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Danilo Orsi charts his rise from playing in front of 87 fans to FA Cup quarter-finals with Grimsby

  /  autty

Despite growing up in landlocked north London, Grimsby Town striker Danilo Orsi does like to be beside the seaside.

After five years playing academy and college soccer in Florida, he is now aiming to make history with the Mariners, having waited until of 25 to earn his first professional contract.

Appropriately for the nautical theme, the League Two outsiders conquered Premier League opposition in the port of Southampton this month and will reach Wembley today if they can upset Brighton, home of the English Channel's most famous pier.

'The whole thing has been surreal. Absolutely bonkers,' says Orsi, whose first FA Cup experience was playing for Cockfosters at Waltham Abbey in front of a crowd of 87.

'The Grimsby lads held our Christmas party in Newcastle the weekend of the World Cup final and we were all in our jumpers supporting Argentina,' he says.

'If you'd told us then we'd be playing against one of the winners [Brighton's Alexis Mac Allister] we wouldn't have believed it. He's got the medal and Messi in his phone contacts and we're going to share a pitch with him.

'Four-and-a-half thousand of our fans went to Southampton and you couldn't hear their supporters. It'll be the same thought process at Brighton, enjoy the day.'

Grimsby's journey is astounding, the first fourth-tier side to reach the quarter-finals since Cambridge in 1990 and the club's first appearance at this stage since 1939. But Orsi, who won the match-winning penalty at St Mary's after he was clobbered by Saints defender Duje Caleta-Car, has an equally remarkable back story with no realistic prospect as a teenager of being a professional footballer.

'I was 18 and about to start a career in IT when I got a call from a mate James who said one of our old coaches was in Tampa looking for a couple of young players to go out for six weeks to play in a tournament,' he says.

'Mum said I should go and see the world is bigger than Barnet. First day, it was hot weather, pool, girls walking down the beach. The day after, we played our first game and ended up winning the tournament for Chivas academy. They asked us to stay for five months, all board and food paid for.'

After a brief return to England, where he trained with Watford under their new youth coach Harry Kewell, Orsi returned to Florida and got a place at Eastern Florida College near Orlando, studying business management and playing for their soccer team.

'I spent a lot of time at the beach. It's what everyone did,' he says with a smile. 'Coco Beach, Sarasota, Melbourne. The beach was five minutes from college; white sands, palm trees, barbecues where you'd dig a massive hole in the sand and light a fire. It was like I'd seen in all the movies.

'I tried everything, beach volleyball, jet-skiing. I found the surfing a bit harder. If you'd asked me as a schoolboy in London, you're going to spend your next few years living by the beach I'd have said, 'Good one! That's not happening'.

'But even now I'm living in Cleethorpes, there aren't any palm trees but it's really nice. People who haven't been don't know. I open the window and the beach is there. You have food markets in the summer. The haddock is world famous. I made a mistake once of going to a takeaway and asking for cod! They looked at me strange, said they only served haddock.

'The day I signed, I took my grandad to Papas, a well-known fish-and-chip shop. It was delicious. In Florida, we used to eat Grouper, that was their local speciality.'

Orsi returned to England in his early 20s and did the non-league circuit until his breakthrough season scoring 21 goals for Maidenhead, which saw him sign for League Two Harrogate in 2021.

'To sign on the dotted line at 25, a full-time contract, was the moment all my hard work and struggles paid off,' says Orsi, who turns 27 next month. 'My family were even more excited than me. Their support has been incredible and my mum Sylvia still comes up every week to watch me play.

'Grimsby had tried to sign me in the National League but the gaffer [Paul Hurst] understood I couldn't turn down the chance to play in the EFL. I liked the way he worked, we kept in touch and I moved last summer.'

The magic of the FA Cup has worked for Grimsby from the first round in November. 'We've been underdogs in every round and beat five teams from higher divisions, I don't think that's ever happened before,' says Orsi. 'Our first game against Plymouth was incredible. They were flying high in League One and all four of our strikers were injured. They scored first and then we went crazy; 4-1 up at half-time and 5-1 by the end.'

After beating League One pair Cambridge and Burton and dispatching Championship Luton after a replay, Grimsby went to Southampton and gained a stunning 2-1 result.

Orsi, playing as a lone striker, won the second of the penalties converted by Gavan Holohan.

'From the first minute, their defenders were moaning about the way I was going up for headers or leaning in. They just wanted things on their terms,' says Orsi. 'Lyanco slapped me at one point, so I knew Caleta-Car would try something.

'We were holding on to each other, I tried to turn and felt a slap around the back. It was a sting like being hit with a slipper. I went down and heard the ref blow. I expected him to get us together and say 'That's enough now', but he gave the penalty.'

Brighton stopper Lewis Dunk may be better qualified to cope with the physical threat from League Two but Orsi hopes they play a strong team and is looking forward to 'Inflatable Wars', with home fans buying plastic Seagulls to rival the thousands of Harry Haddocks brought down from north Lincolnshire.

'You want to test yourself. Whoever we face, we won't leave anything out there,' says Orsi.