Two years is a long time in football. South Shields midfielder Barrie Smith knows that more than most.
Wind back the clock and Smith was questioning his football future, battling on as part of a Shields team playing in front of paltry crowds at the club’s temporary Peterlee home.
I think any player from any of the semi-finalists who said they hadn’t thought about it would be lyingBarrie Smith
Fast forward two years, and the Mariners’ remarkable transformation has them standing on the cusp of history.
Victory over two legs against Coleshill Town would secure the club a first-ever trip to Wembley, in the final of the FA Vase.
Smith has seen so much – relegation, a ground eviction, a battle for survival, an incredible rebirth, a return home, promotion, huge crowds – in his eight years at Shields.
The last two years have been full of ups, but, before that, the 32-year-old had grown accustomed to downs.
So Smith, having seen both sides of the coin at the club, is not about to trot out any cliches about Wembley not being on his mind ahead of the semi-final.
And he is determined to leave everything out on the pitch as he looks to realise his dream.
He said: “At this stage of the competition, any player in this position is going to think about Wembley, and what it would be like to play there.
“That’s only natural and I think any player from any of the semi-finalists who said they hadn’t thought about it would be lying.
“I’m not going to get ahead of myself, though, because all we can control at the moment is the semi-final and we have to get it right.”
For Northern League players, the thought of playing at Wembley is a tantalising one.
Smith is so close he can almost touch it, and what a fine reward that would be for a player who has emerged as a cult figure with the Mariners after many years of good service.
He’s far from the only one dreaming of a first visit to the national stadium.
Indeed, even the most decorated and experienced player in the Shields squad, Julio Arca, has never had that opportunity.
Smith added: “I’d like to just smell Wembley, never mind look inside it, and possibly play there.
“It’s an absolute dream for anyone to even get to just train there. Just look at Julio. He has been a top professional and he hasn’t even played there yet.
“Not many players do, so to get there would be a massive privilege.
“I’ve definitely thought about it, because it’s a motivation to us all, but we have to get the job done in the semi-final and we know how difficult that’s going to be.
“Hopefully we can do the business.”
Shields may go into the two-legged final as favourites for not just the tie but the competition, but Smith insists no one at Mariners Park is taking Coleshill lightly.
Ahead of the away first leg, he said: “Every team that gets to the semi-final of the FA Vase has got to be very good.
“You don’t get to this stage of the competition by luck.
“Coleshill are doing very well this season, and they’ll be confident, just as we are.
“It will be about who applies themselves best over the two legs.
“All of the teams left in the competition are in great form, so it’ll be a good battle to see who lifts the trophy.”
The Mariners have left nothing to chance ahead of the semi-final.
Much preparation has been made by joint managers Lee Picton and Graham Fenton, while hard work has gone in on the training field over the last seven days.
Smith feels Shields have done all they can to prepare for the game, with assistant manager Martin Scott also playing a big role in training.
The midfielder, who is also adept at playing at right-back, has nothing but praise for the trio.
He added: “This is the best coaching I’ve ever had.
“Lee, Graham and Martin are brilliant at what they do. They’re top coaches.
“They put little things into your head to help you, and it triggers when you’re playing.
“I’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years in particular, and I think that has shown in my performances.
“I have no doubt this is the best coaching I’ve ever had.
“They’re the three best coaches I’ve ever worked with.”
Should he play, this will be Smith’s 282nd appearance for the Mariners.
It is by far the most important so far. But Smith will be hoping that, after the second leg, there is one fixture left that will top it.