“If you talk about it, it’s a dream. If you envision it, it’s possible. If you schedule it, it’s real.”
American author and ‘life coach’ Tony Robbins talks a lot about aspirations, about belief and about turning both into reality.
A quick chat with Mark Sykes and the strings of the bow fall effortlessly, almost unnoticeably into place.
“A few weeks ago a memory came up on Facebook that five years ago I had written ‘Imagine being able to play at Wembley…’,” he laughs down the phone as he prepares to head off for a later-than-normal training session.
“I would have been 17 then and I remember thinking that I could do it one day. Now it could happen in the next couple of weeks.”
After moving into professional football with Oxford United just 18-months ago, Sykes is 180 minutes away from realising his long-held ambition in the League One play-offs.
Tomorrow (kick-off 5.30pm), Sykes will take to the Fratton Park pitch hoping to help United seal a positive semi-final first leg result to bring back to the Kassam Stadium for Monday’s return.
The winner will go on to play in the final at England’s national stadium against either Fleetwood Town or Wycombe Wanderers, who have extended the loan deal of Sykes’ Northern Ireland team-mate Paul Smyth specifically to play in the season-defining ties.
“Obviously there will be no fans but that wouldn’t take anything away from the fact we’d be playing at Wembley,” Sykes continues.
The eason was cut short and decided on a points-per-game basis with United having 11 games left to play.
They finished up just two points shy of the automatic promotion spots but, equally, only one point away from missing out altogether on a chance to reach the Championship.
“Our last game before play stopped was at Shrewsbury, where we came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 for our fifth victory in a row,” Sykes explains.
“If we had got beat that day, we would have finished eighth so it’s just as well we made that comeback.
"We couldn’t ever have imagined we were playing for our place in the play-offs.”
After that, there was a three-month lay-off before group training could begin on June 8.
That’s not to say it was strictly down-time. Not when Sykes’ dream had become so boldly envisioned.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve stopped,” he admits. “Even throughout lockdown I’ve been flat out running at home and keeping myself fit and ready to go.
“Then we got back into training in small groups running together before we were able to get ball-work started in groups of 10 and eventually as a full team. It’s been brilliant to get back and I feel really fit and sharp. I’m so glad I kept on top of it and hopefully not I can bring that with me into the play-offs.”
It’s not just Sykes’ footballing future that is falling into place in what is set up to be the most pivotal summer of his life so far.
Less than a month after the play-offs, his partner Courtney is due to give birth to their first child, a baby girl. By then, the couple will have moved house to prepare for the new arrival.
“It’s not a quiet one anyway,” he says in typical, understated manner. “There’s a lot going on.
“It’s all life-changing isn’t it? It’ll be strange but it’s changing for the better, definitely.”
The pregnancy makes it all the more important, he admits, to make sure he’s obeying all guidelines at training to ensure the virus isn’t brought back home.
To that end, the players are tested twice a week with no further positives to report since two early scares just days after the return to training.
“The test itself can be a bit squeamish but we’re used to it now. It’s just become such a normal thing for us all,” he said.
“It’s been strange. Even when we’re standing about during training, we’ll get reminded to stay away from each other in case the GPS picks up the signal that we’ve been standing too close to somebody for too long.”
And that reminds him, with the final tests before the first leg undergone on Wednesday, he’s still, at the time of talking, waiting for the result.
“I couldn’t get it at a worse time than today,” he shudders.
It’s the third time Oxford have been involved in play-off matches, having lost in the 2007 Conference semi-final before winning a place back in the Football League in 2010.
Promotion this time would mean a return to the second tier of English football after 21 years out.
“Everything is riding on these games,” he admits, pondering which is more nerve-inducing; the baby or the match. “It’s not going to be easy and I’m not going to be not nervous, if that makes sense.
“Not every player is really familiar with the history of the club but the manager (Karl Robinson) has been telling us these are going to be possibly the biggest games in Oxford’s history. That’s something we cherish and it’ll be amazing to play in a game of such magnitude.
“With the fans not being there, it might not feel like it but the supporters will be watching on TV, they know how much it means to them and we want to do everything we can for them.
“The manager lets us know that we’re more than capable of it. We’ve had plenty of big wins this season so why not get another one?”
Oxford’s opponents have much more recent experience of success in the upper-echelons of English football, having played in the Premier League from 2003 to 2010 and won the FA Cup back in 2008.
Despite that, Sykes is adamant United have every chance of progressing.
“We’re entitled to be here because we have a good squad and we try and play good football,” he said. “Because I’m not over here that long, I probably hadn’t really read into it all that much. I had never experienced going to places like Portsmouth or Sunderland before so I just go into all goes games thinking ‘why can’t we get a result here?’
“It’ll be a tough game. Portsmouth want to go up as well and these are going to be two hard games for the chance to play in another very difficult game at Wembley.”
The dream is in sight, now Mark Sykes is hoping he can pen that Wembley date into his diary.