From 'invincible' at Arsenal to 'movie star' status in India: Graham Stack's remarkable story

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The former Gunners goalkeeper has very much taken the road less travelled, culminating in securing a university degree last month

Graham Stack has never been someone to choose the easy route.

Whether it was turning down a new contract at Arsenal or leaving his family for six months to take a leap into the unknown in India, the 38-year-old has always been willing to step outside his comfort zone.

“I’ve never been someone who just settles,” the former goalkeeper tells Goal in an exclusive interview. “I’ve always wanted to test myself.”

It’s that type of attitude that saw Stack play for 12 different clubs during a career which begun at Arsenal in 2000 and ended with non-league side Eastleigh in 2018.

If he wasn’t starting, he wasn’t happy.

“I was always keen to just go and play,” Stack says. “My career reflects that because I had loan move after loan move. I always wanted to test myself."

Stack hung up his gloves last year and is now head of academy goalkeeping at Watford. It’s a role he does full-time and one he balances alongside the small matter of being a father of four.

He also runs two after-school football clubs during the week and heads up his own academy in Chorley Wood during school holidays, the last of which attracted 113 children and continues to go from strength to strength.

You would think with all that on his plate, Stack wouldn’t have had time for anything else. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, for the past two years he has been doing a degree in sports writing and broadcasting at Staffordshire University, a course which included several work experience roles and meant that he very rarely got to enjoy a day off.

But such is Stack’s character, it’s something he threw himself into and last month he passed with a first.

“It was tough,” he confesses. “It was late nights, early mornings. Days off were never days off because I had deadlines, research and reading to do.

"So, it was hard, but I wanted to prove to my kids I could do something.

Graham Stack Arsenal 2004

“I was really motivated to pass and to show them that I wasn’t just an ex-footballer.

"I also wanted to do it because if I do go into broadcasting in the future, I didn’t want to just rock up without knowing what goes on behind the scenes in the industry.”

For now, Stack’s primary focus remains on his role at Watford. It’s the next stage in a career that started back in the late 1990s, when he signed schoolboy forms with Arsenal having been recommended for a trial by Bob Wilson, who was the club’s goalkeeping coach at the time.

He signed his first professional contract in 2000 and, after a spell on loan to Belgian outfit Beveren, he returned to north London in 2003 to become part of a season that will never be forgotten.

Stack was No.2 to Jens Lehmann as Arsenal went through the entire Premier League campaign unbeaten to claim a third title in six years.

And although he didn’t play a game in the league, he still feels he played his part in a feat that would earn Arsene Wenger's legendary side the nickname 'The Invincibles'.

“I felt a lot of responsibility that season because we never took a goalkeeper coach to away games,” he said. “We never had a coach to warm Jens up for home games.

"I was in charge of making sure one of the best goalkeepers in the country was revved up and ready for a game.

“I took that very seriously, it was a big job for me and I always felt under pressure to do it right.”

Stack played every game in the League Cup that season as Arsenal reached the semi-finals, making his debut in memorable style against Rotherham in the third round.

The tie went to penalties following a 1-1 draw and Stack scored one himself before making the crucial save to seal a 9-8 success.

Graham Stack GFX

“Saving and scoring a penalty on your debut at Highbury, that was what dreams are made of,” he enthuses. “All my family and friends were there. Even now it gives me shivers.”

But the standout moment for Stack that season came on April 25, when Arsenal won the title against Tottenham at White Hart Lane.

Chelsea’s failure to win at Newcastle earlier in the day meant that a point would be enough for Arsene Wenger’s side to be crowned champions at the home of their north London rivals - and they secured it following a dramatic 2-2 draw.

“That was unreal,” Stack gushes. “It’s one of the greatest memories I’ve got.

“I’ll never forget on the way to the game being sat at the back of the coach and there were bottles and bricks coming at us. There was police everywhere and the coach got absolutely battered. I think they smashed the window at the back.

“It was hostile, but I always thought our lads thrived on that. I was thinking, 'Don’t upset this lot, don’t make them angry, because it will come back to hurt you.'

“That was the type of group we had, [Dennis] Bergkamp, [Patrick] Vieira, [Sol] Campbell, Thierry [Henry]. They don’t get fazed by stuff like that, in fact it turned them on a little bit.”

"Being out on the pitch during the celebrations was incredible. I’ve never claimed to be a key part of that squad, because I wasn’t. I wasn’t integral.

"But I was certainly part of it and nobody will ever take that away from me.”

Stack’s time at Arsenal came to an end that summer, even though the club had offered him a 12-month extension on the year he still had left on his contract.

Steve Coppell lured him to Reading, where he stayed for two years before joining Plymouth. In 2009, he signed for Hibernian before returning to England three years later with Barnet, where he spent four successful seasons.

Graham Stack Kerala Blasters 2016

His contract expired in 2016 and while he was waiting on an offer of a new deal, a phone call arrived from an old friend which gave him an opportunity to take his career in a completely different direction.

“Steve Coppell called, he was going to India and wanted a keeper/coach,” Stack explains.

“He said, 'We play in front of 70,000 each week – do you fancy it? I said, 'I’ll have some of that.'"

So, Stack joined the Kerala Blasters, an Indian Super League team which at the time was owned by cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.

They would go on to reach the final of that season’s competition, where they were beaten by Atletico de Kolkata on penalties.

In all, Stack was away for six months. It was a tough time, given the distance from his family, but it's an experience that he believes made him a better person.

“It opened my mind up,” he says. “It gave me a focus - I found a love for writing because I had time on my hands and that led on to me starting my degree, really.

“I got over there and it was people from all round India, different cultures, religions, languages all thrown into one team. We lived together in the same hotel, the whole squad. We did absolutely everything together. It was so intense.

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“Going to games was mental. The streets were mobbed, grown men with their faces painted, scarves, flags, everything. I was mobbed just going to get my hair cut and the local shopping centre. I felt like a movie star!

“I didn’t have my family with me, so it was tough, but I got to see the backwaters of Alleppey, I played cricket in the streets of Mumbai with locals, I was there for Diwali.

"I did things I never thought I would experience.”

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