Football / FA Cup Countdown: Camden locked on glory trail: A non-League nomad settles down to achieve his aim of taking on the top clubs. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
HE WAS a cult figure at both Rangers and Celtic, won a Golden Boot and helped propel one club from penury towards the Premier League. Yet before striking out for Cup glory with Beardsley, Aldridge, Rush and the rest, Chris Camden will be clocking off at a Merseyside car plant.

The short run to Crewe, where Camden leads Marine's attack on Saturday, may not be the glamorous excursion from HFS Loans League obscurity on which he had set his heart. But for the man known as 'The Buffalo' - he stands 6ft 2in and weighs 16st - a third-round victory offers the prospect of locking horns with a big club for the first time in his career.

A colourful career it has been, too. If the finishing finesse of Kim Casey, now of Wycombe Wanderers, makes him the Gary Lineker of semi-professional football, Camden is its Steve Bull; powerful and prolific. Unlike the Molineux legend, he has never stayed in one place long, and averages a club for each of his 13 years in the game.

The full list reads, appropriately for one who will shortly be changing at Crewe, like a train timetable: Poulton Victoria, Chester, Oswestry, Chorley, Tranmere, Ellesmere Port, South Liverpool, Macclesfield, Leek, Cheltenham, Stafford Rangers, Stalybridge Celtic and Marine.

Now 29, Camden has played only a dozen Football League matches. However, one provided drama he is keen to taste again in the Cup. It came near the end of the 1986-87 season, when Tranmere asked the South Liverpool part-timer to help them avoid relegation from the Fourth Division.

Coming on in Rovers' third last match, he headed them in front with his first touch against Orient. 'I thought 'This is easy', but we lost 3-1,' he recalled. 'We drew at Wrexham on the Monday, which meant we had to beat Exeter at home on the Friday night to be sure of staying in the League.

'The tension was unbelievable. It wasn't just the club's future at stake, but the players' livelihoods. I left work at 2.0 and Johnny King, who'd come back as manager, had us in at 3.30. He walked us round the ground and I remember him saying: 'Big man, can you imagine this place staging Vauxhall Conference football?' '

Before a packed Prenton Park, Camden's decoy run enabled Gary Williams to score the historic goal. 'I came off with a dent in my back, so many people patted me. They still come up to shake my hand and say: 'If it wasn't for the likes of you, we wouldn't be where we are today.' '

Camden would not be part of Rovers' rise. The next week the players assembled for a team photograph and to talk contracts with King. 'He told me he couldn't offer me anything. I was choked, but that's football.'

The experience reaffirmed the importance of the job in Vauxhall's body shop he took after leaving school. There have been tempting offers since, notably from Grimsby after 36 goals for Stafford in 1988-89 earned him the gold award as top Conference scorer, but he is glad he did not give up the day job.

The choice was made easier by the fact that he has supportive employers, who invariably allow Camden, a union shop steward, time off to play. Marine's long- serving manager, Roly Howard, reciprocates by hauling his top scorer off the training pitch for a cuppa before packing him off to the night shift.

'It's too much of a gamble to pack in a good job,' Camden explained. 'My wife, Clare, had only just had our first child when Grimsby offered pounds 80,000 for me. If it hadn't come off, and they'd released me after, say, two years, where would we be now in this recession?'

He is anything but cautious on the pitch, as might be expected of an Evertonian who cites Bob Latchford and Andy Gray as major influences. Yet his career began as a centre-back in Tranmere's 'A' team (Derek Mountfield played sweeper), and he was a midfielder when invited for trials at Chester.

After nine matches and two goals he turned down their offer, and his travels began in earnest. At Stafford - a twice-weekly, 165- mile round trip for training - he started to score consistently. Crewe will remember Camden: he netted twice in a Cup draw and Rangers led 2-0 in the replay before having a man sent off and losing 3-2.

When they hit financial trouble he was sold to Macclesfield, but did not hit it off with the manager. 'I played six games and then he had me sat in the stand for two months. I went on loan to Leek, the coldest place on earth, and had two great months there including a Cup run win at Scarborough and a draw with Chester.'

Seeking the stimulus of Conference action again, he took a chance on Cheltenham. 'Clare asked 'Where the hell's that?' and I had to admit it was an hour and a half past Stafford. But she's always given me full backing. Mind you, Bath away in midweek wasn't much fun. I got back in the house at 3am and was in work by 6.30.'

He wanted to be closer to home, so he joined Stalybridge. As Celtic swept into the Conference last season on the back of his 47 goals, their fans wore T-shirts with Camden's head embellished by two horns. This image has made him a target for opposing players and crowds. 'I'm big enough to take it,' he quipped.

By now, though, he was the father of two girls and did not fancy the travelling a national set-up entails. He wanted to see them and enjoy a pint on a Saturday night, not be slogging back from Dagenham or Yeovil.

That's where Marine, based at Crosby, came in. 'I hope this will be my last club,' he said, chuckling at the idea. 'Roly has told me he wishes he'd got me a couple of years ago and I feel the same. The atmosphere among the players and the rapport with the supporters is the best I've known.'

Camden warmed up for Crewe with Monday's winner against Chorley, his 21st goal of the season, and believes Marine may have the edge in strength and know-how over a gifted but green Third Division team. At this stage the Cup is a production line for unlikely heroes. The Vauxhall Buffalo could well be this year's model.

(Photograph omitted)

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