BY DAVID TULLY
If you’ve supported a club in the English lower leagues over the past twenty-five years, the odds are that Jamie Cureton has scored against them at some point. That’s just what Cureton does. Though he’s played in all four professional divisions during twenty-three years as a professional, it’s been in the lower tiers where Cureton has left an indelible mark. With nearly 300 hundred goals in 750 games, the Bristol-born striker has made a career out of preying upon Championship, League One and League Two defences all across the country.
It’s been a nomadic journey that Cureton’s enjoyed, at least in his later years. He’s unpacked his suitcase at seventeen different clubs in all, and despite slipping down the divisions into non-league football, he’s showing no signs of quitting despite now being the ripe old age of forty-one. While many of his former teammates have now retired, the evergreen Cureton is still pulling on his boots. These days you’ll find him at St. Albans City in the National League South. With five goals in seven games, the veteran hasn’t lost his knack for finding the back of the net.
To some football watchers, Cureton might have become the living definition of a lower-league journeyman striker, or perhaps the more devilishly titled, “gun for hire.” But it wasn’t always this way. Cureton did enjoy five prolific seasons at his hometown club, Bristol Rovers, and another three at Reading, where his goals fired them into the Championship. Looking back now, these were the best years of Cureton’s career, but only one of them was spent outside of the third tier of English football. It’s a head scratcher that such a gifted striker didn’t play at a higher level at some point during a profession littered with goals.
His career may well have taken a different path if he had accepted Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer to join Manchester United back in 1993 when still only eighteen. Cureton declined it, preferring to stay at Norwich City where he felt he had better prospects of making the first team. At the time, the Carrow Road club were in the Premier League and recent memories of slaying Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup were still vivid. But Norwich struggled in the years following and they found themselves tumbling out of the division in 1995. In spite of the precocious Cureton scoring four goals in seventeen games during their relegation season, the twenty-year-old was made available for transfer by the Canaries manager, Mike Walker.
As a Bristol Rovers season-ticket holder in the nineties, I grew up watching Jamie Cureton scoring goals for Bristol Rovers in the old English Second Division. I was directly behind the goal in October 1996 when the striker, recently joined on loan from Norwich, struck a stunning thirty-yard half-volley that dipped over the Crewe Alexandra goalkeeper and under the crossbar on its way into the net. It was a moment of impish brilliance; the type Cureton became renowned for during his soon-to-be long career. In truth, Cureton was too good for Rovers’ level. It was a surprise that they were able to sign him for just £250,000 shortly afterwards.
Cureton arrived at the Memorial Stadium at a time when Rovers, under Ian Holloway, were embarking upon some of the best attacking football the lower divisions had seen in years. Ultimately, it came at the expense of promotion. Despite a promising first season, Cureton was squeezed out of the Rovers front line. For a time, Cureton had to make do with a shift as a right winger. The Pirates preferred Barry Hayles and Peter Beadle in attack, and they proved to be a fertile partnership. It wasn’t until both left the club that Cureton was able to re-establish himself in his natural position, and he and newcomer Jason Roberts formed arguably the best front-pairing seen at Rovers since the Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister “smash and grab” partnership of the mid-seventies. Cureton was to grab 29 and 25 goals respectively in his final two seasons in BS7, topping the goalscoring charts. Cureton was to leave Rovers under a cloud, handing in a transfer request within days of the Bristol club’s failure to earn promotion during the 1999/2000 season. That his time at the Memorial Stadium was to end in acrimony is a shame for him and for us.
He raised some eyebrows by pitching up at a division rival in Reading. But the Royals had a new stadium and serious ambitions to start going places quickly. Despite the presence of Alan Pardew as manager, it took another two seasons before Cureton and Reading were to make it back to the Championship, despite a sackful of goals from the striker. Fittingly, it was a late Cureton goal at Brentford’s Griffin Park in 2002 that was to seal Reading’s return to the second tier after a six-year absence. Despite a decent start to life in the Championship, Reading’s switch to a 4-5-1 formation, with Nicky Forster leading the line, squeezed Cureton out and down the pecking order. Though Reading made it to the play-offs, they fell to Wolves, and were resigned to another year outside of the Premier League.
