South Shields joint manager Graham Fenton and assistant manager Martin Scott appeared at a question and answer session with supporters at Mariners Park on November 30.
The duo spoke for the best part of two hours on a range of issues in an event organised by the SSFC Members’ Club.
Below is a full transcript from the Q&A, with individuals represented by their initials: GF (Graham Fenton) and MS (Martin Scott).
Q: I’ve been supporting South Shields since the Simonside Hall days, and this is the best football I’ve seen at the club so congratulations for that first of all. When we lost at Stafford Rangers in the FA Trophy, Lee Picton said afterwards that we were bullied in the second half. We’ve got a fantastic midfield, but do we sometimes lack a hardman like Leepaul Scroggins?
GF: When Lee talked about being bullied, he wasn’t necessarily meaning physically. It’s a mental thing sometimes. That day, we came under a bit of pressure and didn’t stand up to it on that occasion. The lads have generally done very well in those situations, and that was a rare occasion they didn’t. You look back to last season, for example the two games at Newcastle Benfield, when the pitch was horrendous, and Sunderland RCA. The lads had to dig in and show lots of character. The Stafford game was unusual in that we were a little bit mentally bullied. Straight after the game, we said we needed a huge reaction. Since then, the lads have shown how much that hurt and came back fighting. Getting back to your question, we’re always looking to improve the squad. Whether it’s a more physical player or a technically gifted player, we’re always looking to improve. We do our due diligence and make sure the person and player is right, whoever we bring in.
MS: Sometimes you have to give credit to the opposition. Our reputation goes before us and people recognise the quality of football we play. Teams are playing a certain way against us and we have to get used to it. A lot of them are just sitting back, but that wouldn’t be a gameplan I would choose, because as soon as you concede your gameplan is out of the window. Sometimes you forget other teams will watch videos and do their homework on you. It’s up to us as a management team to continue reacting well to what they’re doing.
Lee and Graham are very demanding and have really high standards. We all want to play fantastic football and get fantastic results. Sometimes you can’t always get that, but it’s something we’ve done a lot over the last 18 months or so. It’s important to keep striving for high standards right across the board, with the understanding that the opposition will make it really difficult for you.
For me, the mental side is now very important at this level. I was told years ago that many players at this level are technically just as good as some of those in the Football League, but the mental side is why they haven’t made it, and it’s true. We work extremely hard on that side of things. We’ve got some fantastic talent in the squad, and they’re buying into the stuff Lee and Graham are doing, hence the success we’ve had.
GF: After the Stafford game, we had a lot of individual chats with the players to try to get inside their heads. We left training to Martin, because he’s a brilliant coach. Myself and Lee put our opinions across about where the lads were and what they needed to do. The reaction has been fantastic since then, so we’re delighted. We had been really disappointed with the result and performance that day.
On certain pitches you need to go and match teams physically, for sure. You have to show both sides of the game. Sometimes you might need to stick someone in the middle of the park and win physical battles, and as I said earlier, we’re always looking to try to improve the squad. We always have to make sure the characters are right for the dressing room. The lads we have are so good at wanting to get better, listening and learning. We have to make sure that whoever we bring in is on the same wavelength.
Q: Some of our players have played professionally, whereas some have mainly played local football and won’t be used to the added travel we’re experiencing this season. How are those lads adapting to it?
GF: It does take some getting used to if you haven’t done it before, even for those who have been professionals in the past. I found it difficult after dropping out of the professional game when I went to Blyth Spartans. Sometimes you’re leaving at 8.30am and you’re on the bus for four-and–a-half hours. You might get stuck in traffic and end up having half an hour to prepare when you get to the ground. It’s not easy. We’re putting plans in place to try and make sure the journey is as good as possible for the players in terms of the bus we’re on, and the stop-off we have so they can get the right nutrition. We’re trying to look after them as well as possible. It’s certainly not easy to cope with the travel after a full week of work, though.
Q: There seems to be a lot of attention to detail, and I was surprised to hear that the players even have video analysis sessions. It seems like a professional environment – how are the likes of Barrie Smith, who has only played locally, responding to that?
MS: It’s very simple with Lee and Graham. That is the way forward and they’re asking the players to buy into it. They’re open and honest with the players and tell them what they are looking for, and the video analysis is a key part of it. The more information you can have about the opposition, the better. I like to concentrate more on our team, though. We concentrate on getting our house in order, first and foremost. Personally, I don’t feel there’s a team in our division that can match us when we’re on top form. People like Barrie Smith and players who have played in the Northern League for most of their careers are buying into it and like it, because we’re improving them. I think most people would agree that Barrie is playing some of the best football he has played for years. The dressing room is key. To improve players, you’ve got to get the right character in the dressing room so that they buy into what you’re trying to do. Some players are happy to stay in the Northern League without the travelling and a lot of the demands. We want players with ambition, who want to test themselves and come out of their comfort zone. Over the next two or three years, with the way this club is looking to progress, we need to be recruiting the right characters who want to play for South Shields. That’s really, really important.
