It is the scene of his greatest triumph and his lowest low; a fall from grace which came so hard it has taken Jose Baxter months to talk about it publicly.
He is remembering an anxious wait at Wembley, waiting to discover his fate in an FA hearing after testing positive for recreational drugs for a second time in nine months.
Baxter walked off the hallowed turf as a hero in 2014, after scoring the first goal in Sheffield United’s epic 5-3 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Hull City.
He should have gone on to become a genuine Blades legend. Instead, his Bramall Lane career ended in disgrace; a sorry tale of repeated mistakes, wasted potential and regret.
“It was like someone had grabbed the inside of my body and pulled it out,” Baxter says, opening up about his 12-month ban after testing positive for cocaine in an interview with The Times.
“The chairman of the panel was like, ‘Do you understand that?’
“I could hear him speaking, but I couldn’t reply. I’ve scored at Wembley for United and when I was sitting in one of the boxes waiting, I was looking out on the pitch thinking, ‘I scored here in front of a full house and now I’m back to see if my future is going downhill.’
“It was a horrible feeling. One I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, but something I can only blame myself for.”
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Baxter, one of the most creative players to have graced Bramall Lane in recent years, was absent for United’s League One semi-final against Swindon in 2014/15, when Nigel Clough’s side eventually went out 7-6 on aggregate after drawing 5-5 in the second leg. Baxter’s absence, initially explained as a routine injury, turned out to be anything but; he had failed a drug test, traces of ecstasy were found in his system and he was banned for five months, after successfully persuading an FA panel that his drink had been spiked on a night out.
“It was a tough few months,” he said at the time.
“I was in a dark place, but the gaffer, the whole club and the fans have supported me and I’m grateful for it. Hopefully I can pay them back and get promotion.”
He played just 28 times more for United, before failing a second test and being suspended in February. The FA came down heavily on him this time, and Baxter was told he couldn’t kick a ball again in anger until June 2017.
I’ve had people say, ‘Come and play Sunday League, shave your head, no one will recognise you,’” Baxter added.
“I wouldn’t do it, but people would find out and I would get kicked everywhere.
“There is only myself who can do this. I have been stupid for putting myself in situations. I will be the first to hold my hands up and say I was ‘silver spooned’ at Everton.
“I didn’t realise what I had and, up until this happened, I didn’t realise how privileged I was. It has made me hungrier and I want it more than ever.
“I understand I’m getting a reputation for being a bit of bad egg. I’m not soft. For any manager looking at me there is a big question mark, but that is up to me to go out there and prove that the past is the past.”
The talent is there, without question. Baxter remains the youngest ever player to have represented Everton, and at times seemed to play on a different level to his teammates at Bramall Lane. He remains convinced that this is not the end of his story, but it remains to be seen if a club will offer him what amounts to a third chance, at least; and whether the player can make the most of it, on and off the pitch. He scribbles notes in his diary next to June 1, when he is free to resume his career.
“It’s just questions: ‘Where will I be? What will I be doing?’ It helps me focus,” Baxter says.
“At different times, different answers come into my head: I’ll be at a club, wowing people in training and getting people talking about me. ‘You know what, this kid wants it, doesn’t he?’
“I want to play at the top and believe I can. People might laugh, people might say, ‘No chance now’ but that’s down to me. I have ten years ahead of me and I know how the flipside of football works.
“I only have to stay positive. I have been at the bottom of the bottom.
“The only way is up for me. I couldn’t go any lower from where I was.”