Football is a funny old game sometimes.  With a funny way of throwing out anniversaries and co-incidences.

Zeli Ismail made his Wolves debut ten years ago, coming off the bench in a Capital One Cup defeat away at Chelsea.   Captain for the night was midfielder Dave Edwards.

Last week, on the very corresponding Tuesday a decade on, Ismail lined up for Newtown for a Cymru Premier League of Wales fixture against Bala Town. Who included, in their starting line-up, a certain Dave Edwards.

And now, Wolves travel to Chelsea, a few days later. There’s nowt so strange as football.

It proved quite a night at Stamford Bridge back in 2012, not necessarily for the right reasons for Wolves. They lost 6-0.

But for the then 18-year-old Ismail, what a place to make your senior debut, replacing Slawomir Peszko in the 83rd minute in front of a crowd of 32,369.

“Stale Solbakken had come in as manager and I had been training a bit with the first team,” Ismail recalls.

“He made a lot of changes for that cup game and I made it into the squad.

“I remember getting to the ground and even just walking out to see the pitch and then to warm up, with all the lights and the number of fans, it didn’t even feel like it was real – it was more like a film.

“When I was warming up, Eden Hazard was also warming up, and I was really nervous and thinking ‘oh my god’.

“Here was a guy who I had watched so much in his career, now in the Premier League, and I was about to go onto the pitch at a similar time to him.

“Getting on even for those last few minutes was a very special moment for me and for my family.”

Chelsea boasted a stellar line-up back then.  The FA Cup holders, their team that night featured not just Hazard and Oscar coming off the bench but a starting line-up including John Terry, Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, Ramires, Juan Mata and Fernando Torres.

They were 3-0 up inside 17 minutes, adding a further three in the second half, but for Ismail, on an individual basis at least, it was a dream night.

And one, when asked if he swapped shirts at full time, from which he still has a treasured memento.

“I remember towards the end of the game they took a short corner and I was the nearest one closing down Hazard,” Ismail replies.

“Then the full-time whistle went and a couple of the other lads went over to try and get his shirt.

“To be honest, I was too excited about wanting to keep my own!

“Maybe I should have tried to swap it, but it was a special one to keep, and I still have it framed and up at home.

“Obviously the result that night wasn’t great but Chelsea were a top team and Wolves were trying to adapt back in the Championship.

“For me though, getting even just a taste of first team football was fantastic, and it just made me want to push myself even more.

“After that I didn’t really want to go back to the reserves or the youth team, I just wanted to play first team football and learn, even if it meant going out on loan.”

That senior bow had been the culmination of so many years of hard work and development from Ismail through the club’s Academy, as well as many different coaches and members of staff.

He first arrived as an Under-9 player, spotted by long serving Wolves scout Bob Bennett playing for New Park Village, where he had been recruited by Joe Jackson had spotted Ismail’s talents while playing with his son Ricky – whose own son, also Ricky, is also now in Wolves’ Academy – at Deansfield School.

Ismail’s life’s journey had already been something of a challenge even before that early breakthrough.

Born in Albania, but, at the age of around six, following tensions between the country and the former Yugoslavia, the Ismail family moved to England and settled in Heath Town.

“I couldn’t speak a word of English,” he recalls, “so that made things difficult at the start.

“Classes at school were tough and it was hard to adjust for a while but then, as time went on and I learnt the language, everything got easier.”

That sort of progress mirrored his footballing development once he had started playing locally for Jackson’s team and then, as he moved through the years – and the gears – within the Academy.

Each year the standard improved and the demands grew, leaving some players by the wayside, Ismail recalling Liam McAlinden and Jordan Cranston as two who stood the course as they all moved up the age groups.

Ismail’s talents on the wing, his exceptional feet and ability to go past defenders on either side, soon marked him out as one to watch, not just at Wolves, but also with England, and some of the country’s very top clubs.

