Football: Futcher relaxed about his future direction

Southport's manager has just taken on a new role in midfield. Can he conjure the downfall of Leyton Orient?
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The Independent Online
YOU ARE a 42-year-old non-League manager with an FA Cup tie looming. What better time to be trying out a new playing position? That is the situation of Paul Futcher, player-manager of Southport, of the Football Conference, potential giant-killers when they host Leyton Orient at Haig Avenue on Saturday.

A mere 26 years after starting his long League career as a central defender with his home-town club, Chester, Futcher is trying midfield for size. Presumably, if that does not work out, he can be expected to have a run up front with the youth team.

"I played part of a season there for Oldham, but it's not a position I ever really saw myself playing," he says. "It's not something I could see myself doing for a long period of time, but for the last three or four games I haven't had a lot of other options."

Futcher occupied more familiar territory when he brought himself on as a substitute in Southport's startling victory over Mansfield in the last round; indeed, there can hardly be a more experienced defender still playing at a good level in Britain. As a young up-and-comer at Luton, he looked a certainty for full England caps, rather than the Under-21 and Football League honours for which he ultimately had to settle.

With his twin, Ron, very much as the makeweight, he was a big-money signing when Tony Book was in charge at Manchester City, 20 years and about as many managers ago. The returning Malcolm Allison never fancied him as much and he left after two seasons, taking in Oldham, Derby, Barnsley, Halifax and Grimsby on the rest of his League travels.

"As a young player, I really used to play it off the cuff. I used to stroke it about and, in those days, you could always play it back to the goal-keeper, but I still made the odd mistake.

"I was a good player, but I'd always give you a chance. When I was at Luton as a 17-year-old, though, I was a bit like that lad at Villa, Gareth Barry."

Notable prodigy as he was, Futcher reckons he played some of his best - and certainly most mature - football at Grimsby when he was already deep into his mid-30s. He even had a spell in charge there on a caretaker basis but was not wanted when a permanent appointment was made.

"I'd played League football until 39 and I just went to Droylesden to keep fit. But from there I got a phone call to be player-manager at Gresley and had a fair bit of success there for 18 months."

He is now midway through his second season with Southport, having guided them to the final of the FA Trophy in his first. Adventures in Cup competitions are all very well, of course, but the priority for a club that lost its League status must be the quest to reclaim it.

"Halifax have proved that it can be done and Macclesfield are in the Second Division, competing with the likes of Manchester City. Who would have thought that three years ago?"

Southport are in mid-table in the Conference, having played less games than most of the clubs above them, but Futcher does not believe that the FA Cup is a distraction.

"But we've had a bit of luck in our Cup run that hasn't always been there in our league matches. We've been creating chances but not converting them, whereas at Mansfield we stuck a couple of good goals away."

Drawing Southport cannot be counted as good luck for Orient, beaten by Conference opposition in the Cup for the past two seasons and rather unconvincing winners over another Conference side, Kingstonian, in the second round.

Futcher is so relaxed about it all that he has not even watched the opposition and there is a good deal of League experience - starting with the goalkeeper, Billy Stewart - in the Southport side to help them take it all in their stride at Haig Avenue this Saturday.

Futcher's personal best in the competition amounts to a couple of tastes of the quarter-finals. He was not planning to rush into a decision on what role he will play in this tie, but it is hard to imagine him resisting the temptation. He does, after all, live in the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, 70 miles from Southport, about 75 from the sea and famous as the setting for Last of the Summer Wine.

It could be the last swallow for Futcher.

"I'm not going to go on flogging a dead horse, although I'm still fit," he says.

It will not, however the result goes, be the end of the Futcher family involvement in the FA Cup. His sister's son is Liverpool's Danny Murphy; another nephew, Stephen Futcher, is at Wrexham, while Paul's own son, Ben, is a second year YTS trainee at Oldham.

As for Ron, he lives around the corner in Holmfirth and is a youth development officer at Bradford City. By Futcher standards, he's a bit of a half-hearted football man, though. He retired before he was 40.