Sussex non-league stalwart Death: They called me mercurial... I think it means lazy!

As Michael Death plays his final year as a non-league footballer, he has been talking about motivation, roles and reputation. But what is driving his exit from the game?

Michael Death has been reflecting on a long non-league career - and thinking about what comes next
Michael Death has been reflecting on a long non-league career - and thinking about what comes next

The Shoreham FC man, now 37, is the authentic non-league veteran, having played for 21 years and for 18 clubs.

‘Deathy’ has played hundreds of games from the SCFL Division One to the old Conference South – and everywhere in-between; and is one of Shoreham’s senior members during the club’s project to promote youth.

This season, he says, will be his last before he heads into management - and what an impact he’s made.

Michael Death at Shoreham FC

We meet Death in Shoreham FC’s clubhouse as he has ‘the conversation’ with long-time Sussex coach Malcolm Saunders. He is told that the current crop does better and that he can no longer do the running he used to.

While this is evidence of chairman Stuart Slaney’s five-year plan coming to fruition, it does so at the expense of a player who has played – extensively – at the level that the club wish to reside. So where does Saunders’ proposal fit in with his own?

“A lot of people... older players, people I know and respect, have said I probably should have knocked it on the head a few years ago and left on a reasonable note, rather than sort of dropping down and down and then playing for long enough that you never get remembered that you played a reasonable level once upon a time because you’re too old.”

His time at that reasonable level is considerable, and Death lists his clubs...

“Oakwood was my senior debut at 16... I went on into the Horsham side, Three Bridges, Horsham YMCA, Thame United, Egham Town, Carshalton Athletic, Burgess Hill Town, East Grinstead, Dorking Wanderers, Hassocks, Crowborough, Lancing, East Preston very briefly on loan, Shoreham... you’re going to tell me I’ve missed one... Fawkner Blues, Altona Magic... I briefly played in Australia, I played out there for a year. That was the full-time stint, as such, when I could still move around.”

Playing at Conference South and Isthmian League level requires talent.

“You can find players that will be playing Ryman One, for example, who have got the technical ability to play Conference South, or even Conference football, but they might not have that physical side of things,” Death says.

“They might not be able to keep up with the strength side of it, but they’ve got the genuine technique, but there’s something missing somewhere. Or you’ll have players who’ve got incredible physicality, but they can’t control a bag of sand. I think when you come down to this level, you see there is a decline in not only footballing technique, but footballing intelligence.

“If you’re 18 to 30 and you’re playing at this level, it’s because you’re not very good. You’re not that good a footballer. But, you have other attributes we can use and work on and collectively put together a side that can win football matches each week.”

Death goes on to decry today’s football and its youth that does not necessarily share the same value set.

“The character fit is the most important thing to get right if you want to get out of a league like this. If you want to do something, you have to have something built-in.

“One of the things I haven’t enjoyed by still being involved for the past four to five years is I’ve watched these wet kids turn up in the changing rooms, turn up for games - or not turn up, and not turn up for training - and they can’t take a rollicking, they can’t take someone having a moan at them, even though it’s meant in the best interests.”

Death describes himself as ‘honest’ – and honesty and attitude have been intertwined through Death’s career and manifested in his own ability to be rebellious and initiate change - seen as he discusses playing in the Conference South with Carshalton Athletic.

“The manager I had at Egham Town was there (at Carshalton) as No2 and he got me there and said, ‘this will be a good level for you because it’s better football so it will suit you better’. But it was just too much effort, and we were getting slapped as well.”

He says he felt comfortable as a footballer at a higher level, despite results – but time and money came to be an issue.

“It was taking like two hours to get to training. We’re just sat on the A23 in traffic and I thought, this is rubbish. Especially for £80 a week or whatever it was at the time, which was peanuts.”

He has had a rebellious nature that has got him into trouble – as seen when he was at ambitious Dorking in the-then county division one.

“I once got banned for talking to the press when I was at Dorking Wanderers, – after we got beat in an FA Cup match I said ‘as a group of players we’re a bunch of wimps’ and they put that as the headline. I was never able to speak to the press ever again, I got muzzled!”

Death describes himself as ‘honest, likeable, with a hint of rudeness’.

Asked to use words to describe himself as a footballer, he splits these into ‘now, or back in the day?’.

But, prompted to cover the lot, he opts for ‘maverick’ and ‘mercurial’.

“I think it means lazy, but occasionally can pop up with an important goal. I’m not the most hard working, I do want the ball, I’m not too keen when I haven’t got it - that’s always been the same, when people ask ‘did you used to run about when you were younger?’ I’ll say ‘no, not really – not too much’!”

Those important goals come to be a mainstay in his story, and he talks romantically of football’s ‘moments’ and it is what motivates him to carry on.

“I still enjoy moments. I think football, like life, is about moments. There will still be games when I’ll get home and think ‘why am I still bothering?’.

“But there might be that game where I still score a last minute winner or something and that’s a moment for me, and that’s why I’m still involved, that’s why I’m still here. I can’t wait to get home and have a beer. That’s my motivation, still – just to enjoy those last moments before I hang them up and go to the hot seat.”

Death recalls playing in front of the Horsham Lardy Boys, winning the Sussex Floodlit Cup in 2001, before making history with Three Bridges in 2011

“The first time they won major silverware was us lot. I scored in a final as well, which helps,” he says.

His contribution to football is measured in terms of the lived experience, the evolution of history, the fans and heritage rather than just the numbers. His role now? “Apparently not very much! Everyone is better than me and can move more than me nowadays!”

But he contends that he is the senior player in the Shoreham squad and says the rest of this season will still see him ‘pop in with my fair share of goals and hopefully still influence games’.

His relationship with Shoreham manager Mark Pulling can be fraught but not starting as many games, or being on the bench, is something he accepts as part of the ride he is on.

As the Shoreham season got under way Death began to make squads but not get minutes.

Against fierce rivals Mile Oak early in the campaign, Shoreham were trailing 2-1 in a full-blooded game when Death came on.

With a minute to play, a long throw flew over a gaggle of blue and orange heads, and fell 15 yards out, to the feet of a maverick, and with two touches of the ball he turned in towards goal, then towards the byline, leaving some poor soul with whiplash.

Death pumped the ball across goal for Dean Gilmour to head home – and Middle Road exploded. For Death, just one of those moments.