Whitchurch High School is known for producing all-conquering Welsh sporting talent. Champions League winner Gareth Bale, Lions and Wales’ Grand Slam-winning captain Sam Warburton and Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas were all pupils. But before any of them was Bale’s uncle – Chris Pike – and as Josh Thomas discovered, the former Cardiff City striker achieved his own notable first at the school.
Before Bale, before Warburton, before “G”, there was Pike. Chris Pike, a Whitchurch High School pupil, who, together with his teammates, managed something no others had done before or since.
“We had a lot of good players, who used to play in the Combination League,” says Pike, now 58, who attended the famous Cardiff school between 1973 and 1978.
“We got through to the final of the English Shield when I was with Whitchurch High School, which was unprecedented for a Welsh team to actually almost win the whole competition.
“I don’t think it’s ever been done. That shows how good the Combination League must have been, to have all these players that almost won the English Schools system.”
Pike played in the Cardiff Combination League from the ages of 14 to 18, for Park Lawn.
After two successful promotions, the striker and his side reached the Premier Division and he has no doubts how important those years were in his footballing development.
“It gave us a sense of well-being – actually playing against men and beating them,” says the player who scored 55 goals in 148 games after joining the Bluebirds in 1989.
“Obviously, being a Cardiff boy playing in the local league was quite inspiring. I always supported Cardiff City, so it was a natural progression to go from Whitchurch High to playing in the Cardiff Combination. It was quite an aspiration as a young boy.”
After four years in the Combination, Pike would join up with Maesteg Park at the age of 18 and admits the lessons he learned during his time with Park Lawn helped him settle in quickly with the Bridgend based side.
“When I stared playing in the Welsh League, I found it easier in a lot of respects because you were given a lot more respect as a player.
“You were probably looked after more by the referees, so as I was getting older, quicker, stronger, I was finding it a very easy transition. I found Cardiff Combination probably more difficult than the Welsh League.”
After consistent performances in the Welsh League for The Park, there was an opportunity to join the Football League with Fulham.
“I remember in the trial game, I only played 20 minutes because the goalkeeper came out and whacked me in the eye and I had to come off.
“But they offered me a four-year contact, so they must have seen something that they liked.”
After signing for Fulham under Ray Hartford, who went on to manage Blackburn Rovers in the Premier League, Pike’s promising start with the London club saw him linked with a move to Chelsea.
However, a serious injury denied him a move across to the Blues and it wasn’t long before he came back home to sign for the Bluebirds.
“I was doing quite well at Fulham, but I had a series of injuries. I was told that Chelsea had come in for me and I was going to be transferred for a large sum of money.
“Unfortunately, I was training one day and I felt something in my back. It was very serious. I had to have a fusion and it didn’t work.
“I had to have discs removed – above and below – and basically I didn’t play for three years.
“And it cost me probably the best three years of my career.
“When I was fit again, I lost a lot of my pace and Cardiff weren’t in such a high league, so it was an ideal opportunity to go to my hometown club and help them out.”
Despite his earlier disappointment, success followed in the shape of winning back-to-back Welsh Cups against Hednesford Town and Rhyl. Pike led the attack and finished top goalscorer for three consecutive seasons .
Those goals helped secure the Division Three title in 1993 and promotion under then manager Eddie May.
“We used to call him Lionhead,” says Pike of May. “He had a big head, a mane of hair and quite a growl on him! He could be quite aggressive on occasions, so his nickname was Lionhead with us. I enjoyed playing under him. He was a very passionate football man.”
Despite all the accolades he picked up during his time with City, including the Cups and medals and playing in the European Cup Winners’ Cup for the Bluebirds – where he scored against Austrian side VFB Admira Wacker Mödling – nothing pleased him more than simply playing for the club he supported as a young boy.
“Playing for Cardiff City was a dream come true. I used to watch them when I was in my teens, sitting in the Canton Stand with my mates and watching players like Don Murray, Gary Bell, Adrian Alston and Tony Evans.
“They were my heroes growing up and it was nice to emulate them in later life.”
But Pike wouldn’t be around to play in Division Two as he remained in Division Three with a move to Hereford United.
