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Alsop's fable - there's more to life than football

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Paul Fletcher | 07:16 UK time, Tuesday, 8 September 2009

As achievements go, Cheltenham Town's all-time Football League goalscoring record is a very modest affair.

It currently stands at 38 and is held by Martin Devaney - but it could soon be changing hands.

Julian Alsop's strike against Rochdale in a recent League Two match took the 36-year-old to within two of the record. It came 2,324 days after his previous goal for the club.

If the target man does eventually claim the record - and nothing can be taken for granted in this story - it will complete a remarkable second coming for a player who dropped out of the Football League almost five years ago.

Alsop is hardly a household name but he was a hard-working lower-division striker, an old-fashioned battering ram who won his headers and held up the ball.

Unfortunately for him, an incident in October 2004, allegedly involving a trainee and a banana, resulted in Alsop's dismissal from Oxford and a six-month ban from the game.

Alsop did not return to the Football League after his suspension expired and, as the years ticked on, it looked unlikely to ever happen.

He had played for Cheltenham from 2000-03 and I was curious to know how his unexpected return to Whaddon Road came about. I expected to hear a story of a player desperately grabbing an unexpected second chance with both hands, of someone anxious to squeeze as much as possible from his Indian summer.

Julian Alsop played for Cheltenham from 2000-03Alsop played for Cheltenham from 2000-03 before joining Oxford.

But from the very moment I called Alsop nothing was quite what I expected. I dialled his mobile and was perturbed to hear the Happy Mondays' Kinky Afro playing over the top of the ringtone.

Confused and slightly startled I put the phone down and, a minute later, called him again. More Shaun Ryder. Alsop answered before I decided whether to put the phone down again. But before I could broach the subject of the mystery tune I was told to call back later as Alsop was engaged in the all-consuming basis of feeding his young daughters.

An hour or so later, Alsop was ready to talk and told a tale of a man who fell out of love with football soon after Graham Rix replaced Ian Atkins as manager of Oxford in March 2004.

Alsop, who had been signed by Atkins in June 2003, was told after Rix's first training session that he was not the new manager's type of player. Bristol Rovers showed an interest but they were now managed by Atkins and the chairman at Oxford was unwilling to sell.

"What are you supposed to do? I got caught in the middle of it all," Alsop told me.

Alsop trained all week but wasn't required on the weekend, often taking his children down to Devon for a few days.

"It can get to you after a while," said the 6ft 4in striker. "People outside the professional game say they would do anything to be a footballer but once certain things are happening it can be the worst thing in the world."

His comments made me think of Ipswich's 22-year-old goalkeeper Shane Supple, who recently announced his retirement from football, stating that he had "fallen out of love" with the game.

Alsop definitely subscribes to the philosophy that there is more to life than football, as he discovered during his ban.

Shortly after the start of the 2004-05 season the incident that led to Alsop's dismissal from Oxford took place. He is insistent that the stories that appeared about a banana simply did not happen. Alsop had been told to expect a three-match suspension and £1,000 fine.

"The lad was out of order with what he said to me," explained Alsop, who played briefly for Northampton after he left Oxford and was at Forest Green in January 2005 when the news came through that he would be unable to play for six months.

"The people close to me know what happened and I have not got to justify it to anyone else.

"I served the ban and was not really bothered about returning. I had not missed the game. I was able to spend more time with my family and was enjoying life."

For the next few years Alsop played non-league football for the likes of Tamworth, Newport and Bishops Cleeve, who are based in the village of the same name close to Cheltenham.

He also did an access course to gain a university place and has since gone on to complete a degree in accounting and financial management. Playing part-time while studying suited the striker, and he gradually rediscovered his love of the game.

Even so, he had no real ambition to play in the Football League. "I really wasn't that bothered," he said.

Alsop returned from a two-week holiday in the summer just in time to turn out for Bishops Cleeve in a pre-season friendly against near neighbours Cheltenham.

He must have impressed because Robins boss Martin Allen approached him afterwards. As Allen has since explained, decent target men are hard to find - especially on a budget. He asked Alsop if he wanted to train with Cheltenham and shortly afterwards the striker signed a month-to-month deal.

Julian Alsop (right) tangles with Southend United's Jean-Yves MvotoRobins boss Allen affectionately calls Alsop (right) his grisly lump of lard.

"In my mind I had moved on to other things that were taking my time up," said Alsop, who now trains with the club two or three days as week. "When it happened it was a complete shock."

