The Thundercliffe interviews: Peter Furneaux

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Thundercliffe

18 April 2004

He's the man at the top, Mr Chairman, Telegraph letter writers' favourite scapegoat. And also the subject of my second interview for Cod Almighty. The meeting with Peter Furneaux was hastily arranged through a friend of a friend's friend. I rang him up on the Friday night and asked him if he would do an interview. "Yes" was the short reply, and my orders were to meet him at 1:20 before the Rushden game.

Peter Furneaux and Paul ThundercliffeIt's sometimes good to have no time to prepare for these things, so armed with a few questions from Si Wilson, Rich Dawson, Christian Boulter and my friend of a friend's friend, I arrive fashionably late at the main entrance to the Findus. Furneaux isn't here yet, so I wait patiently for his entrance.

At 1:40 he arrives, as short as you would expect, but moving a bit more quickly than I imagined. "How long's this going to take?" he asks. About 20 minutes, I reply nervously. "Sorry, can't do it then. I was banking on five or six minutes maximum." Which is fair enough - it's match day. We eventually compromise on ten. And we finish 40 minutes later.

It's a strange interview. For a start, we are in the Bier Keller, a public bar, and I don't actually ask that many questions. Peter likes a chat, and our discussions of Jevons, Pouton and "the French chap" are all instigated by the interviewee.

"Cod Almighty?" he enquires as I turn on the dictaphone (and I have lots of spare batteries, just in case). "I'm not really into the internet. Is that the one who does the T-shirts? I had a lady ring me yesterday asking me where she could get one - something about Grimsby being in Lincolnshire?"

Furneaux seems a little frosty at first, but when I ask him about the frustration of this season he soon finds his stride. "Nobody is more disappointed than me. The current team has underperformed. At the beginning of the season I looked at what Paul Groves had done and thought he had a good squad. They underperformed for him. He worked extremely hard but we didn't have the success and we had to have a change. I feel very sorry for Paul Groves."

But these decisions have to be made. Coming on the back of such a miserable run of defeats, was it a hard one? "It was an extremely difficult decision. I take no pleasure in starting somebody as manager and having to let them go. No pleasure whatsoever. But you have to put the club first."

Graham Rodger motivated the players and we were very pleased with him. But he needed to bring in other players. It became quite obvious that he didn't have the connections

As we know, Graham Rodger took over temporarily and then, just as the team started to look a little more settled, Nicky Law came in. Furneaux is honest as to the reasons. "We felt that the players thought they were better than they were and were not motivated enough. Graham Rodger motivated them and we were very pleased with him. But he had only been assistant manager, and although this motivation was there, he needed to bring in other players. It then became quite obvious that he didn't have the connections. We had to look to next season as well."

So why not just get rid of Rodger and hire a new managerial team? "Graham Rodger is Grimsby Town through and through. We don't want to lose him. With his agreement we brought somebody else in and he immediately brought in five players. Fettis has done well. Some of the other players he has brought in have been done on a very low figure; we are closely looking at their futures, Thorrington and the French chap. They may not have yet shown their true worth. If they have shown their true worth then obviously they are not good enough.

"We have said to Nicky Law, and other players, that we will assess things before the summer. There is no point paying people over the summer if we are not going to keep them, players as well. If it's working and the players he's recommended are working then we will make a decision, and if it's not working then we will also make a decision."

A tricky time

Decisions, decisions. Such is a chairman's lot. Furneaux used to sell programmes at Blundell Park at the age of eight, and became quite a fixture at a ground that was only a couple of streets away. After serving his 'apprenticeship' as a director, he became chairman at a decidedly tricky time for the club.

"When I came on the board we had seven players and no manager. I brought Alan Buckley in, and we have worked hard ever since. My job is to make sure that the company stays in business. Don't spend more than you've got."

This is the major issue burning within Peter Furneaux: finances. "The board have put in £1.25m just to make up another debt, keep the club going. I was at QPR last week and they take £150,000 to £160,000 a game. We take £13,000 to £19,000. Our fans think we should always compete on all levels and be in a higher league. In the 12 years I have been chairman we have succeeded in a way that our finances say we shouldn't. We currently get the same money as we were getting in 1996, but wages have gone up 250 per cent. In the past five years we have spent £28m on wages and received a total of £12m income. I know I am stressing the finance side, but the directors here have done a remarkable job. They are not going to spend money they haven't got."

Hmmm. Even my maths GCSE can tell me the sums don't add up. It must make the job a tough one. "I enjoy it, but it's always a strain. I've done it for a long time. The thing is the board are not idiots. We do know what it's about." So if it's that much of a chore, where are the high points? "You get pleasure out of winning. I loved beating Barnsley and Sheff Wednesday, and I had a dreadful weekend at QPR: we are fans, we have always been fans. I'm a Grimsby person that cares about Grimsby. I suppose the thrill is the reality of doing something against the theory."

