It`s the end of an era at The J.Davidson Stadium after Stuart Coburn decided to call time on his record-breaking career with Vanarama National League club Altrincham.
After making more Alty appearances than any other player in the club’s history, ‘England’s number one’, as he is affectionately known on the terraces, announced he will be retiring at the end of this season.
Coburn said: “There’s a decision I’ve been agonising over for weeks, and it could hardly be more important. I’ve been turning it over in my mind and discussing it with those closest to me. Have I got another comeback in me? Can I get back to the level of fitness and conditioning needed to reclaim the jersey and do myself justice as Altrincham’s number one?
“Much as I appreciate all the advice and encouragement I’ve received, the decision had to be mine, and I’ve made it. I’m gutted, totally and absolutely gutted, to have to say I’m hanging up my boots, and gloves, and calling time on a career that has been more rewarding than I dared hope when it started nearly twenty years ago.
“I can’t believe I won’t be turning out in Alty colours again, though there’s an outside chance I might get one more opportunity, depending what happens next Saturday.
“Neil Tolson has touched on the possibility of me being on the bench, so I can go on one last time, maybe when the board goes up for however many added minutes at Braintree. From a selfish point of view, a little cameo and thanks very much sounds appealing, but it’s the club’s interests, not mine, that come first.
“The plain fact is, while your reactions never leave you, jumping is a problem. I can’t take off properly on my left foot. It’s not strong enough, so if we head down to Essex still in with a chance of staying up, I wouldn’t dream of jeopardising it by going on. I’d much rather be cheering the lads on from the sidelines, if it means we’re still in with a shout of
beating the drop.
“That’s still all up in the air but what’s for sure is that, after the final whistle at Braintree, I’ll no longer be an Altrincham player, following the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make. I meant it when I returned from Dover last August and vowed to bounce back from a ruptured Achilles, so you may wonder what’s changed. Basically, I’ve got a bit older!
“People are always quick to jump on the age thing. Make a mistake, and it’s because you’re getting on a bit. That always use to annoy me, but I have to admit, hovering around the 40-mark, I’ve been finding it harder to motivate myself for all that’s needed to get fit again.
“To be fair, the Achilles has healed. That’s not an issue. But my calf is not as strong as it should be, and there’s still a lot of hard work needed to build it up. Even if I did all that and got back to something like 100 per cent, there are still other factors to take into account.
“Not least the standards I’ve set myself and whether I could maintain them. The reputation I’ve built up among Alty fans over the years means a great deal to me, and I wouldn’t want to put that at risk by coming back and being found wanting. ‘Ah yes, Stuey, he was good in his day, but he just went on too long in the end, didn’t he?’ I’d hate to hear anyone say that in the Community Sports Hall bar.
“The questions have been nagging away at me throughout the weeks I’ve been mulling things over. Can I get back to the level I want to be at? Not sure. What if I’m back in the team and really pushing to reach a ball, and the Achilles goes again? That fills me with dread, because it’s been horrible since I did it. I’ve been a real grouch at home.
“Basically, there’s been doubt in my mind at every turn, and it’s massively the case that I don’t want to get back playing again only to let myself down.
“Another consequence of advancing years is that other parts of me are starting to ache as well, though it’s not just age that helped make my mind up. There is clearly uncertainty over which division we will be in and who will be in charge. If a new manager comes in, he may well look at me and say: ‘You know what, Stuart? Your time has come, mate, off you go.’
“If I was kept on, would I want to be second choice? Tim Deasy has done brilliantly and rightly holds all the aces, but I can’t imagine completing a long, hard comeback trail just so I can keep getting paid without contributing.
I’ve seen people do that, and it always riles me. I’ve far too much respect for Altrincham to sit on my backside while taking money off the club.
“There’s also growing family and work demands to consider. My older son Finn is coming up to nine and has just been offered a contract for next year by Manchester United.
He signs it at The Cliff today, and I think I’m as excited about it as he is. There’ll be no prouder dad, but it’s going to involve a lot of driving in the months ahead, and fitting that in with the demands of playing would be a difficult balancing act, if I carried on.
“It’s been on my mind since the start of March, and I’ve had plenty of thinking time during the hours I’ve clocked up visiting the gym three times a week. It’s often been down to what day you’ve caught me on. I’ve been up for getting back again one minute, resigned to the cold, hard logic of packing in the next.
“Finally, I decided, and the chairman Grahame Rowley was always going to be the first to know. I remember telling him in the Community Sports Hall, explaining why and, all the time, gazing beyond him out on to the pitch. The realisation I wasn’t going to be playing on it again hit me hard. The club has been such a big part of my life, but I understand everything comes to an end at some point, and I consider myself lucky.
“If someone had said, back in 1998, I would play nearly 700 games for Altrincham in two spells spread over 18 years, I would have given them a look and said: ‘Are you stupid?’ It would have been nice for the career total to reach the 1,000-mark, but if having to call a halt at around 970 is the worst that’s going to happen, I’ll gladly take it.
“Especially as I’m the proud holder of the record number of Alty appearances. I remember approaching 300 games and thinking it was special, then 500 and it was ‘wow, I’m still going strong, I can do this.’ To actually go past John Davison’s record was something I’ll never forget.
“I can imagine having a beer in the bar, reflecting on some of the names who turned out for this great club and thinking, ‘You know what? You played more games than any of them. You did all right, mate.’”