The life of a non-league player – The real story, by Francis Duku
Francis Duku had the same dreams as the majority of up and coming non-league players – he wanted to turn pro.
It didn’t quite happen for him, but the former Maidenhead United, Crawley Town, Gravesend & Northfleet and Bromley centre back had former England and West Ham star Alan Devonshire as his first manager in the non-league game and played alongside former Premiership winner Tony Gale, on his way to a wealth of experiences in non-league football.
Duku has come full circle. Now at the tail end of his playing days, he is about to launch a new business that he believes will have a major and positive impact on non-league football for all those who come together and support it.
He spoke to Total Football Editor Mark Roach about the reality of life as a non-league player.
Your first non-league club was Maidenhead United, what was Alan Devonshire like as a manager?
I found Alan Devonshire to be a very good manager. He was someone who had played at the very top, and did it having come through the non league ranks himself, so he was always someone I thought I should really pay attention to. He was always someone who spoke sense, and left a great impression on me from when I first met him. When I first turned up for training, I couldn't believe the manager was an ex England international, but right the way through he made me feel at ease and was always talking to me and generally helping me out to understand football better. We had some very good success for the club while I was there, and his record since at the two other clubs he has been speaks volumes for his managerial ability. From my experience and that of friends who have played for him, he has always shown that great quality of loyalty to his players, and I would say to his clubs as well, as he has only managed three clubs in my 15 years or so in non league football, despite his successes. He is someone I think very highly of, have kept in touch with throughout my non league career (even though I left him after only one year) and know I can still call him up now if needed.
At Maidenhead, you played with Tony Gale, not long after he had won the Premiership with Blackburn. What was he like to play with, and what was he like as a person?
The 6 months or so I played with Tony Gale taught me lots about football and life as he was happy to talk to me about both. I just wished it could have been longer. He signed not long after being part of the Blackburn championship winning squad and still oozed quality. I was the legs and he was the brains at the time, but as a centre back who had played at the very top, I knew I had to try and learn as much as I could from him, and he was only too willing to spend time with me pointing out some tips and tricks. Much like Dev, I found him to be a very genuine guy who played at Maidenhead not because he needed to, but because he wanted to. I was 18 at the time, and soon realised when he spoke, I should listen. His quality was there for all to see, and if I remember rightly, he even used to take corners for us sometimes! When have you ever heard of that in football?? He brought a great degree of calmness to the team both on and off the pitch. Looking back now, it is what I should have expected from someone who had been at the level he had, and he didn't disappoint. He is again someone I have kept in touch with and still speak to and see from time to time.
You went on to play for Crawley, what was that experience like?
Crawley was a bitter sweet experience. I went there after a good season at Maidenhead and joined a club who had just moved into a state of the art ground, with the best pitch around, and were capable of getting several thousand fans through the gate. The club had ambitions back then of progressing and getting into the football league, and with the facilities on offer, the team and manager in place, I fully believed it was possible. In pre season, we played some top top pro teams, which peaked for me personally when I played against the Crystal Palace team including ex Sampdoria and Italian international, Attilio Lombardo, who I used to spend many Sundays watching playing in the Italiain Serie A. Those were the kinds of experiences I wanted from football. Unfortunately for me, after a good start when I did well in pre season and started to establish myself, I picked up an injury early into the season. The team evolved but never did as well as expected, and the nature of non league football meant I ended up having to leave, not having been able to show enough of what I could do. It was a very good club with a great opportunity, that I didn't manage to make the most of, and that was one of my earliest regrets in non league football. The club has gone onto totally new levels since then so as good as it was to be there then, I can only imagine what recent times have been like!!
What do you make of the progress Crawley have made in recent years?
Crawley's progress in recent years will be felt by many in the area to have been a long time coming. Deep down all fans would love to see their club competing in the way Crawley are now, but they, like many, have been through a lot to get there. With the numbers who could turn up to support them, and the facilities they had, they were always set up to do well. Obviously the rumoured amounts of money since made available to them has helped them achieve this, and probably demands success, but it is still not easy to achieve, so hats off to them. I am always wary these days of clubs who suddenly find lots of money and splash the cash to get to the top quickly, so I hope Crawley don't go the way of so many before them, but so far so very good!
What were the highlights of your career as a player?
