About the series
The Thundercliffe interviews: John McDermott
31 August 2005
It isn't often you meet your heroes so it was with excited eagerness that I took up the offer of interviewing Grimsby Town's longest serving player, John McDermott. Since I can ever remember, Macca has been the mainstay of the team, Mr Black And White Stripes. He has embodied everything that is good about the sport: honesty, integrity and above all, in the three-games-loan-deal times we now live in, loyalty.
We meet at Blundell Park, more apt a venue than any for a player who has been there for almost two decades. It is obvious, just a couple of days after the event, that John is still on a high after that goal. "You dream about hitting them like that," drools Macca. "It went to Redds and as soon as it came back to me it bounced off us and I knew straight away. It was just instinct; I don't know why I did it. The opposition manager said as we came out for the second half: 'You never meant that.' As soon as I hit it, it was in."
It was certainly the best goal of an illustrious career that has seen him play under (at least) 12 different managers in some guise or other. But John is quick to remember his first goal – "Gillingham, away" – and then reminisce about other strikes against many teams, including Stockport in the 1988-89 season. "Oh yes, Stockport. I remember that one – took it around the keeper. Not bad, from where you are at the back, especially during corners and free-kicks where you're stuck at the back. All open play, and to be honest there's no tap-ins. They have all been well worked or decent strikes."
John McDermott signed for Grimsby Town Football Club as a trainee in June 1986, the month Maradona took the piss, Doctor and the Medics were at number one and Jack Duckworth burned down the Rovers. Since then he has played 696 games (including substitute apperances) for just the one team. He must be well chuffed.
"Over the moon, mate! Especially as I was injured for a year, year-and-a-half as well. I am happy with that. Not many get that far, certainly not at one club."
How does he think he has achieved something so unique in the modern game? "I have always played whichever manager's come in," explains Macca, and more importantly, "I've enjoyed playing. The area and the rapport with the fans has always been good. Getting paid a decent wage is another factor. I wouldn't say mega money but the cost of living is good. I am happy on and off the field so why move? We were playing in the first division and we were playing good football and at the end of the day it's about enjoying playing your football."
But there must have been offers? "I had three or four chances to go. Ipswich had a strong enquiry, particularly during the Wembley season. Sunderland twice. It would have been nice to go to Sunderland – massive club – but again you miss out on certain things, and I have won things with Grimsby. Charlton, apparently, were supposed to be interested as well. Bradford, just before they went up to the Premier League – which was possibly a bit of regret that I didn't go, but that was my decision. I said straight away it wasn't right. Then they got Premier League and you think you might have made a mistake, but if I had moved I wouldn't have played at Wembley."
Wembley indeed. It is so fantastic to learn that your heroes are thinking exactly the same as the fans are on the best day of your life. "Wembley? Everyone's dream. Everyone wants to go to Wembley even if it's just to watch. It was a dream come true. I remember sitting on the coach after the first one and saying to Livvo: 'If we drop down dead tomorrow nobody can take this away from us. We have done something we have always wanted to do.'" And Macca goes all misty-eyed as he remembers those crazy six weeks.
"It was great to be man of the match. It just brought the best out of me. You'd have been devastated if you hadn't won. I wanted us to score as well. I'd been before as a Middlesbrough supporter and we never scored and you see other teams jumping about. I just wanted us to score to give something back. I wanted to see our fans celebrate to see what it was like."
The Twin Towers was an obvious high along with "winning promotions, cup games. Our fans are brilliant away from home, really vocal. During big cup games, the whole town buzzes and you need games like that." But what have been the low points?
"Relegations," John responds without flinching. "The first one I was only a kid, more bothered about getting in the team to be honest. But the last one was the worst ever. Sour taste in me mouth." Again, John feels instantly for the fans. "We took a great following to Tranmere and to be honest I wanted to play. I probably wasn't match fit but I was fit enough to play. I didn't get the chance to play and I was furious. Not having a go at any manager, because I didn't think he [Nicky Law] had enough time, but I thought we got it wrong on the day. We should have won that game. We relied on other results. I was gutted. Worst feeling ever in football."
Macca has obviously played with a fair number of players (the past couple of seasons in particular seeing the sharing of liniment soar) and it was with a little trepidation that I asked him the best eleven – including himself of course – he played with. To my delight he is only too pleased.
"In goal? Aidy. Batchy was good, could kick with either foot. But I would go with Davison just because of his presence. He used to scare the life out of us, let alone anybody else. He was vocal." Was it a mistake for him to come back to GTFC in 2003? "He was expecting it to be the same and it wasn't. I think his enthusiasm wasn't the same.
"Centre-backs would be Pete Handyside and Mark Lever. People might say Lever wasn't good on the ball but we had a good partnership. I knew where I was with him he would win everything in our box. Maybe should have scored more goals, but I thought in his final season here he was outstanding. Rightly deserved player of the year."
