John Tondeur - with a little help from his friends

Cod Almighty | Article

by Tony Butcher

19 April 2024

And now the end is near we've reached the final curtain with a final reveal. Which manager sent him best wishes? Who was in the zoom room when the Mayday call went out? What was his survival strategy for Shorty and Shouty and, heck, what's the point of it all?

Come stroll one last time down the canyons of John Tondeur's memories of madmen, sad men and finally, some good men in black and white. 

TB: So, the dreaded post-match interview. That's where most of the fraughtness occurs. What is your method for assessing the substance and tone of the approaching encounter? Is it literally whether they are stomping up the stairs?
To a certain extent if a manager comes out very quickly after a win that's alright. But if a manger comes out very quickly after a heavy defeat then that can be problematic. The famous Michael Jolley one, he came out after about two minutes…Incidentally I got a very nice message from Michael Jolley this week. Well, you've heard the rant, which I didn't record, nor anyone at Humberside. I think I know who did, a club employee. But on the Monday I wasn't happy with what happened and I was destined to interview him because there was a game on Tuesday. Before we started I asked if he had anything to say to me. He said no. Then we did the interview

TB: Did he apologise to you?
No. We did the interview and I said to him "Michael if you've got nothing to say to me I have something to say to you. If you are going to have a go at us, fine, but do it privately." By this time he had invited me to the office and although he didn't apologise as such we had a long conversation and I felt the matter was sorted. I then went on holiday for three weeks in Central and South America, with no internet.

TB: You're telling me it wasn't a big story in Central/South America?
Surprisingly enough no, but it was everywhere else! When I came back, switched my phone on…and then I saw everyone was blaming us for it and for Michael getting sacked. I Tweeted about how we didn't record it and how in my opinion Michael and I had sorted it and it wasn't a reason for his sacking. If Town were top of the table Fenty would have agreed and wouldn't have sacked him.

TB: You do seem to have a strategy where after a particularly bad performance or result you offer the manager the opportunity to get something off their chest
If I think things may be a little hairy I'll say "Your thoughts on the game?" If I say that you know I think things could be difficult. I'll always remember when Mike Newell was sacked, he came up and he was fuming. I said "Your thoughts on the game?" He said "We lost. Ask me a question." And I just thought, oh dear…

I got on OK with Russell Slade most of the time, but it became difficult as you almost end up asking the same question every week. But what you have to do as well as asking the question is remember you're going to see these people again next week and the next week and the week after. It's difficult because you are trying to build up a trust yet ask the questions at the same time.

David Artell has been wonderful. He's really supportive of me, comes and talks to me after every game, asks me what I think. He said some lovely things when I announced my retirement on the telly and other things as well. And he always asks me something that hardly any other manager has done. He'll spend five minutes being interviewed and then asks "And what do you think?" I had to go for him a little bit, or ask really difficult questions after the Walsall game and at the end he went "Wow, when we spoke on Tuesday we got on really well". I replied "Yes, but that won't stop me grilling you". He then said "Yeah, well, that's your job." He seems to be more rounded.

These after-match interviews are a no win situation. I ask stupid questions they don't want to hear. I don't really want to ask the questions, and they don't really want to answer them. It's the way of the world.

There are some classics, like the Thomas Pinault. I was shell shocked because I was thinking the goalkeeper's having a nightmare that game, I hadn't noticed Pinault really and then he (Slade) suddenly went for him!

TB: I remember listening to that interview on the way back from the game and we all went "what the hell's he talking about?"
One of my favourite interviews as well was Shearer. I went down to the touchline and was waiting to interview someone else and Shearer was stood there, still fuming. So I thought…I'll try. "Can I have a word?" He said go on then and every answer was monosyllabic: "He did me" because obviously it was the Whittle thing.