He represented England Under-16s when they won all three Victory Shield fixtures in late 2008, defeating Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland as part of a squad including Jack Butland, Sam Johnstone, Connor Wickham, Ross Barkley, Benik Afobe and Saido Berahino.

“That was such a big honour but again, it just made me want to keep on working hard to keep pushing,” Ismail adds.

Ismail was also named Player of the Tournament as Wolves reached the final of the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland in 2008, and was part of the squad which won the illustrious Gothia Cup under the guidance of Kevin Thelwell and Mick Halsall the following year.

His startling progress, however, led to something of a protective culture within the club as the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City started flexing their muscles.

Chelsea made a particular push to try and sign Ismail as a young player, a package which included support for the whole family as well, but he stayed put.

Yet suggestions within the media that Ismail could become the world’s first £100million player, despite never actually being said, were difficult to shrug off.

In an age before social media and the sort of video scouting software now prevalent in the modern game when everyone has the chance to build up so much more knowledge about young players, Wolves were desperate to keep him under the radar. And often, in a bid to keep agents and opposition scouts off the scent, went to great lengths to do so.

“There were times when we played against the big teams, like Manchester United and Liverpool, games which they would show on their TV channels, that I wasn’t allowed to play,” Ismail recalls.

“I felt that I was being hidden, pushed to the side for those games, and I was hearing that there was a lot of interest from other clubs.

“For me, all I ever wanted to do was play for Wolves.

“I wasn’t trying to go anywhere else, I had no interest, because the club had really looked after me and my family and I was really happy where I was.”

When he did feature against the ‘big boys’, in an Under-18 fixture against a Manchester United team including Jesse Lingard and Tyler Blackwood, he scored a hat trick in a 4-0 win.

And that first team opportunity wasn’t too far away.

After that initial cup cameo at Stamford Bridge, his desire for regular football took him to a loan spell with MK Dons, where his nine appearances, mostly off the bench, saw him learn a lot from a team who were playing decent football under Karl Robinson.

It means Ismail at least had some senior experience in the locker, for the summer of 2013 when Kenny Jackett checked in as Wolves’ Head Coach, with a strong inclination to give youth its opportunity.

Ismail started another Capital One Cup tie, away at Morecambe, followed by his league debut at home to Gillingham, an afternoon where the feelings of hope and positivity were brighter even than the dazzling red trousers sported by visiting boss Martin Allen.

Wolves won 4-0, Ismail produced an assist for Bakary Sako and could have scored himself in the second half, having made a favourable first impression.

He went to make 11 Wolves appearances, settling into the senior set-up in a steady if not spectacular way, before the arrivals of James Henry and Michael Jacobs depleted the options when it came to first team opportunities.

As it transpired, Ismail’s substitute appearance in a defeat at Peterborough on the last day of November 2013, would prove his last in Wolves colours, and, soon into the New Year, he made a loan switch to Burton Albion, securing a regular place in the side all the way to losing the League Two play-off final against Fleetwood at Wembley.

“Once it became clear it was going to be difficult to get back in the Wolves team, I was at an age where I really wanted to be playing, and so went back out on loan again,” he explains.

“I played a good few games at Burton under Gary Rowett, including the play-off final, and I really enjoyed it.

“Even though we lost the final it was still another big experience to play at Wembley.”

By now, with Wolves back promoted into the Championship, Ismail’s chances of first team action reduced yet further, prompting additional loan spells with Notts County, back at Burton, Oxford and Cambridge, before a permanent switch to Bury in 2016.

From there came a switch on loan and then permanently to Walsall, where he particularly enjoyed his football, on to Bradford, and now, his latest assignment at the age of 28, with Newtown.

With training part-time – still living in Wolverhampton Ismail is part of a five-strong car school including players from Birmingham and Shrewsbury – he is able to better manage the injury problems which have blighted his career by spending spare time in the gym or running.

And the decent level in the League of Wales is still providing a decent challenge, not to mention, back in the summer, the opportunity to enjoy European football.

“There are some really good teams in the league here, particularly TNS who are top, and it’s a really good challenge,” says Ismail.

