The last time Dean Bouzanis went to Wembley it was to watch his partner, Steph Catley, play for Arsenal in the Women’s FA Cup final. Catley was on the losing team that day but Bouzanis is hoping to register a happier memory on Sunday when he and his Sutton United teammates take on Rotherham in the Papa Johns Trophy final, in their first season after promotion from the National League.
It will be Sutton’s first trip to Wembley since an FA Trophy final defeat by Bishop’s Stortford in 1981 and Bouzanis’s maiden visit as a player. “It is a massive achievement, getting promoted, really pushing on and having a chance of going up from League Two this year, and then getting this fantastic day out,” he says.
For Bouzanis, the penalty shootout hero in the last round at Wigan – he saved two spot-kicks and scored another – the game will prove a landmark occasion in a career that started at Liverpool as a 16-year-old.
Bouzanis was still a schoolboy in Sydney when Rafael Benítez declared him “the best goalkeeper in the world for his age” and although he left Anfield without a first-team appearance to his name, the four-year spell carries fond memories, including playing in an FA Youth Cup final, shadowing Pepe Reina and repelling shots by Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso – “Everything he did you were just in awe of” – at training.
“I remember getting moved up to the first team and getting my first-team squad number and seeing that up on the wall,” he says. “Little things like that I’ll never forget. At the start it is very nerve-racking and a bit of a dive into the deep end. But at the same time you’re a professional and have to put that to one side to try and make a career for yourself, because you’re still a young boy. Before you know it they become teammates and friends.”
He remains in close contact with Tom Ince – with whom he played in the 2009 Youth Cup final – Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Jonjo Shelvey.
Bouzanis arrived at Sutton after a spell at Melbourne City, where he played alongside Tim Cahill and took over the gloves from Thomas Sørensen, and met Catley, who played for the women’s team. “She is an amazing person, one I have been with for more than five years now. She is so successful in her career.
“Being a footballer, you want to play in these big games and have these moments and to be able to share them together – it is special. I think it is a great fit because we both understand each other and what it takes, whether you have to go away, move clubs, you might have to do a bit of long distance, which we had to do at the start of our relationship.”
Bouzanis gets to as many of Catley’s games as possible and hopes to attend Arsenal’s postponed game against Tottenham, which is set to take place at the Emirates Stadium. Catley’s Arsenal exited the Champions League at the quarter-final stage on Thursday and the defender will not be at Wembley because she will be joining up with Australia.
For the 31-year-old Bouzanis, it feels good being back in England, where he played for Accrington and Oldham, the former on loan from Liverpool, before spells in Greece and the Netherlands. “To be able to come back here in the prime of my career and be successful at Sutton, it means a lot to me and my family. If I keep fit and look after my body, I could play for another seven or eight years, which a lot of keepers are doing nowadays.”
Reina was a source of inspiration but Bouzanis points to the current Liverpool No 1 and Ederson at Manchester City as gamechangers. “I love Alisson,” he says. “The way he plays is similar to the way I like to play football, with your feet, out from the back, calm. He makes big saves at big times. They both start a lot of attacks, which is what a modern high-line goalkeeper does.
“Goalkeeping has evolved. It is not just about making saves, it is about finding solutions. In buildup when you have the ball, to find different pockets and overloads, you are pretty much an outfield player when you play that type of system. It is changing all the time.”
Bouzanis saved three spot-kicks against Stevenage in the second round of the competition, but although in formidable form, he is hopeful Sutton can kill the game before it gets to that stage this time. His only other trip to Wembley was to watch the Euro 2020 final, which England lost to Italy on penalties.
Regardless of Sunday’s result it promises to be a special occasion for the Sutton family, including the chairman of 26 years, Bruce Elliott, the longstanding press officer, Tony Dolbear, and their 70-year-old kit man, Clive Baxter, who has attended more than 3,000 matches since starting as a tea boy in 1961.
Heading into the weekend Sutton were 10th in League Two, two points off a playoff place, and their first season in the Football League could end with successive promotions and a cup. “You can say we have overachieved but I don’t look at it like that,” Bouzanis says. “We’ve got a lot of good players. We know what we’re good at. We pride ourselves on being hard to break down because we believe we can score the goals to win us the match.”