Sid runs that Proper Football account on Twitter. Follow him at @sid_lambert for an onslaught of football nostalgia.
“You’d die to score a goal. You can coach technique and what type of shots to take, but for natural goal scorers, it’s hard for me to explain why I’m in these positions. It’s just instinct.”
Hours earlier Jamie Cureton’s instincts had been proven right again. The 43-year-old striker scored twice as Bishop’s Stortford beat play-off rivals Worthing 3–0 in the Bostik League.
The ProKit Stadium is the latest outpost on a 25-year football journey that’s spanned 999 games, some 18 clubs and 359 goals. Situated in an industrial park in-between a waste disposal centre and a household blinds manufacturer, the ground seems like the perfect stage for a forward who has avoided football’s scrapheap and refuses to pull the curtains on his playing career.
On Saturday he’ll pull on his boots and step out onto the turf for the 1000th time. These days the legs are heavier than the fleet-footed forward who made his Premier League debut for Norwich back in 1994. Back then he was a nuisance. Zipping around the penalty area like a wasp at a picnic. A quarter of a century later, with more grey hair and precious fewer ankle ligaments, he’s had to make some concessions to the ravages of time.
“I’ve got better with age with movement,” he says. “I can’t do things anymore because of my body. Run as far, or as fast. When you’re young, you don’t understand the game. You use up energy and run around needlessly. As I’ve got older, I’ve learnt to run at the right times. Or sometimes stand still. Always, always looking for space.”
It takes time for that space to open up on Saturday. At times he cuts a lonely figure. Drifting into gaps between defenders, pointing furiously to where he wants the ball, then hanging his head when it doesn’t reach him. With 81 minutes on the clock, he finally finds himself with a split-second sight of goal. The angle isn’t great, and there are team-mates better positioned, but Cureton doesn’t hesitate to drill a shot between the keeper and post. Old habits die hard.
“I was a goal hanger at school. From the age of seven when I started playing I always wanted to score. It’s something natural. Players like Fowler, Defoe or Lineker would probably say the same. I coach kids now [At Arsenal’s academy where he’s working towards the coveted UEFA “A” licence], and they all want to get on the ball and dribble. It’s hard to find a kid coming through who just wants to score goals.”
In an age of the high press—where forwards are considered the first line of defence—the classic penalty box striker feels like a breed on the brink of extinction. They exist on the periphery of football matches. Lurking in the shadows while others dazzle with their flicks and tricks. It’s easy to see why the next generation of players, who devour skills compilations and PlayStation highlight reels, shun the idea of having a distant relationship with the ball.
“You’re not involved a lot,” he agrees. “I probably touch the ball maybe 15 or 20 times, but I might score two goals and win you the game. I’ve always been comfortable with that. Being the match-winner. I’ve always accepted that managers will play me, buy me, use me to score goals. They don’t put me in the team to do a lot else.”
There have been plenty of managers over the years who’ve stayed in employment thanks to Cureton’s talents. After leaving Norwich, he spent four goal-laden seasons with Bristol Rovers where his partnership with Jason Roberts was one of the most prolific in the league. At his next club Reading, he scored the goal that won promotion to the second tier. In fact, his popularity was such that the Supporters Club named a newly-discovered star in the constellation Perseus after their play-off match-winner. They cited Perseus’ status as a hero in Greek mythology as the perfect tribute to the man who scored 55 goals in 108 games for the Royals.
Like any tale, the Jamie Cureton story also has its share of tragicomedy. There was a disastrous stint in South Korea followed immediately by a spell at QPR where you’d be forgiven for wondering if he’d left his shooting boots in the cargo hold. But, instilled by his own reserves of self-belief—unsurprising for a man who famously turned down Sir Alex Ferguson’s invitation to join Manchester United’s youthful revolution—he’s always found a way to bounce back. The following year he helped Colchester to promotion then scored 23 goals in the Championship, earning himself the Golden Boot in the process.
“You have to take that burden of being a goal scorer. It is difficult. There’s more pressure on you. You have to make it count. Sometimes if you’re getting loads of chances, you can afford a few misses. But if you’re playing in a team and you get that one opportunity and you miss, that could cost you the game—and your place.
“I’ve been in teams and had stick. You miss and the crowd start to boo a bit. As a forward, you’ve got to accept that you’ll miss sitters. That you’ll go home and it’s the worst thing ever. And on Monday you’ve got to go into training and face everyone. You have to get over it. Because if you don’t, then as a player you’re finished.”
Happy 43rd Birthday to Jamie Cureton🎂@JamieCuro's scored in each of the top 8 tiers!— Ollie Bayliss (@Ollie_Bayliss) August 28, 2018
🥅National League South
He's still scoring for @BSFCTheBlues!pic.twitter.com/TgSoUaTI3Y
The veteran marksman knows that his own endgame is coming, though he’s well-accustomed to being written off ahead of his time. As you descend the football pyramid, budgets get tighter, and every penny needs to deliver a return. It takes a brave manager to walk into the chairman’s office and tell him he wants to sign a striker in his mid-thirties who doesn’t run much but might nick you a goal. In 2012 it looked like Cureton’s time as a league footballer was finally up.
“As you get older, people start to give up on you. When I hit 35, no one wanted to be the one that signed me, and that was my final year. That was how it felt. A lot of managers felt threatened that I’d want their jobs. I used to tell them ‘at this moment in time, my sole concentration is on playing as long as possible. I don’t want your job. I’ll do my utmost to keep you in a job.’
“When I left Norwich [his second spell at Carrow Road following Colchester] at 35, I went to Exeter. I had no bargaining power. I was earning more aged 19 at Norwich in the Nineties than I was at Exeter. But I backed myself. I signed a six-month contract. I lived at my mum’s in Bristol. By December I was on ten goals, and they doubled it. I could have gone to other places, earned more money, but I loved it.”
Further successful spells at Cheltenham and then Dagenham & Redbridge followed before he finally bowed out of the Football League in 2016. Since then his three seasons in non-league have followed a familiar pattern: forty-plus games, twenty goals. Each strike celebrated with the same joy that greeted his first against Chelsea 25 years before.
It’s not only the numbers he’s enjoyed. At this level, the relationship between players and fans doesn’t seem quite so polarised.
“It’s been quite refreshing,” he says. “They’re nice, decent grounds. You’re closer to the fans. We played at Whitehawk a couple of weeks ago, and there were a couple of Plymouth fans there. They started hammering me, but with fun. We had a good chat. Bit of banter about stuff. You can be a bit more interactive. You don’t get that in league football. We come into the clubhouse after games, and you get to mingle with people. You can shake their hands.”
Next up for Cureton are two games in 48 hours over the Easter weekend. Ideally, he would have sat out the away fixture at Lewes to celebrate his 1000th game landmark in front of his own fans on Bank Holiday Monday. But the Blues are facing a catastrophic injury crisis and were only able to pick 12 players for their last fixture. It’s a far cry from the razzmatazz of his Premier League roots, but football’s elder statesman is relishing every minute of his non-league adventure.
“It will help me retire in the end,” he says. “If I’d retired after I left the league I think I would have struggled. This is helping me wean off the game. I’m retiring slowly in a silly way. When I leave here, it will be the right time. It will be because I can’t go anymore.”
This weekend the goal hanger goes again. And don’t bet against him to score. Because, as history tells us, he always fucking scores.
Did you like that? You should probably subscribe to our quarterly magazine, then. You won't regret it.