Marlon Pack’s first visit to Wembley Stadium came when he was a first year scholar at his home city club, Portsmouth FC, and they faced Cardiff City in the FA Cup final.
Nwankwo Kanu scored the only goal for manager Harry Redknapp’s Pompey, who battled to a 1-0 win against Dave Jones’ Bluebirds.
Now Pack is proudly wearing the blue of Cardiff City, an experienced and mobile player who will be at the heart of manager Neil Warnock’s midfield in their SkyBet Championship match at Reading on Sunday (noon kick-off).
“His performance was great, but he can get better. There were one or two areas we had a chat about after, but he’s still getting to know us.
“He has all the attributes I’m looking for in a defensive midfield player.”
He returned to Wembley three years after Portsmouth’s cup final triumph, playing for Cheltenham Town in a League Two play-off final which Crewe Alexandra won 2-0.
Cheltenham’s team that day also included Welsh professional Kaid Mohamed, currently playing for Cymru Championship club Haverfordwest,
“I had only been to Wembley once before – and that was to watch Portsmouth in the FA Cup final during 2008,” says Pack.
“2011-12 was a memorable season,” said Pack, who also played for the Robins in an FA Cup third round tie when Jermaine Defoe, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Giovani Dos Santos.
“It felt ridiculous, really, that I was preparing to play for Cheltenham at Wembley Stadium! I was born and raised in Buckland, Portsmouth and went to Flying Bull School and then City Boys.
“I’m a proper Buckland boy, a proper Pompey boy. It’s every boy’s dream to walk out at Wembley and I was lucky enough to play at White Hart Lane that season in front of 32,000 fans.
“To be there on the Wembley pitch playing – to go from watching, to people watching me – was a dream come true, but unfortunately the result went against us.”
Pack went back to Wembley again with close pal Aden Flint when Bristol City won the FA Trophy, beating Walsall 2-0 in 2015. Flint and Mark Little were the Robins’ scorers.
He has made one appearance for Cardiff so far, playing in their 2-1 home win against Luton Town last weekend.
Pack’s debut came less than two days after joining the Bluebirds from Bristol City and he looked a quality addition to Warnock’s squad.
“It was a whirlwind 48 hours, and I was just pleased to be out there playing,” he says.
“There was no better way to make my first appearance for Cardiff with Isaac (Vassell) scoring our late winner.
“The lads have been great welcoming me to the club. Flinty (Aden Flint) and I were at Bristol City together and he has been like my babysitter. Knowing somebody at the club helped me to blend in, but the lads have been great.
“Everything in the Championship is tough, but if we build on the performance against Luton we’ll have a good chance.
“It’s early on, but you want to keep a good run of results and good form. Hopefully, then we can continue it throughout the season.”
It was a surprise Bristol City were prepared to let Pack, aged 25, move on, even for a £750,000 fee, and Robins’ manager Lee Powell said: “It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with Marlon. I’ve had the privilege of seeing him develop both on and off the field.
“He is a fantastic person – as good an individual as I’ve worked with – and was a great servant and leader for Bristol City.
“At this stage in his career and what was offered for him it made the move right for Marlon and our club.”
Pack’s debut delighted Cardiff fans and Warnock said: “Even before he went out to kick a ball I commented to Kevin (Blackwell) in the dressing room how good it was to have him.
“He’s the leader we’ve been looking for now since we knew Gunnars (Aron Gunnarson) was leaving.
“We waited and waited and finally managed to get it over the line and we were delighted with that.
“Everybody knew we missed that leadership and this squad has great characters now in different areas.”
The most difficult time during Pack’s playing career came when, at the age of 21, he was released by Portsmouth. That clearly hurt, but he bounced back with successful spells at Cheltenham Town and Bristol City.
He made 272 appearances for the Robins and played an integral and influential role in their rise from League One and into the Championship.
Cardiff agreed a fee of £750,000 for Pack, although a Cheltenham sell-on clause means they receive 20 per cent of that (£130,000).
