Football: Record-breaker Ford targets 1,000-game mark

Harold Wilson was at No 10 when Mansfield's veteran wing-back played the first of his 824 Football League games.
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The Independent Online
LAST WEEKEND, Grandstand interviewed him and replayed two of his long-forgotten goals, while the shock-horror revelation that he occasionally eats fish and chips made the News of the World. After nearly a quarter of a century of unstinting but unsung service, Tony Ford is an overnight success.

Four months away from his 40th birthday, Ford cannot burn off opponents as he did in his prime. But, if he is in his usual wing-back berth for Mansfield Town at Plymouth tomorrow, he will breeze past Terry Paine, the former England winger with whom he now shares the record for an outfield player of 824 appearances in English League football.

Ford's career spans a period of great upheaval within the sport and society. When he first turned out in the reserves for his home-town club, Grimsby, at 15, there was no Sky, no sponsors or all-seater stadiums. The most exotic imports were Scots and the only agents were of the 007 variety. Ron Atkinson was cutting his managerial teeth with Cambridge and Manchester United were in the old Second Division. Sir Stanley Matthews, whose No 7 shirt Ford would inherit at Stoke, had been retired only 10 years.

Harold Wilson was ensconced in Downing Street, unperturbed by the advent of Margaret Thatcher as Tory leader. The last American troops were airlifted out of Vietnam as the war ended. Charlie Chaplin was knighted and Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon, where the local football club beat Atherstone to clinch the Southern League title.

Despite being part of a successful side at grammar school, Ford planned to take an engineering course when he left. He had set foot on a League pitch only to join the pitch invasion when Grimsby won the Fourth Division title as he was about to become a teenager. Then the Mariners' manager, Tommy Casey, invited him to play for the second team and was sufficiently impressed to sign him during the summer.

Ford had not reached 16 and a half and was earning pounds 10 a week when Casey blooded him at Walsall. It was 1975: so long ago that the ground, like those of two of his clubs, Stoke and Sunderland, has long since been bulldozed into oblivion. "I just remember it was very fast," he said. "I was thrown on for a few minutes and it went by in a blur."

Left-backs began to say much the same of Ford, whose pace was a key factor in Grimsby's successive promotions in 1979 and '80. After spells with Sunderland (on loan), Stoke (where he formed a strong partnership with Lee Dixon) and West Bromwich (with whom he won two England B caps alongside David Platt, Paul Gascoigne and Steve Bull), he returned to Blundell Park. Later it was on to Bradford City (again on loan), Scunthorpe and Mansfield, where he is also assistant to a progressive young manager, Steve Parkin.

"I've played at every club except Tottenham, Wycombe and Blackpool, if not at all the new stadiums, and in every position except goalkeeper. Grimsby switched me to centre-forward one season, Stoke used me at centre- half once, and I've played left-wing and both full-back roles. I've been lucky in that I've only ever had two injury lay-offs of five weeks each. The hernia and knee ops I had were done during the summer."

The relationship between fitness and food was less well documented when Ford was starting out; he recalls downing a fillet steak en route to his debut. These days, apart from the odd visit to a chip shop, it is more likely to be pasta, chicken, fish or simply toast followed by yoghurt. He sees no harm in a beer or two and, due to the influence of a dietician called Jeannie Baker at Scunthorpe, fills up on fluids before a game to prevent the dehydration that leaves players toiling.

There were relatively few black footballers when Ford first emerged. However, apart from "a bit of stick" at Chelsea and "the odd comment" from an opponent, he has not suffered racist abuse. "Either I'm thick- skinned or very fortunate, but it honestly hasn't been a problem."

Indeed, when you probe for his worst experience in football, he grimaces at the memory of FA Cup humiliations by Woking and Gateshead with West Brom and Grimsby respectively. Ask whether he regrets never having performed at Premiership level and he reflects, in typically positive vein, that "it wasn't as if I had the chance and turned it down".

Besides, he is finally enjoying some long overdue clamour and glamour. He first realised he was within sight of Paine's tally when television covered Mansfield's match with Carlisle two years ago. The commentary mentioned he was eighth in the all-time list. "It was news to me, but I checked in Rothmans Yearbook and I was just behind Jimmy Dickinson and several others bunched together.

"I'm not a great one for records, though now that it's there, it's a good feeling. The recognition has been nice." Another congratulatory fax landed as he spoke, from an old Grimsby colleague, Clive Wigginton, who now runs a salvage business. The Queen's telegram can not be far behind.

"The next landmark would be 1,000 games in all competitions," Ford mused. "I must be around the 950 mark now. I'd also like to play in four different decades like Stan Matthews. I'll definitely play some part next season. My body will tell me when it's time to give up, but somehow I don't think I'll go on until I'm 50!"

Nevertheless, players keep soldiering on into their late thirties at a time when the game is getting faster. How come? "We get by using knowledge and experience - they say your brain gets quicker as your legs get slower."

More than anything, Tony Ford carries on because his passion for playing is undimmed. "What a wonderful way to earn a living, doing something you liked doing as a kid. It's taken me round the world and I've met some great people. I also believe that Mansfield could get up into the Second Division this year, and I want that feeling of promotion once more before I stop. It's been a long time."