The highlight of my career was winning what is now the Conference South with Gravesend and Northfleet (now Ebbsfleet United). The year I had that year was one I will never forget. We had made good progression as a team the previous year and had a fantastic team spirit which made the club a good place to be. We never had any big time players and no one would have thought we could win the league the year we did, considering some of the other teams that were in our league. I personally had a very good year that year, playing my way into a lot of people's thoughts including the non league England team (in the days when only Conference National players were being picked) and being selected to tour with the Middlesex Wanderers. We also played in some great one off games like in our FA Cup run to the 1st round proper against Huddersfield at their newly built stadium, and our two league games against the side we pipped to the title, Canvey Island, which were all memorable for different reasons. From start to finish, that year packed in for me personally just about all that is good about non league football, and it culminated with the team being crowned champions after the drama of having to win on the last day of the season. I met a lot of good people and good players that year, and also made people say that I wasn't a bad player myself. Other highlights have been my repeated tours with the Middlesex Wanderers to parts of the planet I doubt I would ever have visited otherwise, and my promotion season with Bromley FC due to some of the amazing football we played that year.
How would you summarise your career as a player?
I would summarise my career as being relatively successful but ultimately unfulfilled. I have managed to do quite well (winning leagues, cups, promotions etc) but feel I could and should have done more. I broke my leg while at Gravesend and although I had more success when I got fit again, I was never quite the same player so didn't ever get to kick on to the levels I was expected to after we had won the league in a great season for the club. I'm glad I had what I did though as I have had some great experiences and met some great people, but always think "what if" I didn't break my leg?. Could I have made an even better career? So there is an huge element of regret there. I would like to think I did well, but wonder, could I have done even better?
Fleetwood are the latest non league club that are on the brink of getting into the league, what do you make of the way non league clubs are progressing?
Non league is a different environment now to when I started playing in it. The conference national for example is now virtually a professional league. Even as you progress down the pyramid, the standards and facilities at clubs right the way down have improved dramatically, and this can only be a good thing. The progression of non league clubs who get promoted into the football league is also noticeable in that most promoted clubs challenge for a second promotion straight away instead of just fighting to survive, and some non league clubs now expect to beat football league clubs in one off FA Cup games. That is the clearest sign that non league football has increased its level and standards and this goes right the way from the Fleetwood's of this world all the way down. The facilities on offer and the way you are looked after at clubs like Fleetwood by all accounts are up there with much of League 1 if not only League 2, and this knock on effect has raised the expectations and standards of much of non league football.
How strong is the Blue Square Bet Premier League now in your opinion?
As many of those who get promoted from the Blue Square Premier go on to challenge for promotion into League 1 straight away, that tells you all you need to know about the strength of the league. "FA Cup" shocks against league teams, are not so shocking any more when some of the Blue Square Premier teams are involved. The majority of teams are full time now and this shows in the standards that are set for those who want to play in the league. The numbers of players being released from pro clubs and ending up in Blue Square Premier teams is on the rise, and the competition to get promoted each year has 4 or 5 genuine contenders who would all be expected to hold their own if they just managed to get promoted. It is clearly a competitive league that is now thought of by many as good enough to warrant three up, three down, with the football league.
What have you been up to in recent years?
I am still playing myself - currently at Dulwich Hamlet in the Ryman Division One South. I have managed to play for a few clubs in my time and in the main still enjoy my football, although it gets harder to play against the quick youngsters I face most weeks now. I am much older now and long since gave up the dream of wanting to be a professional, so now try to enjoy my football as much as I can without doing the amount of travel I used to, but also trying to make sure that me and my team stay competitive as I still remain a bad loser and still have many of the habits I developed over the years. I am still a player and not quite retired as some seem to have thought.
You are working on a new project, tell us about that
I have been working on this project for three years now. It started off as something to try and do casually for when I stopped playing football, but has turned into a bigger and bigger project, as I realised just how much can be done. With the experience and understanding I have of the non league game and the people in it has let me help a number of players over the years through a variety of different ways, so this is something I am trying to build on. I firmly believe I can help many others to also have a better experience of the many possibilities available in non league football, so am setting up a business to try and achieve this. It will primarily be a players union and will be one that is based on years of direct involvement in non league football and a great range of non league contacts and understanding, but will also recognise the roles played by the many other people who do their bit to make non league football the game we all choose to be a part of. I'm working hard to get this up and running as I think its something that is very much needed but missing from the non league scene, and believe it will make a difference to many people once it is live. I will be back to tell you more about it when it is ready, but in the meantime all updates can be found on my twitter page, (@Our_Game) until the website is launched.