There is no unwinding. My brain's going from early in the morning 'til nine at night. I am always thinking about it. You have to. If you are going to do the best for Grimsby Town you have got to be on top of it all of the time

So how does Peter relax? "There is no unwinding. My brain's going from early in the morning 'til nine at night. At the ground every day, at 1:30 meet the manager, I meet doctors, sort out stewarding, ambulances, any other crises, operations.

"I am always thinking about it. You have to. If you are going to do the best for Grimsby Town you have got to be on top of it all of the time, ensuring we get value for money, getting players who we can add value to. We are out of that stream at the minute. We can't buy the ready-made article – who would see Grimsby as the final article? They would go to Sheffield Wednesday every time.

"We have had £26,000 medical expenses this year alone, specialists and everything. All the injured players are being paid. Directors are paying personally for the consultations, operations and treatment – all they can to keep the players going. But it can't come out of a kitty that isn't there and if people continue to knock people that are doing their best then they will turn round and won't want to do it. If somebody wants to come on board then come on board and help. Support the club and don't knock the club."

This is a big grievance for Furneaux. He too is miffed at the apathy in the town, but says he is used to it. "I've had it for 20 years. The letters – these people must live in foreign planets. Same letters about the same things. It's not upsetting, it's disappointing.

"I find it remarkable that I was criticised – and am still being criticised – about Phil Jevons. He went to Hull City because he couldn't make it here, played under three managers and couldn't get in there. He's a young lad who has tremendous ability, tremendous potential, but who had lost his way. He was on a very high rate of pay. Although on a good contract, and I mean this quite sincerely, at the end of this season he wouldn't be getting it.

"Nobody came in for him after he left Hull, not even a non-League club. Then he started training and shows his potential. If he hadn't he would be nowhere at the end of the season. This was the boot up the backside he required, because after that he started training, trying, scoring goals. I have been pleased with his responses. But people not showing the potential, I find it most disappointing. Jevons is a pleasant young man, drifted out of football. He needed that incentive. We are pleased with what he's doing."

Player issues

Furneaux is animated when talking about player issues and he himself brings up the issue of Boulding and Pouton. "It's hurtful when people say we are getting rid of players and they have not been replaced by better players. I find it very hurtful. Boulding's not played a lot and Gillingham could offer a three-and-a-half-year contract to a player with injury problems. We cannot compete with that."

But they haven't been replaced with the same calibre of players. "We are not getting worse players as such, but we cannot compete because we don't have the income. You can only offer what you have got. We have to move on and attract players to this area. But only two of the twenty forwards we spoke to this year would come to the club."

People think we should have success because we are Grimsby. But I can't blame people for not coming, because you don't go to a first-class cinema to see a poor film

As I am sitting there with the bar gradually filling up, I can't help but warm to the man they call in the office 'Mr Chairman'. Does he see us ever getting back into Division One?

"I would like to think so. I would like to see us back after next season, because relegation would hit us hard, especially from a financial point of view. We would lose £50,000 from the league, at least 1,000 loyal fans. People think we should have success because we are Grimsby. But I can't blame people for not coming, because you don't go to a first-class cinema to see a poor film."

But we are not even going to a 'first-class cinema'. "The new stadium was agreed on the local plan. People that own this area of land wanted £5.5m for it. They live in London and were not even going to get out of bed for less than that. We only take £1m a year on the gate. It's ridiculous. We are still working on it and other things. Grimsby Town wants a new stadium, it deserves a new stadium and the history of Grimsby Town says we should have one. In the meantime we are doing a lot of work upstairs. We are trying our best."

Furneaux dodges the best XI question. "It would not be fair, and depends how they would gel at the time. We have had some good local players over the years, the Pearces and Joblings and Drinkells and Moore brothers; it goes in cycles. We have a good 16-year-old side at present. Some of those players might make it."

Tea, film and music

The chairman similarly evades the 'milk in first or water in first' issue because "having got a wife, she presents me with a cup of tea," but he does have a penchant for his stepson's DVD collection ("although I couldn't name any!") and has a Motorhead CD in his car.

With kick-off time approaching rapidly, I ask my final question: would I be able to buy the club with a £10million lottery win?

"Anybody can put money into the club. It depends who wants to own it, if you think ownership is a good thing. Nobody just wants to give you money. Owning GTFC is not necessarily the joy it would seem to others."

And there is the crux. Peter Furneaux loves the club we love and is just as frustrated as we are. But he's in charge, and he does enjoy that power. He also understands the economics of it all, and if what he says is true then he and the board are preventing the club from disappearing altogether. As we had a bizarre photo call in the office (he asked Dave Smith to take it, but got Ian Fleming instead), his face just lights up as he speaks to the staff in the office and supporters outside.

"Having a lot of money is a splendid theory. I would love to spend lots of money and I could do a great job with it. But you have to work within the income; you have to make the club viable. I've had three heart attacks. I know what it's about."