Craig Noone is hoping to face Steven Gerrard of Liverpool on Wednesday night but this time as his opposition not his roofer
High on Steven Gerrard's roof, where he was hammering in tiles, Craig Noone would watch Liverpool's most illustrious player leave for training and think: "I hope I get the chance to do that one day." It was a bird's eye view of a life Noone now shares as his Brighton & Hove Albion face Gerrard's side at their new Amex Stadium in the Carling Cup third round.
"He was getting a conversion done on the back of his house – a games room and gym – and I was working on it. Now I'm playing against him. Working there, I'd never have dreamed of it. Now it's happening it's a bit surreal," says Noone, a fizzy winger who has played a major part in Brighton's promising start to their Championship campaign.
"I was at Southport, in pre-season, at the time. He was quite private, understandably, but I'd be there from eight o'clock in the morning and would see him go off to training. I have friends who are friends of his and when I turned professional it made a bit of news that I'd worked on his house, so I think he'll know about it."
Gerrard's role in Brighton's second Carling Cup tie with Premier League opposition (they kayoed Sunderland last time) has yet to be decided after his long absence though injury but Noone is hoping they both receive the call. Gus Poyet's upwardly mobile team face Leeds United on Friday in their second Sky-televised game in three days and then Crystal Palace on Tuesday, so rotation is obligatory. "I just want to be in the team – but if not, there's the Leeds game and a lot to look forward to," Noone says. "This is a big game for me personally but it's the league that's more important."
His ascent is a microcosm of Brighton's rise from homeless to well-appointed, from skint to emotionally sky-high. Poyet's 100th game in charge brings the first of two sellouts in 72 hours and revives memories of the club's fifth-round FA Cup win at Anfield in 1983, the year they reached the final.
Noone describes his own hard path from Gerrard's roof to the lush new turf of Premier League promotion candidates: "I was at Liverpool but got released by them at 11 and then played junior and amateur football. I went to Wrexham for a year at 15, but they let me go, so I played a bit of non-league, went to Myerscough football college for six months, then to Skelmersdale, from them to Burscough, to Southport, to Plymouth and now Brighton.
"Steve Heighway [the former Liverpool academy director] is the one who released me that night. It was a horrible time for me. I know Steve quite well and every time I've bumped into him he's said well done and keep going. Games like this show how far I've come. I'm playing Liverpool and in the Championship in front of 22,000 people."
On reconnaissance, but also as fans, Noone and three fellow Liverpool‑supporting Brighton players sat in the away end for Tottenham Hotspur's 4-0 win over Kenny Dalglish's men on Sunday.
"Alan Navarro is a scouser. He's been saying he wants Gerrard's shirt. And Gary Dicker and Tommy Elphick are Liverpool fans I went to the game with. I was thinking – I hope the crowd don't recognise me because I've got to play against them and they might be booing me on Wednesday. I've got 20 coming down, a mixture of friends and family, and my old boss, who I used to roof for."
"Nooney was jumping up and down when the draw was made," says Craig Mackail-Smith, one of the club's big summer signings, from Peterborough, and an instant hit in Albion colours. "To play against a team like Liverpool is a great test of what you would come up against in the Premier League. I can get there and hopefully it will be with Brighton. I'll have to watch Luis Suárez from the other end of the pitch but I'll get to find out what it's like to play against a top defence and see what I need to work on."
A run of seven wins in eight games was broken by Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Leicester City. The new community stadium, though, remains impregnable. How, why? "It's just the excitement – playing in front of 22,000 people," Mackail-Smith says. "No disrespect to the Withdean Stadium but it wasn't the most amazing place to play every week. Here we're in a great stadium on a great pitch and if it becomes a fortress people don't want to come down here and play."
Poyet says: "When the draw was made it was like a celebration, like we'd won the league again. I'm not going to change that because I want them to feel they've got a great chance against a top-class team. The problem is Thursday morning, Friday morning, when we have to get ready for Leeds. But I'm not going to bring it down. There is no better feeling for a player who, three months ago, was playing in League One and now has the chance to play here with 22,000 people against Liverpool."
Mackail-Smith was the club's biggest catch until Tony Bloom, the Albion chairman, intervened to persuade Vicente Rodríguez to join from Valencia, where he won league and European titles. Vicente, who is striving for match fitness, is a threat to Noone, who competes for wide places also with Will Buckley and Kazenga LuaLua.
"I've seen bits of Vicente in training that make me go – wow," Noone says. "I've been learning a bit of Spanish so I can ask him about stuff. I've asked him about [Rafael] Benítez when he was manager at Valencia. I feel I'm a better player under Gus and he's brought me on such a lot. I've never been at a club where they play so much football and where you're showing for the ball and getting on the ball so much."
Poyet was told of Brighton's good record against Liverpool in their 1980s harvest years. Are the players aware of that history? Poyet said: "No, I don't think so. I don't know if it's in the PlayStation. Maybe, if it's in PlayStation."