MICHAEL Kightly is loving life as a Premier League footballer.
But if things had worked out differently the Stoke City winger could now have been working as a PE teacher.
For, after leaving Tottenham Hotspur as a teenager, Kightly had his sights set on carving out a career in education.
And, it was only after being signed by Southend United in 2002, that the former pupil of Basildon’s Chalvedon School rediscovered his footballing ambitions.
“When I was at Spurs I didn’t like the seriousness of it all so I left and decided I wanted to be a PE teacher instead,” recalled Kightly.
“I went back to playing with my mates at Island Boys and then Basildon United for £20 a game.
“At the same time as that I enrolled on a sports science course at Thurrock College that would’ve helped me towards becoming a teacher.
“But I then also played one game for Great Wakering reserves and the manager of that side, Dean Wells, told the youth team coach at Southend United, Marc Massey, to give me a trial.
“Everything went from there really and once I got back in to that professional environment again I knew I wanted to be a footballer and that whatever happened I would give it everything I had to make it in the game.”
Since then, Kightly’s career has been a roller-coaster ride of varying emotions. But last weekend came one of the winger’s biggest ever highs as he scored for Stoke City in front of close to 76,000 fans at Old Trafford.
“It was a great moment for me and something I’ll never forget but it would’ve meant more if we hadn’t lost the game 4-2,” said Kightly.
“Playing in front of a crowd like that was a huge buzz and it was great for me because I remember being a kid and my granddad taking me to Manchester United to go and have a tour of the ground.
“I remember thinking then how amazing it would be to play there and to get the chance to actually do it was brilliant.
“Along with Wembley, it’s definitely the best ground I’ve ever played at and we could’ve taken something from the game because we played quite well.
“We were on top for the opening half hour or so and that was really encouraging for us, so we’ve certainly taken real positives from the game.”
So too has Kightly who is now relishing playing regular first team football in the top flight.
The Basildon-born winger’s spell with Wolverhampton Wanderers, after they won promotion from the Championship, was blighted by injury.
And, when he finally regained full fitness at Molineux, he was unable to stop the Midlands side suffering relegation before signing for Stoke in the summer.
“I was gutted when Wolves went down but with a new manager coming in there for a new start, I thought it was time to move on,” said Kightly.
“I’ve come to Stoke, played every game so far this season and things have been going really well.
“I’ve got another chance of playing in the Premier League and I’m loving it.
“Being released from Southend and playing for Grays seems a long time ago now, but playing for them helped me and I appreciate everything even more now.
“When I was at Grays the manager, Frank Gray, actually told me I would go on to play in the Premier League, and I think I told him he was mad!
“Fortunately for me, he wasn’t and I do wonder if he ever put a bet on it because he would’ve made a fortune.”
Kightly joined Wolves from Grays in November 2006 before signing for Stoke, where he has now been joined by former England striker Michael Owen, one of the winger’s boyhood heroes.
“When I was younger I played as a striker and Michael was who I tried to model myself on,” said Kightly.
“I remember him scoring his first Liverpool goal and playing at the World Cup in 1998, so to now be playing alongside him and so many other top players is fantastic.
“I guess I have come a long way in a short space of time but I don’t really think about it.
“I’ve had so many ups and downs in my career that now I’m just thinking about doing well for Stoke and making sure we have a good season.”