Brush off the memory banks - one of Kent’s footballing old boys is new England boss

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For those of you who have not dipped a toe in the mildly addictive waters of non-league football, the divide between player and fan is about as wide as the rotting fencing which stops supporters spilling onto the pitch itself.

For the player, the dream is that one day they will put in a performance before the eyes of a talent scout who will fast-track them on the road to success.

That they’ll swap the rundown dressing rooms and ability to hear the crunch of the crisps of the fans stood behind the goal for the deafening roar of a 60,000-seater stadium and a bank balance which when closely studied looks like a selection of balloons is obscuring their vision, such is the quantity of circles involved in the balance.

And for the loyal non-league football fan the dream is almost the same. They want to say they saw the next George Best work his silky skills on the mud-clogged pitches of the Kent League or Ryman Division One South. They want to say they ‘just knew’ he was destined for bigger things. They want bragging rights.

Make no mistake, the chance of either of these things happening is pretty remote.

In generations gone-by, the non-leagues were awash with fresh young talent on the road to big-time success or providing the twilight years of those who had already hit the heady-heights.

Today, things are a little different.

Scouts for the big boys start early. Talk to any junior set-up and they will tell you how youngsters as young as eight are being put on the books of the big local clubs – the Gillinghams, Charltons and Crystal Palaces of this world – only to potentially have their dreams popped by the time they are nine.

(One young eight-year-old was recently told by one of the aforementioned clubs he showed plenty of promise, but his first touch let him down so they weren’t going to accept him into their academy. His first touch. At the age of eight. Crazy.)

Yet while things may have changed, the non-leagues still do, just occasionally, provide you with a glimpse of something that months later you’ll be paying big money to watch.

Chris Smalling, for example, was the latest Maidstone United defender to pull on the gold shirts when he made a dozen first team appearances during the 2007-08 season.

Less than one year later he was playing in the Premier League for Fulham. And 12 months on from that he had made it all the way to Old Trafford and the trophy machine which is Manchester United. The England call-up came swiftly afterwards.

And for those with a slightly longer memory, the remarkable slow-burning rise of Roy Hodgson has been viewed with interest.

His playing career was hardly glittering but it touched enough local clubs for us to truly embrace the next England manager to our collective bosom and claim him as our own.

And like the first Sex Pistols gig, more people than humanly possible will claim to have been there and remember him well.

Because between 1966 and 1973 he plied his trade for a host of Kent sides. He played for Tonbridge before the word ‘Angels’ was tagged on to their name; Gravesend & Northfleet, before all words were thrown out of their name and replaced with Ebbsfleet, and Ashford when they were ‘Town’ rather than United.

It’s fair to say those who saw him tread the hallowed turf of those cathedrals of football waited a long, long time before they could boast about him/pretend they remember him.

Only when he hit the early 1990s and his managerial career took off in Switzerland did people remember who he was.

But now those non-league fans who watched him on the fields of Kent will now see him, at the tender age of 64, be crowned England manager.

And that’s a boast which almost makes all those hours stood in the rain, watching the drabbest of drab non-league goalless draws almost seen worthwhile.



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