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How Simon Downer found his feet on football's fringes

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Chris Bevan | 09:43 UK time, Friday, 2 December 2011

Seven years ago, Simon Downer threw his football boots into the sea and vowed never to play the game he loved again.

You could hardly blame him either. Crippled by persistent injuries, his dreams of a top-flight career with Newcastle United had long since disappeared. He was also without a club and outside the professional ranks for the first time after being released by Leyton Orient.

His first attempt at a non-league comeback ended in agony when he broke down doing sprints in the unglamorous surroundings of a Canvey Island beach. After disposing of his boots into the Thames Estuary, Downer, a speedy centre-back, was in so much pain he could not even get in his car to drive home.

Thankfully, life is a lot happier these days.

At 30, the proud father of nine-month-old daughter Cydney is planning a career behind the wheel of a black cab, and he is back in football too. In fact, you can see him in action yourselves on Sunday when he lines up for Sutton United in their televised FA Cup tie with Notts County.

Sutton United defender Simon Downer.

Downer joined Sutton United in the summer of 2010. Photo: www.paulloughlin.co.uk

How he got there is a tale of cruel luck, rude awakenings, desperation and determination. It must be tough to adapt to life outside the full-time game, especially when you have been tipped for the very top but, crucially, Downer stopped feeling sorry for himself a long time ago and decided he needed to grow up instead.

Some of his darkest days came a decade ago when he was still at Orient and dealing with a knee injury that ended up keeping him out for 18 months. The 2000-01 season had seen him enjoy a successful trial with the Magpies and play at the Millennium Stadium with the O's in the League Two play-off final, but he spent the whole of the following campaign on the treatment table.

"I had an amazing time at Newcastle," Downer recalls. "Sir Bobby Robson looked after me and all the players made me feel welcome. Nobby Solano gave me a couple of lifts and said that when I signed we would go for nights out together.

"Sir Bobby said I didn't look out of place but he was concerned about my height because for a centre-half I am quite small at 5ft 11in.

"At the end of the week, he said he wanted to bring me back as a right-back and play a few reserve games and I went home thinking 'that's it, I'm going to go back up there and sign for them'.

"That was in March and, with Orient pushing for the play-offs, it was agreed I would go back at the start of the next season. But by then I needed an operation on my knee."

It was then his problems began. At first Downer was only meant to be out for three months, but he needed more and more surgery and in fact it was almost two years by the time he returned to action. That time took its toll.

"I just got so sick of sitting in the treatment room on my own," Downer says. "I got really down.

"At one stage I didn't go in for treatment for about a month. The Orient physio phoned me up at first and asked me what I was doing and I said I'd had enough - I was lucky because he told me to stay at home and that he would tell people he'd given me the time off.

"I didn't cope with that period very well. I am the type of person that keeps things to myself if something is bothering me and it all just bottled up and kind of exploded.

"I had a big fight with one of my best friends and took it out on my family too but, day to day, I would not let anyone know how frustrated I was watching my team-mates play away at places like Everton and Portsmouth in the FA Cup and seeing my friends from the youth team come through and do well for the first team.

"I wouldn't let them know I was envious."

Initially, things did not get any better for him at Brisbane Road, or anywhere else for that matter. Full fitness eluded him even when his knee had recovered, and a niggling hamstring problem was followed by a catastrophic medial ligament injury as he moved on from Orient to Canvey Island and then Hornchurch by the end of 2004.

"I'd definitely had enough of football then," he adds. "I went back to sitting around doing nothing and back to living with my mum as well, which was a reality check.

"That really was rock bottom because around that time my nan passed away and it was harder for me because I was executor to her will. My head was all over the place and my knee was killing me.

"I realised I just wanted to be back playing football and doing something, not just waste around all day. It was such a low, low time."

Simon Downer played for Orient at the Millennium Stadium in the 2001 League Two play-off final

Downer played for Orient at the Millennium Stadium in the 2001 League Two play-off final. Photo: Getty

After almost a year out of the game, a disastrous first day on a building site where he was let loose with a pneumatic drill that he had no idea how to use was the unlikely catalyst for Downer to relaunch his playing career.

"I didn't even know how to turn the drill on and I ended up making a right mess," he explains with a laugh.

