There are many things which make a footballer.
Talent, of course. Determination and willpower, to even get the opportunity in the first place. Strength of character, to hit back from adversity and disappointment.
And then, off the pitch, good character and humility.
Carl Ikeme ticked all the boxes in those respects. And then some.
That is why it felt particularly unfair when it was Ikeme who was struck down with acute leukaemia on this month of last year.
But of course, cancer, as so many people cruelly discover each and every day, is indiscriminate.
It is also why, if there was any chance of fighting this dreadful disease, then Ikeme would be the one you would want in your corner. The first name on the teamsheet.
Many of his former team-mates who know him far better than me have talked of never having shared a dressing room with anyone of a stronger mentality.
He needed that to make his way at Wolves, and to break through from the fierce competition of a goalkeeping department which has been littered with home-grown high quality over the last decade-and-a-half.
Like Matt Murray and Wayne Hennessey, Ikeme emerged from the Wolves Academy.
In contrast to those two, he had to wait slightly longer for his first sustained opportunity.
Ikeme made his debut in the Carling Cup against Chester in August, 2005. He next turned out for Wolves in the same competition against Chesterfield a year later, followed by a league bow for the club as an 87th minute substitute against Luton.
Thirteen appearances followed in the 2008/09 Championship-winning season, but there was to be more than a three-year gap between keeping nets against Preston in January, 2009, to coming off the bench for what would prove his only Premier League appearance, against Wigan in May, 2012.
So many loan spells, so many different footballing outposts, yet never any complaints and, as it ultimately transpired, all those experiences leading up to the moment, that treasured moment, when he was crowned as Wolves’ unequivocal number one.
Bizarrely, as Wolves initially floundered, Ikeme flourished.
Effectively the first choice custodian for most of the time between 2012 and 2017, Ikeme was blameless for the second of Wolves’ relegation seasons, and then immaculate in the League One title success which immediately followed. Just the 21 clean sheets for Ikeme that season, and a further three for Aaron McCarey.
Pushing on to firmly establish himself at Championship level, by this time Ikeme was also growing – figuratively speaking as he was big and powerful enough already – in his influence around the dressing room.
Whilst previously perhaps not feeling massively comfortable facing the media, and mainly I would imagine because he hadn’t made all that many Wolves appearances, over time Ikeme became a trusted voice. He was never one to champion his own credentials or try and take the limelight for any successes. He was a respectful voice who spoke with calm authority. Yes, a safe pair of hands!
And where Ikeme excelled, to the huge benefit of any interviewees be it Wolves’ own communications team or any external media, was that he would always think about his answers, and think about his interviews.
No banal soundbites, no frosty responses, just honest, open appraisals of any given situation with everyone treated with respect and courtesy.
So what do you get when you put all that together? What is the result of a person who doesn’t get carried away with his own success, possesses a solid and selfless personality, who can also play a bit as well?
You get the reaction on July 6th, 2017. The reaction to the devastating announcement that this hugely popular figure had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia.
You get people wanting to show support, in any way possible, from far and wide.
Wolves, as a club, had Ikeme’s back. The supporters, in their thousands, had Ikeme’s back. His team-mates, opponents, other players and clubs, non-footballing people not only from the community of Wolverhampton but across the country and across the globe. Everyone had Ikeme’s back. Because of who lkeme is. And rightly so.
Like others to have called time on their careers at Wolves in recent years, thinking of the likes of Matt Murray and Jody Craddock, Ikeme is a proper all-round good bloke, who understood everything that was associated with representing a football club and left everything out there on the pitch to try and bring happiness to a set of devoted football fans. And that is why, when he needed it most, those fans came through for him.
Granted I’m not sure those other two keepers mentioned ever put their fist through a tactics board at half time but Ikemeeven saw the funny side of that incident slightly later on when he and Pat Mountain agreed to a reconstruction (of sorts!) for an offbeat Christmas video.
It is because of who Ikeme is that supporters and members of the public rallied around to show him what he meant to them, and to raise an extraordinary sum of money for the Cure Leukaemia charity which will help – and ultimately save the lives – of so many others who find themselves in the same terrible, and terrifying, position. From a desperately painful situation, out of sudden and shocking adversity came true strength. Out of Darkness, Cometh Light.
Two hundred and seventy four career appearances. For nine different clubs. Of which 207 came for Wolves. No goals though! And him a former centre forward as a youngster.
We didn’t know it at the time, but a successful career was rounded off with a successful afternoon. A lovely day by the Thames in the Spring of 2017, and a 3-1 win against Fulham. There were also ten senior caps for Nigeria, thanks to a hugely deserved and almost romantic late arrival onto the international scene.
Yet those stats barely do justice to a career which began at youth level on the pitches of Birmingham and then with Wolves Academy from the age of 14.
For me, on the football side, three memories stand out.
A man mountain performance on a freezing Friday night by the seaside at Blackpool to ensure the brace at the other end from his great pal Sylvan Ebanks-Blake secured Wolves all three points.
His emotion-packed reaction to saving an 86th minute penalty at Colchester which, with Wolves 3-0 to the good, would probably have been immaterial had it been converted. The sign of a winner. More accurately, a warrior.
And a breath-taking FA Cup display at Stoke – save upon save upon save – which demonstrated that, with a fair wind, and like another of his long-standing friends in Murray, he could have excelled on the Premier League stage. Not to mention a World Cup, which, in the footballing sense, was probably the cruellest cut of all.
However, the over-riding and most pertinent memory for me of working with Carl over such a lengthy period of time had absolutely nothing to do with football.
It was when we organised a Christmas visit to the Good Shepherd Centre in Wolverhampton City Centre, and Carl, Aaron McCarey and Under-23 players Aaron Simpson, Ben O’Hanlon and Tendai Matinyadze helped served lunch to the homeless and most vulnerable members of the local community.
To say it took them all out of their usual comfort zone is an understatement, but they were all fantastic. Serving lunch, chatting, listening, just doing their bit to try and bring a smile – just a little bit of humour and fellowship – to those who really needed it. And had no idea who these footballers were.
Carl didn’t say a great deal after the visit. Strong and silent could sometimes be part of his armoury. And then, on the players’ day off a week later, I took a telephone call.
“It’s Carl. I am in town, and my car is full of stuff to donate to the Good Shepherd, where do I take it?”
Well played Carl. Well played. And good luck. The next chapter now awaits…