Chris Dunlavy examines the career of evergreen striker Jamie Cureton
BAD decisions, boozy nights, ill-judged moves to the other side of the world – few would have described the young Jamie Cureton as a model pro.
Yet, 21 years since his debut for Norwich City, the evergreen striker is still plugging away at the grand old age of 40.
“What more can you say about him?” said Wayne Burnett, Cureton’s manager at Dagenham & Redbridge.
“Yes he’s 40, but he doesn’t play like it. He is a goalscorer and a wonderful finisher, a great character to have in the building.
“People want to be around him because he’s infectious. If he were ten years younger, how much money would he be worth?”
Cureton’s career is littered with these ifs and maybes, the big time perpetually eluding a man whose instincts belonged at the highest level.
“I don’t think I’ve come across a better finisher in my time in football, and I’ve played with some good strikers,” said Nicky Forster, a team-mate at Reading in the early 2000s.
“He’s a classic example of someone who might not have made much of a contribution to the game but would suddenly pop up and score two goals late on and the team would win 2-1.”
Ian Holloway, his manager at Bristol Rovers, put it more simply. “Put the ball into the 18-yard box,” he said,“and Curo comes alive.”
The stats back up the anecdotes: 79 goals in 198 games for Rovers, 55 in 127 for Reading; 31 in 56 for Colchester United, 22 in 49 for Exeter. Even now, his record of 23 in 64 matches for the Daggers belies a man entering his fifth decade.
Many of his strike partners – Jason Roberts, Bobby Zamora, Nathan Ellington – were catapulted to stardom. So, why has Cureton remained forever lashed to the lower leagues?
As Forster alluded, many had doubts as to his all-round game. He was also a 5ft 7in whippet in an era when power and physicality were prized. In general, however, Cureton has repeatedly hobbled himself.
Spotted by Norwich as a youngster, Cureton’s youth team feats (82 goals in 90 games) remain the stuff of legend at Carrow Road. Few doubted he was a star in the making. “Even at that age, he was a natural finisher,” said Darren Eadie, another member of the famous youth team that also produced Ade Akinbiyi and Andy Johnson.
“Give him good service – which we did – and he’d get you 30 a season. Even on his own, he’d get you ten or 15.”
Alerted to City’s young protege, Alex Ferguson invited Cureton to Old Trafford for a trial, then a YTS offe.
Had Cureton accepted, he’d have enrolled in the class of ‘92, alongside David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. Instead, he convinced himself that United didn’t develop youngsters and stayed in Norfolk.
“I still don’t know why I did that,” he admitted earlier his year.“Maybe the thought of joining someone else and starting again frightened me a bit.”
For a while, that snub didn’t seem to matter.
Cureton made his debut for Norwich in a goalless draw against Everton in November 1994. The following March, he scored one, made one and won man of the match as Norwich beat Ipswich 3-0 live on Sky.
But, away from the
pitch, he was annoying a succession of Canaries managers, from John Deehan and Martin O’Neill to Gary Megson and Mike Walker.
“I got in a fair bit of trouble when I was young,” he recalls.
“In the 90s, there was a drinking culture and being a young lad you wanted to be in that.
“Sometimes I’d turn up at training in the same clothes as the night before.
“I wanted to be one of the boys, so sometimes I did stuff just to impress them.”
Sold to Bristol Rovers in 1996, he would never play in the top flight again.
For the next seven years, Cureton steadily rebuilt his career, scoring with typical regularity.
Then came the next blun-
der. Frozen out by Alan Pardew at Reading, Cureton turned his back on a succession of offers to join Busan Icons in South Korea.
Homesick and alone, he was back within six months and drifted through QPR and Swindon before rediscovering the goalscoring touch at Colchester.
Still the bad luck kept coming. Offered the chance to join Hull in 2007, he opted instead for an emotional return to Norwich. Twelve months later, the Tigers were promoted to the Premier League under Phil Brown. Yet Cureton has never been bitter about the missed opportunities.
Wiser and more mature than the kid who left school with nothing and partied through the 90s, he has spent the last decade enjoying the game and passing on his experiences.
And scoring goals, of course.
“Jamie had a lot of ups and downs. He made mistakes,” said Robert Fleck, a team-mate at Norwich.“But he came to an age when he realised there weren’t many years left and he seized them. He’s become a great example to young players.”
That includes Chesterfield striker Byron Harrison, who played with Cureton at Cheltenham in the 2013-14 season.
“He was always speaking to me, always trying to improve me,” said the 28-year-old. “He has so much intelligence and I can’t speak highly enough of him. You just had to watch his runs to realise why he’s got over 250 career goals.”
Cureton, contracted until 2016, isn’t ready to go yet.
“When I’m ready, I’ll quit,” he said in 2014.“I won’t let someone retire me. I’m just happy I’ve managed to turn out a decent career – despite some stupid decisions.”
Wigan took the derby honours against Rochdale yesterday – Pages 10-11
EVERGREEN: Jamie Cureton is still keen to play on at 40 years old
THAT’S FOR STARTERS: Cureton first made his name at Norwich