Arriving as the club’s then record signing, Tommy Widdrington’s Grimsby Town career involved three managers, relegation, promotion and then a move to Port Vale after a falling out with Alan Buckley. I caught up with Tommy, now manager of Eastbourne Borough, to find out what actually happened during his time at Grimsby Town.
When did you first get into football?
Like the vast majority of lads from where I was born and brought up, football is the main staple of almost all out of school time activity. So I was probably kicking a ball from the time I was up and around at a very early age. I obviously played for my school, district, county etc…. Then Cramlington Juniors and Wallsend Boys Clubs both of which were excellent clubs and which many professional footballer owes a debt of gratitude.
Who did you support as a boy and why? Which footballer(s) did you idolise and why?
Being from Newcastle there wasn’t a choice. Toon Army was my team and I watched lots of their games from late 70′s until leaving to do my apprenticeship in Southampton in 1988. The early 80′s side which included Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley were awesome. However, David McCreery, Kenny Wharton, John Anderson and Jeff Clarke were as important not to mention Kevin Carr in goal! Beardsley was from the same estate as me and was my favourite but David McCreery was probably the toughest and the heartbeat of a very good side.
You were born in the North East but started as a trainee at Southampton? How did that happen? Did you ever harbour hopes of playing for Newcastle?
As I mentioned I left Newcastle in 1988 to do a 2 year apprenticeship/YTS and this came about because of the satellite centre set up at Gateshead International Stadium a few years earlier. We trained every Monday night between the ages of 14 and 16 as “Associated Schoolboys” as well as visiting Southampton every school holiday to be further monitored/assessed. That centre produced Alan Shearer, Steve Davis, Neil Maddison, Barrie Wilson and myself. Four of us went on to play 1st Team football at The Dell and then command relatively good transfer fees. Incidentally, Newcastle did offer me an apprenticeship just before I actually left home but I felt loyalty to the scout and the club for sticking with me from such an early age. Jack Hixon, who’s no longer with us, was the scout responsible for all of us getting the opportunity and we all thought the world if him.
How did the move to Grimsby come about? What attracted you to the club?
I received a call during the off season to say Swindon Town (Steve McMahon), Charlton Athletic (Alan Curbishley) and Grimsby Town (Brian Laws) were all prepared to pay the fee required and that I was free to speak with them. I had actually just received a new contract offer at Saints but felt if the club were prepared to let me speak with other clubs then I may not figure as highly in their plans as I’d wanted. It was a big decision for me and I spoke with all three clubs, meeting both Steve and Brian and in fairness both impressed me. Alan had seen me play a number if games at right back but I wasn’t keen on that!
You cost Grimsby £300,000 and, at the time, were the club’s record signing. Did you feel under any pressure to live up to that tag?
Like you said, Town paid the fee, I had nothing to do with that so didn’t feel any pressure to justify it. Being the record signing was a compliment but ultimately is something to be broken?
You were signed by Brian Laws at the start of the 96/97 season but Laws was sacked and the team was relegated. Despite having some decent players on paper (including a young John Oster) what, in your opinion, was the reason the side went down?
Brian was a young very enthusiastic Player/Manager who “thought” he had the backing of his dressing room following the incident the previous season with Ivano Bonnetti? (Which he disclosed to me in our first meeting). All I will say is that he didn’t. I was gutted the guy who’d signed me and told me of his plans was gone and then to promote his number two seemed not the best decision to me.
You say you felt Brian thought he had the backing of the dressing room but didn’t…was this solely down to the Ivano incident? Do you think that did more damage long term than the fans were led to believe? If not, why did the players not respect Laws?
