When Jamie Cureton scored for Enfield FC on October 24, he established the most unlikely record: the nimble, fleet-heeled striker became the first footballer in history to score in every level, from the Premier League to the Essex Senior League, of the top nine in English football. And, despite being now aged 44, despite the fact the crowd numbers could have been counted on a couple of hands, he celebrated the strike with the same gusto he did when he once scored a hat trick at Highbury.
“I loved it,” he admits. “Scoring still gives me the same buzz, I literally cannot get enough of it. It is nice when there’s a big crowd but doing it in front of 60,000 or 60 the feeling inside you is the same as ever. Perhaps even more so, because at my age each goal you score is closer to being your last.”
That the record came about at all is a measure of Cureton’s unquenchable need for finding the net. He is player manager of Bishop’s Stortford FC, in the Isthmian League Premier Division, which is part of the eighth tier of the English football pyramid. From this season, they have welcomed as tenants at their Woodside Park ground Enfield FC, who play in the level below. One day Cureton was talking to the Enfield manager who mentioned if he ever fancied a game he could have one at any time.
“Initially I didn’t do it to get the record, because, if I’m honest, I wasn’t absolutely sure what level they were. It just so happened I hadn’t played for a couple of weeks, needed a run out and the manager said we’ve got a game Wednesday evening. I was free so I came on for ten minutes. It was after that I realised they were in the ninth tier, so yeah, when he said I could start the following Wednesday, I definitely went in hungry. I scored and they won, so I felt I’d contributed, it wasn’t just about me.”
What is astonishing about Cureton’s record, however, is that it ever came about at all. Former top-flight players tend not to drift down deep into the subterranean strata of the non-league game. After starring for clubs like Norwich, Bristol Rovers, Reading and finally Dagenham and Redbridge across a 23-year professional career, it might have been thought when his last contract came to an end that he had earned the right to put his feet up on a Saturday afternoon. But he says the need to carry on was significant: he was still in the grip of a football addiction.
“Even though I’d played till I was 41, I think I’d have struggled mentally if I’d just have given up when I stopped being a pro,” he explains as he sits in the bar at Bishop’s Stortford’s ground. “I see a lot of players who retire and struggle. And I’m happy to admit I think I would have done. So this is a slow weaning off.”
And he insists the apparent culture shock in dropping down the leagues has caused him little concern: after all the rules of the game are the same at every level.
“Pro friends ask me all the time: how can you turn up with cold showers, a crap pitch, crap teammates? I don’t look at it like that. I love football and still get the same highs and lows whatever the level. I love winning, love scoring and hate losing. The surroundings don’t make a difference. Yeah, when you’re a pro you turn up with a wash bag and that’s it. Everything’s there for you, everything’s done for you, you’ve just got to perform. Sure, as you drop down you may have to do more, wash your own kit, sort your own transport, bring your own towel. But so what? The end game is enjoyment. It still brings me great joy and, as I’m able to still do it physically, I say why not?”
Such has been his longevity, that back in April he reached a notable landmark: he became only the 29th footballer ever to have played 1000 senior matches. It is some list he joined, including names like Roberto Carlos, Xavi and Raul. 700 supporters, double the average crowd at Bishop’s Stortford, turned out to watch him mark his achievement by scoring twice in a 3-2 win over Brightlingsea Regent.
“It was a very proud moment, without a doubt,” he says. “There’s some legends in that list, now my name’s amongst them. 1000 games: to think some people retire after 200. And yeah, I do remember most of them. Particularly the ones I scored in.”
Not, he admits, that there will be many more. Now he has taken over as manager – combining his duties with running the club’s academy in a nearby school – he finds himself on the pitch less often.
“One of the hardest parts of the job is knowing whether I should play myself,” he says. “I pick myself if I feel I can do a better job. It’s a balance. Because for sure when you are out there, you can’t manage the team, you have to concentrate on your own game.”
Though he admits, even when he concentrates all his efforts on them, there are limits to how much he can draw from his squad.
“You can’t teach goal scoring instinct. You can help people get better at it, but they have to have that mentality within them,” he says. “One thing I’ve learned, you can’t get too frustrated. For these lads football is not their life, it’s not their priority, it’s just a hobby. I can’t scream and shout. I just have to encourage them.”
And he acknowledges that he would willingly stop playing if his ambition to coach full-time were compromised by his continuing to search for goals.
“I’d retire tomorrow if I was offered a full-time football job. There’s only two options for me ending it. Either my body tells me I can’t do it, or someone says here’s a full-time job in the game. Media, coaching, management: there’s a lot of jobs within football I think I could add value to.”
But in the meantime, Bishop’s Stortford are away at Haringey Borough on Saturday. And Cureton, the manager, suggests he will be picking a certain record holder to start the game.
“We haven’t scored for a couple of weeks, we need goals,” he says. “So I’ll be starting, yeah.”