Jamie Cureton thought that his time had gone. The only player to have scored in every division from the Premier League down to the ninth tier had been out for more than 10 months with the first knee injury of a career that began with a top-flight debut in the same month that Pulp Fiction was released.
More than 1,000 games and approaching 400 goals later, the desire to continue was undimmed. But when the 46-year-old tore his right meniscus and the recovery from surgery in early summer took longer than expected he began to question if it was time to move into management permanently.
The decision to keep playing, even at a grade as low as the Essex Senior League, had already come at a sacrifice. In 2019 he left a coaching role in Arsenal’s academy because it was clashing with training sessions at Bishop’s Stortford, where he was player-manager.
What gnawed at him most while restricted to the latter half of that role he now has at Enfield was not the decision to leave one of the world’s biggest clubs to focus on non-League. It was that he would not be bowing out on his own terms.
His final game had been a defeat in which he did not score but as autumn arrived the strength in his knee improved after hour upon hour of studious gym work and on Tuesday, to no surprise of anybody who has watched him closely over the past 27 years, Cureton found himself scoring twice in 45 minutes for Enfield in a 3-0 win away to Hoddesdon Town in the Herts Senior Cup.
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“I didn’t think I was going to play again,” he says. “It was a relief, I was really pleased and if I stopped today I’d be a happy man. My last game we lost and I didn’t score, so if it happened now and I didn’t play again I’d be happier scoring two. That will feel on my terms. Covid and the knee operation isn’t how I wanted to end it all.”
He has pulled up OK from his return. There was inevitable stiffness from muscles that had not been engaged for the best part of a year but the knee felt strong and he could turn and twist as before.
That bodes well for the remainder of the campaign but he is realistic in terms of the extent he will feature, even though as manager he could easily make himself the first name on the team-sheet.
“It’s not like it used to be when it was ‘If I’m fit I’ll start games,’” he says. “I’ve got two good strikers here in Dwade James and Olly Miles. They’re both doing well and scoring goals, so I can flit in and out. If we need to rest them I can bring them off or if we’re losing and need a change I can come on. If they need a break I can start.
“But we’ve spoken about it and if I’m the best option, I’ll start myself. It’s more looking at what is the best option for each game and if players are in or out of form. It’s more sporadic than normal. If I go on a run and I’m fit, so be it.”
Above all, though, this is about a love for the game. If Cureton stopped enjoying it he would quit and few players to have scored a competitive goal at Old Trafford could say they get as much enjoyment from the prospect of turning out against St Margaretsbury, today’s opponents at Woodside Park.
He also looks at Cristiano Ronaldo, poster boy of the veterans, as inspiration and evidence that with the right care the ageing process can be slowed. Nevermind the fact Cureton was nine years and more than 100 goals into his professional career by the time Ronaldo arrived at Manchester United for the first time.
“It’s down to what your body allows you to do,” he says. “I’m sure loads of people I’ve played with would love to continue but their body wouldn’t allow them to do it. Luckily for me my body has held up, I’m still able to do stuff that contributes to a game. If you look at the top level, look at Ronaldo. He’s proof of how if you look after yourself, have the mentality and drive, you can keep scoring goals at the top level.
“Some players get to the point where their mind has enough and the body is fine. You have to have both. Your body has to work and you still have to love playing. Which is what I do have. People think I’m crazy but I still thoroughly enjoy it.
“Ronaldo sets an example for everyone that if you do everything to keep your body right you can do it. I think more players are going to do it now, into their late 30s and 40s at a top level. It’s harder when you drop down because you’re not doing it for the Champions League or Premier League, it’s about purely loving football. But I’m allowed to play thanks to my body, so why wouldn’t I keep going?”
With that framing, the decision to leave Arsenal was more straightforward than many would have imagined. Cureton had been at Hale End for a little more than two years and he learnt a lot about development.
It also made him realise that he got more return from managing rather than coaching, dealing with recruitment and being defined by three points on a Saturday, than the longshot long-game of preparing young players for slim hopes of a professional contract.
“It was unfortunate because I really enjoyed my time there,” he says. “I learnt a lot about coaching and being at a top club. That was a decent two and a bit years of learning but it was either quit football and go into academy coaching or stay with playing and managing in non-League. I wanted to continue playing and I was enjoying managing.”
Balancing his desire to play with what is best for the team seems to come with ease, too. It all boils down to whether he is the best fit for a particular game. The question is a simple one when ego can be parked to one side.
Cureton says more than once during our conversation that he feels he could sign off now and be content because it was on his terms. Yet there is also an eye on the next goal, the next milestone. In April 2019 he joined an exalted group of about 30 players to have played 1,000 senior games.
It is a list that includes Xavi, Roberto Carlos, Frank Lampard and a small striker from Bristol. Since then Cureton has played fifty to sixty more games and the goal tally is (he thinks) at 388. “I’ve always said I’d like to get to 400,” he says. “I’m sure I’ll get to nearly 1,100 games as well. Although a lot of the stuff online is out of date.”
Once the joints, muscles and tendons remain forgiving will we be doing this interview again in the summer of 2025 just before his 50th birthday? “I’m not sure,” he says. “But I’m not ruling it out. I always take it year by year. Maybe having this time out will give it back to me. If I play here and there, keep fit. It’s about the level – if we go up with Enfield it might be too hard for me to play. I’d then probably call it a day but for as long as I can do a job I’ll keep going.
“We’ll see next season if I still go. If I get to 48, I’ll think it’s another two years. I like to push myself and set new targets. I’m more than happy that at 46 I’ve managed to play a couple of games and score some goals. At my age.”