BY RICHARD CAWLEY
James Comley is back on the South London beat, 12 years after his professional career at Crystal Palace ended. But Dulwich Hamlet’s new signing does not look back with any regrets.
The 31-year-old has just started a clothing brand with his younger brother Brandon, who is signed with Walsall, and combines that with sports coaching courses which he started soon after his release by the Eagles in 2010.
Comley is also keen to start a new project offering mentoring and training sessions for players aged between 16 and 19 who have been let go by clubs, to help them be fit and ready for trials. He had to put those plans on ice over the summer due to being away on international duty with Montserrat.
The Holloway-born midfielder made six appearances for Palace under Neil Warnock. Circumstances out of his control then forced him to wait 18 months before joining Canvey Island in January 2012.
“It was a very weird time and a very dark time,” Comley told the South London Press. “I got released, which was quite a surprise – I’d been quite heavily involved in the squad and I thought I was pushing to get to that next stage.
“Neil Warnock left [for QPR], we had an interim manager and the club was in administration – there was so much of the unknown around Crystal Palace at that time. Going into the off season, no one knew if the club was going to exist any more.
“I’m someone who is quite optimistic and I thought ‘maybe it’s a good chance to go and play in League One or League Two, express myself and work my way back up’. In the last reserve game of the season I tore my hamstring. I got about 10 days of physiotherapy at Crystal Palace and then the season finished. The club shut down, the gates were completely locked.
“I couldn’t get any more treatment on my injury, whereas in a normal season I would still have been there doing by rehab.
“I did my own rehab and then five or six weeks later I tried to pick things up doing little football movements again and I ripped my hamstring again. The short story on that one was that I ripped it about three times in the space of three or four months, so I couldn’t trial anywhere. And even when I got to the stage I could do some bits, I felt a mere shadow of what I was before. The hamstring just wasn’t right.”
Charlton Athletic’s Jonathan Fortune (r) and Crystal Palace’s James Comley battle for the ball
Comley went to Lilleshall once a week every month for a sustained period to sort the issue.
He resumed pre-season training at Hayes & Yeading but still did not feel back to his peak.
“I’d missed a year of football,” said Comley. “I’d lost a yard of pace and I’d never really had pace – but still to lose that yard meant I didn’t feel I could play at that level.
“When I did go on trial people said: ‘You’re not putting in the effort’. They were used to how I had been. I was super-fit previously and that was me coming off the back of not training properly for a long time.
“I didn’t enjoy it at the time and around 2012 I said: ‘I’m done with football’. I was going to step away from the game and focus on the coaching.
“Bradley Woods-Garness, a friend of mine, joined Canvey and he told me I was coming with him. – that he’d get me a little bit of money and back enjoying my football.”
It worked. Comley finished that season at St Albans City before another setback, while on trial at Kettering in 2012.
“I got told they were going back to being full-time and they weren’t – it was a complete shambles,” he said. “If I was in London I would have driven home after I found out what the set-up was there.
“Because I was in Birmingham I thought I might as well play now. I broke my metatarsal in that trial, so yet again we’re back into the whole injured and rehab side of things.”
Comley returned to St Albans and made 146 appearances, scoring 15 goals, as they won promotion to the Conference South.
A loan with Maidenhead United in February 2016 turned into a permanent arrangement the following summer.
“It was like a breath of fresh air,” said Comley, who played 196 times for the Magpies. “We just missed out on the play-offs when I first went there and then the second season we won the Conference South.
“The time in the National League was awesome. We finished in the top half of the table and we avoided relegation – being a part-time team in that division now is tough.”
Dulwich boss Gavin Rose and assistant Junior Kadi have tried to sign Comley before but his desire to stay full-time had prevented it happening.
Last season he started off at Walton Casuals but a month later was at Boreham Wood. He made 14 starts in the National League as well as coming on in the closing stages of their FA Cup fifth round defeat at Everton.
Comley does not spend much time envisioning what could have been if his Palace exit had come under different circumstances.
“It’s a shame but it’s just life,” he said. “There are so many stories where hindsight is a wonderful thing for so many people. It’s just how it plays out and you’ve got to crack on. There is no point looking back and thinking ‘I was playing alongside this person and that person’.
“It’s not an issue. You’ve got to use any experience you have to push you forward.”
The next challenge is at Champion Hill.
“Kads spoke to me in the off season and I said that the time was right – I appreciate that we have stayed in contact and you guys have always shown an interest,” explained Comley.
“I told them I’d like to come and play, even if it is South London…me being a north London boy. It’s quite nice going back to the south side to play again.”