Brian serves up a ‘Canny’ way to play football

PUBLISHED: 11:23 02 April 2020 | UPDATED: 11:23 02 April 2020

Brian Cann in action for Willand Rovers. Picture: G WILLIAMS

Brian Cann in action for Willand Rovers. Picture: G WILLIAMS

Northcliffe Media Ltd.

In the ‘modern sporting age’ it is impossible to give your all to both football and cricket as the two seasons now overlap in considerable fashion.

Brian Cann playing in goal for Willand Rovers. Picture: BRIAN CANNBrian Cann playing in goal for Willand Rovers. Picture: BRIAN CANN

However, that has not always been the case and Dunkeswell-based Brian Cann recalls with real passion how he used to play out a football season before switching the cricket in early May and then putting down his cricket kit and returning to football in August.

Brian, who is now 54, has recently turned his sporting prowess to bowls, but he does have over 1,000 games of football and 2,000 games of cricket ‘in the memory bank’ after year upon year of service to both sports.

His footballing experience began when he was 14, playing for Honiton Under-15s who were managed by Fred Homeyard, who was a Honiton fireman.

That first season did see a cup final; Brian explains saying: “We reached the final of the Football Express Cup and got to take on Rennes at St James Park – the only time I ever played at the home of Exeter City – but it’s not the best of memories for we lost 11-0!

Brian Cann in a Willand Rovers team photograph after the Mid Devon men won one of many triophies. Picture BRIAN CANNBrian Cann in a Willand Rovers team photograph after the Mid Devon men won one of many triophies. Picture BRIAN CANN

After leaving school, Brian found work in the local hardware store in Cullompton and the requirement to work on Saturdays meant he was lost to football and he did not come back to the game until he was 23 when he joined Sidbury.

He takes up the story saying: “Sidbury were managed by my ex father in law, Bob Carlyon, and the late, great Dave Badcock.

“Sidbury were a team that was all-conquering, and if I remember correctly, we went through the divisions from what were then intermediate through to senior.

“We had such a great time and swept aside all that came before us!”

Brian Cann in a team photograph following a Honiton Town cup success. Picture: BRIAN CANNBrian Cann in a team photograph following a Honiton Town cup success. Picture: BRIAN CANN

From Sidbury, Brian made the switch to Honiton Town who were then managed by Steve ‘Razzy’ Rasmussen and, after a short spell there he was head hunted by Tiverton Town, spending one season with the Mid Devon side playing ion what was the Western League Combination.

Brian says: “We were managed by Barry Kerslake and won the league that year which was probably one of the most enjoyable seasons of football I had.”

The stay at Tiverton was short-lived as, with local hero Ian Knott the number on goalkeeper, opportunities were restricted for an ambitious Brian Cann who says: “Knotty [Ian Knott] was the number one, and I didn’t fancy waiting around as a ‘number two’.

“Goalkeeping was a passion for me. I just felt so comfortable catching a football and it never seemed to be too much of a challenge, and, other than a few great seasons in the early 90’s playing up front for the Honiton Sunday side, where I finished top goal scorer for two seasons by the way, goalkeeping was always the priority!”

Brian Cann in the thick of the action during a Willand Rovers game at Silver Street. Picture: WRFCBrian Cann in the thick of the action during a Willand Rovers game at Silver Street. Picture: WRFC

After departing Tiverton Town, he returned for a short spell with Honiton before taking a call from the then Elmore manager Kenny Freeman who offered him a goalkeeping berth in the Western League.

However, there then came an incident that almost cost ‘Canny’ his leg!

He takes up the story, saying: “It was Boxing Day, 1993, and a derby meeting with Tiverton Town when, 15 minutes in, I was hurt in a challenge involving Mark Saunders who went on to play for Plymouth Argyle and Gillingham.

“My new girlfriend, Tracey, who is now my wife, was behind the goal, watching me play for the first time!

“My right leg was shattered, both bones broken at the shin and my ankle was also broken.

“After a week or so in hospital, and after coming dangerously close to losing my leg, 20 weeks of recuperation followed. I was told that I’d never be able to run again and would walk with a limp – but that was off the agenda as far as I was concerned – recover I most certainly would!”

