I managed to do my football career in reverse. I started at the top and then slowly worked my way down.
It is easy to get lost in non-league football. Jamie Vardy is the exception not the rule. I could honestly reel of a long list of Premier league players who would struggle. It is a different game- more physical, less organised, more spontaneous I always had the impression that no-one ever quite knew what to do with me. They could see that I had some ability, but most of the managers I met seemed a bit unsure what to do with it. could he do it on a cold, rainy day in Stoke springs to mind. Except it would be more like a cold, rainy night in Tooting and Mitcham. It didn’t help that my ankles seemed to be made out of chocolate and my knees of glass.
I was lucky enough to briefly have Terry Venables as my manager. He was charismatic, intelligent, concise and astute. In my time in non-league football I never had a manager who developed me in any way as a footballer, but I met some of the biggest and funniest characters I have ever met. The majority of non-league managers exchange knowledge and advice for volume and swearing. “We have to do f**** better,” rather than how we were going to do better. After one such half time team talk I was then told off by a manager when I was trying to work out what to do in the second half with a fellow overrun midfielder. “Don’t f**** talk about it, get out there and do something!” came the helpful advice. The best managers spot what is going wrong and adapt what they are doing.
My non- league career is worthy of the “more clubs than Seve Ballesteros” quote. At the end of my time as a player, I had to do a profile for the programme and list my previous clubs. After I got to about fifteen and was still counting they decided to just write down my best known five!
I always seemed to play better the higher up I played. I was once playing for Corinthians out in the Kent countryside. We weren’t very good and the manager didn’t have a clue, but we had good players because the pitch was immaculate, they had an indoor pitch for training and did a lovely pie. The whole club was built by a millionaire whose sons needed a team to play for. You had to clap the opponents off at the end of the game(hence the Corinthian part), and I got fined several times for walking off down the tunnel after heavy losses unable to give the other team a guard of honour. Anyway, this particular season the manager would play me for a few games then drop me for a few games and clearly was very unsure about me. Then Erith and Belvedere, who were a couple of leagues above, came in for me on loan. I went there and did ok. Then when I returned to Corinthians the manager introduced me like I was a new signing. “Make sure you give him the ball as much as possible.” I was still the same player. Three games later I was back as a sub!
Another time at Tonbridge FC, we had a good side and got to a cup final. Again I was in and out of the team. Before the game, the manager sat next to me and told me I was playing right midfield. He then spent ten minutes telling me exactly what he wanted me to do. All the other players were getting changed and ready for the warm up, laughing at my discomfort behind his back. I was still sat in my tracksuit trying to look interested. Then one of the other players popped his head around the door and asked what position he was playing. “Right midfield,” came the reply. I ended up playing up front.
My favourite story was playing for Erith and Belvedere for a manager who used to boast about beating seven crown court cases. He stole JCB’s for a living. After I left, the club was burnt to the ground and the land sold to Asda. In one particular game we were playing a team that he hated for some unknown reason. “Cut their throats while they’re sleeping, treat them like cozzers and grasses!” was a line I will never forget from the most colourful over-the-top team talk I have ever witnessed. Anyway we went out pumped up to ridiculous heights. Within ten minutes we were down to nine men. Two sendings off for outrageous challenges. The second player sent off actually ended up in the crowd trying to fight the crowd, he was our best player and went on to have a very good career in the football league. At one stage their was a mass brawl involving 21 players- I remember watching it from the half way line. At half time I couldn’t wait to see what the manager was going to say. “Don’t know what’s wrong with you lads. I set you up for a game of football and you go out like a pack of animals!”
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“If you’re pulling the strings, you can’t blame the puppets.”– Anon