Football is the source of so many positives, and it allows you to regularly renew old rivalries and friendships, but it can also some provide really tough times as Reno reflects on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly sides of our game.
Looking back over my playing and management career to date there has been a lot to smile about, but football also has a funny knack of kicking you hard in the teeth at times, though on the whole the positives tend to outweigh the negatives. When you are involved in any type of sport there will always be winners and losers and unfortunately, although the losing is hard to take it is always going to happen somewhere along the line, and it is often the time where you find out more about yourself and those around you. Along with the good and the bad times I have seen some ugly scenes too, some I can smile about, and others have made me sad. When Chris Almond went down in his first game for us with his knee which later turned out to be his ACL I was gutted, I can fully sympathise with him as you’ll find out shortly; Chris is a top lad, I knew he had worked with Brian and we thought he would fit what we were building, both on the pitch and also off it. When we first met I was immediately drawn towards him. Like me he’s football first and I was gutted and I still am that he got injured.
That’s also the case when Alex Curran was stretchered off with a broken leg against Buxton last season; I was gutted when Alex went down injured as I had a feeling it was serious. Alex has been a major part in our recent success and he was getting back to his best. I have never seen a player glide with a ball as effortlessly like Alex does; he was great in the dressing room and playing for FC had got him match-fit but also producing what his innate talent was capable of. Our agreement with Stockport was that we would get him fit and when he was I am sure he would make a massive contribution to their squad. However, Alex loved his time with FC and what the fans did for him when he was injured just showed that we now class him as a Red!!! You never know, when he’s fully recovered from his injury and needs more game time I would have him back in a flash!
There have been so many good times to date, if I mentioned them all I guess I could write two books! There are certain ones that will always spring to mind such as making my debut at 16 for Darwen, scoring the winning goal for Clitheroe to win the league, the tractor ride, securing two trophies in 18 months for Bamber Bridge. Ultimately though, the happiest I have been is when I was appointed manager of FC United, and even during my first game in charge of FC, I managed to bring a smile to the face of everyone who was in the ground that day. As the ball was cleared out of play after sixty minutes I stretched to retrieve it, but didn’t manage to touch it as I found myself going arse over tit. Unfortunately my shoes did not have any grip on the slippery surface and over I went! I still have not claimed my money back for the dry cleaning bill though Graham must have felt for me, by the time the next game came round he had redesigned the technical area, the grass had gone and been replaced with AstroTurf. That said, I am still wary every time the ball goes out of play near to me; I just leave it now!!
Graham is one of the many great people I’ve met through football, and I have made a lot of friends in football, after all it’s been my life, only the other day, I received a video message from Darren Kelly, the current Scarborough manager, which certainly made me feel good, he’s one of my real mates in football and he told me about his harmonica that is around 65 years old. It was passed down to him from his Grandad, and he’s been learning to play it and decided to send me his rendition of ‘Dirty Old Town’, which we all know well and sing our own version of ’Now we’ve built our own ground’, and this certainly brought a smile to my face. To think, everyone is busy and has their own things going on in their daily lives, however, he found the time to send me a video recording which he knew would bring a smile to my face. I struggle to put that into words. The smallest thing made me so happy and for that I am so grateful.
Music is a huge part of football, the two go together intrinsically and whilst I was working at my previous school the Headteacher at the time, Richard Smyth, once said to me, ‘Music is the only thing that can touch certain nerves in your body like nothing else’. Ever since that I think about it all the time. I love listening to music and I have a confession... on match days, little Jack will always take my phone, hook it up to the car stereo, search YouTube, and blast out FC songs all the way until we get to the ground, singing all the way and always at the tops of our voices. If you are ever behind me at the traffic lights before reaching Broadhurst Park you will hear the songs coming out of the car, by the time I turn in I am buzzing – the songs make you feel great. The noise approaching 3pm on a Saturday creates that special atmosphere – the songs that follow are electric!
