1,975 games and out for ancient Mariner

At 70, the team talks end here. But Roly will still clean Dalglish's windows.
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The Independent Online

The evening after the European semi-final of the night before, Merseyside is getting ready for a final of its own. Six miles up the road from Anfield, in College Road in Crosby, there are no madding crowds beating a path to Rossett Park for the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup. "Marine AFC v Everton," the sign above the entrance says. "End of an era. Roly Howard's final game." Roly Howard's 1,975th and final game, that is.

The evening after the European semi-final of the night before, Merseyside is getting ready for a final of its own. Six miles up the road from Anfield, in College Road in Crosby, there are no madding crowds beating a path to Rossett Park for the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup. "Marine AFC v Everton," the sign above the entrance says. "End of an era. Roly Howard's final game." Roly Howard's 1,975th and final game, that is.

The retiring Mr Howard has been manager of Marine - members of the Unibond League Premier Division, the old Northern Premier League - for 33 years. In December last year he received a certificate from the Guinness Book Of Records recognising his status as the world's longest-serving football manager.

His first match in charge of Marine was on 12 August 1972, a 2-2 draw at Stalybridge. On the same afternoon, Larry Lloyd and Wyn Davies were sent off for fighting at Anfield as Liverpool, managed by Bill Shankly, opened their season with a 2-0 win against Manchester City. Everton, managed by Harry Catterick, drew 1-1 at Norwich, courtesy of a Joe Royle goal. Up in Montrose, Alex Ferguson wore the No 10 shirt for Falkirk, 4-3 winners in the first round of the Scottish League Cup. The early-evening television viewing was a choice between A Man Called Ironside and Sale Of The Century. Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love" was pushing Alice Cooper and "School's Out" for No 1 one spot in what were known at the time as the pop charts. Ted Heath was prime minister and the Munich Olympics were a month off.

In the here and now of the 21st century, a gentleman wearing a jacket and tie is sweeping a brush in front of the clubhouse at Rossett Park. Paul Leary is Marine's chairman. "I first started following the club in 1972, in Roly's first season," he says. "We've had some fantastic times since then. Roly is an absolute legend. Kenny Dalglish is coming tonight, and Sir Phillip Carter, the former chairman of Everton. That's how highly he's thought of."

At the age of 70, Roly might be about to step off football's managerial ladder but he still intends to climb the rungs in his daily job as a window cleaner. His round in the Southport area includes the Dalglish house, and he has become a friend of the family. As kick-off approaches, King Kenny and Sir Phillip are among a crowd of 500 who rise to applaud Roly on his way to his seat in the home dugout. There follows a final 90 minutes of frustration for the departing manager of the Mariners as his players fail to find an appropriate finishing touch in front of goal and Everton's academy team sneak a 1-0 victory.

Half an hour later, with the farewell drinks on ice in the boardroom and in the clubhouse, Roly is still in the Rossett Park boot-room, conducting his final post-match post-mortem. "That's been us all season," he laments. "We've had chances and failed to put them away, and put ourselves in trouble as a result. I'm not an emotional person. I'd rather have won the game than anything. But it's been a good night. A lot of people have put themselves out for me. I was pleased to see Kenny here. I rate him a good friend. I hope they accept me as a friend of the family, because I've seen his kids all grow up. Kenny's always supported me.

"The only thing wrong tonight was the result. But I always said I would know when it was to time to go, and that time is now. I'll miss the lads, the craic, and the involvement. But I know that that little spark I had may have deserted me, and I don't want to put that on the club. They've got a new manager now and I think it's time that they moved on and moved forward."

The new manager is Alvin McDonald, who steered Vauxhall Motors to a first- round FA Cup win against Queen's Park Rangers two seasons ago. He will need to go into sustained overdrive to get anywhere near to matching Roly's achievements at Rossett Park. There have been five league titles, 15 cups and FA Cup wins against Barnsley and Halifax since Roly took up the reins, and took hold of the lawn mower. He spent his first seven years as a manager-cum-groundsman after spotting the Stockport manager Eric Webster mowing the grass before a match at Edgeley Park.

"He told me he'd asked to look after the ground because they were having a bad time," Roly recalls. "He said, 'They never sack a groundsman, you know'. So I volunteered to do the ground here too."

Three-and-a-third decades of grass-roots management have not made Roly a rich man. "You're not in it at this level to make money," he says. "You cover your expenses and you have a few pints. That's about it. The most I ever spent on a player was £3,500. That was Brian Ross. He was with us four years, scored 120 goals, and we sold him back to the club we bought him off for £16,000. And we won the Northern Premier League back to back with him."

The quiet smile of satisfaction says it all. It is as priceless as the memories that the not so much ancient as veteran Mariner is preparing to take with him from Rossett Park - such as the time he slammed the home dressing-room door in anger one half-time, and only the opposition, the referee and the linesmen appeared for the second half. "I'd bust the lock," Roly says, chuckling. "We had to shout for help until someone came and smashed the door in from outside."

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