There has, through the moments of promise and frustration, been a consistent thread in Darren Ambrose’s career. “I like scoring goals, and I like scoring good goals,” says the Colchester United midfielder. “As a kid I always used to shoot from a long way out – it’s probably made me the player I am, even if it sometimes made my managers tear their hair out.”
A trawl through the 13 years since Ambrose was hurried out of an impoverished Ipswich Town to join Sir Bobby Robson’s Newcastle United can easily prompt a similar reaction. High points have been in reasonable supply but those who saw in the teenaged Ambrose what Robson did – a player of rare vision and grace, with a laser-like right foot – would have been hard pressed to imagine that, a month short of his 32nd birthday, Ambrose would be representing a club seven points adrift of safety in League One.
Tottenham Hotspur visit Colchester’s Weston Homes Community Stadium on Saturday for the sides’ first competitive meeting and if Ambrose feels this is a more appropriate stage for his talents then he certainly does not show it. Three and a half years have passed since he chose to end an often spectacular spell at Crystal Palace and join what seemed a more upwardly mobile Birmingham City side under Lee Clark; the move did not work out and, after a spell in Greece with Apollon Smyrni and an injury-bedeviled return to Ipswich, he is content to put himself back on the map with a club whose facilities belie their parlous position.
“I was at the peak of my career when I left Palace,” he says. “It was probably the best three years I’ve had. We’d been in a couple of relegation scraps so it was a calculated decision to join Birmingham, but it didn’t really happen for either party. Sometimes managers don’t like players or you don’t fit into a system and that’s how it was. I think I played nine games in two years and it halted my career for a while.
“The last few years have been frustrating and I’ve taken a bit of a slide, but that happens and I never look back with regrets or hold grudges. This was a move to get me back in people’s eyes and start enjoying my football again. I’ve always felt, and always will, that I’m good enough to get back where I want to be.”
Had Ambrose not scored Palace’s second goal in the draw at Sheffield Wednesday that kept them in the Championship in 2009-10, the club-rescuing takeover by Steve Parish’s consortium might have been rather more complicated to achieve. He still receives words of appreciation from their supporters and so, too, is he thanked for the 35-yard thunderbolt at Old Trafford 18 months later that embodied his appetite for the unforgettable.
“Maybe I don’t feel as much pressure as I should in these big games,” he says. “The match against Wednesday for example – we needed the point to stay in the league and everyone was talking about it, but I really didn’t feel it. It’s always nice to get the headlines but I just went out there and did the job.”
A similarly ice-veined approach would serve Colchester well. They have not won a league match since 20 October and, while performances have brightened since Kevin Keen’s appointment as manager last month, they have lost 11 of their past 13. It is a run all the more perplexing for the presence of players such as Owen Garvan, Marvin Sordell, Chris Porter and the young midfielders George Moncur and Alex Gilbey – not to mention Ambrose himself, who missed two months through injury and has been eased back from the bench in recent weeks.
“I look at this club similarly to Palace,” he says. “It’s a big club for the league we are in, and if we can get through this season as we feel we can then the future will be bright.
“It’s a fantastic squad and we should be challenging higher up. We’ve proved that in the last five or six games, but when you’re down there the luck can go against you. We’re looking at eight or nine wins to stay up and it’s a tough task, but we’ve got the ability to do it.”
Colchester’s smart Florence Park training ground, which houses a Category Two academy, is certainly not befitting of a bottom-tier club and the setup is a far cry from their days playing in the tiny Layer Road stadium, a venue Ambrose has cause to remember.
“My first child was actually born the night before I played there for Charlton [in 2007],” he says. “It was about four in the morning but Alan Pardew asked if I could still play so I drove from the hospital to Layer Road. I had an absolute nightmare to be honest – no sleep, head all over the place – and almost fell asleep on the pitch.
“That was an old-school ground but you look at the setup here now and it’s fantastic. We’ll have a sell-out crowd against Spurs and it will be a great place to play – absolutely rocking.”
If Ambrose, who supported Tottenham when growing up in Harlow, finds his range then perhaps the din will be audible from inside vehicles on the adjacent A12. He scored a rare header for Ipswich in an FA Cup tie against Southampton last season and no one would discount another flourish.
“You’ll have to put ‘header’ in capitals,” he says. “I’d love to be involved on Saturday. I’m trying to stay fit and prove in training that I’m ready to go, and you never know the next chapter – hopefully it’s a 30-yarder against Tottenham.”