As he contemplates his unexpected shot at a place in Cheltenham's record book, the striker, who has also played for the likes of Bristol Rovers, Swansea and Northampton, already has an eye on the future.

He is looking to start a business that facilitates lower-division professionals approaching the end of their careers entering university. There is a refreshing honesty to him when he explains the logic behind his idea.

"Footballers from the lower divisions have often earned decent money but still need to work after they retire," he said. "But often players are lazy and are used to having their backsides wiped. They don't have any formal qualifications and don't know where to look."

He has helped three Cheltenham players start part-time degrees this season but is looking to expand next year if he can persuade the Professional Footballers' Association to endorse his project.

Alsop had never been back to Cheltenham since the day he was sold to Oxford and rarely watches football, preferring a good game of rugby. His return to Whaddon Road represents an unexpected twist, one that is welcome but one that the striker has placed in its true perspective.

"This is an added bonus and I have gone back on my terms," said Alsop. "If I'm not enjoying it I can walk away and go back to Bishops Cleeve."

It remains to be seen whether Alsop will actually beat Devaney's record. In truth I don't think he will lose any sleep if he doesn't.

His only goal this season came against a Rochdale side managed by Keith Hill, a former team-mate and Alsop's best mate in football.

As Alsop prepared to come on as a substitute, Hill said to him: "For Pete's sake, don't score." *

And the Happy Mondays tune?

"One of my daughters put it on years ago and I've never worked out how to get it off," said Alsop.

* Pete was not the actual word used.

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  • Comment number 1.

    As a Cheltenham person, it has been refreshing to see the renaissance of Julian Alsop. I used to go and watch the team when Julian was in his first spell with us and he was always a threat with his height. Good on you for coming back on your terms and hope your good form lasts.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good luck, Julian. What a refreshing counterpoint to the usual stories about footballers and sportsmen(not women)in general!! Well played!

  • Comment number 3.

    Graham Rix though... he turned out alright in the end eh...?? Pffft.

    Enjoying these run of stories from lower league.. interesting stuff.

  • Comment number 4.

    All the best Julian. Loved you down at the vetch field, one of our most underated players i can remember. A player that you always missed when wasn't there but you sadly didn't get the ovations when playing

  • Comment number 5.

    Many years ago when Julian Alsop played for Tamworth, I stood next to one of the board members at a match who was ranting about how he was a donkey with no skill and utterly useless. I was astonished (as well as enlightened) to see how underrated he was - when he played matches Tamworth were a different side as they had a target man who could control the ball and score, and the opposition couldnt handle him.

    Interestingly he was sold that summer by Tamworth and he turned professional not long afterwards - not bad for a donkey... Tamworth missed him the following season.

  • Comment number 6.

    I really enjoy stories like this. Too much is written about high profile stories which we know pretty much everything about and already have formed our opinion.

    Keep blogs like this coming!!!

  • Comment number 7.

    Im a Cheltenham Town fan, and for me, and everyone stood around me in the C&G stand this Saturday (against Dagenham and Redbridge) Joules was the best player on the pitch and gave it his all for the whole 90 minutes. If anything he looks better now then when he played for us 6 years ago. I was suprised that he lasted the whole 90 minutes, as im not sure he would of done 6 years ago. It is clear that he is loved by the fans as it was his name being sung on the final whistle and his alone. He was brilliant and i hope he can carry on with performances like Saturdays all season long, and i hope he breaks Devaneys record. Come on you Robins!!!
    Great blog by the way.

  • Comment number 8.

    What an absolute legend,
    I’ve never seen a player win so many headers like Allsop did, great target man, I was gutted when Graham Rix came to Oxford and made a scapegoat of big Jules, Rix also released my good friend Adam Garner weeks after he had turned professional, without being given a chance to prove himself, no surprise then that Rix was gone in a few months! I also saw him play a few games for Forest Green Rovers, seems like a great character – just a little bit misunderstood!

  • Comment number 9.

    Great blog but I just have to say that Julian Alsop played for Newport County AFC in the Conference South and not the Newport on the Isle of Wight, which is the website the link takes you to. Its only a small thing but he was a bit of a hero at Newport County.

  • Comment number 10.

    Jza_the_Genius - you are 100% correct (or 110% to use manager speak). I've changed that now and just want to applaud your observational skills.