"I just thought I can't be doing this, I have to get myself back and playing football. It was the only thing I knew, the only thing I loved and the only way I could earn money."

Learning how to nurse his injuries led to decent spells as a full-time footballer with Weymouth, Grays and Rushden in the Blue Square Bet Premier, but with them came more evidence of how fragile a football career can be - all three clubs had severe financial problems which meant Downer often wasn't paid on time, if at all.

Those experiences led him to turn part-time in the summer of 2010 and join Sutton.

"I was tired of being at the mercy of chairmen who might not be running the club properly," he explains. "I didn't get paid for three months at Rushden before they went bust. We were not on Premier League wages and I needed the money to live on.

"Around that time in 2010 I found out my girlfriend and I were expecting our little girl and I wanted to rely on myself. I thought I'd go part-time and learn how to do something else.

"It made sense because I am not sick of football, just of the people who mess you around.

"At the moment I am just starting to do the Knowledge [the test of route knowledge required to become a licensed London taxi cab driver]. My girlfriend wanted me to try to become a teacher but I said, no, I'd be happier just me and my cab going round and working.

"I'm quite happy with my own company as well. With the amount of times I've been sat in treatment rooms on my own, I've got to be haven't I?"

The football side of things is going pretty well too. Sutton won promotion in Downer's first season at the Borough Sports Ground and are currently riding high in the Blue Square South.

Downer's happiest times came in the youth team at Orient where he played alongside Hull striker Aaron McLean - now his daughter's godfather - and West Brom's former England full-back Nicky Shorey. Several other old team-mates from those days attended his surprise 30th birthday party in October.

He is hoping to be celebrating at the weekend too, as Sutton eye a repeat of their famous victory over Coventry City in 1989.

"Sutton is buzzing about the Cup," he says. "Everyone is excited and that's great. It's good for the club and I am quite proud to be a part of it. We are quietly confident too."

The draw for the third round takes place before their tie kicks off, so who would he fancy if his side can see off the Magpies - an emotional return to St James' Park perhaps? No, says Downer, but he does want to revisit part of his past.

"It has to be Orient away because I haven't had the chance to go back yet and I know so many people there," he says.

"I went to watch my first game of football at Brisbane Road, and they have always been my club."

Follow me on Twitter throughout the season at www.twitter.com/chrisbevanbbc

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "It made sense because I am not sick of football, just of the people who mess you around."

    i think a lot of players from the lower leagues will relate to this. the public sometimes forget and think all 'footballers' are paid and looked after like premier league players.

  • Comment number 2.

    A really heartbreaking story. I wish him all the best.

    It is great to see him rebuilding his career, but it does show you the frailty of a footballing career. Too many kids these days just want to become a highly paid athlete and are not worried about what might happen if they don't make it, hopefully they take heed to Simon Downer's story.

  • Comment number 3.

    As an Orient fan I remember Simon Downer well. The 2001 Playoff season will always be remembered fondly and Simon Downer had a big part to play in that. Whether or not he would have made it in the Premier League is debatable, unfortunately though the chance for us to see if he lived up to the hype down at the Orient was taken away. I would love Orient to get Sutton in the third round (and then Man Utd away in the 4th) and Downer to get his wish. I wish him well with his future career as a cabbie!

  • Comment number 4.

    What a hero he is. It was watching him as a youngster reminding me of seeing Tommy Taylor at a similar stage in his career a few decades earlier that reignited my interest in spectating at Orient.

    I wonder if he might work with PFA and with those who are on the cusp of getting full time contracts as trainees. They really need a second string or a plan B.

    Well done Simon, a third rounder at Leyton Stadium would be a real joy, but O's have to overcome Gillingham first. After the tussle with Droylsden last year that is no certainty. I think they were knocked out by non league opposition the season before the run that took them to Pompey and Everton.

    As a probation officer I once worked with a trainee of a big club who got an injury, an addiction to gambling and ended up with a 12 year prison sentence, but on parole he coached kids in the local park - another hero, but that man hurt a lot of people on the way. I hope Simon D's cabbing goes well, he is a VERY classy player.

  • Comment number 5.