TB: Yes you can still see the scar on MOTD. Did you enjoy that interview?
Yes, I did, yes. Although I kept having to think what am I going to say next as I was thinking he's not going to say anything and there were some quite big pauses. There are times when a pause is a really good thing to have. It's a sort of technique in a way. If I feel an interviewee is teetering on saying something I won't come in with the next question, I'll just leave it a few seconds and see if he comes in. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

TB: More Columbo than Kojak
I remember when Dembele was here he had a couple of poor games, Matt (Dean) said ask him if he's going to drop Dembele. Urgh, Russell will only get cross. So what I said was "You've got a lot of young players in the squad, Russell, like Dembele for instance. Is there time when they need a rest?"

A different question you get the same answer. I think Artell responds better to the chat approach. I've had a couple of interviews with him and I have asked him some difficult questions and he's answered them. You're not quite so defensive if someone isn't battling at you.

TB: You've had a long list of managers during your time. They have a public role and public persona. Man and myth may be different. Who were the most egregious Jekylls & Hydes when the microphone was off?
There isn't a huge different really, some are interested in getting to know you, most of them aren't. I think that's a shame really as if you get to know each other as people that would help. I've said some things to David Artell and a week later he asks about them – he's remembered and listened.

Rob Scott hated me, absolutely hated me. There was one where he was really effing, etc. I could see he was in a mood, so I did my usual "Rob, tell us about the game" and my second question was "What positives can you take from today?" and my third question was "You changed the system what are the pluses and minuses of that?" His answer was "Why don't you ask me a fucking question every fucking week that isn't negative…" I went to see him afterwards, after he'd calmed down but it was even worse. He didn't last long after that. I was talking to him once at Cheapside, pre-match, and he had a thick fountain pen in his hand as he was talking about the game and all of a sudden the pen snapped. He'd obviously been holding it so tightly. I could never understand why Hursty was with him.

TB: Paul Hurst was here twice but it was like two different sides of him – his interactions with you were very different
He certainly mellowed a lot more the second time. Maybe he was more used to stuff after what happened at Ipswich. Maybe the way the press treated him at Ipswich made him realise we weren't that bad (chuckles). I never really got to know Paul, we'd have the odd conversation but he wasn't one for chatting really. He was doing his job and speaking to me was just part of it.

TB: He always seemed to be very snippy towards you in his first period
Well I do think that what happened as well is when managers came the previous owner said "be careful of Humberside" so they had that in their minds from the start. They were cagey from the start because they'd been warned about it and it's not the case now. The owners are brilliant to us. If there is an issue Jason will ring me up and talk about it. There hasn't been a major one, just one little misunderstanding once, that's all. They're both well-rounded human beings, though we don't see or speak so much with Andrew.

TB: Paul Hurst always seemed to be trying to manage you/the media
What he would do quite often in interviews was ask my opinion. We're taught not to let them turn it around, so I would say with all due respect my opinion is irrelevant, the fans want to know what you think. There was once an incident when Macca had made a mistake and the fans had ironically cheered when he caught the next ball. Paul said after the interview "Why didn't you say you thought that was bad?" I'd already said my bit in commentary, that it was the last thing he needed. Paul said "I know you did, but why didn’t you support me?" "It's not my role to support you."

I sometimes think that managers, especially with Hursty who'd done a degree in broadcasting or sports media, that they didn't understand that our role was different from theirs and not just be a mouthpiece for the club. But he was a lot, lot better second time.

What I will do sometimes, particularly with Hursty, and more recently, if I'm going to ask them a difficult question I'd say beforehand that I'd be asking that on the basis that if I don't ask you I'm not doing my job properly. Though if I was interviewing, say, Fenty about Alex May, I wouldn't as sometimes you want, or need, to surprise them.

TB: Many ex-Town people seem to have an affection for the club, or do we see what we want to see? Is it a myth that Town are different?
I think we like to think there is, maybe people have the same opinions about other places they've been. Maybe not better, but we are different. I've always said football is the only thing, the only culture if you want to call it that, for some decades. Until Docks Beers came in with their academy and certainly since the Winter Gardens went and even before that, football is the focus of people's lives. In a lot of other places it isn't.