Keeping on the musical theme, since arriving at FC United I often hear people talking about the Turk’s Head pub, especially John England as I think this is his local. People told me that this is a popular FC watering hole but I had never heard of it. After one game Chaddy, Mike and myself had said that we would head into town for a few drinks and then get a taxi home. There were several FC fans going so we knew we would be in for a good night, we agreed to meet in the Turk’s Head. We jumped in a taxi and off we went and as we got in there was a good atmosphere. People were right, there were loads of FC Fans in and everyone was singing. It was a great night and the beers were flowing, then out of nowhere this chap wandered in with a guitar strapped to his back. I had not seen him before, but he came over and introduced himself to me. ‘My name is Mickey O’Farrell’, he said, ‘and I have supported FC since the start’. He had a cockney accent and I asked him where he lived and he said that he often travels to the games from London. He said that his train back was at 9:15. I was astonished. ‘What, tonight?’ ‘ Yeah’, he said, ‘I set off this morning, came to the game, had a few beers, a sing song, and then I will go home. It’s what I do’. I was blown away – I could not believe it.
He then pointed at my suit and put his finger directly onto the FC United crest, everyone started shushing each other until the pub was silent, I had no idea what was going on, and then Mickey started explaining to me about the badge, pointing to the three stripes and three sails and explaining the history behind it. As he was talking to me there was a rhythm to his voice, I did not realise at this point, but he was initially speaking the lyrics to the song ‘This badge is my badge’ I was transfixed, I could not take my eyes off him.
Over the last few weeks, I had been trying to learn the chorus but Christ, Mickey knew every word of the song. There were about four verses to it, and he sang them all elegantly. Despite the fact that he had consumed a rake of ale during the day, he did not slur or miss a word. It was a mind-blowing moment as I looked into his eyes as he sang. I honestly did not want him to stop. As he reached the final chorus everyone joined in…. what a moment, and it’s something I will never forget. Mickey finished and everyone hugged him and shook his hand. He downed his pint, and said, ‘Right, I best go for my train’ and that was it. Wow, what a talent. I later found out that he knew the song so well because he wrote it - my favourite FC song - what a special moment.
Watch Mickey sing it here
As with all the good times, bad times seem to follow you as well!! Whilst I was assistant manager to Neil Crowe at Bamber Bridge we were so close to success, we had built a good squad and we felt that our time to get out of the league was fast approaching. Disappointingly it never happened, but we were still proud of the team we built. Our first game in charge together saw us travel to Chester City. It was one of the last games of the season and they needed to win to be crowned champions, the stadium was packed, and it was a sea of blue and white, balloons etc. everywhere. We went on to lose the game 2-0 and we watched the celebrations after the game as they received their trophy, as I said the bad times can teach you so much and this inspired us as a unit, and despite many setbacks along the way we managed to overcome them.
After 4 years in charge we reached our first play-off final and we were pitched against Ramsbottom United who were the in-form side, they had two well-known managers (and good mates of mine), Bernard Morley and Anthony Johnson. The game was end to end but it was Ramsbottom who had taken a 2-1 lead, in the last minute of the game the referee awarded us a penalty. Paul Alexander (IP – Twist & Shout) stepped up to power the ball home – nerves of steel. Before IP took the ball it was like a bouncing bomb, no-one wanted the ball nor the responsibility of having the last kick of the game. Score and it’s extra time, miss and it’s all over! You would have thought we had the momentum but credit to their management team, they made changes and picked their team back up. Rammy went on to win the game 3-2. We were all devastated and as at Chester, we watched the trophy celebration. I was gutted that day but it motivated Crowey even further and after the last ball was kicked, he strengthened the squad as we needed to go one better. The following season arrived and was another success.
Again, we reached the play off final, however, this year we were drawn away against one of the favourites, Darlington, who were managed by Martin Gray and had Sean Gregan (ex PNE & Leeds midfielder) in his coaching staff. The ground was packed and we already knew how good Darlington were and they were the clear favourites to win the game, as it happens I think our lads froze and we lost the game 2-0. We missed a good chance at 0-0 and who knows, if we had taken that chance the day might have been different? This again was tough to take. I remember after the game, we wanted to do the right thing and watch the presentation, however, a police officer came over to me and said ‘I think it is a good idea if you get your team into the changing rooms. There are a lot of characters in the ground today and we don’t want anything unsavoury to happen’. I was surprised at this comment, they had just won but then again, I did not want it to turn ugly so off we went.