Q: We’ve done very well so far and I want to congratulate you and the team on that. I didn’t even dream we’d be top of the league by December. Who do you think our biggest challengers will be in the rest of the season?
GF: Scarborough will not be far away at the end of the season. Hyde will certainly be there as well. After that you’re looking at the likes of Prescot Cables and possibly Ossett Town and Bamber Bridge. I think there’ll be four or five teams in the shake-up at the end. We certainly won’t be complacent. We haven’t played Hyde yet, but they did very well in the FA Cup and earned some money along the way, which they might be able to spend on bringing some players in should they need to. Again, though, you might have money to spend, but you have to find players that fit into your dressing room straightaway. We focus on ourselves. We’ve already beaten Scarborough twice and they are one of the strongest teams in the league. We’re looking forward to the games against Hyde to see how strong they are.
Q: Considering how well we’ve done, do you think we will get the problem of clubs chasing our players?
MS: We certainly could get that with some of our younger players. Dillon Morse is standing out for me as a young player. Anthony Callaghan is another young player who I think could grow with the club as he has fantastic ability too. Calla has been in the professional environment in the past. His career went down but now it is taking off again. Of course clubs in higher divisions might be interested in players in the future, but would you find a club better than South Shields at the moment, which is run better, has better managers and better facilities? Possibly not in my opinion. Some players – as was the case with David Foley in the summer – want to play at a higher level, and you can’t knock players like that. For me, you have to look at where you are in your career and where you want to go. If I was a young, ambitious player in the North East, I’d want to be here. I don’t think there’ll be a better place to be over the next two or three years.
Q: If players who have left the club would like to come back in the future, would you entertain that?
GF: We’d have to see what we needed at that time, and where their head is at. It would be done on an individual case basis. David Foley, for example, is a fantastic footballer. We had a tough decision to make last season from January onwards. We talked about trying to tie players down at that stage, but thought that if we started offering four or five players contracts midway through the season, it might affect the atmosphere in the squad when we were trying to win trophies. We decided to concentrate on going for the four trophies, and to leave it as long as it was going well. We left it until the end of the season, which ended up being a lot later than originally scheduled because of our trip to Wembley. In the week after Wembley, people were making phonecalls and it was difficult to tie everyone down. With hindsight, we possibly could have offered David something during last season, but would that have upset other people and would we have still won four trophies? We’ll never truly know the answer to that. We stick by our guns. We still think it was the right decision to make at that time when we were trying to win four trophies.
Q: It has been great to see the interaction between the first-team and academy, and the standard of the academy players when they’ve been involved with the first-team has been fantastic. What’s the situation with the reserve team – there don’t seem to be many first-team players getting match action with them?
MS: That hasn’t been a priority at the moment. The club is trying to build, and the first-team is the most important. The academy was also a key thing for us to set up with the future in mind. We’ve all worked extremely hard on that to get it up and running. We have plans moving forward to build a really strong club right through the system, to feed the first-team for years to come. The league the reserves are currently playing in doesn’t tick the boxes sometimes for certain players. One or two of the academy lads have stepped up and played. In years to come, we would like the reserve team to play at a higher level.
An example of what we’re doing with certain players can be seen with my son, Harrison, who played at right-back against Stocksbridge Park Steels. He is at Bishop Auckland in the Northern League on a dual-registration with us. That was the right decision for him after pre-season, to go and play games. He is playing Northern League football for them, which is better than not playing. Young kids need to play football. Quite a few of the academy players are also getting football in the Northern League. A couple of lads are at Washington, and there are others at clubs including Dunston, Chester-le-Street and Consett. They’re playing at a good level, higher than where our reserve team is at the moment. That’s improving them even further. The long-term plan is to get that reserve team into a better league, perhaps even by linking up with a Northern League club potentially. It’s a priority, but not the main priority. It’s on the agenda, though, and the chairman is aware of it. In an ideal situation, all of the academy players would be playing for the reserve team in the Northern League, developing together. We’d be able to build them together to create more players for us in the longer term. Hopefully that will happen in the future.
GF: Leepaul and his staff had a really difficult job when they took over. They had a very short period between taking over and the start of pre-season, and were chasing their tails straightaway. They had to build a team from scratch, so it was always going to be difficult. They have done the job as well as they could have possibly done in the limited time they’ve had. At first-team level, we’re carrying 20 players at the moment. One of those is Stephen Ramsey, who has had a long-term injury. That leaves three players missing out on the squad, but it has been rare that we haven’t had two or three injuries anyway. There hasn’t been a week yet that we’ve had a squad of 19 to select from. We’ve been in a rhythm of playing Saturday and Tuesday almost every week, so we’ve had to cover ourselves in case we picked up any injuries. We’ve had to balance it as we’re not carrying a large squad. If we had a squad of 25 or 26 players, we’d possibly have five or six of them playing for the reserves on a regular basis. We’re trying to develop this into a real football club, with the first-team at the top, then the reserves and the academy feeding it, right the way down to under-6s and under-7s.
Q: Is it a fair assumption that there aren’t any reserve team players ready at the moment for first-team action?