But they’d have to adapt to life without Cureton. It was the summer of 2003 and the striker had arrived at a crossroads in his career. He was twenty-eight years old and found himself out of contract. He wasn’t stuck for offers. Reading wanted to keep him, and a variety of their division rivals also offered him a deal. There was strong interest from America in the form of Washington’s D.C United. But Cureton surprised a lot of onlookers by turning his back on England and heading instead to South Korea courtesy of Busan IPark. It was a curious move for sure. As Cureton later explained during an interview with Jacob Steinberg of the Guardian newspaper; “I had three or four days at both clubs. Both contracts were on the table. I came home and had a think about it and had offers to stay at Reading and in England, but because of what had happened with my family I didn’t really think about it and just thought ‘let’s get away’ and chose South Korea. It was great. But I was there on my own and missing my two kids. The timing was very bad. I came home when the season ended at Christmas and told my agent I didn’t think I could handle going back and needed to get out of my contract. It was just too much. If I had settled down and maybe been in my thirties, it would have been perfect but it was bad timing.”
If you could cut Cureton’s career into two chapters, this would be the point in which his career began to take the first steps towards a downward trajectory towards a journeyman lifestyle. After arriving home from South Korea in early 2004, Cureton headed to West London with Championship-club Queens Park Rangers, and a reunion with the man who arguably launched his career – Ian Holloway. For the first time since he left Norwich as a twenty-year-old, Cureton was unable to find the back of the net on a regular basis. The move to Loftus Road didn’t work out, Cureton couldn’t reproduce his Bristol Rovers form under Holloway, and he found himself out on loan instead at League One promotion chasing outfit, Colchester United. Having helped the Layer Road club secure promotion, Cureton was to join on a permanent basis in the summer and have a renaissance season the following year as he scored 24 times to finish the season as the Championship’s golden boot winner. His form attracted the attentions of others, notably his old club, Norwich City. Cureton’s career was to come full-circle as he rejoined the Canaries, and led the line for the 2007/2008 season. It wasn’t the happiest of homecomings in truth. Though far from disastrous, Cureton was unable to find the net on quite as regular a basis as he’d enjoyed the season prior. After one season in which he managed 12 goals in 41 games, he would spend the next two seasons alternating between Norwich and loan periods at Barnsley and League Two Shrewsbury. At Gay Meadow, Cureton’s career hit a nadir as he failed to score in twelve appearances.
Norwich, by now relegated to League One, let him go in the summer of 2010 and, at the age of thirty-five, some questioned whether it might be curtains for Cureton’s career. But Cureton would surprise everybody by again staging another comeback season, this time in the form of League One’s Exeter City. It was a relationship that would bring seventeen goals during his debut season, and reaffirm his reputation as one of the lower-league’s most-feared strikers. Cureton has continued his journey across another five divisions, his destinations including Leyton Orient, Exeter (again), Cheltenham, Dagenham and Redbridge, Farnborough, Eastleigh, Farnborough (again) and now St. Albans City.
Cureton might have been born a decade too late in a footballing sense. He’s an old school striker, one that comes alive in the penalty box, blessed with an instinct to just know where the ball is going to drop. One sees Jamie Vardy and might wonder whether Cureton’s career might have taken him on a similar path if fortune had perhaps shone more brightly upon him. Though he wasn’t blessed with the lightning pace of the Leicester City man, he was arguably as good, if not better, as a finisher. Cureton had a finesse to his shooting that’s a rare commodity outside of the Premier league. When the time does finally come to call it a day, and there’s no sign of that yet even at forty-one years of age, Cureton will be remembered as one of the great goalscorers of the Football League. Whether he was scoring goals for your club or sending you heading for the exits, he has to be admired for mastering the most difficult skill of all; scoring goals.
In a way, it’s odd that such a gifted striker never made it back to the Premier League at some point during his long career. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are some prolific goal scorers at the lower levels that found the jump in class to the Premier League simply a bridge too far. Messrs Murray, Rhodes and Jerome can attest to that. But at least they had the opportunity to fail. For Cureton, his career may have turned out to be very different if, as a fourteen-year old, he had accepted Sir Alex Ferguson’s offer to become a member of the soon to be famed Class of ‘92. “It’s funny,” Cureton told the Daily Telegraph, “after a few years I was back at Bristol Rovers and Lee Martin had a testimonial. Sir Alex brought his team down, with Beckham and Scholes. He came up to me and remembered, and said: ‘You should have signed.’ I’d have been 23 at that point, so it was nine years later. “He said to Olly [Ian Holloway, the Bristol Rovers manager], because it was me and Jason Roberts playing up top, ‘You’ve got two good players there.’ I scored two and was quite pleased. It was weird, even then he knew who I was. He probably hadn’t followed my career, but he knew my name, and cracked a little joke about it. I was thinking ‘I wish I’d signed!’”
As sliding doors moments go, it’s definitely up there.
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