Let me start by saying that these blogs are not something I urge Roy to put out for me. He asks me if I would mind writing something that he can put out on social media to break up the week for him. I’ve really enjoyed writing them, maybe a career in writing now I’m finished playing is the way forward. Only problem with writing the blogs is you don’t get to hit or shout at anyone!
It came to me during lockdown that after 2 years of semi-retirement that football being cancelled last season meant that I didn’t have to play anymore for a while. I sat there, drunk in my garden, and I thought to myself, “Donners you don’t have to get kicked, punched, scratched, elbowed or bit again. Your ankles are knackered, you are old, definitely fatter than you want to be and your best years are a distant memory. Knock it on the head.” I knew it was time, I’ve barely played in 2 years. In the games I played toward the end of the season, I thought I did ok. I didn’t embarrass myself or let my teammates down but that fire that I’ve always played with just wasn’t there. I knew the lads I was up against were better than me– intimidation and talking only gets you so far. I was ready to call it a day. But as lockdown weeks went into months I forgot about it. I kept myself fit. I’m sure our chairman Terry Barratt nearly crashed his car when he saw me pounding the pavements through the town probably thinking ‘’ Please Donners not another year… I can’t handle another year of your disciplinary issues!!
Your body has a unique way of making you think you’re fine. The mind tricks you. I was ready to go again! Then I got injured running a straight line at 5mph.. andthat’s it!!
Surprisingly I received a few calls over the last month or so asking if I would consider signing on as a player. Even more surprising was that one was from a team at step 3!!! I knew then that I was to call it a day. My body has been through enough battles. The way I play every week is a fight. That’s how I like it. I’ve said many times I’m not the greatest player. I’m not fast, technically not brilliant so what I’ve learnt over the years is to drag your opponent to your level. At my level you need to be stronger than me, work harder than me, be dirtier than me and cleverer than me. If you were fair play. I’ve always held my hands up to players that are better than me. Here’s a couple of opponents that I have huge respect for. Not just for how they play but for how the are after the whistle goes. Hard but fair.
Ryan Frater: big, strong, quick, great in the air. Hated playing against him. However early on in our careers we played a bank holiday game against each other. Both of us had indulged a little too much on the Sunday. That game I was a little more sober than him and it’s the only time I got the better of him. We were only teenagers!!
Dean Gilbert: you just couldn’t wind him up. And he always “accidently” hurt me.
Will Richards: he played at Redditch and Chippenham. As a centre half at our level he had it all. I was amazed he’s never gone pro.
The Walker brothers: from Dorchester, Weymouth and Poole. The two biggest blokes you’ll come across. Both would shoot their gran to win. Horrible to play against, but off the field top lads regardless of the result. Nathan can literally down 3 pints in about 30 seconds.
For me I found myself playing my best football in the Southern League. I spent the early part of my career playing Ryman football. There’s been lots of talk about what league is the stronger. For me, football wise its better in the Ryman. But for pure will to win, and every game being an absolute war it’s the Southern League all day long. I was made for the Southern League. Big donkeys just booting each other about. The teams in the midlands and down the south west have always given me more credit for how I play than sides from our neck of the woods. They love the win at all costs pantomime villain. I enjoyed playing up to it.
For the purist Hitchin fan, I hate to break it to you but if we tried to play football like Arsenal or Man City we would be relegated before Valentine’s Day! It’s a mix of football and physicality. I loved it!!!! On the fans, its brilliant that after games we can go in the bar and chat about the rights and wrongs. Even with all the covid stuff I hope this stays a part of the game. I hope all fans of clubs that I have played for saw that I gave my all. Some didn’t like how I played, the red cards don’t endear you to many, but I always gave everything. Also I would like to thank the opposition fans. If you’ve got a song about me or just chant “gypo, gypo, gypo” I’m obviously doing something right.
One thing I did realise when I announced I was hanging them up was the amount of people I’ve met over the years through non-league football. I got tweets, texts, emails and messages from so many people that going through them I got a little emotional. I had messages from Wales, Weymouth, all across the midlands and one from Australia! I appreciated every single one. Football has been a massive part of my life. I am going to miss the Saturday 3pm kick off. That’s football time. Nothing beats playing. That’s something I have learned this last two years. But being around it is something I need. As lots of you reading this will know, football is like a drug. We all need our fix.
Mine has been a manic ride. I was playing South Midlands football at 16. Some of those men in that dressing room I’m still friends with today. They taught us youngsters some terrible habits. None of them football related. I was more than happy to pass these lessons on throughout my career. Most recently to some of the young lads at Hitchin. I apologise to all the families of those lads. But it was a great grounding for me. It gave me an outlook that playing meant more than money. Something I’ve mostly stayed true to.
