The Thundercliffe interviews: John Tondeur

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Thundercliffe

5 April 2004

Being a football fan, and in particular a Grimsby Town fan, is a curious experience at present. With players having all of the power these days, loyalty is not exactly in vogue. This season we have seen players coming and going at an alarming rate, and the team becomes less easy to identify with. In this uncertain time it was heart-warming to able to arrange an interview with a figure associated closely with GTFC for almost 20 years. Ladies and gentlemen... the Voice of the Mariners: John Tondeur.

John Tondeur with Paul ThundercliffeArmed with camera, dictaphone (insert own joke here) and 35 questions from Cod Almighty readers, the chat soon flowed as we bemoaned the lacklustre season we have had to suffer. Or at least it would have flowed if I had some batteries for the dictaphone.

Once sorted, talk returns to the issue of this horrible season, 2003-04. "It's poor. This is by far the hardest season I have ever done. By far. Not because of the expectation level, but because there have been so many dead games. Town have been 3-0 down and there is still an hour of commentary left to do," says John. "When players are coming in, playing three games and going out again it really doesn't help. I suppose if they are a Kabba or an Oster then great, but we seem to have so many journeymen coming in recently. I'm not saying they don't give their all. But who's going to buy a shirt with a player's name on it?"

Ah, this thorny issue of loyalty. How things have changed. What does John consider to be the biggest change since he started? "People want instant fixes. When I first started managers got two years and players got a year before people bayed for them. Now it's different and it's harder."

John Tondeur started broadcasting on Radio Humberside at about the same time as I began watching Town proper. Having grown up to his reporting of the Mariners I feel like I have been on a journey with this man. Or at least with his voice. "Yeah, it's been about 20 years. Leeds was the first game I did on air, at Elland Road, which was a nice place to start. Nil-nil. I can remember 20 years ago better than last week, and my first game at Blundell Park was Huddersfield - three-one.

"How I got into it was I was listening to a pop show on the radio and I said to the wife that I could do better than that and she said: 'You wouldn't dare enter a quiz.' So of course I did. Got to know a few people - Barry Stockdale was one - and went to an interview, and the only question was 'When can you start?' Did a programme on tape - Portsmouth at home - four-three and I missed them all!

"My immediate predecessor was Dave Gibbons, who actually went to Viking when that started and before that was Charles Ekberg, so I was following a very professional line."

Melvyn BraggMelvyn BraggThere is a hint of sarcasm in John's voice at the mention of these cult media figures, and he has a lot of stories about Dave Gibbons, the man who makes Alan Partridge look like Melvyn Bragg. Unfortunately, John's professionalism forbids him to share some of the tastier stories. "Working with Dave Gibbons was always interesting," he says tactfully. "He was actually a very likeable guy, would do anything for you. To work with he would drive you bonkers. He's working in Devon now."

And what of Ekberg? "I remember his quote after we beat Sheffield United to win the championship in 1980. Both Hull rugby teams were playing at Wembley and Ekberg said that it's about time people realised that people on the south bank don't give a stuff about rugby league. I suppose he had a point."

In his early days John used to report every 15 minutes and the programme was based in a studio: a far cry from the more professional way of working today. John is quick to credit one man for this shift. "Dave Burns. What the programme is like now and the stories we got first - Law, Groves, Boulding - that's what he's done. It's a much smoother operation these days."

There are some, however, who think Burns is a "limelight-hogging get". Would John echo this? Cue laughter, then: "Me and Burnsy have been friends before he even got the job and he is, believe it or not, a Town fan. He's a producer, it's his programme, he's the one who carries the can." So that's a no then?

Regular listeners to Radio Humberside may be surprised to learn that JT doesn't make much effort in the research department. "Not as much as I should. If I'm honest most Town fans don't want to be told about the other team and about whether their striker has played 14 games for Peterborough. They want to know how we concede a goal, not how they score it. I'm not a big one for facts and figures. Not really important."

StopwatchOne of JT's matchday weapons of choiceWhat's in his armoury, then? "Microphone, headphones. Both teams written down in the formation I expect them to play. Programme. Paper to make notes, stopwatch. That's about it."

