Former Mansfield Town striker Matt Rhead will be pinching himself on Saturday when he runs out at Arsenal’s glittering Emirates Stadium for an FA Cup quarter-final tie with the eyes of the world upon him.
The giant 32-year-old battering ram of a centre forward has found himself an integral part of one of Lincoln City’s most exciting seasons ever.
Topping the Vanarama National League in their bid for a Football League return, the Imps have also become the first non-League side in 103 years to make the FA Cup quarter-finals.
They stunned Premier League Burnley with a late winner at Turf Moor last month which has set them up with a fairytale showdown with Arsene Wenger’s men.
Click HERE to see a post-match interview with Rhead after the Burnley win
Click HERE to see highlights of Lincoln’s stuuning win at Burnley
Considering it is still less than five years since the 6ft 4ins target man quit his job as a team leader at JCB to play football full-time for Paul Cox at Mansfield Town, Rhead’s career has quickly soared.
After winning a Conference champion’s medal at Mansfield, he is now chasing a National League title/FA Trophy double with Lincoln.
But the former welder admits Saturday will be the pinnacle of his time in football so far.
“It will be the biggest game of my career,” he said.
“Playing away to a top Premiership side is something you dream of as a kid.
“The quarter-finals of the FA Cup is something you think you’ll never play in. We know the magnitude of the game and we’ll go there and give it our best shot.
“The atmosphere has been great. The fans have been getting behind us and all the lads are looking forward to it, though we know it will be a tough game to go and get anything from. But, after Burnley, anything is possible.”
While with Mansfield, Rhead did get a taste of the magic of the FA Cup when Liverpool came to town and he came on as a substitute.
Stags were beaten 2-1 only by a Luis Suarez goal aided by a clear handball which the officials missed and Rhead said: “The Liverpool game with Mansfield is obviously a fond memory I’ve got.
“To play against a Premiership side with so much history was unbelievable and we certainly weren’t disgraced on the day.
“But this game at Arsenal will top that. This is a quarter-final – we are only three games away from winning it!”
Rhead knows all about his to achieve success at National League level, playing 37 times in that Stags Conference title-winning campaign of 2012/13. And he believes there is a similar feeling about Lincoln this season.
“There is a confidence about the club at the minute that we’re heading in the right direction,” he said.
“You can see on the pitch we’re getting the results we need, even when we’re not playing well, which is always the sign of a good team and a good squad.
“The gaffer has been rotating the team quite a lot, but we still come out with the right results.”
But surely Arsenal away will be a bridge too far for a National League side?
“The scary thing is we believe in what we do,” he said.
“We know we can create problems from set pieces and we believe if we can get set pieces and good quality crosses into the box we can get goals.
“And the goals are coming from everywhere – it’s not just one individual scoring them, which is also good.
“We went to Burnley with a confidence we could get something – probably not a win, but maybe a draw.
“We are a solid team and we work hard for each other.
“To beat Burnley away from home with the record that they had in the last minute was something you’ll never forget and if we could recreate that at the Emirates that would be very special as well.”
Stags fans watching the Lincoln win at Burnley will have enjoyed Rhead’s typical bruising battle with infamous midfielder Joey Barton.
Rhead managed to get the red mist descending over Barton’s eyes and at one stage was clearly stamped on.
Click HERE to see video of Rhead’s clash with Joey Barton
Rhead smiled: “That’s what I am about isn’t it?
“I think a lot of Mansfield Town fans will understand that’s my side of the game and he (Barton) probably took his eye off the game more than he should have.
“He is probably their best player and he played into our hands a little bit. We probably sucked him into a bit of a battle and we capitalised on that to be fair.”
Rhead certainly thought Barton should have been red-carded for his stamp.
“I think he should have gone,” said Rhead. “The referee said something about the ball wasn’t on the pitch but I don’t think that matters, so it was disappointing.
“It was a good day and we got a result. I know we didn’t create loads of chances but I think we deserved it on the day.
“When we got the opportunity we scored the goal and it’s a dream come true to beat a Premiership side away from home. It’s something I will remember for a long time.”
Besides Rhead, the current Lincoln City side has a real Mansfield flavour with Lee Beevers and Nathan Arnold involved as well as ex-Stags loanees Luke Waterfall and Terry Hawkridge.
“We have a few who know each other from Mansfield days and that’s obviously a good thing as we know each other’s game inside out which obviously helps throughout the season,” he said.
“I still follow Mansfield’s results. I had a good three or four years at Mansfield and I enjoyed my time there. We were quite successful during that period.
“I moved from being a part-time player to full-time during that and was very lucky to be able to do so. So I thank Paul Cox and the club for taking me on board. It was a very enjoyable time.”