The left side of the team took seconds to pick. "Left-back Crofty, Dave Gilbert on the left wing, definitely." Good choices, but the midfield berths are surely harder to fill? "I would pick Grovesy in the centre of midfield because of the goals he scored and going up and down. And then Wayne Burnett..." John stops himself, thinks. "Or possibly Jim Dobbin. He was a player. He could put a ball on a sixpence. Aye, I'll go for Jim.
"I'm stuck with a right winger because Gary Childs and Kev Donovan were very similar. Both were fantastic for me playing-wise."
"Up front Clive Mendonca. What a fantastic finisher. Scored 20 goals with his back to goal in a team that got relegated. Then he went to Charlton and you could see how good he was. Then there's Neil Woods and Tony Rees. Reesy for the way we wanted to play. Everything we did went through him and if we can just get a centre-forward that can do a similar thing to him... If I was a manager I'd go out and get a Tony Rees. Woodsy was very clever. Would hold it up, flick balls round for you, back-heels. I think the majority of the goals I scored were provided by Rees or Woods."
So John was unable to pick a full eleven but "those 13 players were the best I've played with. And you have still got the likes of Garry Birtles, Paul Futcher... Andy Todd was fantastic, for the amount of space he gave you to play in. He got this team playing. He kept us up."
The interesting thing about the team John chooses is that it bears the stamp of a certain manager. No surprises, then, when I ask John about his favourite boss.
"The manager I enjoyed playing under was Alan Buckley. He was strong on discipline, right the way through the club. In training everything had to be done to matchday standard. People talk about his PR, but for the players he couldn't do enough. All he cared about was his playing staff."
So what was the key to his success? "He always played good football. People used to say that 'all you do is walk it in, a bit too much at times'. But I think we were spoilt, absolutely spoilt. When I've done coaching I've told kids to take home the Wembley videos and watch ten minutes of it. Awesome. We absolutely battered Northampton. Kept the ball for fun."
The club is now in a similar situation to 16 years ago. Successive relegations, a season of stability from a non-League manager who inherited a handful of players. Can history repeat itself this season? Macca thinks so.
"Last season was all about stability. The manager didn't have any players. He brought in what he could and maybe we underachieved a bit. This season it's not about stability; it's about progression. He's bought good players in right through the squad and any one of them 21 can do a job for this team.
"I think we can win it. Once you win a few games you can't get carried away, but you have to take the positives from it. We have to be confident that we can go out and we can beat this team. Winning becomes a habit. We went on an 18, 19-match run a few years back. We beat Wolves, we beat Gillingham away by four. We just had a belief."
Could this belief be replicated? "I've got a funny feeling about this year. We are playing well in periods, and we are looking solid. Two banks of four in any league will give you the chance to win games. We have a reputation as a strong, physical, organised side. I don't know what's going happen when we start playing really well."
This is obviously good to hear and I sincerely hope that John McDermott can stay fit and share in the glory he predicts.
We end the interview in customary fashion as I ask about John's favourite music. "The lads are all into this rap stuff. It does my nut in! I like 60s, 70s. I like a song with words in, bit of a beat. I'm partial to a dance." And films? "Gladiator is a class film. I like men's films, not these weepies."
And how would the legend that is John McDermott make a cup of tea? "Leave the bag in. Leave it in. Take it out towards the end, let it stew. With some nice biscuits. Milk in first so you can see how dark it is."
John McDermott has spent his entire playing career at one place: Grimsby Town. During the interview, which breezes by, I am under no illusions that this is a Mariners fan through and through. There is no doubt about it: he would piss on their fish. But what's next? What does the future hold?
"I want to go into coaching. I think I would be decent at it. I didn't sign a player-coach deal. I was offered it but it wasn't what I wanted. I don't really want to go into details but I am happy playing. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than Grimsby turning round at the end of the season and offering a coaching role."
Doesn't the club owe John that? "The club owe me nothing. I have been rewarded well for what I have done. I have never said 'give me this, give me that because of the time I have spent here.' I get reasonably paid for the job I do that season." John pauses. "Maybe you can always argue that you're not paid enough, and I've got a family to look after," he says carefully. "If I can't support them financially, I am going to have to call it a day and do something else.
"I am going to finish playing at the end of the season. It's good to go out when you can still do the job. I don't want to turn up and take the money and not be able to do it. I have earned myself a decent reputation with the fans as a good player. I don't want them saying 'he used to be good, but his legs have gone'. I don't deserve that and the fans don't deserve that. I want to finish on a high."
Gives you a warm glow, doesn't it? So pay tribute to the great man and help keep Cod Almighty online and (if we sell enough) the Mariners afloat by purchasing one of our wondrous Macca T-shirts, as kindly modelled by Sir John in the photograph above. Cheers!