Losing in one play-off final hurt a lot, losing two nearly finished me but the thought of losing three.... well I can’t even contemplate that feeling! However, in football, if you keep at it then you know the good times are just around the corner and it wasn’t long before we could celebrate that ‘play-off win’, third time lucky and all that. I was manager at this point and Crowey was my Director of Football. We were talking beforehand, and we could not even think about the possibility of losing another play-off final. We had beaten Tadcaster at home in the semi-final on the Tuesday night and we were drawn at home to Prescot. Prescot had beaten Trafford 3-0 to reach the final. The side that finishes highest in the play off spaces is awarded the home advantage for both the semi-final and final if you are fortunate enough to get there. Brian Richardson was their manager and I remember sharing a joke with Brian before the game, he had previously lost his last four play-off finals whilst being assistant to Tommy Lawson at Skelmersdale. AFC Fylde, Lancaster City, Curzon Ashton and FC United were victorious in these games! Today, one of us was going to break our play off hoodoo!
The stadium was full… I think the whole of Bamber Bridge had come to the game, or so it felt! It was a red hot day and there I was stood in my black suit with my collar and tie. It is my thing, so I was not changing just because of the weather. We eventually won the game 1-0 through Chris Marlow who I brought on as a substitute,he’s played for Brig all his career, so it was fitting that he scored the winner after 78 minutes. Despite this, Prescot could count themselves unlucky. Chris Almond had his shot tipped round the post by goalkeeper Lloyd Rigby when he seemed destined to score, then Aaron Turner hit a thunderbolt which was destined to smash the back of the net but Matt Lawlor’s Adam’s apple got in the way, he had thrown himself at the ball and it hit him square in the throat, I thought he was dead as he just lay there motionless. The whole ground stopped but Lawls found his way to his feet….
He is one of those people that certainly will always put his body on the line, literally, and I was so happy for Matt, he was our captain, our leader and he deserved the opportunity to lift the trophy as we went on to win the game. Although that was an incredible feeling I had to feel for my friend, Brian. I love celebrating but I recall that day when we scored, I was stood right next to Brian. The technical areas are so close together at Brig, I just stood there. Inside I was ecstatic but out of respect it did not feel right to celebrate. Brian had built an exceptional side at Prescot. Neither side was blessed with money but both sides would certainly be able to hold their own in the league above.The game could have gone either way and Prescot will look back at this and feel aggrieved as there was not much in the game. This was our day though, bloody hell, the defeats to Rammy and Darlington were now a distant memory! Here is one thing though, when FC United get to their next play-off final, someone please kidnap Brian Richardson the night before the game!!
On the flip side, I cannot think of a worse feeling that the one I had when FC were relegated. I have not been sacked (yet) but I am not sure if I were it would replace that feeling of how I felt the day we lost our place in the National League, although I was never relegated as a player, after the age of 25 I had a bad time with injuries; I’d had minor injuries early in my career, but I rarely missed a game. I guess my playing career changed on March 5th 2002. I was playing for Clitheroe at the time. We had a night game away at Flixton on a Tuesday night, I recall the pitch being firm, but I was not a fan of wearing moulded studs, your opposition would get off lightly if they were not rolling round in agony after six metal studs hit them hard in a tackle, I used to always wear studs but this evening I was deliberating. I was not comfy in either. We were going for promotion and needed to win the game. I chose to play in studs, Flixton had some big lads and as I was not the biggest, I would need to hit them early and made sure it was enough to keep them out of the game.
