The road to Macca

Cod Almighty | Article

by Pete Green

14 January 2003

They say the one-club player is a rare breed these days. It's all down to agents, apparently, and the weird situation whereby they have a vested interest in destabilising their clients' careers. And it's pretty easy to imagine the shady, cigar-chomping stereotype glued to his mobile, planting stories of discontent in the press to contrive regular transfers, regardless of the wishes of the player, so as to trouser his percentage of those signing-on fees.

But that's the Premiership really; and as any real supporter will confirm, the Premiership is to football as a Robbie Williams CD is to music: flashy, insubstantial, irritating, and entirely unrepresentative. So even after Town's brief experience of 'glamorous' foreign imports with the likes of Ivano Bonetti and David Nielsen, Blundell Park still exists in an entirely different realm from the Robbies Keane and Fowler of this world.

And so it is, perhaps, that Town's longest-serving player and most able defender John McDermott remains with the club today. Fifteen years after his league debut (under the reviled Mick Lyons, as the club plunged to the first of two successive relegations), watching Macca effortlessly tease and ease the ball away from the other team's latest overpriced left-winger has become as synonymous with supporting the Mariners as scrutinising page 325 on Ceefax and singing "We piss on your fish".

Earlier this season Macca received both a special award from the club and the inaugural BBC Radio Humberside Sporting Achievement Award to mark his 600th appearance - a club record that might endure for all time. Does this sort of milestone mean a lot, or is it just a number? The player is unequivocal about its significance. "It means a great deal to me," John insists. "It means that I will be remembered for something and I will be in the club's history books. If my record is beaten then it will mean that somebody else has given the club the same length of service and that would be great for the club."

What about being a one-club player? "I think it's good for players to see that staying at the same club can bring its rewards. It has given me a lot of stability and has allowed me to play regular first-team football."

Sing When We're FishingAn early Sing When We're Fishing voices fears of Macca leaving in a big-money transferWith that 600th game still fresh in the memory of fans (sadly, it was the 2-0 defeat at Crystal Palace in November), the occasional rumours of Macca's departure that once buzzed and circled among us - I remember one choice titbit about a £900,000 move to Leeds - seem an age ago. There was even talk of Lyons once letting him go on a free when his contract ran out, only for the next manager Bobby Roberts to re-sign him. Was there ever any truth in this? "The club were originally going to release me," explains John, "but then they discovered that they could sign me on another year as a trainee and it obviously worked out well for both of us."

The player then reveals one or two events that would have meant anxious days for Town fans had they been common knowledge as they unfolded.

"I've had a couple of opportunities to move away. Bradford made an approach when they had just been promoted to the Premiership, but I turned it down for personal reasons. Also, Sunderland and Ipswich have both shown an interest." How close we came to disaster, then. But does John ever regret not taking up any of these offers? "I've no regrets about not moving on. I am a great believer in fate."

I've never shared that belief - until now. Macca has just converted me.

Town fans have sometimes been frustrated to see decent players from the local area slip away and end up making their name elsewhere - the most famous example perhaps being Glenn Cockerill, brother of the former Town midfielder and assistant manager John, who began at Louth United and made nearly 350 league and cup appearances for Southampton in the 1980s and 90s. In the case of John McDermott, though, it was Town who managed to steal away the player from under the noses of the several league clubs based in his native north-east. How did we manage it - and how did he decide Grimsby was the place for him?

"I was spotted by a scout called Jimmy Mann whilst playing junior football in Middlesbrough. I came over to Grimsby and liked what I saw. The club was in the old Division Two and doing quite well and it had a good youth policy." And surprisingly for a man who looks like he was born on the right of a back four, defence was not his original habitat. "I played in midfield at first," he recalls, "and made my debut in 1987 against Bradford playing wide on the right-hand side of the midfield."

Macca youth teamJohn pictured on the front row, presumably some time before Alan Buckley converted him to a right-backTown lost 4-2 that day - and thankfully it didn't take Alan Buckley, who became Macca's manager the following year, too long to spot his potential as a full-back. Buckley once explained that he arrived at the club to find only seven players employed, and was told that John McDermott "was quite versatile" but could best do a job on the left of midfield. "It took me about two minutes of one game," recollected the manager, "to see he couldn't.

"So what were his attributes?" pondered Buckley. "Tremendous pace and fitness; strong and terrific in the air. Brave and quick feet - I'll work with him and try to develop him into a right-back...Macca worked hard to develop his game and became more of an out-and-out defender."

John is quick to repay the compliment, describing Buckley as "the best manager I have played under. He got the best out of players on a small budget and allowed us to compete with the big stars."

The product of the two men's work was an assured style of play described by Cod Almighty match reporter Tony Butcher as "defending without tackling". At his best, Macca is a master at protecting his territory, forcing his man away from goal into a backward pass - and because of this measured approach, when he does tackle he damn near always wins the ball. Like the very best defenders, he makes it look easy. "I was taught as a youngster that defenders should always stay on their feet and force attackers into a mistake. You should never go to ground unless you are 100 per cent sure of winning the ball," he says. "Also, if you are quicker than your opponent then you don't need to go diving in."

