Play-off fever has struck Peterborough, after a fashion. In the pedestrianised cathedral square a man selling scarves, flags and blue-and-white wigs ahead of today's League One final against Huddersfield at Old Trafford is asked for directions to the London Road stadium and replies, "Haven't got a clue, sorry". A fan in a blue football shirt looks a better bet for local knowledge, but it turns out to be Chelsea blue.
Therein lies Peterborough United's problem. As Barry Fry, sometime manager and owner, now director of football and club secretary, acknowledges, the city is essentially a London overspill, from which older generations of supporters are still inclined to jump on a train back to the capital for their sport. The "Posh" therefore target youngsters, giving free season-tickets to accompanied under-10s.
And what entertainment they can offer. Anyone watching all 23 home games this season would have seen 109 goals in all; the next highest total was 76 at Brighton. No team in the country scored more times and only one League One side – relegated Bristol Rovers – conceded more. "The chairman, Darragh MacAnthony, said at the start of the season one of the targets was to score 100 goals and everybody laughed," Fry says. "We finished up scoring 106. The number here at London Road at both ends has been incredible."
MacAnthony is the 34-year-old Dubliner who took the club off Fry's hands four years ago, much to the latter's relief. "The chairman saved the club. I owned it and it was killing me. The pressure of finding £150,000 wages every month and realising everyone downstairs is relying on you to pay their mortgage or their rent was too much for me. I had four years of it and how I survived I don't know," admits the 66-year-old Fry.
His methods involved remortgaging first the family home, to his wife's dismay, then his mother-in-law's ("She's got the deeds back now, she didn't even know I'd given them to the bank") as well as putting in the proceeds from his pension and a £200,000 testimonial. It was not the ideal lifestyle for a man who had suffered two heart attacks, the first when pushing the Barnet team bus, the second soon after taking over at Peterborough in 1996.
"I've enjoyed it all, I really have," he says of 50 years in football, which he began at Manchester United after scoring for England Schoolboys in front of 94,000 at Wembley. He was regarded as the star of his age group, yet never made the United First XI and totalled fewer than two dozen appearances for Bolton, Luton and Leyton Orient before drifting into non-League football and finding his forte as a manager, often on the cheapest of shoestrings.
"I started off at Dunstable, where my first crowd was 34 people. They'd finished bottom eight years on the trot and in my first year we got promotion. I thought, 'This game is easy'. Then my chairman got arrested and put inside."
That chairman, Keith Cheesman, was only the first of several employers for whom the word "colourful" was barely adequate. At Barnet, the ticket- tout Stan Flashman threatened to have him buried in cement under the M25, sacked him eight times and relented only seven. "Stan went a bit funny at the end," is Fry's recollection of their final parting. He headed for Southend United and the equally, er, colourful Vic Jobson, saved them from relegation,then quickly moved on to Birmingham City under David Sullivan.
"My first five years at Barnet, just keeping a team in that [Conference] division I think gives me as much satisfaction as anything. Then going back there and finishing second three times in the Conference before winning it, and reaching the play-offs with a part-time team because Stan wouldn'tgo full-time. At Birmingham we had 78,000 at Wembley to win the Auto Windscreens, 55,000 of them 'Bluenoses'. Then we won Division Two when only the top team went up [automatically].
"I've had the sack everywhere I've been, but that's what you expect when you go into management. I've enjoyed it and I've stayed friends with everyone I've worked for. I say my bit, they say their bit and there's no grudges held. How the hell I lasted 31 years in management I'm not quite sure, but I'm a very lucky man."
Despite an encyclopaedic memory, still able to recall the goals that beat his Barnet team in a play-off at Blackpool almost 20 years ago – "one disputed free-kick, one disputed penalty" – even Fry could not begin to count the number of transfer deals he has done; so many at Birmingham in particular that his successor, Trevor Francis, once said: "There were 47 players when I arrived and a week later I opened a cupboard and two more fell out."
As a former Busby babe, he is probably the only person connected with the Posh delighted that today's game is at Old Trafford, not Wembley: "I've always dreamt of going back there with another club and it's unbelievable. I've been to Wembley enough, Old Trafford will do me fine."
Peterborough's manager, Darren Ferguson, who never quite established himself as a player there, will be equally proud, as no doubt will his father, Sir Alex. "Darren's very much his own man," Fry says. "He's very determined and hard-working with the knack of getting the best out of the players, all of whom love him, which is very unusual. And it's difficult for him when his father is the greatest manager the game's ever known."
The triumvirate of director of football, manager and chairman seems to work well, although the latter pair had a falling-out that led to Ferguson leaving in November 2009 after achieving two successive promotions. Wildly ambitious plans to reach the Premier League in five years had stalled with the team bottom of the Championship. But after a difficult 12 months at Preston, Ferguson returned.
"Back-to-back promotions here was absolutely miraculous, one we didn't really get credit for," says Fry, "but we went into the Championship with the smallest budget of any club and because the two of them, Darren and Darragh, are such winners, they stopped speaking to each other, which is the worst thing in the world. Perhaps as an old man I should have smacked their heads together, but they've got to learn themselves. So we parted ways. When Darren went, the last words I said to him were that however many years he stayed in football, he'd never get a better chairman. And when he came back the first words he said to me was that I was right. Now they're a wonderful partnership, they bounce off each other."
Fry, the old veteran who has been in both their shoes, bounces off them too. He handles all contracts and transfers, "so Darren doesn't have to fight 15 rounds with agents", and will now be busy sorting out the sale of leading scorer Craig Mackail-Smith for a minimum of £3 million plus the complicatedadd-ons in which he specialises. After relegation last May, the leading players were asked for one more year by the chairman; Mackail-Smith responded with 34 goals, giving him 98 for the club. Two more today would make a suitablefinish, the only problem being that given Peterborough's defensive record, it would not guarantee victory.
Fry says of Huddersfield: "Let's be fair, they've had 27 games unbeaten and if I'd had that, I'd be absolutely gutted I hadn't got up automatically. They're a lovely club with a much bigger fan base than us and we've had some cracking games with them. They were leading 2-0 at half-time here and we beat them 4-2. Up there they equalised in the third minute of injury time. In the Johnstone's Paint, with a few reserves each, they were 3-0 up in 16 minutes and we came back and could have beat them. Three fantastic games.
"They like to attack, we like to attack – we've been renamed Entertainers United. There'll be plenty of goals, I feel sure, and it'll be a credit to League One. We're 90 minutes away from a third promotion in four years, which is unbelievable, and all in our 50th anniversary of becoming a League club."
Should it all come together today, the street vendors will have to brush up on their local geography and the London-bound trains could be quieter on a Saturday morning.
Huddersfield Town v Peterborough Utd is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 3pmReuse content