Friends from Wisbech to Isle of Wight

PUBLISHED: 15:00 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:38 04 March 2010

IT'S four hours before kick-off when Chris Symes arrives at Cornard United Football Club.

Any other non-league manager will still be at home with his wife and family at 11am on a Saturday, but then Symes is not just another manager.

IT'S four hours before kick-off when Chris Symes arrives at Cornard United Football Club.

Any other non-league manager will still be at home with his wife and family at 11am on a Saturday, but then Symes is not just another manager.

The 63-year-old is one of a kind. He is the longest-serving manager in the entire Ridgeons League and the heartbeat of the club where he has been the boss for 15 years. As well as being manager, coach, secretary and groundsman he performs the roles of barman, cleaner, decorator and even disc jockey!

When I arrive for our interview at 12.30pm - still two-and-a-half hours before kick-off - Symes is busy cleaning out the showers. Almost another half-an-hour passes before he is ready to sit down and talk - and, as anyone who has met him will testify, Chris Symes can talk.

It doesn't take you long to appreciate he is clearly a man still in love with the game even after all the years that he has been involved, but what motivates him to carry on at his age?

He admitted: “Sometimes I think I am mad. My wife says to me 'you haven't got any friends and you drive all our neighbours away at parties talking about football' but as I try to explain to her I have got friends at Wisbech, Dartford and even the Isle of Wight.

“Wherever I go football people recognise me and give me a Scotch or a smile - they are my friends.

“When I get fed up I will pack up. I have been fortunate inasmuch as I have now done 1,500 league games and as long as I enjoy it I will keep going.

“It has cost me £50,000 of my own money and an awful lot of hours work, but if I stay at home I get a list of jobs to do, whereas at least I am the boss at the football club!

“I enjoy sailing and have got a boat but it hasn't been out for 18 months now, which shows you how much time I put into football.

“I have got six grandchildren, but unfortunately, like my own children, they are tending to get dragged along to the football club now to entertain them, but they love it.

“I don't know when I will pack up. Sir Alex Ferguson is 68, I am only 63. I still enjoy the camaraderie of all the people in the Ridgeons League, just like I used to when I managed in the Southern League.”

Symes runs Cornard United along with Neil Cottrell, who has been the club's chairman for three years and is in his second season as assistant manager. They do everything between them - and wouldn't have it any other way.

Six teams use the pitch at Cornard - the first team, reserves and youth team in the Ridgeons League, an under-15 side in the Eastern Junior Alliance, Cornard Ladies and Wells Hall Wanderers, who play in the Sudbury Sunday League.

Symes was voted top non-league groundsman in East Anglia and the East Midlands in 2006 - Ipswich Town's Alan Ferguson simultaneously won the professional title - is rightly proud of the fact that Cornard United are very rarely forced to call off a match.

He had spent the previous day spreading 13 wheelbarrows of sand over the pitch to ensure today's match would go ahead.

Cottrell said of his colleague: “What people don't realise about Chris is that he has got bad arthritis, and when he is working here he feels better than if he was sat in a chair at home, so being here helps him. But it is a labour of love, without a doubt.”

After we break off from our interview as the players begin to arrive, Symes switches his attention to welcoming the match officials and the opposition, Ipswich-based Whitton United.

After delivering his team talk in the changing room, Symes then goes into his office to announce the teams over the tannoy, before switching off the PA system and switching on to trying to win three points.

Even after the match has kicked off he has another duty to perform - the referee asks for the floodlights to be turned on to light up a dank December afternoon, and Symes wanders off down the touchline and duly obliges.

After the match, which Whitton win 2-0 against an injury-hit, youthful Cornard side, Symes is helping to serve behind the bar, ensuring that the officials receive their post-match hospitality as well as payment and entertaining visiting manager Ian Brown and his assistant Alan Dilloway.

As the players and spectators start to drift away Symes is far from finished. He has to clean up the clubhouse for a joint 30th birthday party, before running the bar during the evening. He estimates it will be 2am before he has finished and ready to go home.

It is doubtful any other manager puts as many hours into running a non-league football club in East Anglia as Chris Symes, but then Chris Symes is a unique character.

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