From there it was to Barton to play for the old man. I say play for the old man, when in reality he chucked myself, Stuart Lochhead and my cousin Paul straight into the reserves. Barton were awful, my dad was under pressure and I had scored about 12 goals in the ressies by October. He had to pick me, Lochhead was the best player in the reserves. He had to take one of us. He did, he took Paul. The left back!!! Sadly dad got sacked before I could play for him. We all immediately went into the first team where we stayed. Like I said we were an awful side and we won only won one game and that got expunged because Romford went under. But like before it was a great eye opener. At 17 we were playing at places like Billericay, Chelmsford, Gravesend. We were getting slapped but the older players taught us so much. Non-league was fun and you got a little bit of money. What a way to spend your Saturdays. Dick Newman came to the club late on and really steadied the ship. He stayed for another year but left to manage Potton. For us youngsters that was hard. He looked after us and told us right from wrong, but tolerated us when we acted like kids. Which we were. Ian Allinson came in, he wanted to change things up. Fair enough but he kept picking some lad a year older than me but he wasn’t any good. Sadly you can’t tell the manager that… It was best for us both that I went!!
So reunited with Dick at Potton I had my most prolific seasons at step 6 & 5 in the next 3 years. 120+ goals, a league title, another robbed from us and numerous cups. I have said before Dick was the man I needed at that time. He could see what my strengths were and allowed me to just do what I wanted. He also stopped the red mist descending to often. I loved playing for him but we both knew I had to go after I got 65 goals in my final year. I then followed the money for a few years. Scoring that amount of goals always means people will take a punt. Sadly I was a young father by now and without the comfort blanket of Dick or my mates I drifted. I had 2 very unsuccessful spells with Hitchin as well as Arlesey, Enfield and Barton. I did finally get picked by my dad at Stotfold where I went on loan for 3 months. I hated it. I was playing with Callum for the first time. The 3 of us clashed. I hated being back down in the UCL. I was scoring again though and even Dad, Cal and myself had stopped fighting. The problem is the 3 of us want to win so badly it comes out in the wrong way. We lash out at whoever’s nearest. My dad has a ferocious temper and I learnt many years ago he is not the sort of man you want to cross. But when footballs involved it’s a free for all.
On my dad, I can safely say its been very hard growing up in his shadow. As we both play in the same position I was always compared locally to him. I play nothing like him. He’s one of the strongest men you’ll ever meet. That was his game. I like to think I had a little more flair and goals in my game. Which goes to show more about him than me. He’s never been one of those dads that will coach you, or say well done son you had a great game. In fact I don’t think he thinks I’ve ever had a good game but as most of you know he’ll always be there and he always has a pint ready after the game. I’ve always appreciated him coming, I know others aren’t so lucky.
So another spell at Hitchin where Colin Payne didn’t fancy me so last chance saloon sent me to Chris Nunn at Bigglewade Town. I’m telling you now without him the boots would have been chucked at 26 years old. Bobby Dance (technically the best I’ve played with, criminal he didn’t use his untold talent to further his game) told me to come over. Best thing I have done. Nunny saved me and once again I was allowed to enjoy it. He’d drop me for no reason, ignore the fact I wanted answers and generally annoy me but he would make you want to play for him. He’s a good guy Nunny and one I will always appreciate for everything he did for me. I did let him down in a play-off semi final by getting sent off 4 minutes after coming on but we were 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go and he asked me to get a hat trick.. you can stick you hat trick Christopher I’m going to punch the left back who has been giving it to me while I’m sat on the bench!! He got his own back a couple of years later when he dropped me for the FA Cup first round game after I got the winner the previous round. Well played Nunny hahahahahaha.
So that brought me to Hitchin. Mark Burke. The man who arguably got my best years out of me. He surrounded me with legs and young easily manipulated minds. I loved that team. Seeing the likes of Macca, Camel, Belly, Kane, Will, Lenchy, Brooksy & Muj progress so much in that short time was unbelievable. We had a solid team on the pitch but even more so off it. My role of older head, father figure, gang leader, head trouble maker, chief pusher was one I relished. We won cups and we had two play off campaigns that ultimately just failed. Mainly due to Lewis Rolfe but it’s time to let that go.
But looking back now as a man who will not play again I remember the times on the coach to Truro and Merthyr, the overnight stays, the team nights out, the end of season weekends away. They are what playing non-league football is all about. The camaraderie, the brotherhood. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some top players but more importantly some top men. I‘ve enjoyed the ride. I took every ounce of ability I had and made it work for me.
Now it’s the next chapter. The dugout. I will still get the hump but I may mellow a bit now the shin pads are tucked away.
Thanks for reading,