season finished but hopefully if we can add a few players to the squad, then we can push on next season.”
Baines has certainly had to bide his time at Chorley in terms of winning a regular place in the team.
But over the last couple of seasons, he has become one of the first names on the team sheet.
“I came to Chorley when I was quite a young lad, leaving Fleetwood,” he said.
“I guess I had to prove to the manager that I could start in games and play at this level.
“I had to show that I could cope with the physical side of it because the National League is quite physical.
“The manager has put his trust in me and hopefully he looks at me as a trusted starter in the team –t hat I am somebody who he can rely on and I think you need that in a team.
“I like to think that I am always a seven or eight out of 10 in terms of performance.”
Baines spent a number of years with Fleetwood in the youth set up before going on to sign as a professional.
Unfortunately, he left Highbury without playing a single game in the first team – a statistic which he is philosophical about.
“Joey Barton was the manager and he brought in a lot of people who he knew,” he said.
“He didn’t really put any trust in the younger players.
“I was told I wasn’t going to play. I had a year left and I could have stayed but I wanted to go out and play.
“It was hard because when I turned pro, the club went on to have about five managers in three years, it was difficult but I have no regrets.”
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