Despite a disappointing season with the Bulls, where they finished 20th in the table, Pike would ensure a place in the record books after scoring a hat-trick against three different goalkeepers in a 5-0 win over Colchester United.
“It’s quite a unique stat,” adds Pike. “What happened was, I scored just a regular goal in the first half.
“Just before half time, I took it around the goalkeeper and was just about to stroke the ball into the net and he rugby tackled me.
“So, he got sent off and the goalkeeper that was on the bench was actually in the dressing room, because he didn’t realise he had to come on to play.
“There wasn’t enough time to get the spare goalkeeper on, so the centre forward went in and I scored a penalty past him.
“In the second half, the reserve goalkeeper came on and I scored a third goal past him.
“That was quite a unique moment in the history of the Football League.”
After just one campaign with Hereford, Pike headed to Gillingham, which would mark the end of his professional footballing career because of his persistent back problem.
However, a move closer to home arrived in the shape of signing for Barry Town, who at the end of his first season picked up the first of their four consecutive Welsh domestic league titles to secure passage into Europe for the second time ahead of the 1996/97 season.
And it was Pike who scored Barry’s first goal in the UEFA Cup at FC Dinabury in a 2-1 win. Following a 0-0 draw in the first leg, they progressed to the next round.
Budapesti Vasutas Sport Club were their next opposition in the second qualifying round, where Pike once again got on the scoresheet for his second goal of the competition in a 3-1 win.
Despite defeat by the same scoreline in the second leg, Town progressed to the first round proper after winning 4-2 on penalties to set up a tie with Aberdeen.
But the dream was to end as they went out to the Scottish club on away goals, following a 3-3 draw at Jenner Park after drawing their first leg in Scotland.
But this only spurred them on in the league as Barry would then record the second and third highest points tally in a top flight campaign in the history of the European game – behind only Celtic – with 105 the same year and 104 the following season.
More success enabled Town to compete the Europe once more, where they would come up against the Ukrainian league champions.
“I can remember when we played Dynamo Kiev, Andriy Shevchenko was playing up front, and so was Serhiy Rebrov.
“We only lost 2-0 away and the Ukrainian national manger after the game said there would have been a lot of Premier League teams that would have been thrilled to lose just 2-0, because they went on to get through to the semi-finals of the Champions League in 1999. It was enjoyable times at Barry.”
However, this would mark the end of his career in the game, but not of the influence of his family. His nephew’s career was just about to begin.
Gareth Bale was snapped up by Southampton after playing in a six-a-side tournament with his first club, Cardiff Civil Service, and Pike recalls a particular story from Bale’s youth.
“I took him over the park and there was an ordinary goalpost there. He went 18 yards one side, I went 18 yards the other and it was to see how many crossbars we could hit.
“So, you chip it from 18 yards, hit the crossbar, that’s 1-0 to you. And if he did it, 1-1 and so on.
“I was actually still playing professionally and I think he was only about nine or 10 years old and he beat me 10-8 and I was trying.
“I actually said to my sister, ‘you’ve got something special here, a 10-year-old beating a professional quite comfortably. Just persevere, taking him to all the training and it will pay off in the long run’ and it certainly has.”
The little nephew went from strength to strength, becoming Wales’s top goalscorer, securing a world record-breaking move from Tottenham to Real Madrid – and leading his country to two consecutive European Championship finals.
“Wales, golf, Madrid – in that order. That’s how it is,” laughs Pike, who hopes Bale can inspire more Welsh glory at the finals, whenever they may eventually take place.
“He’s always loved playing for Wales, hopefully he can do well and we can maybe get to the semi-finals again or better. How great would that be?
“We are a very small country and we are punching above our weight as they say.
“If we can compete against these countries with 10, 15, 20 times the population, how inspiring is that for future generations?”
“If you want to become a professional athlete like Gareth, it’s all about dedication, work ethic and to a lesser extent ability.
“The biggest ability you have as a top professional sportsman is the ability to work hard and I think that’s in any profession.
“If you don’t work hard – whatever the accolades and money you can get in today’s sport – you will not succeed.
“Because, there will be people willing to work harder with probably a similar amount of ability. It’s the ones prepared to work hard to maximise their talent who make it.”