Symes book piece

COLOURFUL CHARACTER: Chris Symes behind the bar at Cornard United on the day England Under-21s trained on their pitch
COLOURFUL CHARACTER: Chris Symes behind the bar at Cornard United on the day England Under-21s trained on their pitch

Characters in football are few and far between these days.

But for the last 19 years Cornard United has been the home of a real character, the larger than life Chris Symes, who has marked his retirement from the game by publishing his memoirs.

The Life and Times of Symes covers what he describes as 40 years of football, fun and frustration, from his time in the Royal Navy, through coaching at Arbroath, and then a series of managerial appointments in Suffolk and Essex.

I’ve known Chris for 14 years, during my time as sports editor of the Suffolk Free Press and in the five years since my retirement, and there was one thing you could guarantee if you rang him... he was always good for a story. Some, of course, that you couldn’t possibly print.

He always had an opinion, and was never afraid to express it. His programme notes were legendary for not pulling punches.

And if the players — or sometimes the press — didn’t like what he said, well that was tough.

In his introduction Chris writes: “There is always a player in the dressing room at half-time who will say ‘I think we should do this’.” To which Chris replies: “When you start thinking son, and I start running, we’re in trouble.”

The book takes in a career that began when Arbroath bought him out of the Royal Navy and made him their coach, at the age of 27, despite the fact that he had never played the game professionally.

In England he has managed eight clubs: Halstead Town, Tiptree United, Braintree Town, Chelmsford City, Brantham Athletic, Bury Town, Wivenhoe Town and Cornard United. At Cornard he has, over the years, filled every off-the-field position.

There are anecdotes from each club. At Braintree his players were promised a £10 bonus by the chairman for winning the Eastern Counties League. “But he did not splash the cash. He gave the players a free ticket for the club’s end-of-season dance.”

And at Brantham “the players burnt their club ties in protest at me being appointed. But within a month I won them over after we had beaten Sudbury Town twice and had Tottenham down to play a game for the official opening of the club floodlight.”

Over those 40 years he has amassed a fund of stories, and the book is a series of little gems about the people and players he has worked with, mostly complimentary, although in more recent years he has grown disillusioned with many aspects of the game, and has slowly been stepping away from it.

Chris attributes his longevity in the game to “enthusiasm and humour”, things he often feels too many players today lack.

He is now spending more time sailing, which he discovered during a holiday in Crete but which has too often taken a back seat to football.

Early next year he will be giving a talk to the Ipswich branch of the Arbroath supporters’ club.

They make two trips to Scotland each season to watch the Red Lichties, and Chris has been invited to join them on the next one.

In his time at Cornard, Chris has paid off the debts he took over, financed the running of the team, and made improvements to the clubhouse, which has hosted more than 200 birthday parties and wedding receptions. He estimates he has put £50,000 into the club.

Recently Chris found himself locked out of his own club by Cornard Parish Council, a dispute which has yet to be resolved, just as he was bringing down the curtain on his lengthy football life. A sad conclusion to an entertaining and colourful time in the sport.

The book is dedicated to his wife of 47 years Barbara who, “due to football has seen me for roughly seven of those”. They met when he was serving in the Royal Navy and was stationed at Arbroath.

In this roistering and thoroughly entertaining account of the game, from Scotland to Blackhouse Lane, there are chapters on his early life, which was hard, service in the Royal Navy, on the various clubs he has managed, on great goals he has seen, people in the game, referees and changes.

There is also a chapter titled The Journos. How could I fail to enjoy a book which refers to me as “a real gentleman”? Or was he trying to tell me something?

The Life and Times of Symes is available from Chris Symes. Anyone wishing to purchase a copy should send a cheque for £12, which includes postage, to Chris Symes, 22 Greenacres, Mile End, Colchester CO4 5DX.