I believe, and this is only my view, that Brian had been led to believe he had the backing of the players when ultimately he hadn’t with regards to Bonetti incident. I did allude previously to Brian being young and still a player as well as The Gaffa so for those that had been playing with him may not have had the same respect as say those of us whom he’d signed or the younger lads in the squad. You would have to speak to Brian or those at the helm at the time just how big a part the repercussions both publicly and financially had in him leaving the club. That’s not to say the fact the season didn’t start great wasn’t also a factor in his dismissal but with the changes made it wasn’t a particularly long stint for him that season in my opinion. This was certainly the catalyst for a period of instability as Kenny didn’t manage to halt it and then Bucko started all over again by bringing back lads, so in effect regressed (literally) before eventually moving forward, or at least getting back to where the club was.
How did you rate Laws as a manager? Did you think the club were right to then appoint Kenny Swain?
Looking back, I’m not sure he was replaced just for footballing reasons? As I said he was young, enthusiastic and very passionate. We had a couple of run ins in the short time we worked together but I had a respect for him as a player and as my Gaffa. Whilst I said earlier the decision to promote Kenny to be the boss wasn’t the best decision that is in no way meant to be a slant on him. He was a different character to Brian sometimes a little “deep” but as he’s gone on to prove to be a very good coach. I think he tried to embrace the more experienced element of the squad hoping they would step up to the plate as we struggled that season but it didn’t work.
By the start of the 97/98 season Alan Buckley was appointed manager – the third in 12 months – did you get the impression you fit into Buckley’s style of football with all of the players he brought with him from West Brom?
Alan came in and told me very early on “I wasn’t his and that should someone come in I would be allowed to go.” Well more than one club did, and for one reason or another I didn’t go! He was the Gaffa and I had to do what he told me. Once I was half way up the A180 on my way to speak to Nigel Worthington at Blackpool when he called me to say “he’d changed his mind and that should turn round and get back to Cleethorpes!” Some might think I didn’t like Alan BUT ……I have to say I liked the way he tried to get his side to play the game I just felt at the time (and now I know) his man management skills were somewhat lacking. He actually got the hump with me because I had “a better car than his”. [Laughs]. True!
How disappointing was it to get injured and then miss the two Wembley games?
Gutted to miss both but delighted to be there to see the boys win both times. I only had two “proper” injuries throughout my playing career and the back problem at Grimsby was horrendous. It took so long for the condition to be identified I can’t help but feel it should have been sorted way before it was (it would these days). The second, a dislocated knee, ultimately ended my playing days.
Did you have the chance to leave the club before Port Vale came in for you? At what point that season did you know your Grimsby Town career was over?
Hearts and Blackpool wanted to take me fairly early after I joined Town but it wasn’t until a fairly heated chat with Alan hours before the transfer deadline just before I went on loan to Port Vale did I finally accept I had no future there whilst Alan was in charge.
Did you have any regrets during your time at Blundell Park? What, with hindsight, would you change about your time at the club? Did the fans see the best of Tommy Widdrington?
The way I played at that time was very different firstly to my role at Southampton and a world away from the player I become as I matured. I don’t regret anything, I believe in making decisions and that has helped me moving into coaching and management. I met people I now class as true friends still today and others who whilst only in my life for a short period also left their mark.
Who was the best player you played or trained with at Grimsby?
John Oster for ability alone gets a mention as does Darren Wrack. Kingsley Black, whom I lived with in Louth during my time there, was also a top player and a great guy. Mark Lever, whilst rarely picked first in training NEVER let you down on a Saturday. John McDermott was remarkable considering the operations he’d had and Childsy fitted perfectly in front of him. I got on really well too with Paul Groves and Kevin Donovan both of whom I could see could play at higher levels. Finally Tony Gallimore and Peter Handyside get a shout as I’ve never seen blokes, before or since, with such staying power! They both should’ve went higher in the game in my opinion.
Since retiring from football you’ve scouted, coached and been part of a management team. At which point in your playing career did you realise you wanted to stay in the game after you’d hung up your boots?
