By Ian Ridley
Ever since he was a young boy, he’s played that game football. From Darlo down to Whitehawk, he must have played them all…
When thinking of Jefferson Louis, it is a paraphrase of The Who’s Pinball Wizard lyrics that sprang to this mind. Here is a man who has had 37 different clubs but still retains a “crazy passion” for the game at almost 40 years of age.
Currently that is with Chesham United of Evo-Stik Premier South, where the 6ft 2in muscular striker is doing his best to lift them off the bottom of the table having joined just last month.
In that short time, he has experienced a manager depart – “I’ve seen it all but I didn’t expect that” – and scored twice in his last three games as the Generals have taken four points from four matches following just one from their first eight.
Age brings reflection and any life lived fully is going to include errors and bad choices. Louis can readily cite them. Age should also bring wisdom, however, and a man who admits to being “a bit of a mischief” and “boisterous” in his youth, leading to a jail term, has admirably accumulated that too.
“I made some wrong decisions,” says Louis, whose day job alongside playing football is working with teenagers excluded from school – as he once was. “I look back at some things and say ‘that was a bit rash’. But that was part of my life and life is about learning from your mistakes.”
If football was the young Louis’ lifeline, it was prison that made him grab it. Born in London, he moved to Aylesbury with family and played for a variety of local clubs before an incident in a pub changed his life, at the age of 21.
A racist remark directed at him while watching an England game prompted a violent retaliation and he would serve six months in jail for GBH, a charge of driving while disqualified also taken into account.
“Going in there made me knuckle down,” he recalls. “It was hard but it was an eye-opener, the making of me.”
Soon after his release, Oxford United, then of the old Third Division, took him on and he was off and running, earning himself a contract, though for only £60 a week.
He achieved a degree of fame in scoring the winner in an FA Cup tie against Swindon Town, then notoriety when live TV captured his naked backside as he celebrated the club being drawn away to – you’ve guessed it – Arsenal. Appearing as a substitute at the old Highbury was, he says, the highlight of his career.
He was ‘flavour of the moment’. Improved contracts came as Reading and Aston Villa showed interest. But the manager who signed him, Ian Atkins, departed for Bristol Rovers and his successor Graham Rix would prove a nemesis. New strikers arrived and Louis was asked to play in defence.
“I was an easy option. I was young. I had legs,” he says, shaking his head.
Initially he agreed, winning man of the match in a pre-season friendly against Chelsea – Jose Mourinho’s first game in charge – but soon decided it wasn’t for him. Frozen out for several months, he was forced to ask for a move.
“Looking back, I should have stuck it out because the manager got the sack later,” he says. “But it was the lowest I ever felt in a professional environment. I was a young player who just wanted to play. I’ve never been the kind of player content to sit tight and collect my wages.”
The episode was the turning point of his career. And so began the odyssey…
“If I’d stayed, and if I’d had the right advice as a young player, I might not have had a spiral downwards. It might have been a spiral upwards,” he says ruefully.
A move to Forest Green Rovers ended after he demanded a transfer as a result of being left out of a showpiece FA Cup tie against Bournemouth that would have put him in the shop window and his tour of the Conference, in which he would become known as J-Lo, ensued.
He did get back into the Football League for spells with Bristol Rovers and Mansfield, also winning one cap for the country of his family-of-origin Dominica, but mostly he was a gun for hire, linking up with managers who had seen his firepower before.
There would be Atkins at Rovers, Brian Little at Wrexham and Gainsborough Trinity, Justin Edinburgh at Rushden and Diamonds, then Newport County. But it was at Wrexham that he earned the best money of his career – £1,400 a week – and could afford to get a taxi one snowy day of no trains from London to North Wales at a cost of £450.
It was cheaper than the fine of two weeks’ wages that Little’s successor, Dean Saunders threatened him with if he didn’t make it back from a couple of pre-Christmas days with his family.
Louis’ wrangle with Saunders was nothing compared to his tussles at Crawley with Steve Evans, however.
“Oh God. Going there was the worst thing I did in my life,” he says. “He was the worst man-manager I ever played for. He made me feel horrible.
“There was a game against Wimbledon we were losing because of the way he set up the team and he asked for our opinion. “He was foaming at the mouth. I gave him my honest opinion. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that.
“Then he had us all in the following day for a 7am start.
“Some of the boys were going out after the game, ended up sleeping at the train station and turned up in their going-out clothes.
“Making us run was how he dealt with problems.”
He can’t help but smile now.
“I have no regrets. If I had to stop playing tomorrow, I would say I’ve had a great football career.
“I’ve been to a lot of places and have really enjoyed it.”
He began this season with Farnborough but found the travelling to training too much, with his day job having assumed ever greater significance, and so is now back closer to home and the Children’s Referral Unit in North London he commutes to – the very same unit he attended in his own teens.
“They understand I have been one of them,” he says.
“I interact well with them and they help keep me young. I tell them, ‘Don’t ever give up on your dreams.’ If I had, I would never have become a professional footballer.
“Non-League has progressed a lot. Back in the day it was hustle and bustle. But now it’s more technical and you have to be a lot better on the ball. Just look at the teams who go into the League, they usually do pretty well.
“So you have to take care of yourself if you want to keep playing, like I do. I take pride in myself.
“When I take off my top in the changing room, some of the younger boys go ‘Wow, you’re in great shape.’ I live right and I eat right.”
And now, as his 40th birthday approaches in February?
“I’ve still got a crazy passion for the game,” insists the UEFA B qualified coach, who has already taken charge of the Barbadian national youth team.
“After it stops, I think I have so much more to give as a coach or a manager.”
Experience, and experiences, are certainly a lot of what he has to give…
1996–98 Risborough Rangers
1998–00 Thame United
2000–01 Aylesbury United
2001–02 Thame United
2002–04 Oxford United
2003 Woking (loan)
2004 Gravesend & Northfleet (loan)
2004 Forest Green Rovers
2005 Bristol Rovers
2005 Hemel Hempstead Town
2005–06 Stevenage Borough
2007 Havant & Waterlooville
2008 Maidenhead United
2008 Mansfield Town
2009–10 Crawley Town
2009–10 Rushden & Diamonds (loan)
2010–11 Gainsborough Trinity
2010–11 Darlington (loan)
2011 Hayes & Yeading United
2011 Maidenhead United
2011–12 Brackley Town
2012 Lincoln City
2012 Newport County
2012 Whitehawk (loan)
2013 Brackley Town
2014 Lowestoft Town
2016 Staines Town
2016–17 Oxford City
2017 Banbury United
2017–18 Chesham United
2018– Chesham United
Tagged Jefferson Louis