TB: Which brings us back to when you were growing up here there was a music scene
Yes, but I always say more people talk about football in Grimsby than talk about anything else.

TB: You had a period as an exile. When you're further away you see what you had and what you've lost and what it means
Yes, if you start thinking about it the amount of people that come and watch eleven men kick a ball to each other, the importance that has in people's lives. I'm sure there's a deep psychological space, because it isn't just about watching the game it is about everything else.

TB: That ties in with what Jason Stockwood is tapping into
If you want to watch eleven people kicking a ball why do you travel from Grimsby to Gillingham to do that? You could go and watch someone else or someone down the park round the corner. It's the attachment isn't it. The passion is fantastic and it sometime goes a little beyond that.

TB: Looking at the Paul Thundercliffe interview with you in 2004, in terms of the board, which really meant John Fenty you said…
"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."

TB: Looking back, is there a single point you reflect on as a turning point or was it simply a gradual disintegration?
I think I was trying to put a positive spin on all that. I didn't want to come across as too pessimistic, I think I just lightened it a little. I remember talking to Grovesie when Pouton was sold. It was a difficult, difficult time because of the financial situation. That led to a series of years when short term decisions had long term impact. The turning point was when the new guys came in really. You could look at the table and say "what turning point?", but when you look at the whole infrastructure of the club...and if you don't you aren't looking at it clearly enough.

TB: Shall we talk about Alex May, your part in his downfall?
Every Friday during lockdown a group of us used to meet on Zoom, have a few beers; there was me, Nigel Lowther, Phil Norton, Will Douglas from Docks, Lloyd Griffith, and we'd talk about stuff. Jason was an occasional participant too. One week Lloyd said "Have you heard of Alex May?" That rang a bell with me. We did some research and found out who he was, his prison sentence and Notts County. I checked with a couple of sources at the club and found out he was going to games in a golden Rolls Royce. We also found out he said he was prepared to put money in.

I told Humberside, who were a bit wary of using it in case it wasn't absolutely 100%; they thought it was only 99% there. So what we really needed was a photo. We got James Findlater involved, who was brilliant and we also kept in touch with Jason who I knew vaguely anyway. The rest is history.

We got Alex May on Burnsy's show and the turning point was when he confirmed he'd met the council, that was the bit that made the situation untenable – it was no longer just a Grimsby Town football story. There are still people who say we're fourth from bottom but we've got nice scotch eggs, but they aren't really seeing the big picture.

TB: It is a very different club in a very short space of time and the relationship between broadcaster and club is very different
Yes, when I announced my decision to retire, Jason said he wanted to come across and be interviewed and I asked if there was anything he wanted to talk about. He just wanted to come across and say something about me! It is nice that he did.

TB: There we are John - 40 glorious years
There is one more thing, I want to say. Probably the greatest thing about doing this is the number of friends I have made. Nigel Lowther, one of my best friends. Burnsy – we became friends as he was a Town fan and would come and watch the games with me long before he did commentary. I helped him with his first commentary and he helped me when he became sports editor. People like Lloyd (Griffith), Will (Douglas), Paul (Thundercliffe) and Christian (Boulter) and all the other people I have met. That's the biggest thing, I think, over these 40 years – friends and people I have met. I have been overwhelmed by all the messages: ex-players, ex-managers, ex-colleagues and mainly fans.

...and receiving a message from Michael Jolley was a pleasant surprise.

And, indeed, there it is. One final bombshell.

Sometimes you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

It sounds trite to call John Tondeur the voice of the Mariners, because it is. He's more than that, he's the authentic voice of an older Grimsby, never knowingly overstated, grounded in the very soil with a deep understanding of what it means to be a Town fan, and simply to be from this strange little corner of old England. 

He's one of us.

Well, thanks for your time on the airwaves and on the sofa and thanks for all the memories John. You're now free at last to shout "bloody rubbish Town" with the rest of us.