The Beauty Of The Journeyman Footballer

From Gainsborough to Gosport Trinity, these salty-old pros who maybe once had a shot at the big time keep trundling on, in search of form, dressing room banter, and because they know of nothing else...
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From Gainsborough to Gosport Trinity, these salty-old pros who maybe once had a shot at the big time keep trundling on, in search of form, dressing room banter, and because they know of nothing else...

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It is easy to understand why many in the game fetishise and hero-worship the one-club man. In many of our minds he typifies what football should be about.

When a player plays for one club for the entirety of his career many in the game view this as a more worthwhile career or a more virtuous career than those who chop and change clubs.

When that player is a local boy things are even better. The likes of Gerrard, Scholes and Terry are viewed as a throwback to days when things were better, when teams were truly representative of the fans in the stand and when clubs were an extension of the areas that supported them.

Admittedly there is much to be said for the loyalty of such individuals. It is natural that fans will warm to players who dedicate their careers to their club. I would contend there is more to be said for one-club men who stick with clubs slightly lower down the pecking order. It was easy - for instance - for Gary Neville to stay at Manchester United. Why would a Manchester United fan leave Manchester United (unless pushed) when they are going through their most successful period in history (all the while earning a fortune)? Some may argue that Matt Le Tissier had a fundamental lack of ambition or sheer sloth and those are the reasons he stayed at Southampton whilst bigger clubs sniffed around him. I think there is something admirable in Le Tissier staying at a club like Southampton when he could have earned more, and won more, elsewhere.

All that said, I think we often overlook a group of men just as worthy of our admiration and respect: the journeyman. Those men who are forever on the highways and by-ways of England, forever starting out at a lower league club, forever pulling on a new strip (slightly tighter than the last). Men who were once bright-eyed players wheeling away in celebration but, as time goes on, the look of grim determination and old pro guile becomes the defining feature replacing the vim and brio of youth.It is easy to imagine a journeyman suffering with aches and pains, physically making noise as he pulls on his boots, hauling his wearying body onto frosted pitches in the icy air of the provinces and shires of England. Journeymen tend not to reside in the footballing metropolises after all. One imagines him increasingly bitter and jaded and an inability to understand the youngsters he's playing alongside. The bitterness, that jaded quality, may be the reason why as time goes on they stay at clubs for shorter and shorter spells.

Why do these men persist in playing?

There is something poetic about those names: Gainsborough Trinity, Stocksbridge Park Steels and Bedlington Terriers.

Is it because - despite the rumours of vast wealth in the game - they need to pay the mortgage?  Trevor Benjamin, a man who rejects the definition of journeyman but who has played 27 clubs, once said ''This is a profession, a job and all footballers seek work. You hope you do a good job and that you earn money''. Of course, Benjamin is still only 32 (and said that aged 30) so perhaps that is a different answer to asking the player who keeps going until he is 40.

Is it because they just love playing football and will do anything to continue? Possibly. It might be that they are hoping beyond hope that they'll find their feet and form, scoring goals again like they did in the past and they too - like so many of us five-a-side dreamers - can touch their youth again. Or, less romantically, they just like kicking a ball around a pitch. Maybe the hoariest of ex-pro clichés ''the thing you miss most is the dressing room banter'' is enough to keep them going.

Or is there something more existential: they continue to play because they do not know what else to do? Those players who end up playing in front of three men and his dog, earning a pittance and playing at what must be a frustratingly low standard may be doing it because if they didn't they wouldn't have anything else. It is likely that the game is all they have ever known.

There are some similarities of all the great journeymen. There is usually a career high when they sparkle, briefly, in the Premier League. Trevor Benjamin had his day at Leicester City and alongside Terry and Defoe in the England U21s. Steve Claridge - the archetypal journeyman - also reached his heighest league finishes with Leicester. Neil Redfearn played in the bottom half of the Premier League for a number of years. Even the great but ultimately deranged John Burridge enjoyed time at Aston Villa in the 1970s (NB: The man slept with his ball for goodness' sake).

A true journeyman tumbles down the divisions from a career high.This tumbling turns into a rapid decline and, usually, the new clubs become more frequent and the number of games played each time dwindles. Perhaps, we should call this the Claridge Ratio?

Players like Claridge, Redfearn and Benjamin inhabit that great rump of England that HS2 speeds will one day rush through, rather than rush to, and in the sort of towns one only hears of when either cupsets or tragedies occur. But it isn't just those clubs in the lower leagues. As a journeyman winds through his thirties and - occasionally - forties they will take up arms for increasingly bizarre teams. Some will consider the Irish league, the lower Scottish leagues or obscure clubs overseas but most spend years dropping down the divisions until the difference is no longer between professional and amateur but rather amateur and talented pub player.

Benjamin spent time at Gainsborough Trinity, Northwich Victoria, Hendesford Town, Kidsgrove Athletic, Bedlington Terriers, Wroxham and Morpeth Town.

Claridge, after scrabbling around Division 1 and 2, trotted out Worthing, Harrow Borough, Weymouth and now - aged 45 - Gosport Borough.

Redfearn enjoyed spells at Bradford Park Avenue, Stocksbridge Park Steels, Frickley Athletic, Bridlingtown Town, Emley and Salford City.

There is something poetic about those names: Gainsborough Trinity, Stocksbridge Park Steels and Bedlington Terriers. That really is England. That really is football. Those teams and leagues are made up of the talented boys at school who weren't quite good enough to play in the big leagues who keep playing away at the base of the pyramid to ensure the whole thing stands strong. They are the men that keep the whole thing going.

This article by Rob Marras first appeared on Left Back in the Changing Room, one of the Guardian's top 100 football blogs

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