I was having a real battle with one of their central midfielders. We both went up for a header and as I landed, I felt my nose splattered across my face, how the ref did not see the elbow was beyond me and blood was streaming from me but back then you could wipe it off and carry on playing. I was raging with him and the referee. I thought, that is it, the next 50/50 I am going to end you. I can still see the tackle now. The ball bounced and neither of us was going to pull out,I smashed him fairly in the tackle and put everything into it; I heard him squeal on the floor. At that point once I knew I was out of the tackle I bounced to the floor quickly and as I set off to start running, I just heard a crack and my knee seemed to give way. I felt weird, like I was going to be sick. I looked at it and nothing was broken, no bleeding so I tried to carry on. A minute later I ran to receive the ball from a throw in, as I received the ball and tried to turn out…that was it, I heard the loudest snap. Toddy, who was on the bench, had previously had the same injury and apparently, he turned to the bench and said ‘He has snapped his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). Despite the injury (which I did not know the diagnosis of at the time) I managed to get to my feet and drive home that evening. I saw various physios and there was nothing specific to say my ACL was snapped. Three weeks of intense rehab and I felt like I was able to kick a ball again. I could run in straight lines but no twisting and turning.
The squad travelled to Skelmersdale who then played at White Moss Park, this was their last season at the ground as they were moving into their new home named Westgate Interactive Stadium – it changed its name a few times after that. I was saying to our manager that my knee felt great and I wanted to do the warm-up and then some shooting against our goalkeeper Kris Richens. The physio and manager said it was my decision. Things were going great – I struck a good twenty balls and had no reaction. I was being cautious, but it felt ok. Then Kris threw the ball out to me and I took a touch and it sat up perfectly. Without thinking I came off the ground to lash the ball back at him. Next thing I was lying there in a heap, screaming in agony. Again, I heard a snap but this time it was far worse. I could not move so the stretcher came onto the pitch before the game to take me off. I had travelled that day with Neil Spencer who drove an Audi TT – a small car. The game kicked off and I was on the physio bed, my knee had swollen up and it felt so hot and I could not go anywhere as Spenny was driving. I was in agony throughout the game. I was praying and begging for Spenny to be substituted so he could take me to the hospital. Spenny eventually came off after 70 minutes, only after he scored his hat trick. I remember trying to get into his Audi; due to the swelling my knee would not bend and it was the worst pain in the world.
(Warning - the next two paragraphs contain graphic descriptions of a medical procedure involving a large syringe)
We eventually arrived at Chorley Hospital and I said I would be ok from here. I walked into the main reception and I was white as a ghost, I practically fainted, the nurse came, put me in a wheelchair and took me straight through. The surgeon came to see me and ironically, it turned out to be the same surgeon that carried out my operation, Mr Mohammed. The nurse said that I was lucky that he had come to see me as he usually left this part to the nurses. He must have been passing and I was in that much agony I would have seen anyone!. He was asking how I got the injury, then he
asked a nurse to get him a needle with a long syringe. I do not think they use this technique any more, but I was not complaining. He said ‘I am going to put this needle into your knee and if the fluid comes out clear then it’s cartilage damage, if it’s blood then it’s your ACL’. I asked him which was worse and he told me that I did not want it to be blood. I had read about several footballers who had this injury and never returned to their best. Shearer, Gascoigne, well they were lucky to return but some players never returned at all back then from this injury. Now, due to amazing research and wonderful techniques that surgeons now use, pretty much everyone recovers from it and gets back to their best. Some people would class it as quite a common injury for a footballer.
Mr Mohammed proceeded to put this needle into my leg and it went on forever; the needle was huge! As he drew the syringe back I could feel a sudden relief, the knee was reducing in size. I did not look but the feeling was amazing, but when he addressed me, I looked at the syringe - it was full of blood and my heart sank. I just said ‘Now what?!’. He explained about the damage and said it was likely to need a full reconstruction. He said that I was likely to be out of football for about 18 months.
