As What-If moments go, Jamie Cureton’s choice as a teenager to turn down Manchester United in favour of Norwich City may be as close as football gets to Dick Rowe’s infamous decision to reject The Beatles back in the early 1960s.
While the Decca Records executive got it horribly wrong when he justified his rejection with the comment “guitar groups are on the way out,” Cureton’s judgement was based partly on loyalty and also on a hunch that his career would progress more quickly at Carrow Road.
Little did he know that Sir Alex Ferguson was about to change United’s policy of buying established players, and instead give youth a chance. David Beckham, Nicky Butt, the Nevilles and Ryan Giggs were only a couple of years away from proving Alan Hansen wrong when Cureton went on trial with a view to joining them in 1993.
As a free-scoring England Under-18 striker, he was not short of suitors, but when Ferguson rang the family home in Bristol with a contract offer, the youngster surprised even himself when he said: “Thanks but no thanks”.
“When my Dad took the call from Sir Alex, I just said no. I was a United fan as well so I’m not sure why – maybe loyalty to Norwich, where I already was, or perhaps I thought I would not get the same chance to break through at United,” he says on the eve of his 20th season as a pro, mostly in the lower leagues.
“I’d been up to Old Trafford at Easter and in the summer holidays and the others were all there – David Beckham’s only a few months older than me. The one thing that group [the Class of ’92] did not have was a prolific centre-forward, which I was, so you wonder what might have been. But you can’t dwell on it too much. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career and I still love it.”
Now Giggs and Kevin Phillips have retired, Cureton, at nearly 39, will be the oldest outfield player in all four divisions when he makes his debut for League Two’s Dagenham & Redbridge, his 14th club, today.
“I’d have preferred to have played for only half that number, but I made a few bad decisions. I was a bit cocky when I was younger and didn’t always live like a model pro,” he laughed. “When you’re young all you think about after a match is ‘which nightclub are we going to?’ and you don’t worry about what you eat or drink. Managers know what goes on and next thing you know you are out the door.”
His approach to football, and life in general, could not be more different now. “Everything changed in my early 30s – my attitude and the way I trained and looked after myself. Now I watch what I eat, don’t drink too much, hardly ever go out – the complete opposite of when I was younger. You think you can get away with it forever, but you can’t.” At Dagenham he is the elder statesman by some way. “One of the lads was not even born when I made my debut,” Cureton added.
Norwich were relegated from the Premier League in 1995 and he never returned to that level. “I thought we’d go straight back up and I would be all right because I was scoring for fun, but it didn’t work out.”
A succession of clubs followed, including one in South Korea, (“another big mistake”) but he retains his enthusiasm.
“We’ve got a good group of lads at Dagenham and our aim is to get out of League Two, although we are realistic. Our first target is to avoid relegation. We don’t have much money so ninth last season was a terrific achievement.”