Big interview: Why Wolves hero Carl Ikeme hasn’t a single moment to waste
Time is precious to Carl Ikeme.
It was something he never worried about while playing football, but now it is the one thing he is determined to make the most of.
Acute leukaemia forced Ikeme to retire from football several years earlier than he would have liked.
His cancer battle robbed him of the chance to be at the birth of his second daughter, Maya, as he moved to Manchester to undergo intense chemotherapy treatment.
Given just a 30 per cent chance to live, many tears were shed by the former Wolves goalkeeper, his family and his friends.
Ikeme – diagnosed in 2017 after returning abnormal results from a routine pre-season check-up – admits he thought he was going to die.
But in June of last year, he was told he was in complete remission.
And, speaking at Molineux, the home of the club he was with for more than half of his life, he feels fit and healthy as a father-of-two – to Mila and Maya – and a fiancé – having popped the question to Saba in the summer.
Things are pretty normal now for Ikeme, and he is loving it.
He does not feel slighted by having to fight the cruel condition.
He is releasing a book on the journey, and the title, Why Not Me?, is emblematic of Ikeme's inspiring outlook.
Leukaemia changed his life, no doubt, but Ikeme reflects on his footballing career with fondness and relishes the simpler things these days.
He never took the love of his family for granted. It is extra special now, though.
"I was always really grateful anyway. Most people will tell you that I'm not a flashy sort of guy, I'm quite down to earth," said Ikeme, who made more than 200 appearances for Wolves and won two promotions.
"I'm always really grateful, but it just makes you appreciate things more on a different level.
"It makes you appreciate time with your family.
"That's the main thing now. It gives me purpose of time because when I was playing, football takes your life over.
"That's one thing my family didn't have with me – time.
"So, now, I appreciate everything 20,000 times more than I did do anyway.
"I appreciate time with my friends and time with my loved ones – moments together, the hugs and kisses from my daughters.
"Even though they felt like the best-ever before, they feel even better now!"
Ikeme, of course, is still wary of the risk of infection – the cancer depleted his immune system – but over the past several months, going out in busy places is something he has grown more comfortable with.
So much so, he has started going to Wolves games more frequently.
And after playing for the club since the age of 14 – albeit with a few loan spells away in there – Ikeme likes the simplicity of being a fan.
"I think last year was a year of me coming back and getting back on my feet," he said.
"This season, I've watched more games and come to more games.
"I think last year I was always a bit cautious with coming because my immune system was still really low.
"It was always a case of come – but stay safe. I was always a bit wary.
"Now, I can just come and enjoy the game. I came to the Villa game and it was nice to just be a fan. I enjoy it.
"It sounds strange, but I enjoy just being a normal fan and supporting Wolves.
"I'm at that point now where I'm arguing with people, fans from other clubs, when they're saying they've got this player, I'm saying 'well, he's not Ruben Neves!' I'm that person now.
"It's nice to be on the other side of it."
So, what does Ikeme make of Nuno Espirito Santo's team, which still has Matt Doherty, Conor Coady and Romain Saiss in it, but is largely different to the one he played in a few seasons ago?
"It's incredible. Even from the Championship season, going up, I think a lot changed in that year," said Ikeme.
"It's almost unrecognisable. They created a perfect environment for Wolves to be successful – top to bottom.
"It's amazing to see. It's pushed the club to a different level, and it's exciting, isn't it?
"It's exciting as a Wolves fan because there hasn't always been these moments. It's incredible that people are talking about Wolves as a club that's going places. It's nice to enjoy the journey."
Ikeme was born in Sutton Coldfield and raised in Birmingham to a white mother and black father – and, unfortunately, the family did receive racist abuse.
He was steadfast, though, and went on to achieve his footballing dream. He played for Villa as a kid but did not like the seriousness of it all.
Following a few years playing with friends at junior level, he was later picked up by Wolves – and he never looked back.
As well as being part of the Championship-winning squad of 2008/09 and a mainstay in the League One champions of 2013/14, Ikeme went on to gain international recognition.
He qualified for Nigeria through his father and represented the Super Eagles 10 times. Had it not been for leukaemia, he would have went to the World Cup with them last year.
And despite the disappointment of missing out on that, Ikeme feels lucky to have had such a playing career.
"If anyone had offered it me when I was kid growing up, I don't think I would've believed you," he said.
"It was something I wanted to do, but I wouldn't have believed it was something I could do.
"I'm not acting like I'm from a different age, but social media wasn't a thing back then. You only saw footballers on Match of the Day. It seemed like a different world to what I was living in.
"Even when I came in full-time at Wolves, I would've snapped your hand off if you said I'd have the career I had.
