FA Cup Third Round Dagenham vs Everton: Evergreen Jamie Cureton rues not joining 'Class of '92'

Dagenham’s veteran striker returns to the spotlight today and tells Jack Pitt-Brooke he has one major regret... 

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The Independent Football

It was a different era, and a different Everton, when  Jamie Cureton made his Premier League debut for Norwich City. That was in November 1994 and the scrawny 19-year-old striker, fresh from the Norwich youth system, tried to find a way past Dave Watson and Neville Southall. He could not, and the game finished 0-0.

Here in 2016 Watson and Southall are long retired but Cureton is still playing, now for Dagenham & Redbridge, and will be facing the modern Everton at Goodison Park today. He has had a remarkable career, scoring 289 goals across all four divisions – 11 more would bring him to 300 and trigger a clause for another season’s contract at Victoria Road, taking him beyond his 41st birthday and towards his 42nd.

Not many play professionally for that long and it is a testament to Cureton’s approach, drive and enthusiasm that he has. But while his career must be celebrated, Cureton could be forgiven a sense of regret that his only spell in the top flight ended with relegation in May 1995, when John Stones, who he will face this weekend, was celebrating his first birthday. 

“I always thought I was going to be in it,” Cureton reflects now. “I didn’t get shirts, any memorabilia. You think, ‘I’m a Premier League player, I’m going to be a  Premier League player for 10 years.’ Then you get relegated and never get back. You look back and wish you had done something different, but I took it all for granted.”

Cureton has scored stacks of goals for Bristol Rovers, Reading, Colchester United and Exeter City and more, but it is hard to avoid the story of the road not taken in his career. When the forward was 14 – in 1989 – and training with Norwich, he was offered a trial at Manchester United. He impressed, playing alongside Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and the rest, and the group was taken out to dinner by Alex Ferguson. Cureton was offered an apprenticeship and professional forms, but he said no.

“I don’t know where that [decision] came from,” Cureton looks back . “Maybe I was nervous, I’m a Man United fan. I’d been at Norwich for six months and felt settled, maybe I decided that.” Ferguson even called Cureton’s father to find out what had happened.

“Dad wasn’t forceful, said it was down to me and didn’t guide me in any way,” Cureton says. “Sir Alex wasn’t angry, he said fair enough and respected my decision.”

Of course, no one knows what would have happened had Cureton moved to Old Trafford, to join that famous generation. “Life could have been different one way or the other,” Cureton says. “I might not have been as good as them, and not made it. Or I might have been carried along with them, and had the career that they had.”

Ten years later United had just won the Treble. Cureton was scoring prolifically for Ian Holloway’s Bristol Rovers in the Second Division. United came to the Memorial Stadium for Lee Martin’s testimonial, just two months after winning the Champions League. Beckham and Scholes both played, and Cureton, 23, scored twice in a 2-2 draw.

“Sir Alex came up to me and remembered who I was,” Cureton says. “He said ‘you should have signed,’ I was thinking ‘I wish I had!’”

From Rovers, Cureton joined Reading, where he enjoyed the best spell of his career, scoring the goals that took Alan Pardew’s side up into the second tier. But he fell out of the team and turned down an offer to stay, opting to play in South Korea instead. Pardew left, Steve Coppell came in and Reading were promoted to the Premier League.

“I was always quite hasty, I’m not just one that’s happy to sit around and not play,” Cureton says. “I suppose that’s why I’ve got so many games under my belt. Some things I’ve done, moves I’ve made, maybe I wish I’d have sat tight. Things might have panned out completely  differently.”

Back in England, Cureton scored goals again at Colchester and in 2007 he had an offer from Phil Brown’s Hull City. He rejoined Norwich instead. Hull were promoted to the Premier League. “That’s my luck.”

All of this experience makes Cureton a fascinating talker with brilliant factual recall. His experience should be a gold-mine to Dagenham’s youngsters but they do not always explore it.

“They don’t always ask, it is strange,” he says. “It comes up now and again, but in general, they just want to sit there and be left alone.”

Youngsters are different nowadays. Cureton is still in charge of the music, finding house mixes online to the tastes of the next generation. But the attitude has changed. “There is a different mentality now. When I was young,  you had to earn a first-team spot. You weren’t even allowed into the changing rooms.”

Cureton is respected at most of the grounds he plays at. But at Carlisle last April one opponent took exception when Cureton tried to break up a ruckus.

“Someone shouted at me ‘shouldn’t you be retired?’ I asked him how old he was, he said 19. ‘I was playing in the Premier League at  19. Maybe you should think about that.’”