Long-serving Eastbourne Borough defender Darren Baker is set to make his 900th appearance for the club on Saturday (April 2nd).
The 36-year-old has been with the club for 19 years and has remained a regular fixture in the first team during the club’s meteoric rise from the Sussex County League to the Blue Square Bet Premier.
Baker said: “I’m massively proud of it but I don’t ever really think about the number of games I’ve played. You’ve got guys like Ben Austin, Matt Smart and Matt Crabb who have all played more than 400 games and I just consider myself among those. There’s so many different players who have come in over the years – all these loan defenders who can play anywhere in defence – you start thinking whether your days are numbered but I’ve managed to keep going.”
As a teenager, Baker spent three years playing youth team football for Brighton and Hove Albion, before starting his adult career with Langney Sports, who were then still establishing themselves in division one of the Sussex County League. Originally an attacking right wing-back, he scored his first goal for Sports in March 1993 against Littlehampton Town.
Baker said: “I was in the under-18s and then [manager] Pete Cherry got me involved in the first team. There were a few other lads of a similar age to me who were given a chance as well – it was different back then, it wasn’t such a high-profile club so you could give youngsters a go. After a bit I became a regular fixture in the first team.
“I was playing at right wing-back and we were always given encouragement to get forward. Then one day Nick [Greenwood, still the club's assistant manager] said they were going to play me in the middle of defence. I remember saying, ‘that’s ridiculous, I can’t play there’ but then I stayed in that position for the next 14 or 15 years!”
Baker’s career flourished when Garry Wilson was appointed Langney Sports manager in February 1999. He was one of the few players who survived a clear-out at the club, which then embarked on a stunning series of promotions up the non-league pyramid, with Baker at the heart of the defense.
He made his 500th appearance during the 2002-03 season, his testimonial year, and, soon after Borough won promotion to the Blue Square Premier, he clocked up 800 games at Burton Albion’s plush Pirelli Stadium – conceding a penalty in a 2-0 defeat. Despite that experience, the defender has been proud of his role in the club’s ascent.
“You appreciate it [the promotions] more now. The pitches are fantastic, the fans’ noise echoes around the grounds – it’s like playing proper football, but I’ve had to wait 19 years for it!”
Goals have been few and far between – Baker has scored just 23 times during his 19 seasons, most recently in the 2-2 draw with Histon in February. But he gets forward a lot more now since reverting to right-back towards the end of last season, after numerous seasons at centre-back.
He said: “[Right-back] Ben Austin was saying for a long time that he wanted to play in the middle. He was probably better than me in there because you’re playing against some very physical strikers in this league and he’s very strong and heads the ball well. I enjoyed the change as well – playing in a new position brings a new freshness to your game.”
Unsurprisingly, Baker, who combines his football career with his job as a printer, is known in the Borough dressing room, even by boss Wilson and assistant Greenwood, as ‘legend’.
“It’s quite funny but it’s also quite nice. I do love the banter that we’ve always had at this club, from the very start really.”
Baker is a long way from the all-time record number of appearances for one club – that is held by King’s Lynn’s Mick Wright, who made 1,152 appearances between 1961 and 1981 – but his achievement is rare nonetheless and will be celebrated by Borough at their next home game, against Fleetwood Town on Saturday April 9th.