Warnock will again set his team up with Pack playing in front of centre-back pairing Flint and captain Sean Morrison. What Pack lacks in sheer pace he makes up for in sheer football intelligence, knowhow and, boy, can he pick a pass.
Cardiff will again one without goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, Lee Tomlin and Sol Bamba at Reading, while there is a doubt over Joe Ralls.
“Nathaniel did a bit of light training on Friday, but Sunday may be a bit early,” said Warnock. “We’ll make a decision then.
“Lee trained on Wednesday, but he’s had a real bad bout of illness. It takes a bit of coming back from. I’ll see how he is.
“Joe came down ill after last Saturday’s match and ended up in A&E overnight. It’s a different thing from Lee and he’s a lot better now.
“When you are as fit as these lads the smallest thing can knock you for six.”
Warnock is expecting a tough test at Reading’s Madejski Stadium, particularly as the Royals spent £20m in the week before the transfer deadline.
“They’ve splashed the boat out and it’ll be a lot more difficult now,” said Warnock. “Even their manager said he was surprised they spent £20 million last week. (George) Pușcaș was one of the lads we were looking at and they paid around £8m for him.
“It’s always tough at Reading and I always get a bit of stick, but it’s a nice stadium.”
Alex Smithies will again be in goal for Cardiff and Warnock is likely to stick closely to the team who faced Luton last time out.
Flint, Gavin Whyte, Will Vaulks, Pack, Robert Glatzel, Vassell and Curtis Nelson are the new signings who will be in the match day squad and Warnock says: “We have some good players in midfield, while the full-backs, especially Joe Bennett, love going forward. Our wingers are as exciting as any in the league, and now we have a strike force.
“We are criticised at times for our style, but people get carried away. I like people to work hard. Especially if they have the ability.
“If you class keeping the ball in your own half as football then it’s not my game. I don’t see the point in doing that for the sake of it.
“We attack as much as we can and It’s entertaining what we do.”
Cardiff City (probable): Alex Smithies, Lee Peltier, Aden Flint, Sean Morrison (capt), Joe Bennett; Gavin Whyte, Marlon Pack, Joe Ralls (or Leandro Bacuna), Josh Murphy, Callum Paterson, Robert Glatzel. Subs: Joe Day (gk), Curtis Nelson, Will Vaulks, Omar Bogle, Isaac Vassell, Junior Hoilett, Leandro Bacuna.
Portuguese manager José Gomes is in charge at Reading, who will include Wales international and former Bluebirds defender Chris Gunter.
Gunter made his senior Cardiff City debut aged 17 in a League Cup match against Barnet during August 2006.
He joined Reading in July 2012 and has made almost 300 appearances in all competitions for the club, scoring four goals.
Newly-signed Romanian international striker George Pușcaș, signed from Inter Milan, scored his first goal for Reading this week and makes his Madejski Stadium debut against Cardiff.
“We need points, and we need to start winning in the Championship,” said Pușcaș. “If we play well, like we did against Wycombe, then the points will come.
“We have to give everything on Sunday. It is an important game for us and our fans. We have to be ready.
“It will be a difficult game for us – and difficult for them also. We are at home and our fans will be on our side. I have no doubt that we will be ready and focused at kick-off.”
The Royals have played three fixtures, losing 3-1 at home against Sheffield Wednesday and 2-1 against Hull City at the KC Stadium.
They have also beaten Wycombe Wanderers in the Carabao Cup, winning a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw.
Their two league goals have been scored by Yakou Méïté and Lucas João.
A look back in time:
2008 FA Cup final:
Portsmouth 1, Cardiff City 0
Portsmouth: James, Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson, Utaka (Nugent 69), Pedro Mendes (Diop 78), Diarra, Muntari, Kranjcar, Kanu (Baros 87).
Subs Not Used: Ashdown, Pamarot.
Cardiff: Enckelman, McNaughton, Johnson, Loovens, Capaldi, Ledley, Rae (Sinclair 86), McPhail, Whittingham (Ramsey 61), Parry, Hasselbaink (Thompson 70). Subs Not Used: Oakes, Purse.
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral).