EASTBORNE Borough legend Darren Baker received his last of many awards at the club’s annual dinner to bring the curtain down on an incredible 21 seasons with the club.
Baker’s 10-minute appearance against Staines Town on the final day of the season was his 952nd for the club, a long and magnificent haul since making his debut for Langney Sports in the Sussex RUR Cup against Haywards Heath back in October, 1992.
“It feels like a lifetime ago; it has certainly been an amazing journey,” admitted the defender who has played under just three managers during that time - Pete Cherry, Garry Wilson and Tommy Widdrington.
Even now, with his playing career over, Baker will not be lost to the club, continuing the coaching role he started when injury forced him to bow out as a player early last season.
Baker explained what was probably the hardest decision of his life. “I got an injury pre-season and when that happens it is always hard to catch up. But I got myself fit again only to pick up a niggling back-related injury soon after the start of the campaign. I didn’t want to carry on if I was anything less than 100 per cent fit. I did not want people watching and thinking I was past it.”
So he opted for the next best thing as boss Tommy Widdrington agreed to take him onto the coaching staff. “It really is the next best thing although there nothing quite like playing. But you are involved in the training, you enjoy the banter and you experience the highs and lows of winning and losing.”
At that stage, the popular player thought he had kicked his last ball for Borough. But the manager had other ideas bringing him on for what was an emotional swansong against Staines.
“I thought the boss was joking when he said at Friday training to ‘bring your boots tomorrow’and then, when on match-day, he read out Baker number twelve I was delighted.” As in all footballing careers there are highs and lows, cheers and tears. But Baker will never forget the high that was head and shoulders above everything else; the Conference South play-off final against Hampton & Richmond Borough at Stevenage in May, 2008.
The day started as a nightmare with the Borough coach breaking down and the players arriving at the ground just before kick-off time in cars. “We didn’t even play that well,” admitted Baker. “But we got the result and it was such a big prize to get into the Conference Premier.”
Amazingly that promotion meant that Baker had played at five difference levels, starting in the Sussex County League and reaching the Conference Premier via the Southern League Eastern and Premier and the Conference South.
But typical of the man, Baker takes a humble view of it all. “It has always been a continued progression., but if we had stayed where we were I think I would have got very stale. I knew I had to keep improving.”
And improve he did, although he admits that during the final dark days of the Conference Premier, times were ‘really tough’ and morale was low. Long journeys against full-time teams, many with Football League experience, eventually took its toll.
But now he believes the club is in a transitional period with the ambition to progress once again. “ Garry (Wilson) and Nick (Greenwood) were fantastic, but now Tommy and Alan (Kimble) have got things set up really well and the introduction of Monday afternoon and Friday morning training is ideal preparation for games on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
“The ambition of the club has got to be to push up with full-time players eventually. But at the moment it’s transitional and I believe we are now ready to go forward again.”
And the good news is that Darren Baker will continue to be part of the Borough set-up, passing on his experience and expertise to a new generation of players.
If the club can revert to moving onwards and upwards, nobody will be more delighted than the man whose unbelievable playing record will never be beaten.