    Haven't seen Downer play since leaving Orient, but he was a touch of class. I presented him with a Player of the Season award in the summer of 2000, after he won a readers' poll in my fanzine, CheeryO's. Admittedly Orient were awful at that time, but he was a bright spot in a bad period. Great to see that he was able to continue playing and I'm sure he will get a fantastic reception if he returns to Brisbane Road.

    By the way, the 2001 play-off final was in Cardiff, not at Wembley.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is one of the things I like about the American sporting network: the vast majority of players come through university before signing on as professional athletes, having played for their university teams on playing scholarships and been talent-spotted by the big guys. If football could implement a system like that then every player would have qualifications and whatnot, which provides an instant backup plan that dropping out at 16 simply does not.

    Whatever the failings of the system, this is a tragic story but one that may yet have a happy ending. Best of luck to Mr. Downer, and let's hope he doesn't live up to his name.

  • Comment number 7.

    Mr. Downer was a must have signing on championship manager 00/01! I built many a great team with him at the heart of my defense. Really good article, there's so much, some of which we can't necessarily control, that can get in the way of our potential.

  • Comment number 8.

    Great story, Chris, Thanks!
    Hope to see you back on Footie Live Text soon.

    #6: Playing a sport at an American University and graduating with a worthwhile degree (if any degree at all) are not synonymous. And, no, the vast majority of players DON'T come through university before signing on as pro athletes. A high proportion of those who embark on a college career in any sport don't "graduate"; and the number who progress straight from High School or semi-pro to the "Show" increases annually, NFL football being the major exception.

  • Comment number 9.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 10.

    I was a director of a lower division club, and can confirm that very few players earn very much. Obviously they are doing something they love, but it is a precarious living. Clubs encourage players to get educated and prepare for a life outside football, but it often goes in one ear and out of the other.

    There are many more players like Simon Downer than there are Premier League prima donnas.

  • Comment number 11.

    Simon was always one of our favourite players at Orient. He missed out on the youth team winning a FL youth trophy under Martin Ling, with the final played at the Cardiff Millenium stadium - Simon was needed for first team duty that day.
    When he was at Aldershot we travelled down from London to Aldershot to see the Shots play in a FA trophy semi final, just to support Simon.
    The very good Orient youth team of 2000-01 contained Glenn Morris in goal (currently at Southend) Billy Jones (Exeter) in defence with Simon and Donny Barnard (Donny left Orient in 2007) as well as Aaron Maclean (Hull) and Jabo Ibhere (MK Dons) in attack.
    Simon had a very good televised FA cup match when he was at Weymouth, and I assumed some League Club would move in to bring him back in to the League - then he had to come off injured just before the end, so all the League Clubs saw he was still injured too often. I would like to see him back at Orient for a FA Cup match.

  • Comment number 12.

    Simon Downer was unfortunate to link up with Rushden when we were on the slide in more ways than one... but I am surprised that he wasn't paid when he was with us, because if I remember correctly that was the time when we were challenging for promotion and playing Oxford in the Play-Off semi-finals.
    Things must have been even worse than we on the Peter de Banke Terrace thought.... things are looking up for AFC Rushden & Diamonds, though, Simon; we are genuinely fan-owned now, a one person, one vote Club - no Sugar Daddy (or should that be saccharine?), and no speculators! So perhaps you should come back and visit when we have a fundraiser against a classic R&DFC side?!

  • Comment number 13.

    Great to read that Simon is doing ok. He wasn't just "decent" at Weymouth...he was by some distance the classiest defender in non-league during a good portion of his spell there and I've no doubt he would have played at a much higher level but for that horrific injury record. He had pretty much everything a defender would want to step up, pace, power and was good on the ball.

  • Comment number 14.

    Wow - real amazing story Chris - always enjoy reading your work is an inspiration to where I want to be!

    Simon Downer has an special footballing story, I'm sure there are many other lower league players with stories just the same, they are a credit that they play the game they love for peanuts and aren't pampered 24/7 like half the Prem 'Prima donnas'

    Anyway all you kind guys - I'm 17, looking to hit the world of University next year with the Sports Journalism course - have a blog going and add to it as often as possible, juggling around other bits and dabs of work!
    http://insidefootballchat.blogspot.com/

    Would really love it if you guys could spare a second to just have a moach and even give me a bit of feedback! Thanks in advance!

    & good luck today Simon!

 

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