He continued: “My leg was repaired with a rod through the main bone, and screwed at the bottom, and they remain there to this day, and in absolute defiance of medical advice, and I remember it, like it was yesterday, in the following April, just four months later, I was playing cricket, in the snow, for Honiton, in their annual season opener at Killerton, against Broadclyst, and have never looked back!”

The injury led to a change in sporting thinking. Brian says: “To be honest, after the horrendous leg break, I sort of turned my back on football, and couldn’t even watch it on the TV.

“However, 18 months on I went to watch a game at Honiton and something inside me just clicked – it was very much a ‘light bulb moment’. I remember standing there, and saying to myself, ‘I can do better than that on one leg’, I didn’t mean that disrespectfully, but it was the push I needed, so I signed again for Honiton, and against the wishes of my mother, three years after that horrific leg break, I was back playing football!”

A call from the Willand Rovers manager at the time, Nigel Howe, saw Brian sign for the Mid Devon men who, at the time, were playing in the Westward Developments Devon County League.

Brian takes things up saying: “Nigel [Howe] clearly wanted me to play for them and I was offered £15 a game which was music to my ears – to be paid for doing something I loved! I wasted little time in saying yes and, the rest, as the saying goes – is history!

In his first season at Willand, Brian Cann was named Player of the Year. The following season there was a change of manager at Willand with Clive Jones, who had been a great servant to Wellington, Tiverton Town and Bideford, taking the reigns.

It was to be the start of a wonderful spell of 15 years for goalkeeper and manager as the Mid Devon men first won the Devon County League, and then promotion to the Screwfix Western League Division One before then gaining promotion to the Western League Premier Division.

Along the way there were long cup runs. Brian recalls one of those cup runs with mixed emotions. He says: “We reached the last 16 of the FA Vase before narrowly losing to Barwell in a replay.

“I recall in the first meeting with Barwell, at our Silver Street home, we spurned a gilt-edged chance to win it.

“To this day I haven’t forgiven Carl Cliff Brown for missing that, and he missed a similar chance in the replay up in Leicestershire!”

There are other single games which stand out for the glovesman. “Amongst the ‘horror stories’ was an FA Cup tie against Lymington and New Milton, where we lead 3-0 before losing 4-3!

“On the flip side of that, although we lost a cup tie 1-0 at Dunstable Town, after the game, a 94-year-old gentleman came up to me and said: “I’ve seen football here for almost 80 years, seen some great players including George Best play here, and have seen some great performances, but young man, your performance in goal was one of the best I’ve ever seen in all these years, and the save from the free-kick [a shot from 20 yards put that had seemed destined for the top corner), is the best I’ve ever seen” and those words have stuck with me to this day. What’s more, the chap gave me his Dunstable Town scarf, which I still have in the loft somewhere!”

‘Canny’ played over 800 games for Willand with his final appearance being the 2013/14 Les Phillips League Cup final played at Bitton FC up in Bristol.

Brian takes up the story of that day saying: “We won 1-0 and yours truly picked up the Man of the Match award. Clive [Willand boss Clive Jones] also stepped aside after that game and it was certainly the end of an era up there in the Bristol sunshine.”

Looking back over his whole footballing career, ‘Canny’ says: “I played with some truly great players, for what I think to this day is the greatest football club in the county [Willand Rovers], I won more than I could have ever imagined, league titles, cups galore, as well as gaining 10 full Devon County caps, winning the championship one year, and playing in the likes of Guernsey and Surrey - great, great memories!”

As a Manchester United fan, Brian has one particular footballing hero – George Best!

Playing cricket and football always needed a level of ‘understanding’ from team management.

Brian says: “It was always a problem at the start of a football season as the Western League began in August which, of course, was the final full month of the cricket season.”

However, the Willand boss, Clive Jones, was another who had a passion – and played – both sports at a good level.

Brian added: “I would leave the decision to Clive and, if he gave me his blessing, I’d play cricket. If I did not have his blessing – and I would certainly know if I didn’t - then I’d play football!”

To the question of which of the sports was his favourite, Brian has a straight forward response.

He says: Football in the winter and cricket in the summer – apart from the start of the season!”

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