The NHS waiting list was around six months and they also predicted that full recovery was around 12 months, so they bandaged me up and sent me home, telling me that I would receive a letter in the post, and I was to take it from there. 18 months out of football….no way, that would finish me. However, I think someone up above was listening to me and would answer my prayers. My Mum & Dad picked me up from the hospital and I went back to their house, I remember lying on the settee. I explained what happened. My knee was heavily bandaged. Over the next couple of hours, the same pain that I had when I first snapped it earlier in the day began to return. My knee was throbbing… I was in agony again. I told my mum to take the bandage off as my knee felt like it was going to explode, I looked down and my knee was huge again, so my Mum ran into the kitchen then came back and said ‘It’s ok, I will put some of this on’. I was expecting some cooling ice to reduce the swelling… I had my eyes closed as I was in that much pain just waiting for the sweet, sweet relief of the ice on the raging fire that was my knee, but instead the pain that I thought couldn’t get any worse went up a couple of notches, my knee was now burning but not from the swelling, my mum was spraying bloody DEEP HEAT on my knee!! ‘What the hell are you doing?, I do not need heat, that will inflame it, I need ice to reduce the swelling!!’. My Mum by this point was in hysterics and I was not seeing the funny side, I’d never sworn in front of my parents before then, this was the turning point!
My Dad rushed me back to hospital and as I hobbled in and explained my symptoms the nurse took me straight through. I went through the same procedure as earlier, and more blood came out of my knee, they told me due to the amount of blood I had lost that I needed to stay in hospital. Great. The following morning, as the doctors were doing the rounds, I saw Mr Mohammed, he looked at me and remembered me from the night before. I explained what had happened. He went off and then came back. ‘Can I take you down to surgery this afternoon?’ he asked. ‘I have a spare slot – we will complete an arthroscopy to get a full diagnosis of your knee. Once we know exactly what it is, we can plan the surgery’. All I thought was, the quicker I have it done the quicker I can get back playing football. Of course, I am not going anywhere.
I got on well with Mr Mohammed, and so I went down that afternoon and the results came back straight away. ‘You have completely ruptured your ACL, the good news, your cartilage is still intact’. Apparently it’s much worse if they are both damaged. I spent the next three days in hospital and when I got out, I was sent a letter by the doctor to go and see him. He told me that I needed to strengthen my hamstrings and quadriceps; when they were sufficiently strong then he would complete the operation. I worked every day to get them as strong as possible; he said that the stronger they are the quicker you will recover from the operation.
September 5th, 2002 was my operation date. I was in hospital for a week – now I think you are in and out in the same day!! Mr Mohammed explained that he had taken my semi-tendinosis hamstring and attached it into my knee with dissolvable screws; this would act as the replacement ACL. He told me that the operation went well and said that I should start my rehab as soon as it was possible. I was over the moon. I was not down after the operation, quite the opposite; I was just focused on returning to playing. I spent the next seven months, day after day with a physio called Alison Green. You were only allowed one appointment per week, but I was there every day. She could not keep me away. Alison explained that she had other patients to see and could not devote all her time to me but I said, ‘Please just set me off with my exercises and you will not hear from me’. I was back in full training with the lads after five months. My knee was stronger than ever. I was discharged from physio and I made a point of going back to the hospital with a big bunch of flowers for Alison. She helped me every step. I also sent a thank you card to Mr Mohammed and told him that I would be forever grateful.
The last game of the season arrived, and we played Ramsbottom at home. We won the game 7-0 and I came on for the last 30 minutes of the game. Heaven….I had achieved my goal of playing football again this season. The season ended and I spent the summer getting even fitter – I needed to be flying come the start of the next season, but it wasn’t until the following season that I realised just how much the injury had affected me psychologically. The tough-tackling midfield player was slowly disappearing as I was now wary of going in for tackles and turning out with the ball. I also lost a yard of pace, I was never quick but now even slower, it was so hard to admit it. I was getting muscular injuries and my knee never felt the same again. I loved playing football, but I realised now that although I was still playing, I needed to turn my attentions to something else - coaching and managing - and the knee problems continued and after a further three operations and a spine operation the playing days are well and truly over.
