JAMIE STUART can barely catch his breath, returning The NLP’s call in a small window between managing Welling’s youth team and doing the Wednesday afternoon school run.
In a few hours he’ll be off to work a night shift, then, after forty winks, the central defender will be up again to drop his two children, Tilly and Harry, at school in Kent and heading around the M25 to train with the Sutton United side he captains at the top end of Skrill South.
From six-month suspensions for failed drug tests at Charlton Athletic to fitting suspended ceilings in Boots stores in the wee small hours.
From court appearances for breaking a striker’s jaw to guiding a youth player sent off that morning for headbutting.
From losing his parents to cancer and suicide in the space of three days, to dealing with a team-mate taking his own life.
It’s fair to say that in between the 200-plus Football League appearances decorating either end of his career, the Conference South champion, two-time FA Trophy winner and triple Conference Premier play-off qualifier (one successful with AFC Wimbledon and the other two lost with Grays and Rushden) has seen the lot.
“I’m trying to hold down three jobs at the minute and it’s tough,” says Stuart. “You’ve got to earn money somehow and as you get older, there’s not so much there in football. I feel I can play past 40, the way things are going at the moment.
“I’m not getting as much sleep, but I’m still really fit and in training, I run around more than anyone. I’m still good at reading the game, and the way Paul Doswell sets us up at Sutton, I’ve got other people to run for me and press, so it’s going well.
“Eventually I want to go into management and I love taking the kids at Welling. I’ve driven the minibus to West Ham this morning. Four players didn’t turn up so we only had a bare eleven. We got beat 3-1, unsurprisingly. Then I get back and our other team that’s been playing has had one sent off for headbutting.
“But with what I’ve been through in my career and life, I can point these boys in the right direction.”
Let’s start with the six-month ban and the sack by Charlton for testing positive for cocaine and marijuana in November 1997, after making 50 appearances in what is now the Championship.
Stuart would come back and play 45 times for Millwall, but headed north to sign for Bury in 2001 to get away from the people he mixed with in south-east London. “You go through life and you make mistakes – it’s how you come back from them,” he says.
“The best thing I ever did was move up north. I hadn’t appreciated football when I was young at Charlton. I was more interested in my so-called friends. I left them all behind and started again.
“The ban made me more determined to play football. It really changed my outlook on life and the game. I wanted to earn a living out of it and after that, I was 100 per cent dedicated.”
“My mum, Jennifer, passed away on the Monday,” says Stuart, “then overnight on the Wednesday, my old man – Ted – hung himself. He’d been suffering depression and my three half-brothers who lived with him rang me to go and deal with that.
“Justin Edinburgh told me not to play on the Saturday, but I wanted to and that’s when the incident happened. You have your little scuffles during a game and some players say something. The words ‘Your mum…’ was said to me, which was the wrong thing at the time and I reacted.
“To be fair to Chris, a few weeks after the case finished we played against each other at Kettering and he came and shook my hand. There were no hard feelings. He’d been told what happened that week leading up to the York game and that was it, done. Fair play to him for that.”
Stuart had already lost team-mate Ernie Cooksey to cancer at Grays, but after following Edinburgh to Rushden in the summer of 2009, tragedy hit the Nene Park dressing room when goalkeeper Dale Roberts took his own life in December 2010.
“We were on the way up to an FA Trophy replay at Eastwood when Justin pulled the coach over and told us,” says Stuart. “It was exactly the same way as my dad went. I’d been there, so I was able to put my arm round the likes of Max Porter and the younger lads who were so upset. I could talk to them and listen.”
It’s a captain-cum-counsellor role that has seen him thrown the armband at every Non-League club he’s been at.
“Maybe I do have regrets, but I’ve got a lot to give back,” Stuart says. “No-one grafts more than me and when there’s young lads in the side, I want them to look at me as an example.
“I’m always honest and open if ever anyone wants to ask me about anything that’s happened in my life. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed. You do things, but you’ve got to get on with it and learn by them. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Especially not his medals. There might be another one on the mantelpiece by May if the evergreen veteran continues leading by example.