“I joined towards the end of last season when we managed to qualify for the Europa Conference League – we were back in training on May 24th just as the teams in England were finishing!

“We came through our first game over two legs (against HB Torshavn from the Faroe Islands) and I was able to score a penalty in the shootout, with a bit of a chip.

“Next up we played Spartak Trnava from Slovakia, who had Kristian Kostrna in the team who I was with back at Wolves Academy.

“Normally I play on the right but I was on the left to match up against him so we could have a good little battle – it was nice to see him again.”

It was the Slovakian side who progressed through, leaving Newtown to concentrate on league assignments, including the recent game with Bala which saw Ismail lining up against Edwards.

“It was great to catch up with Eddo and speak to him after the game,” he says.

“He’s had such a great career but is so humble, he always has time for people and is willing to chat.”

Unfortunately, Ismail limped off with a minor injury in the early stages of the game with Bala, perhaps a painful reminder of the problems which have afflicted him at different points of his career.

While the pressure and expectation on his young shoulders as he became hot property in the Academy would be difficult for most to cope with, Ismail has always been a calm and confident personality, and, perhaps helped by the support and nurturing received within the building at Wolves, was able to shrug off the outside noise.

What had far more of an impact on his development, and why perhaps he hasn’t quite hit the heights which all that teenage promise suggested, have been the injuries which were so much out of his control.

From first picking up a serious knee problem in an FA Youth Cup tie for Wolves against Liverpool at Anfield, every time Ismail has built up a head of steam in his career, usually something has cropped up to derail that progress.

An explosive wide man who thrives on carrying the ball and taking players on, he has often become a target for the sort of robust challenges which wingers can face.

“That’s what has killed me at different points of my career – injuries,” he admits.

“Every time I have got going, I seem to have picked up another problem and while I know it’s just a part of football, at times it has been hard.

“I have always been someone who wants to take people on, to be explosive and get fans off their seats, but that often means the challenges are going to come flying in.

“Even since leaving Wolves, I have managed to go on and build a career and I am proud of my achievements but I also think that, without the injuries, I could have kicked on and done a lot better.

“It is what it is though, and there’s nothing I can do about that, apart from keeping going and enjoying my football like I am now, hopefully for a good few more years yet!”

The days of Ismail and Wolves seem a long time ago now, it was a very different club and times have certainly changed, but he remains in contact with many of the friends and team-mates he shared a dressing room with during what is always such an important time in a young player’s development. 

He was thrilled to sign his first professional contract at 17 alongside McAlinden, and still now is in touch with the likes of Cranston, Andre Landell, Dominic Dell, Jon Flatt and Sam Whittall.

There remain those mixed feelings of being proud and appreciative of being able to emerge at Wolves and break into the first team, tempered with disappointment it wasn’t ultimately for longer, and for more games.

But he is in a good place when thinking back to his Molineux history, and harbours no regrets.

“When I look back, I will always be grateful to Wolves for giving me my opportunity,” he reflects.

“So many people at the club helped me, from Bob who first scouted me, Nick (Education & Welfare Office Nick Loftus) who would take me everywhere as my parents didn’t drive, and so many others, they all helped to give me a chance.

“I would have loved to have played more games at Wolves, and loved to have stayed at the club longer, but for whatever reason it just didn’t work out.

“I would never have any grudges about anything that happened or to any managers that were there – I feel fortunate to have had the start that I did and been able to go on and build a career.

“I still live about ten minutes from the ground and I am still a Wolves fan who gets to games when I can – and it’s always great to see them doing so well.”

Wolves didn’t do so well on the night of Ismail’s debut, and they don’t do well at Stamford Bridge in general, having not won in 12 league and cup visits stretching back to 1979. And they go there this weekend on the back of the departure of head coach Bruno Lage.

But that night a decade ago, a culmination both of so many years of hard work in the Academy and also a little reminder of just what might have been, gave Ismail a memory which he will never forget.