Graham Fenton – The only man for the job

Sacking a gaffer just one game into the season on the surface at least, is a little bit fucked. Then again, this is Blyth Spartans, and we should never be surprised by the absolute bat shit crazy stuff that we witness as supporters. Then again when you dig a little deeper, it all begins to make sense. Sort of.

I don’t think anyone could deny that Terry was a decent bloke. He got us some great results towards the end of last season and helped steer an underperforming squad to safety, and of course the Northumberland Senior Cup.

Having said that, he just lacked something. In all honesty I can’t be arsed to get into rumours and hearsay about his relationships (or a lack thereof) with certain players from last term. And I don’t think anyone can really defend the transfer business that had been done this pre-season. It was more or less common knowledge that we missed out on a lot of targets with experience at National League North level, and it wasn’t down to us not being able to afford them. Personally, I felt that we’d gotten some decent players in this summer, but we still needed more to comfortably avoid the drop.

From conversations with a few lads who years following Spartans must add up to 684926843, just about all of us expected to struggle early on and replace Terry by September/October time, likely after an early FA Cup exit. So to say I was a bit shocked to see my phone blow up with texts and messages that Tuesday afternoon with the news he was gone was an understament. From the moment the news came out though, for me there was only one man to take his place.

Former Spartans Media Manager Jordan Cronin summed up the appointment very well saying “An outstanding appointment by the football club. A former player, coach – he knows Blyth Spartans inside and out. Helps that he worked with the great Harry Dunn too. Big budget at South Shields yes, but he did an excellent job in winning three promotions alongside a solid number of trophies. He’s also proven he can do it without the ‘big budget’. At North Shields, he built a team on spirit and togetherness which ultimately won them the FA Vase. Given his experience in non-league and in the local area, this could be the club’s best manager since Alun Armstrong”.

For me the way South Shields binned him off was quite frankly embarrassing. Less than 24 hours after a 2-0 win over Radcliff Borough to move them within 5 points of top spot to be replaced by Kevin Phillips, who had been out of football since June 2019 and was stepping into his first managerial role.

The thoughts of many were summed up by Lancaster City boss Mark Fell just a few weeks after the sacking with him saying “Personally I thought they were out of order sacking Graham Fenton. I guess that’s an owner thing. He is throwing loads of money at it and is growing impatient. I get that and I understand that. Sometimes you reap what you sow and I know they have a big name in there now but what is to tell us that Kevin Phillips, the wonderful footballer, is going to do a better job as manager than Graham Fenton? It just seems a little bit of an egotistical appointment. Don’t get me wrong, he might do great and I will be the first to hold my hands up. But to exchange Graham Fenton who has got a pedigree and experience at this level, they were second in the league and it just smacks of an opinion that they believe that they shouldn’t be at this level”.

Fents coaching career of course started off under the tutelage of Paul Baker at Spartans before he was replaced by Sir Harry Dunn early on in the 2004/05 season. After a rocky first few months the pair guided Spartans to 12th place and put together an incredible side that ended up storming there way to the UniBond Premier League title the following season as well as picking up the Peter Swales Shield Memorial Shield and the UniBond Chairman’s Cup.

One of those treble winners and then club captain Peter Snowdon, was a big fan of the work Fents put in stating “He had the standards of top-level professionalism that also understood the players he was managing. Every training session built the player’s skills, identity, and the qualities the club should demand”.

Dunn and Fenton would of course lead Spartans to a 7th place finish in our first season in Nationwide Conference North where they spent most of the season in the play offs, and briefly led the league in August. The 2007/08 season was a bit of a let down with Spartans regressing and fighting a relegation battle until the final few weeks of the season. Not that it would have mattered anyway as just about all the relegated teams would get a reprieve due to various reasons.

Thankfully though the 08/09 season would be a bit more of a thriller, with Spartans making it all the way to the 3rd round of the FA Cup against one of Graham’s old teams Blackburn Rovers. Harry and Fents would leave Blyth that summer with Fents going on to join North Shields, where won the Northern League 2nd Division in 2014, and the FA Vase a year late as well as a Northumberland Senior Cup win over Blyth in 2016. All of those trophies came from a team that weren’t big spenders. Fenton had simply built a team where the bond between him and the players was just so strong, they could out battle just about anyone.

