EDDIE NIEDZWIECKI - top goalkeeper, top coach, top man.

It’s 45 years since the kid from Conwy headed to the bright lights of Wrexham’s Racecourse ground to embark on a footballing journey that shows no sign of ending soon.

During that time he’s played at the top with Chelsea, been a crucial member of Arsene Wenger’s back-room staff in the Gunners’ Invincibles season, forged an unbreakable relationship with Mark Hughes and let’s not forget the best bit - won a Division Three Championship winners medal with Wrexham back in 1978.

And Niedzwiecki, whose Polish parents moved to north Wales after the war, will never ever forget his Racecourse roots.

“1975. That’s when it all started and I’m still going,” said the 61-year-old coach, who is right hand man to Reading boss Mark Bowen, the two men who have stayed loyal to Welsh legend Hughes during their times together with the national side and in the Premier League at Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City, Fulham, QPR, Stoke City and Southampton.

But it’s Niedzwiecki’s links with the two London clubs battling it out for FA Cup glory at Wembley Stadium tomorrow, that is the main topic of conversation.

“I was going to Sheffield United,” recalled Niedzwiecki. “Ian Porterfield was manager there and Wrexham were falling down the leagues.

“Then I got a call from Joey Jones. John Neal had taken over at Chelsea. Joey had left Wrexham in a cut-price deal and I had so much respect for him and, of course, John Neal.”

Niedzwiecki left for £55,000 in 1983 after Wrexham’s fall had been just as dramatic as their rise.

The cash-strapped Reds were back in the bottom division and Chelsea, banked by Ken Bates, wanted to join the top flight elite.

“Chelsea was a great move,” added Niedzwiecki, who had made 141 appearances for the Reds during his seven seasons in the first team ranks.

“It was incredible, really. My debut was at home to Derby and we won 5-0. I was one of six signings John had brought in during the summer, Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, John Hollins and Kerry Dixon also arrived.

“Then Mickey Thomas joined us and, yes, I was part of those journeys from North Wales to London. With the M40 not being around in those days, we became regulars in the Little Chef in Banbury!

“We started with crowds of about 17,000 but by the end of the season, 40,000 plus were there. The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge was superb. The pitch was crap and with the ground being so open, the wind didn’t half get up. It made life tough for keepers.”

Not that Niedzwiecki had too many problems in the 1983/84 season as they pipped Sheffield Wednesday to the title.

The Blues were back in the big-time - and what a game to kick off their first game back in Division One. Arsenal away. Niedzwiecki remembers it well, speaking passionately about the man who helped him as a player and in his future days as a top coach - England World Cup winner Peter Bonetti.

“Goalkeepers are always in the firing line because if they make mistakes, it normally ends up with a goal,” said the former Welsh international, whose two caps came in the mid-Eighties.

“In my Wrexham days, my first son had been born in the early hours and I was in goal against Portsmouth and dropped a cross. I remember Reg Herbert writing a piece in the Evening Leader, saying I hope he handles the baby better than he did with the cross. I was fuming!

“Peter Bonetti was an all-time great with Chelsea and England but I remember his story about the reaction he’d get for England losing a World Cup quarter final in Mexico.

“It was an early kick-off and Peter and I were about to run out at Highbury to warm up and he said to me ‘you watch, I’ll get some stick here.’

“I couldn’t understand why but the Arsenal crowd were singing about the World Cup in Mexico.

“Peter Bonetti was one of the big influences when I came to Chelsea. He was a lovely man. I just wish that I’d had even longer with him because I loved coming in to train.

“He took a lot of criticism for that but when you think of the career he had, I find it quite sad that people bring that back up because he was such a wonderful servant, a wonderful goalkeeper and a wonderful man who wanted to help so many people.”

Niedzwiecki’s days as number one at Chelsea were ended at the age of 28, suffering a cruciate knee ligament injury in March 1986.

“It was QPR at home, March 19,” he recalled. I had seven operations but kept breaking down. My children were four and two at the time and I was told if I carried on playing, I’d have a permanent limp. So I had to retire.

“A few years later, I joined in a game in training and did the ACL on my other knee and was operated on my the same surgeon.

“He told that with the advancements they’d made, I’d have still been playing if I’d had the same operation five years ago.

“That’s football, I suppose. You take the highs but then you have to deal with the lows.

“Look at Dave Smallman. Brilliant goalscorer who had to quit at the age of 24. He once said to me that being forced to retire was like the start of the end of your life. I was lucky to still be involved, coaching at Chelsea and that drove me on.”

Apart from a spell at the club where’s he’s now assistant manager, Niedzwiecki spent 17 years in total in west London, celebrating FA Cup final wins in that time when his old mate Mark Hughes was adding to his love affair with the competition.

“Mark came to Chelsea - that was the team he supported - and we became good friends,” said Niedzwiecki. “He’s a good man and he needs to be in the game because he’s a top manager.”

It was Hughes, who had Niedzwiecki working part-time with Wales, that lured him away from a top job in the Arsene Wenger revolution at Highbury.

Speaking at the time of his departure to team up with Hughes at Blackburn Rovers in 2004, Niedzwiecki said: “I have left Arsenal on a sound footing, they have some wonderful young players coming through. I learned so much in the last four years it is hard to explain. They have wonderful ideas and I would be a very foolish man if I did not take on the lessons I have learned.

“Arsene Wenger’s reaction was first class. His words were `Eddie, I don’t want you to go, I want you to stay, you have done a good job here and I want you with me but I can see that it’s a progression’.

“He spoke some very kind words to me, his reaction was fantastic.”

Niedzwiecki was appointed reserve team coach at Arsenal after Claudio Ranieri took over at Chelsea.

“Claudio wanted to bring in his own staff and Pat Rice had recommended me to Arsene,” Niedzwiecki continued. “To be part of the coaching during that the Invincibles season. What a team that was.

“Arsene said to me when I joined that in training, make sure players do 20 minutes of technique every day.

“We had great players coming through, Pennant, Bentley, Edu and Gilberto Silva and then, of course, Cesc Fabregas.

“I used to get the chance to watch one in six games that season because I’d be off scouting in France after the reserve games on a Saturday morning.

“Don Howe was also at the club and again, what an incredible coach. Another, I’ve been so fortunate to work with. You pick up advice all the way in your career and I picked up my good habits all those years ago at Wrexham.

“John Neal had a great way with him but I owe those senior pros - Arfon Griffiths, Gareth Davies, Mel Sutton - the list could go in - a great deal.

“Wrexham gave me a great grounding and that promotion season, I will never forget.

“I started the season in goal bur Arfon came up to me and said: ‘We need to go up this year and I need and experienced keeper’.

“Dai Davies came in and when I met him for the first time he said: What are you going to do now?’” I told him I was going to get my place back. But Dai was brilliant to me those years I was waiting to get my chance.”

Niedzwiecki, who played 17 league and cup games in the 1977/78 season, is quick to heap praise on those who have helped pave his way in the game but it’s good to hear the compliments are not all one way.

And when asked who are the best coaches you’ve ever worked with, ex-England striker turned TV celebrity Peter Crouch replied: “I’ve got to mention Eddie Niedzwiecki. What a top man he is. He knows football inside out and his enthusiasm is infectious. All the players would speak highly of him.”

And that just about says it all about Eddie Niedzwiecki.