How Simon Downer found his feet on football's fringes
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.
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."
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