A Boxing Day afternoon at Hayes Athletic, and Ken Charlery is still on the hunt for goals. The game is over, but the statistics matter. Charlery has averaged just under a goal every three games during his 12-year meander through the leagues, and the scoring instinct has not lessened just because he is plying his trade at the age of 37 with Dagenham and Redbridge in the Nationwide Conference. Besides, Ipswich Town are the visitors in the third round of the FA Cup on Saturday and Charlery has some unfinished business with the oldest and most treasured of Cup competitions. He wants a place in the starting line-up.
So does his striking partner for the afternoon, Junior McDougald. Not for the first time in a match which Dagenham had effectively ended with three first-half goals, a long ball has found McDougald one on one against the last Hayes defender. Charlery, sensing something, has produced a surprising burst of speed from his own half to give McDougald an easy option to his left. Charlery waits patiently for the pass which would surely bring his second goal of the day. He waits and he waits; McDougald tries to round the defender and the chance is lost. Charlery stands hands on hips, McDougald tries not to notice.
"Junior's got two goals and he's been out for a while," Charlery says a couple of days later. "It's a matter of grabbing your chance and keeping the shirt. I understood that, but it didn't stop me from having a bit of a go because he didn't score, did he?" This is the stance of the old pro, the survivor, a man who knows what has to be done to stay in the team and get your signature on a contract.
Charlery has been one of the game's more popular hobos. His cv reads like a rail timetable, with more consistent timing: Maidstone United, Peterborough, Watford, Peterborough, Birmingham, Peterborough, Stockport County, Barnet, Boston United. When he was on the verge of leaving Boston earlier in the season, an unexpected phone number appeared on Charlery's mobile phone.
"I wanted to know who'd called, so I rang the number back. Guess who? Barry Fry. I said, 'No, Baz, you don't want me back a fourth time, surely?' " And guess where a 24-year-old fresh from Fisher Athletic made his League debut for newly promoted Maidstone United?
Being a folk hero at the Posh was not quite the ambition with which a starry-eyed Charlery began his League career, but it will do for him now that his travelling days are all but done. "I can remember my first game for Peterborough," he says. "They were flying at the time and there were 8,000 in the ground and I'm sitting on the bench, thinking I've actually arrived in League football, worrying about whether I could handle it. I came on early in the game, playing on the right wing, and George Berry – you remember, played for Wolves, big haircut – was playing full-back behind me. Someone must have wound him up, because he kept calling me Leroy. At half-time he said, 'Why does that fella never pass to me?', and Chris Turner, the manager, said, 'Cos his bloody name's Ken'. We still laugh about it."
No one who has scored the winner in a play-off at Wembley – a goal compared favourably in some quarters of the town to Geoff Hurst's third for England in the 1966 World Cup final – would ever be turned away from the gates of the Posh. The goal remains Charlery's single best footballing memory. "Every footballer has a dream and I was no different," he adds. "You have visions of playing in front of 30,000 people every week, but I had a dream to be a professional and I got that, not at the highest level, but at a good level, and I've scored two goals in front of 38,000 people at Wembley with all my friends and family there. Not many can match that." Nor claim a first international cap at the age of 34, for St Lucia against Bury. Among his trophies are the team shirt, official tie and T-shirt he wore for his World Cup qualifying debut, away to Surinam, which St Lucia – the land of his parents – lost on penalties.
He has no logical explanation for his club-hopping. If there is a troublemaker in his character, the defect remains well hidden. "It's just the crazy way of football," he says. Charlery was a decent lower-division No 9, strong, mobile, never the quickest, but a trier, good enough to attract the interest of Ossie Ardiles, the manager of Newcastle, not quite good enough for anyone to take the chance. But because his references were as sound as his physique, he never went short of work.
"I like to think I could walk back into any of the clubs I've been at, knowing I'd be welcome," he says. "Take my last move away from Peterborough. Stockport came in for me for £100,000, Peterborough were second from bottom, Stockport were second from top. It didn't take much working out. The club needed the money and it was good for me."
For half a season, he put in a lorry-driver's shift, commuting daily between Peterborough and Stockport County. But, as a career total of four promotions and one relegation proves, his knack of being in the right place at the right time extends beyond the penalty area.
Yet, for all his miles, Charlery has never experienced the particular thrill of the Cup upset, though he once scored six goals in six games as Peterborough reached the fourth round in 1996-97. "It's not my favourite tournament," he says. "But maybe this will be my year. I've already scored three and scored my first- ever goal on live television [against Exeter City in the second round]. Ipswich have picked up a couple of good wins in the League, so their confidence will be high. But it's the old story, isn't it? Nothing's expected of us. Hopefully, we won't disgrace ourselves."
Few would deny such a gallant old warrior one more campaign medal. If Dagenham are promoted to the League, they might try to coax another season out of those tired legs. But Charlery's mind is turning to the future. He has already gained his Uefa B coaching licence.
"I've never been one to offer my opinions too strongly. People think, 'Oh, Ken, he doesn't say much'. But I'm listening and I've been listening for a long time. It's the same on the pitch. People sometimes get upset with me because I always play with a smile on my face. It's just the way I am.
"I'm trying to help some of the young lads at Dagenham, just talking to them on the pitch, teaching them some common sense, when to take a touch, when to get flash. I want to pass on what I've learnt." They need a hero down Peterborough way, come to think of it.Reuse content