John is fairly modest about the work he does, seeing it as a mixture between a job and a hobby. "It's a well paid hobby. Something you have to do professionally. I went into it thinking we will see how it goes and 20 years later I'm still doing it, but I do think that you are only as good as your last game.

"You have to try and be honest. You get good feedback. You tend to get better feedback when the club are doing well because people tend to judge you on your reports. This season has been a hard season to report on because there are less good things to say."

During his two decades John has reported on eight managers and two caretaker managers. What has his relationship been like with these people? "Most of the time it's been pretty good. Especially the last few years. Mike Lyons tried to ban me from the ground for interviewing Gordon Hobson without his permission and Hobson mentioned about wanting to play in the first division; it got taken out of context somewhere along the line.

"Grovesie was fantastic, always came up after a game. He knew I had to ask the questions and he didn't duck them, particularly. Even after the Oldham game [Groves' last in charge, which Town lost 6-0] I knew he would come up. It did get harder towards the end, not least because I had a lot of admiration for him as a player, manager and a person."

Alan BuckleyAlan BuckleyAnd what about the most successful manager John has commentated on? "Buckley? It would depend what mood he was in. He could be charm personified or bite your head off. When he left the second time we had a long chat, but when he came back with Lincoln he hardly said anything, so you never really knew. It's a shame he didn't have the media side because his on-field skills speak for themselves. These days you need to have a mixture of both."

John is at his most animated when talking about the players and the football he has watched over the years. He is every bit a Town fan and has memories like any of us. He cites his best games as Wembley, "although I felt a bit cut off sat in a box," Newcastle when Dobbin scored, and Everton in the League Cup.

He also has opinions on matters close to the heart of any fishy person, namely the board. "I think they have a hell of a difficult job to do. John Fenty has put a lot of money in. They have got to balance realism with ambition. If there is no hope of things getting better then there is no reason for fans to turn up.

"I can't see things improving over the next year. We haven't bottomed out yet financially or as a team. The next 12 months are difficult. Five years' time... I am more hopeful."

Phil JevonsSome bloke, scored some goal onceWhat does he perceive to be the problems with attendance? "Success is important. Finance is another reason, especially in this area, and there are so many fans of different teams who support Man U or Liverpool who watch them on the telly. The thing is, Liverpool fans will never have a night like we had at Liverpool."

John's love of GTFC promts him to access fan websites on a very regular basis and contribute to the Electronic Fishcake messageboard, which he says has gone a bit stale. "Somebody on the Fishcake said I sounded depressed. I think any Town fan would sound depressed if they had watched what I've watched!"

And throughout our interview these little glimpses of Town Fan Hope suddenly emerge, those statements that we all make even when the matches are as crap as they have been for the last two years. It's what makes us all so fallible as Mariners, and even when talking about the dullest of games there is still a gleam in John's eye.

No more so than when picking his best ever GTFC XI, which offers a few surprises:

Coyne; McDermott; Futcher; K Moore; Cumming; Brolly; Cunnington; Waters; Gilbert; Mendonca; Drinkell

Considering John has watched Town since 1959, this is quite a recent team. "It's because they achieved things against the odds, played good football at a higher level. I've been lucky to watch some great players and games and to pick just one team out is hard but this eleven would do well."

Kevin Spacey in LA ConfidentialJT phones in the facts. Just the factsOur interview ends with a few non-football questions which add a little insight to the man behind the mike. JT loves his music, and is currently listening to the Fountains of Wayne. John's favourite films include Once Upon a Time in America and LA Confidential, and when making a cup of tea he puts the milk in first.

John Tondeur: the man, the legend; modest, unassuming and every inch the Town Fan. As we end the interview and pose for a photo, I ask him if he has any plans for retirement? His answer sums up the man.

"No plans for retirement. I still enjoy it. Anyway, I'm sure if I stopped doing it then nobody would notice."

Thanks to Richard Dawson, Si Wilson, James Thundercliffe, Mark Shephard, Mat Hare and Martin Robinson for some of the questions. Crikey! Next up for tea with Thundercliffe is GTFC camcorder superstar John Moore.