I managed to play my last competitive game at 39 for Bamber Bridge away at Spennymoor. I had just recovered from a spine operation – four carbon fibre discs has been inserted into my upper vertebrae. The surgeon told me I should not play football again let alone head a ball as it could be dangerous. I was named on the bench in this game and we only had three subs. Just my luck – three injuries and I needed to go on and I had to go on at centre half. The ball was cleared by one of their defenders and was so high it was coming down with snow on, I was the last defender, if I didn’t head it then the striker would be through on goal. Time stood still waiting for that ball to come down, Crowey said that everyone knew I was going to head it, I knew it was going to hurt but not as much as seeing the ball hit the back of our net, that’s who I am! The lads told me after the game that everyone was shouting ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOO, don’t head it Reno!!’. I think my body is still shuddering now…... I headed the ball and just fell to the floor in a heap. Well, I was in pain but at least the centre forward did not score!! That was it….despite not sustaining a further injury to my spine after the header, enough was enough. It is always sad to close the door on your playing career, but the reality is that your health is far more important!
In football, it is not just about 3pm, both on the pitch and on the terraces the build-up and aftermath equally contribute to the occasion. Fortunately, I have not witnessed many ugly scenes in football as for me as a young lad growing up, I used to see the occasional football scrap when my Dad took me to Preston North End games, with two sets of fans meeting down New Meadow Street, where we used to park the car, to see who would come out on top. As a lad I wouldn’t get to stay and watch as my dad would be dragging me away, but you knew what was happening. Such things flare up in football, but thankfully most of the times nothing comes of it, I think the scenes like the ones I saw on the film ‘Green Street’ are long behind us…well then again, when we played Warrington away this season, I thought the sequel was going to be released.
We had lost to Warrington on the Saturday in the FA Cup 2-1 and then knew we had to play them again in the league on the Tuesday away. Warrington fans travelled to FC in their numbers and rightfully celebrated their victory, their away following was nothing like what we were going to take on the Tuesday night. Our fans gathered at the far end of the pitch and were incredible all night, however, both the FC fans and the most vocal home fans were in the same stand, and naturally with the result in mind on the preceeding Saturday, and the fans so close, there was a sense of tension as you could hear some of the chants getting a little more pointed. We won the game 1-0, Jordan Buckley scoring with a header on his debut, as always after the game our fans were singing and we were celebrating with them. Remember, we had to accept defeat on the Saturday and move on. Tonight was slightly different. A group of Warrington fans continued to hurl abuse at our fans, they were also positioned between the FC fans and the exit and I remember thinking if they did not move then something ugly could happen, however, this group refused to move. I stood there thinking ’it’s going to go off’.
There were some verbals and insults and out of the corner of my eye I just saw a group of FC fans pick up the pace, it was like being back down New Meadow Street but this time my Dad could not drag me away. Doyley was arguing with some of their fans and then a few more of our lads then got involved trying to resolve the situation, but the small Warrington contingent saw the FC fans moving quickly towards then and must have thought, Christ, they mean business. They soon scarpered and I am glad to report that there was no trouble. Once the fans were apart there was some shouting from the home fans towards our fans and players but it was slightly muffled as they were drowned out by ‘Away Away, Away Away, FC United Away, FC United away, FC United away’…… as our fans exited the ground, happy with the three points!
The nature of football is that there will always be good times and bad times. We are involved and get the same feelings, ’do not get too excited when you win and do not get too down when you lose’ I am told and I know I fail on both! As I get older, I may learn to handle emotions in different ways. Although I hate the bad times these make you stronger as a person, I know that, I know there will be more bad times in the future but it’s how you bounce back.
When people refer to the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, then Clint Eastwood would automatically spring to mind. How the story of the three renegades go around the ’wild west’, each with their own attributes, looking for rewards and technically it is what we do, we go around every week looking for three points and along the way we may encounter all three scenarios….one thing is for sure, we would not change it for anything!!
Stay tuned for Chapter Ten, it’s the last edition next week…….‘All in a day’s work’