"I don't look back and think what I missed out on, I look back and think about what I had.
I'm really grateful for how everything panned out.
"To play that many league games – it was always important for me to have a long-term club.
"I'd been on loan a few times, but I'd been at the same club since I was 14. That meant a lot to me.
"I'd been at Wolves for half of my life. It felt special to me. I felt a part of Wolves, not just playing for them. I felt an integral part of the club as a whole, so that was really important to me.
"And representing Nigeria was massive for me, such a powerful experience.
"You're representing a country, it's surreal. It was something that felt more deep-rooted as I knew it would make my family so proud."
Since Ikeme had to call it a day, Wolves' keepers have refused to take the No.1 shirt out of respect to him.
Rui Patricio and John Ruddy wear 11 and 21 respectively.
But Ikeme, who says both have touched him with their support, is more than happy for Patricio to start wearing No.1 now.
Ikeme says that with a wide smile on his face, and he is quite happy to talk about what having cancer was like.
He has left no stone unturned in his new book, Why Not Me?, too.
Seeing his story on paper, at first, was a difficult experience. Those memories which had been cast away to one side and locked away came flooding back.
But, in the end, it is has been an uplifting and cathartic experience.
"It's been strange, really, a bit tough at times," said Ikeme.
"There were some things that I'd not forgot, but just not spoken about – put to one side.
"It was tough, especially when you've got it on paper. As soon as it went on paper and I was reading through bits, talking about how I was dealing with it emotionally at the time, it brought back memories of what I went through.
"At the same time, it was quite therapeutic, talking about my experience, what I was going through, how I felt at the time, how it has changed me, and what I've learned.
"It was quite fulfilling as well and something I actually enjoyed doing in the end."
Doing the book – which will be serialised in the Express & Star next week – with freelance journalist and former Wolves head of media Paul Berry, has helped Ikeme mentally.
And he is making strides physically as he prepares for a mammoth charity bike ride next year.
"I'm feeling good. I'm just trying to get on with life as normal," said Ikeme.
"Things are starting to settle down in my life now.
"I'm feeling relatively fit – not fit enough to play football, but I'm fitter.
"I'm training for the cycle ride and just enjoying life, enjoying my time with my family."
Ikeme will be cycling a whopping 562 miles in six days across England in aid of Race Against Blood Cancer.
The challenge, which takes place in May, will begin at Middlesbrough and, aptly, finish at Molineux.
And he is on a mission to raise awareness that there is not enough stem cell donors from minority groups.
"It's a charity close to me at the minute as cancer affects a lot of people. This is to do with the stem cell register," said Ikeme.
"There's not enough donors from ethnic minorities. If you're white, you've got a 70 to 80 per cent chance of finding a donor.
"From an ethnic minority, it goes down to 10 to 20 per cent. I'm doing a cycle in May, 560 miles, to raise awareness and money, and do a few more donor drives to boost the numbers in the register.
"I was fortunate that I didn't need it, but if I had, it would've been a struggle for me to find a donor. It's something that's close to my heart.
"When something is going through that, it'd be even more stress trying to find a donor.
"It's not always easy, generally, but from an ethnic minority it is difficult, so I want to help raise awareness and create a bigger donor list.
"You never know when someone might need it – you might need it. It's really important I try to awareness, as stem cell donors, it's not as well-known as giving blood. And it is quite simple to do."
Ikeme thought leukaemia was a death sentence but, two years later, Ikeme is thinking about the next step.
He has been renovating properties for the past six months or so, doing something which has always been an interest of his.
He is also thinking about getting back into football. The door is always open for him at Wolves, and Ikeme likes the idea of returning to the club in a coaching or mentoring capacity, although not just yet.
Out of Darkness Cometh Light is a phrase closely associated with Wolves – and it certainly applies to Ikeme.
He had some words for anyone who is experience trouble, whether that is cancer or any other illness, too.
"It's difficult to have one message, but I had to accept what was going on. That really helped me deal with the matter," said Ikeme.
"I wasn't trying to run away from having cancer, it was just accepting what had happened.
"Trying to have a positive mindset really helped me push through the tough times.
"Having that positive mindframe, trying to be as positive as possible in bad circumstances, really helped me.
"I think it could really help anyone going through any sort of trouble."
Ikeme added: "Your mind is the most powerful thing you've got when you put it to good use."
- The book – for which Ikeme joined up with freelance journalist and former Wolves press officer Paul Berry – is on sale at the Wolves club shop, and Wolverhampton’s Waterstones book shop. Ikeme will be signing copies at Waterstones next Saturday(12-2pm), and at the club shop on Saturday, December 14 (10am to 12pm) and Thursday, December 19 (5-7pm).