Ben Hooper: Winscombe defender bids farewell after 21 years with club
- Credit: Frank Matthews
The last minutes of Ben Hooper’s Winscombe 21-year career are coming to an end.
His side are 6-3 up against Hutton Reserves, after fighting back from two goals down, when a penalty is awarded in the last minute.
Hooper now has the chance to wrap the game and end his spell, which has spanned three decades, with one final goal.........
It was back in 2000 that Hooper made his debut for Winscombe, a year which saw Tiger Woods as the world's best golfer, the Sydney Olympics take place, Italy included in rugby's newly formed Six Nations, Michael Schumacher become Ferrari's first World Drivers' champion in 21 years and France win Euro 2000 through David Trezeguet’s extra time golden goal winner against Italy.
Then 16, and with his junior football career at Milton Nomads coming to an end, Hooper and a few others were approached by Steve Andow to sign for the club, a move from which he has never looked back.
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“My first memory is playing for the colts, strangely enough it was against Hutton Reserves, who are the team that I played my last game against, and we won 2-1," said Hooper.
“I was a bit daunted really, I was a young boy, much smaller than I am today. I was just surprised by how much more physical it was playing men’s football, but I didn’t really know many people at Winscombe and they took me on board with open arms.
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“All the coaches were great from the start and all my teammates were great as well and they made me feel really welcome from day one.”
With Hooper now settled, the defender slotted straight into the back four and would deliver consistent performances week in, week out.
But it was coaches Andy Burton, Steve Rogers, Alan Smith and Steve Barker who helped shape Hooper into the player he is today, on the pitch as well as the person off it.
“They helped me grow up and they educate you in football as well as life,” he added.
“They are really good people and they teach you about the game and how to win football matches but also how to handle yourself on a football pitch, especially when you are younger and playing against older men.
“And how to stick up for yourself in the right ways. It develops you mentally and brings out the best in you as a person.”
Current chairman Andy Flint, who has been with Winscombe since 1996, recalled some of his qualities while being with the team.
"Ben has been a stalwart of the club throughout my term as chairman, which is over 18 years,” Flint said.
“It's almost as though we have to include him as a fixed asset in our accounts! He has captained at all senior levels of the club.
“He has been a leader on and off the pitch. His presence in the dressing room was always an inspiration to others.
“He would often give rallying cries to others as part of the half-time team talk, demanding more from them for the good of the club.
“As he entered his more senior days as a player he had no hesitation in helping out the less experienced players coming up through the club.”
In the history of the club there have been a few promotions and relegations, but winning cups and titles had eluded them for so long.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when Winscombe won their first double and it wasn’t until around 50 years later when the side would copy that feat with more success for the first time in recent memory.
“The best memory was in 2015 when we did the double,” added Hooper.
“We got promoted when Steve Barker was our manager into Division One but we also won the (Somerset League Division Two) Cup.
“Strangely enough, even though Winscombe has been quite a successful football club and up the leagues in local football, they really haven’t won many trophies, especially the first senior team.
“It was the first time the first team had won a trophy for a very long time and suddenly we won two trophies in one season.
“We absolutely smashed it that year, we had a great team, great spirit and we absolutely crushed it, which is great and one of my fondest memories.”
Now 37, and with just days left before his move to United States, Hooper had one final chance to leave his mark with Winscombe.
Despite both the first and reserve-team matches being called off, the colts were in action and facing the club which Hooper had started his Winscombe career against.
“It was nice because the other two teams weren’t playing and all the players and girlfriends all came down to watch,” he added.
“We had a good crowd at the club, selfishly it was focused on my farewell game which was nice.
“It meant everything that I could play one more game for them especially in front of everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, we beat top of the league 7-3 after going 2-0 down in the first 10 minutes.
“At first I thought we were going to get hammered but we showed a lot of character and brought it back.
“That was quite a nice way to go out. I then got really lucky, I don’t score many goals but I was trying to push for a goal because it was my final game and I got overly excited.
“In the last minute of the game we got given a penalty and everyone was shouting at me to take it. We had nothing to lose, we were winning 6-3 at the time.
“They gave me the match ball and let me step up and thankfully I slotted it away. I think everyone thought I was going to miss which would have summed up my football career at Winscombe.
"But thankfully the goalkeeper went the wrong way and I managed to score the penalty. It was a great memory for me and a nice send-off.”
Flint added: “It was fitting that his last game was, as captain, for our A team, which helps young players into senior men's football. He bowed out by scoring the final goal of the match in a 7-3 win.
“A very popular character at the club. He will be greatly missed and we all wish him well as he starts his new life in America."
The way Hooper speaks about Winscombe is clear to see.
His love for the club stands out throughout our conversation. The decision to leave isn’t one he has taken lightly.
In fact it’s been a year in the making, but the move to America only took place in the last two months after his wife Katie was offered a job to work as a nurse in the New Year and Hooper was granted his visa.
But after leaving on Boxing Day, Hooper admits the time he has spent with the club will never be forgotten.
“The club means absolutely everything to me,” said Hooper.
"l know it’s only a local football club but it really has been a big basis of my life. I have been there for over half my life.
“Every Saturday, training midweek every week, with the same group of lads who have been really good friends and even the community, the older people, the committee down the club and the chairman.
“It’s been a major part of my life. Suddenly I have had that every Saturday and the support network there and everyone helps each other out whether it’s people looking for jobs for work, or you are looking to have your windows done or whatever.
“You have got such a wide range of people who do a range of jobs. And I can’t thank Winscombe enough really for taking me as a young man and keeping faith with me, selecting me each week and just being really supportive.”