Today is non-league day and appropriately enough I’m covering Luton Town v Grimsby Town for BT Sport. I’ve been to both clubs many times in the league, either with a team or scouting, so it is strange to find them in the Conference, where I managed Scarborough Town many years ago. I think the last time I took a team to Luton was actually in the top flight with Notts County, while I went to Grimsby many times in the Championship. I’ve happy memories of receiving a crate of fresh cod in the dressing room – they used to leave one for the visitors. It was always cold though, so I’m quite pleased it’s at Luton today.
My other memory of Grimsby is of going there with Oldham at the end of the season. Oldham had promised me there would be a new contract and on the strength of that I’d sent Sharon out house-hunting – Amy was on the way and we wanted to settle somewhere as quickly as possible. We won 2-0 at Grimsby, Ronnie Jepson getting both goals. The dugouts were opposite the directors’ box at Blundell Park and each time Jeppo scored I looked up to see the directors with their heads in their hands. I went home and told Sharon not to make an offer on “that lovely place” she’d seen. Sure enough, they called me in the following week and said there would be no new contract.
It’ll be nice to catch up with John Still, who’s now Luton boss. I saw him pre-season and they were obviously fancied to go up and have one of the bigger budgets but they have not found it straightforward so far. Knowing John, who is a wily old fox and has seen most things, I wouldn’t expect them to be too far away come the end of the season, though with only two going up it is a tough league to escape. I have to say I’m surprised there are not two automatic promotion places and a third through the play-offs. Most Conference teams are fully professional now and do well when they come up.
The players being full-time is one of the big changes from my non-league days. When we won the Conference at Scarborough in 1987 we were all part-time. We had a nappy salesman, a lager salesman, a policeman, a local government officer, a solicitor, a fireman – I even had a job myself, as a chiropodist. Being part-time I couldn’t expect everyone to move to Scarborough, so we didn’t have a training ground, we trained all over, wherever was convenient. Sometimes I took them to the same place I took a Sunday league team I’d coached in Sheffield. We’d put 50p pieces in the meter to pay for the one floodlight. The lads just got on with it, but I imagine now even at that level they are pampered.
The budgets are so much bigger because the rewards are so much bigger. Clubs have access to quite a lot more cash and grants in the Football League, so everyone is after it. Cambridge United, the current leaders, have a really good youth system, all paid for by sponsors. But if they are in the league they get extra funding for that, so they could expand even more.
I was at Cambridge on the opening weekend of the Conference. They beat Halifax 5-1 but were 1-0 down with the visitors the better side when Halifax conceded two penalties, both also resulting in a red card. They had no chance after that. It underlined why the law needs changing, a penalty should be enough if the foul is in the box.
I was impressed with the facilities and the standard. I volunteered to do the Skrill Conference with BT as I wanted to see some different matches. And I am. Last week I was at Motherwell v Kilmarnock, next week I’m covering Manchester United v Crystal Palace.
I’m enjoying doing some non-league games. Doing my book, The Gaffer, brought back a lot of memories of those days with Gainsborough Trinity, Burton Albion (who were in the Northern Premier League then) and Scarborough, who have sadly fallen on very hard times.
We did go to some places where you found out who wanted to know and who didn’t when you were getting changed. Burton would have two local derbies with Tamworth over Christmas. Our ground wasn’t bad but Tamworth’s left a lot to be desired. We changed in portable dressing rooms and the pitch in December was really heavy going. And I can recall at Gainsborough 2,000 watching our Christmas game v Worksop Town. There was a fabulous atmosphere. Our country is blessed with four divisions that are well-supported and a great pyramid of teams lower down that have plenty of fans, too.
Just how many teams was brought home at the weekend when I was looking at the FA Cup preliminary round results. There were some real old non-league names in it: one match that caught my eye was Leatherhead v Tooting & Mitcham. All you oldies out there will remember Chris Kelly, “the Leatherhead Lip”, who played for them in an FA Cup run in the Seventies and got a few headlines. That’s what the FA Cup can do, make someone famous.
Warm welcome awaits the world’s oldest club
I heard on the radio someone from Civil Service FC talking about a match they are going to play at Buckingham Palace. Well, that is a great honour, but I can assure him he was wrong when he said that his team are the oldest in the country. Civil Service, I am told, are the only surviving club from the 11 who founded the Football Association in 1863, and they also played in the first FA Cup in 1872. But the world’s oldest club is Sheffield FC. I know because I used to play for them in the Yorkshire League. We were founded in 1857. I was pleased to see Sheffield won their FA Cup preliminary round tie, albeit after a replay, beating Shirebrook Town 4-0.
They/we now play at Frickley Athletic, a club my Scarborough played against in the Conference. Frickley had a long association with a neighbouring colliery and they used to have a huge coal fire in the middle of the dressing room. That was great in winter, it was lovely and warm, but they lit it all year so if you played them in August it was sweltering.
Timely word eased the window pain for Harry
The transfer window gets worse every year, I’ve never seen anything like it. How many panic buys were there at the end? Some people avoided making a mistake, though, by doing their research. I was on talkSPORT the morning after and Harry Redknapp was on the programme. He said: “I rang Neil about a player, he told me not to touch him.” He had too, and I’m pleased to say Harry took my advice. I’m afraid I can’t tell you who the player was – you’ll have to guess.