I was told very early on, by my youth coach at Southampton Dave Merrington, that I would become “a better coach than I was a player” (a back handed compliment I suppose?). The one thing my back injury did was allow me to get started on my coaching badges and I travelled to Leeds on a weekly basis to do that. I think from very early I knew I’d end up in coaching/management. Some lads I’ve played with don’t even like football, me however I eat drink and sleep the game. I actually coached at Saints, Port Vale, and Macclesfield whilst still a player, as well as helping out with recruitment and the last two clubs mentioned as well so the progression was/has been natural enough. I’m currently Manager at Eastbourne Borough in The Blue Square Bet South as well as scouting for Huddersfield Town in The Championship.
When you were Assistant Manager of Southend you were quoted as saying you ‘didn’t look at the league table until after 10 games’. Is that true, do managers really not look at the table? Do you think, with some trigger happy chairmen, that managers don’t get 10 games (or long enough) to actually manage anymore?
I actually don’t look at the whole table that often at all! I know what my club’s expectations are and I concentrate solely on achieving that. Supporters sometimes get carried away with a couple of wins or despondent after a couple of defeats, I try to remain focused on the bigger picture therefore trying to remain more level headed. As for “trigger happy Chairman” I think if you worry about them reacting too quickly, they probably aren’t the right people to be working for. Football is very different to ALL other employment as Nigel Adkins or Roberto Di Matteo would testify?
Is it correct you applied for the Grimsby job when it was vacant after Neil Woods was sacked after the club fell into non-league? Were you interviewed? What do you think would have made you the best candidate for the job?
I have never actually applied for the Grimsby Town job, as I haven’t yet felt I was the best candidate for the role. I’ll let you know if that changes.
You played under another former Grimsby manager, Mike Newell, at Hartlepool. Mike’s tenure at Grimsby ended in controversial circumstances. How did you find him as a boss?
An excellent player who, as a manager whilst not afraid to make decisions, did struggle to put distance between himself as the manager and the playing staff. Shouldn’t have let me go! (Seriously)
What do you think makes for a great manager? Which of those you played under have you modelled your own management style on? Which managers have you not based your style on?!
Rather than saying this one is good and that one not I would say I have learned from everyone I’ve worked under. Some of them I refer to in the positive some not so. Simply put if a coach/manager can get his point across on the training ground which is then evident in the teams performance then that has to be a positive. Man management plays a major part in the chemistry attained between players and The Gaffa and is an area I’ve worked very hard at. Alan Ball was the master at that and made you feel appreciated.
You’ve managed several sides in the lower leagues and currently manage Eastbourne. Having played in the Premier League how do you find the quality of football at non league level?
Undoubtedly football outside The Football League has improved immeasurably over recent times, partly because of the knock on effects of more and more lads not quite making the grade at the higher reaches of the game. This, in my opinion, isn’t just because of a lack of ability but with the vast amounts of money now enabling the top sides to buy to replace there is simply not enough positions available. I think non-league football is honest, but importantly entertaining and because the players are more accessible to the public the atmosphere is often more Community spirited.
What ambitions do you have as a manager? Where do you hope to be in five years time?
I’m very ambitious, and want to manage at the highest level possible. I’m under contract here at Eastbourne until 2015 and I’m totally focused on firstly the continuation of stabilising then progressing us as a football club, not just a team. They tasted The Blue Square Bet Premier, and want to go back! As to where will I be in 5 years time? The honest answer is …Who Knows? As we’ve already discussed football is very unpredictable but I’d hope to be involved somewhere in The Beautiful Game.
Do you think this is the season the Mariners will finally make it back into the Football League?
Having been involved in Non League for a little longer than Town it always makes me smile when clubs relegated out of The League feel “it is their right” to go back up. As you guys have already experienced, along with Exeter, Oxford, Luton, Mansfield, Macclesfield, Stockport and many before it isn’t easy. You just have to see the “new” boys in The Football League rarely drop down in the same manner. I’d love to see Grimsby Town back, not just in The Football League but striving to regain the tag of “The Little Fish” punching above their weight with the bigger boys!