Most notably you were Chairman of Spartans Juniors (or Head of Youth development according to Football Manager) for a number of years. How did you first get involved in that side of things?
I got involved probably the same way as most coaches and volunteers in junior football do, as a parent volunteer with Lewis playing for one of the teams. He’d been training with the Juniors from U7s as at the time they didn’t put a team out until U9s. Once he was in the U9s team, I was asked if I would help the coach with some of the team admin, so dropped in as his assistant. Come the end of the season and the coach had to move away for work, so guess who stepped in. I did my Coaching Level 1 over the summer and asked one of the other parents to help me out and it went from there.
Two years later and it was time to step up again. In April 2011, the then Chairman and Secretary both announced within a week of each other that they would be stepping down. At the time, the club had five teams and about sixty players going into the following season. If I hadn’t stepped up as Chairman and Keith (Whisson) as Secretary at that point, I honestly believe the club would have folded. There was a lot to do to stabilise the Juniors and take it forward and that became our focus over the next few years.
I have to say though, Head of Youth Development at Blyth Spartans on Football Manager has to be top of my footballing CV.
How did the development at Wensleydale come about?
I could probably write a book about this and everything else that was happening at that time at the Juniors.
When I became Chairman, the lease at Wensleydale had just expired. The club had played there for the previous season since the school had closed. I contacted the County Council, but they wouldn’t give us a new lease as the site was being put up for sale for housing. I managed to get them to agree to let us continue using the site, but with no formal lease so they could evict as soon as the site was sold. It was the best deal we could get on pitches at the time in Blyth as nothing else was available.
The next few years were interesting. The perimeter fence was pulled down in a few places and it became a magnet for dog walkers, some of whom took exception when they were challenged. The school was broken into and vandalised and this culminated in the arson attack that burnt it down. The school site was fenced off and the demolition contractors moved in. During the demolition, the locks were cut off our container and all of our training equipment, portable goals and pitch marking gear disappeared. The demolition contractors denied all knowledge of how this happened and the policeman who came out to investigate it went on the sick and I’m still waiting to hear back from him. During this period the Council asked us to move off the site a few times because of the issues, but we always managed to give them a reason of why we shouldn’t, what we could do and they let us stay.
We then heard that the site had been sold to Miller Homes, but not all of it could be developed because of the sports pitches. They could only build on the footprint of the school and it’s car park, so the area of our pitches would still be available to use. When Millers had the public consultation in the Ridley Park (a good pub in it’s day and now sadly gone) I went along to have a look at their plans. I introduced myself to the development manager and next thing I know, we’ve got a site meeting to talk about their plans. As they say, shy bairns get nowt. Basically, we agreed the layout you see today, including the car park which I’d asked to be included to support the pitches. Of course I asked tongue in cheek if they could build us a clubhouse, but was just happy to have secured the pitches. Both sites were then fenced off securely and Millers started building. Access to the pitches at this time was moved into Solingen on the opposite side from the usual entrance which was now a building site and a temporary gate installed. We then had to manage the kick off times so not too many cars were parked as we didn’t want to upset the residents. However, some people must have been as the locks were glued up a few times and attempts made to kick down the new fencing.
It was at this time, that John Marshall from the County Council and Nathan Rogerson of Blyth Valley Arts and Leisure came along with the news that they’d secured the funding to completely redevelop the pitches and also build us some changing rooms. I pushed our luck a bit at the design stage and got a bigger building than originally proposed and this became the basis for quite a few other developments in Blyth and Bedlington. With this came a new long term lease and the first permanent base the Juniors had had since it was formed in 1994. We had to move off site for a year while all the work was done and had teams playing in Cowpen, Newsham, Cramlington and Bedlington. Just before we moved back onto site in May 2015, the last twist of the Wensleydale development saga took place when the contractor went bust. Luckily the site was 99% complete and we just had to wait a few more months for the grass to grow enough so we could start playing football.
Proudest achievement and biggest challenge in your time working with the Juniors?
Hard to single out one achievement as a few are up there. Obviously securing Wensleydale and getting the initial development done is one of them. Another, which I had my sights set on for quite a few years was to get a Juniors team into the FA Youth Cup representing Blyth Spartans for the first time in this competition. This historical first game took place on 8th September 2016 with a certain Lewis Parker playing under the lights at Croft Park. The crowd of 302 was also the highest attendance in English Football that night!! However, not to be overlooked is that of being involved in helping to develop a lot of youngsters over the years, not just in football, but also their social skills and for a few individuals it probably kept them out of prison. It’s great to be out having a pint when one of these lads comes up and says hello and asks how I am. Job done!!