His move across the Tyne to South Shields alongside Lee Picton saw another FA Vase win, a Northern League Division One title, a Durham Challenge Cup and a NPL Division One North league win. In the 2018/19 season South Shields were cruising towards the Northern Premier League title, before covid cut the season short and it was declared null and void. The 2020/21 season never got going for South Shields as they only played 9 league games. The start of the 21/22 season saw Picton step down as co-manager, where Fents would of could only last till January before unduly getting the boot.

After a few months of ‘gardening leave’ he was freed from his role at South Shields and thankfully, fell right into the lap of Blyth Spartans.

Former Spartans media man, supporters club member, supporters bus organiser, Tommy Cassidy translator as well as many other things Martin Hunter was over the moon to see Fents back saying “I’m delighted Fen is back, for the first time in a while I have some optimism and hope that we could do well again.

I always had a lot of time for him in his spell as Harry’s assistant during the UniBond winning season and the cup run and always feel that his impact on that team is underestimated – my abiding memory of him, and something I think we are desperate for currently, is ‘standards’, he was always pushing for things to be better and to be done correctly.

I remember speaking to him when he first signed for us and he said that he’d picked us as we were the best run and best organised non-league club in the region – whilst I don’t think any of us would claim that now, sadly, I hope his arrival will greatly improve us both on and off the pitch so we can start looking like a more cohesive club going forward”.

One of the stars of the 05/06 treble winning team and the 08/09 cup run Chris McCabe echoed those thoughts saying when asked for his thoughts on Fenton’s appointment as Spartans gaffer “I’ve nothing but respect for Fents, he’s helped me out massively over the years playing coaching managing always there to offer advice one of the best about! I’d run through brick walls for him if I was still playing, I know he will bring the good times back to club great appointment”.

One of Fents’ former drinking partners and the old landlord of the Masons Arms Mark ‘Porky’ Walker was another one of the old guard who was absolutely thrilled to have Graham back at Croft Park stating “ Most of my favourite Spartans moments were from the period when fen was Harry’s number 2. It wasn’t just due to results on the pitch, it was the way the players fought for each other and the club. There was always a great atmosphere in the club and around the team, something which I think has often been missing in recent seasons. He came from the professional game but understood non-league and embraced it! Fen was always vocal on and off the pitch and was a real leader.

Fen will do a great job here again provided he gets time and the resources to build his team. I hope he brings a bit more steal to the team especially in midfield. I think he will have some big decisions to make in the next few weeks and he won’t be afraid to make the unpopular decisions! At times I don’t think the football will always be the best to watch but he will do it to get results. Whatever happens he will give 100% to the job and demand the same from the team! It’s going to be fun again!”

Mr Blyth Spirit himself Graham Usher reiterated many of those thoughts saying “To me feels like when we appointed Harry Dunn back in October 2004 following the exit of Paul Baker. It’s an appointment the club had to get right and had to make the right choice at that time. As with Harry back then, Graham was the only choice and club had to make it happen no matter what. Recall back in October 2004 it was well known Harry was coming in but took a while to get it ‘over the line’ as with this appointment. Always did wonder if Graham would ever return to the club after his application for the job was knocked back in April 2009 when the board apparently said he didn’t have the required experience despite having been Assistant to the departing Harry Dunn.

Players rate him and the bond he builds within this squad highly and that’s what we need. Clearly, he knows the club so hopefully he can turn things around as the summer recruitment has been underwhelming. Squad needs an overhaul, too weak in midfield and woeful going forward.

Apparently, he has already stated he wants to change things which is good. Hoping he gives our attacking play some purpose and can somehow bring some experience in to help the promising youngsters like Corey McKeown & Lewis McNall. He needs to add some bite to our midfield if not rebuild it completely. Just not commanding or competitive enough.

Was always going to be difficult to avoid being in another relegation battle this season especially with 4 going down but now there’s real hope that we can possibly achieve a safe mid table finish if Graham can get the right players in. Won’t be easy and there will be bumps along the way, but he has to be given time and the backing both on and off the field is he to succeed”.

He might only be a week into the job but clearly, things are looking up for Spartans under Fenton. He’s just about united every part of the club behind him already. With a 2-year contract and a commitment to improve the squad, he’s got the full backing of the football club. I’d say most of us either disagree or question a lot of the decisions made by the executive committee, but this time they’ve got it spot on.

Fen has had just about every supporter in his corner even before he finally took the job, and he’s got an incredible track record as a manager. Hopefully this can be a turning point for this club where we go from being the butt of so many jokes to fighting at the top end of the table once again. Here’s to the good times flowing!