One thing John doesn't do a lot is score goals, but he had a couple of cracking long-range efforts at Wembley in the 1998 Auto Windscreens Shield final against Bournemouth. Was he determined to score that day? "I wasn't any more determined to score in that game than any other, but it was just that the opportunities arose and I took the chance of a shot. I had built up a good understanding with Kevin Donovan and that helped me to get forward on those occasions."

The Auto Windscreens was party time for the fans; it was nice to win but the occasion was everything. Six weeks later the play-off final was hell: over an hour of insufferable tension after Donovan's early goal, followed by six inexplicable minutes of injury time that felt like another hour. "I would agree with that," says Macca. "There was so much more at stake for the play-off final. It was the end of a season's hard work and it all rested on one match. The AWS final was tremendous but it was a one-off cup competition. The rewards of promotion were much, much bigger."

Macca versus RuudOur fearless full-back prepares to take on Chelsea's Ruud Gullit in a 1996 FA Cup tieThe Wembley games aside, which have been the most memorable matches John has played in? "The Fulham match a couple of seasons ago when we stayed up on the last day, beating them 1-0, was special. Also, the Exeter promotion game of May 1991 was memorable - as was the win at Middlesbrough in the FA Cup in the late eighties."

And the best players he's played alongside? "Gary Childs and Kevin Donovan. I had a great understanding with both of them on the right-hand side."

Past glories aside, I wonder how John sees the future - for himself and his club. One thing that keeps me awake at night (there are plenty of others, but we won't go there just now) is the possibility that at some point professional football in England will be reduced to two divisions, with the hundreds and thousands of fans and players below Division One condemned forever to semi-pro or amateur fare. For the privileged few like Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon, who raised this possibility last December, it's almost wishful thinking; for the rest, it's a nightmare scenario.

Despite burgeoning attendances in the Nationwide League and below, many media commentators also see some kind of reorganisation of the league as inevitable - and to my surprise, Macca shares their gloomy outlook. "I don't think any restructuring will happen during my playing career, but undoubtedly it will happen eventually. Probably Divisions Two and Three will go part-time or maybe even regionalised."

And what would this mean for the Mariners? "Hopefully Grimsby Town can stay in the first division, but we have always been a club which has had to work within financial constraints - and that will continue to be the case. It will need careful 'housekeeping' and the fans to get right behind us and keep believing and supporting."

If Town are to stay in the first division, another key factor will be the development of talented young players - especially post-ITV Digital, now that the necessity for a smaller squad has given the likes of Darren Mansaram and Iain Ward a chance to shine in the first team this season. In his time at Blundell Park, Macca has seen a few players come and go; so who are the most promising of the current crop of youngsters? "David Soames, who has just made his debut, and Joe Lightowler are two lads with great careers ahead of them, I think."

And is John trying to pass on the secrets of his success to the young defenders at the club? "I have chats with both Iain Ward and Wes Parker about how to deal with certain situations. It is nothing heavy but it helps them with their game. They have made good progress and have got in the squad on merit."

Macca and GrovesMacca receives his award in 2002 from manager Paul Groves to commemorate 600 appearances. Reproduced with the kind permission of Grimsby Town FCOne of the pet theories of Town fans - and therefore one I feel obliged to try out on Macca - is that managers have trouble attracting players to the club because of the area's image problem. (You wonder sometimes how the town's fortunes might have differed had its ancient founder been called Nice or something instead.) Having braved the smell of fish for a long time now, John is bound to have an interesting point of view. "Maybe Grimsby and Cleethorpes does have a bit of an image problem, and obviously the stadium isn't the best, but once the players have been here a while they love it. There are no end of lads who have come here from away and then settled here after their careers are over."

As one who left the area 10 years ago (and consequently has to spend more money than is healthy getting to matches), I never quite know how to respond when people say they love it in Grimsby. Self-indulgently wistful is probably somewhere near it. Humbled? I dunno. Different people want different things, is all. But there's a whole separate article in that. Change the subject.

How does the club captain think Paul Groves is doing so far? "I have been very impressed with Grovesie. He is a very good coach and encourages everyone to play." No surprises there, then. Groves seems to be one of those managers with an indefinable aura that elicits immediate and total respect from players - and of course he and Macca go back a long way. Good luck to him. At the time of writing he seems to be winning over some of those dolts who wanted him sacked a few months ago.

So what about Macca's own future? Now 34, he keeps defying those occasional voices of doubt that hesitantly pipe up now and again in the Pontoon, starting to question how much longer he can go on. How much longer can he go on? "I feel I can go on for a few years yet. I am feeling fit and not thinking of packing in at the moment."

As with Paul Groves before him, John somehow gives the impression of being cut out for coaching - and with Groves, you get the feeling that he was groomed by the club for management some time before taking up the hotseat in December 2001. Has Macca been offered a coaching job for when he hangs up those boots? Is that a road he even wants to go down, or does he - heaven forbid - see a life outside football? "It is definitely something I would like to do," he reassures us, "but not something I have discussed with the club just yet. Nearer the time maybe. I want to stay in the game as a coach and would love it to be with GTFC."

That's you, me and several thousand Town fans.