    Alsop came across as a very honest man who had football and its importance in the broader scheme of things placed firmly in perspective. As people have hinted above, that is not to say he does not give his all when he plays - just that he understands life will go on regardless of the result.

  • Comment number 11.

    Has everyone forgotten why the bloke got fired? If the the incident 'simply did not happen' why did he choose not to appeal? I'm not in a position to judge, but doesn't that seem a bit suspicious? - If he is guilty he is a bully of the very worst kind and shouldn't be allowed to play.

  • Comment number 12.

    "there's more to life than football"

    evidently! - there is also banana related incidents with trainee's!

    sorry - i have no time for this bloke... he's a donkey

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    have to say that i'm quite surprised that i enjoyed reading that. not because its paul fletcher (great writer btw), but because of the level of football.

    i've always thought about what ex-professionals, who didn't earn as much as their premier league counterparts, do after they retired. glad to hear some are turning to studying to gain a degree.

    what happened with the banana?

  • Comment number 15.

    Alsop did not want to discuss the incident at Oxford in detail. He did insist that the reports about a banana are completely untrue. He said he is an honest guy and would have held his hand up if he was guilty of it.

    JMI20_NUFC asks a good question - if he was guilty why didn't Alsop appeal? I'm not sure whether he had the option to do so, although I assume he did. I think that by that stage he was sick of football and happy to be out of the game.

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    I had the pleasure of having 'Big Jules' in a few of my lectures at Uni this year(Park campus, Cheltenham if you are interested) and I have nothing but praise for the guy. The way he has pursued a life outside of the world of football is an example and lesson that all players can learn from when they are leaving the game (be it at a young or old age). Me being a Bristol Rovers fan, I can also remember a young Jules making his debut for us as well as scoring against our red rivals from across the city! Good luck Jules with your work, I hope you get the backing you deserve!

  • Comment number 18.

    boomshakalak - I appreciate your comments and feedback.

    I think your comments are being removed for legal reasons. The exact details of what took place have never, to the best of my knowledge, been made public. The incident was not investigated by the police.

    It was alleged that a banana was involved - as mentioned in the blog. What happened with it is pure speculation - and something that Alsop denies.

    All I can tell you is that he told me this: "The incident that was put in the national press about the banana never happened."

  • Comment number 19.

    Great blog! I too wondered what happened with the banana! A simple search on google will tell you all you need to know! Although it is pretty obvious, there's not much else you can do with it apart from eat it!

  • Comment number 20.

    Alsop had a great game against Dagenham & Redbridge last Saturday and from my vantage point was nearly wrestled to the ground by two defenders in a last gasp effort to score. It failed to bring the penalty it warranted but Alsop was laughing and smiling at his assailants - no malice or hard feelings. A great attitude. Let him play on until Cheltenham can afford a younger and flasher forward (which may be some time..... ). And innuendo is very different from criminal proceedings - as Graham Rix can testify.

  • Comment number 21.

    Fair play fletch - keep up the good work! I'll be back here checking on a regular basis that any future banana related stories are being told in a balanced way! Haha

  • Comment number 22.

    I remember Jules at Swansea,What a charicter.The one outstanding moment on the pitch was when we played Peterborough away we were 2-0 down and Jules came on as a sub within 2 minuites he had scored then 5 mins later set up an equaliser then last min of injury time scored a beauty of a winner. We won 3-2.Also I remember the Keith Walker Race night at Swansea RFC.What a night.After Jules,Martin Thomas(The player that scored the winning goal againsed West ham in the Fa Cup that season) And a few of us fan's went for curry.Jules was so funny he was standing on a table singing with a nan bread on his head totally drunk.But what a nice guy and what a player I am one of many Swansea fan's that thought Julian Alsop was and still an amazing player.

  • Comment number 23.

    I wonder if the youth in question was called Eric Twinge?

  • Comment number 24.

    Good blog. Remember seeing Alsop when I went to Whaddon Road a couple of time when I was at Uni in Cheltenham. Reminded me of Exeter City cult hero Steve Flack!

    Good to see he's using his initiative with this business of getting footballers into Uni. Some smart work there and think the PFA should jump on board with this.

  • Comment number 25.

    Paul, can you please try and use some of the positive feedback you get - about blogging on lower league clubs - to try to get a bit more space for such coverage on the BBC.

    I am sick to death of reading about 'the big 4' and I'm not the only one!

    There is more to football than 4 clubs.


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