SHOULD Darlington’s FA Cup journey lead to a televised match, with the BBC wanting to focus on a player with a quirky backstory, then Liam Connell would be the ideal candidate.

The goalkeeper made his debut only five weeks ago and has already become a fans’ favourite by keeping four clean sheets in his five games, among them the 3-0 win at Tamworth in the last round.

On that day he borrowed a cap from one of the Darlington supporters behind the goal to shield his eyes from the sun, and underlined his value by saving a penalty when flinging himself to his left to make a vital stop.

What makes Quakers’ keeper stand out from his peers is that he eschews the usual gym routine favoured by footballers, instead extolling the virtues of sambo.

Not familiar? It is a Soviet martial art and combat sport similar in style to judo, and one that Connell enjoys so much he is looking to compete next year.

“I’ve been doing it with a lad I work with called Barry Gibson, it’s at the Red Star gym just next to the Stadium of Light, and I really enjoy it,” said Connell, who works as a PE teacher in Sunderland at Ashbrooke School, an independent specialist day-school for pupils with complex educational needs.

“I don’t go to the gym now, these sessions are Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.

“Barry is a third dan in judo and he got into it that way. Sambo is a Russian form of judo, there’s two parts – sports sambo and combat, which is where you get to kick and punch.

“It keeps me mentally switched on, physically fit and as Barry is one of the Great Britain coaches hopefully I will have a chance of competing around January time. It would be a chance to get on the GB team.

“It keeps you strong, there’s a lot of grip work and footwork, and it keeps you agile for playing in goal. You’ve got to be sharp and fast, it is mentally tiring as well as physically but I have seen a benefit in my football and I enjoy it is, it as a release.”

Connell provided a boost this week when his loan from South Shields was extended for the remainder of the season, and he will play in Saturday’s FA Cup first round match at Walsall.

When Quakers and Shields were unable to reach an agreement at the beginning of this week, Connell looked to have played his last game for Darlington and he did not train with the team on Tuesday.

The 34-year-old was back in the fold on Thursday, however, when the BBC’s Football Focus were filming.

He added: “You’re going to get hurt if you take it lightly, it’s a combat sport. There’s always the concern about getting injured, but touch wood it’s so far so good.

“A couple of the lads in the changing room know about it but most don’t.

“I need to be careful when I’m playing sometimes, I’ll be thinking ‘I’ll just chuck him’, but I’d end up giving a penalty away and getting sent off!”