In terms of the biggest challenge, apart from keeping some kids out of prison, it was probably that first season as Chairman. Keith and myself had no experience of running a football club and had no contacts within the junior game. We had no pitches, our safeguarding information was out of date and nobody had a copy of the constitution. We had to virtually start from scratch on everything and make those contacts to help us out. We had three FA disciplinaries to attend within the first month but soon got into the swing of things. That first year saw a new constitution, formal club rules, a club handbook, getting on top of the subs collection and reducing arrears and also getting the right team managers in place. After that, we at least had some idea of what we were doing and where we wanted to take the Juniors.
Any advice you can give to any young coaches/managers who are getting involved a junior level?
As a young coach, it’s all about your development and getting that experience. You’ll be giving your time for free to a club so make sure that the club will cover the cost of your qualifications although be prepared for the commitment they will want in return. Make sure they also support you with the right equipment and facilities. There are all sorts of coaching development courses going on at a local level so look out for them and get on them. Use these to meet other coaches and build up your network then you’ve always got somebody to bounce stuff off. There are loads of clubs out there looking for coaches so go to the one that suits your needs best. The more I think about this, the more I can add. Communication is important, not only with the kids you coach but also their parents and don’t forget about your club officials. Not every coach will make a good manager as there’s different skills involved which come with experience, so don’t step into management until you’re ready.
Favourite memories of attending Spartans games with Lewis as a youngster?
There’s loads of memories. Lewis was only six when I took him to his first Spartans game back in the 2006/7 season and soon his grandad was coming with us. In his Q&A he said I was too tight to take him to see Newcastle, but I remember him having a season ticket for a few years and us going to watch the European games on a Thursday night.
The favourite memories are all related to away games. His first away game at Lancaster at the end of the season and he was on the pitch at half time having a kick about with the subs.
Bournemouth away was a biggie. We’d drove down and arrived at our hotel to find out it was also the team hotel. We were standing in the bar having a pint before we went looking for everybody else when Harry Dunn came up to us and asked Lewis if he wanted to be mascot. He said no…….. After the game it was back to the hotel bar and Doug Ramsey took Lewis around all the players who made a fuss of him and he got his programme signed by them all.
Vauxhall Motors away was the start of things to come from Lewis. The ball went out for a throw in to them. Lewis picked the ball up and when their player approached, he chucked it past him and told him “it went out back there so take it from there”
Obviously you’re now retired to sunny Spain. You not miss those cold Tuesday nights at Croft Park in the Winter?
To be honest though when people ask me if there’s anything I miss about the UK, I do say watching Spartans. We keep in touch by listening to Blyth Live and do get back for a few games over the course of the season. Since August 2021, Spartans have won every game I’ve been back for. Not a bad record considering how we performed last season.
We still get our football fix locally though and are season ticket holders at our local non-league team CD Thader who play in the sixth level of Spanish football. Imagine Benidorm away as one of your fixtures? That’s one of ours, but unfortunately we miss it as we’re back in the UK when it’s on. I’ve also been to a few Elche games last season who are in La Liga. I remember when I was back in the UK in February standing in the Clubhouse and was asked what was the last game I’d seen and said Real Madrid. They then asked what was the next game and I said Barcelona. Don’t think anybody spoke to me after that.
Over the years Lewis has achieved a fair bit doing the Green Army stuff, you must be pretty proud of his work over the years?
Definitely. I remember when he first got involved and he was very much a young lad helping out. Now he’s very much grown into more than that. I can see how active he is in what is going on and he keeps me well updated. It’s also good to see the evolution of the Green Army and the support they’re giving to local charities
Lastly, how would you like to see the club improve in the near future and what changes would you like to see?
The club needs to get some stability which we haven’t had over the past few seasons. There’s been too many managerial changes and the uncertainty with the covid seasons. I think we’ve now got the best manager around and we need to support him as he builds the squad he needs to play his brand of football. Results haven’t went our way lately, but this year is very much a season of consolidation and avoid relegation and get through to next summer. Give Fents the time and support and I think the future is very bright….it’s Green and White
I have to commend Tony for the money he’s put into the club over the last few seasons to keep us going, but we need to bring in money to support the club development. There always seems to be a big focus on getting crowds up to increase revenue, but that’s only going to happen if we’re winning and will we ever get to the gate sizes they want? It’s probably not the time to say it in a cost of living crisis, but is admission too cheap? We’ve been at £12 since the NPL and other teams in our league are charging a lot more. We’ve sold loads of pitchside advertising boards, are these too cheap? We need to look at what other income streams are available eg in house catering and also how we market the club to potential sponsors, investors and supporters. It’s all things that have been talked about in the past but that’s all it seems to be….talk.
As a club I think at times we try to do things on the cheap to get by instead of putting the right effort and investment in to do it properly. Do we have a plan that goes beyond the end of this season? Have we got a three or five year plan in terms of where the club is going and what is needed to get there? If not why not? These are some of the things we did at the Juniors and look at how that has developed. I could go on about developing and linking in the youth sides more and how that could feed into a proper reserves, but all of this should be part of that development plan. I probably haven’t answered the question, just raised a few more that may create talking points. But any talking points need to become actions to move forward.