GF: I’ve been to some of the reserve games, but it’s really difficult to find the time to see the players with the schedule we’ve got. We’re relying on what Leepaul, David Graham and Christopher Reay are telling us about how lads are getting on. With the academy players, though, we’re working with them day-in, day-out, and we see the developments they are making. We can identify players that we might dip in and give them a little taste of being in the first-team, like we did with Ethan Biwer again in the Stocksbridge game. Hopefully Ethan stepping in for his first start at senior level will not just whet his appetite, but whet the appetite of all the academy players. They should look at Ethan and think, ‘if he can do it, why can’t I?’ We’re trying to promote young lads with with real drive and ambition. They should see the progress Ethan has made in a short period of time into the first-team and think they can do that as well.
Q: Looking ahead to next season and the future, and the recruitment side of things, can you see us signing players from outside the area – like what happened in the past with Martyn Coleman?
MS: We’re looking for good players. We’re aware that the higher you go, some of the clubs you come up against might be full-time. That brings its own problems, because financially it’s a massive step for the club, and for players, it becomes their job. They might already have a job they’re settled in and not want to leave that. We know we’ll have to start paying more money at that level, and the chairman is aware of that. We’re trying to put things in place to do that, because that’s our drive and his drive. It’s up to us to recognise the right player. If he doesn’t deliver or click, we need to address it. Hopefully the club will be successful and people want to be part of what we’re doing. If I was at that level and knew a club like South Shields – which could potentially knock on the door of the Football League in the future – wanted me, I would want to be a part of that.
There are some big decisions to come right across the board. If we continue on the same road and keep stepping up it’s going to be tougher. A lot of teams in the National League North, for example, are full-time. If you aren’t full-time, it’s difficult to compete at the top end of that league. You’ll be up against full-time players being paid very well and training every day. You have to try to compete against that.
Q: At what level would you envisage the club would have to go full-time?
GF: It has to be at the right time for the club. We don’t want to push the club into a position where finances are strained. At the moment, there are about six clubs in the National League North which are full-time. Depending on the progress we make, it could possibly be a couple of years away for us. If we get to that level and want to progress through that league, we will have to look at that as long as it is financially viable.
In terms of the original question about signing players from outside the area, you mentioned Martyn Coleman, who was here before my time at the club. I like him as a footballer. He didn’t last very long here, and apparently that was mainly because he got a bit sick of the travelling. He has just had a short spell at Shildon as well, and now is back at Penrith again. When you bring a player in, you have to really balance if it is the right thing to do at the time. If the player can’t turn up to training, they are going to miss out on a lot of information. The other players will have done all the training and will be ready to put it all into practice, whereas they will be at a disadvantage.
Q: How does the wage structure at the club work? There are rumours that some players are paid a percentage of the gate receipts?
GF: I can assure you that’s not the case! That is absolutely not the case. Like any football club at a decent level, we have players on different levels of wage. That’s the same across the board, from Manchester City at the top of the Premier League right down to teams in the Second Division of the Northern League. It’s just the way it is. Ultimately, it’s up to us as a management team to sit around a table with the players and negotiate a deal which is right for the club and the player. Once the deal is signed, that is it done.
MS: As a player, you hear the rumours, and when I was at Sunderland I certainly wasn’t the highest paid player. If you’ve signed a contract and are happy with it, that should be it. It’s something that isn’t talked about in dressing rooms.
Q: There was a rumour a while back that Louis Storey might be moving to North Shields. Could you clarify that?
GF: We thought it would be beneficial for Louis to go out and get some game-time. Brian Smith, the manager of North Shields, is a good friend of mine. He asked about Louis, who had missed a few games early in the season and needed some football fitness. He played a couple of games for North Shields to get some match fitness. Almost all of the lads in our squad are on contracts, so can’t be dual registered with a team from a lower level unless they are loaned out. Louis suffered a broken ankle last season and was getting himself back to fitness. We told him we needed him to come back in pre-season, get himself really fit and prove he wanted to be part of this by working exceptionally hard. He has worked his socks off, and is looking a lot fitter and sharper. His last few performances have been great. We recently sat down with him and offered him a contract until the end of the season, which is good news for the club.
Q: So the situation with Louis is similar to the one with Harrison Scott? I thought Harrison had left the club.
GF: Harrison has been training with us all season.
MS: He has played for six or seven Northern League clubs in the past, and has been playing at that sort of level since he was 17. He had the chance to train with the squad in pre-season, and Lee and Graham planned to give him a run-out. He pulled his hamstring so was missing for about two months, so he missed that initial chance. He needed games, and when the chance came up to get him some time on the pitch at Bishop Auckland, it was ideal. They’ve got a good set-up and he has really kicked on with them. He needs games, and the cup game against Stocksbridge gave us the opportunity to have a look at him. He thoroughly enjoyed himself.
GF: Most of our lads are contracted to the club, so can’t be dual registered. They would need to be loaned out for something like that. I was a big fan of the loan system as a player, because it’s how I got my breakthrough. I was doing well in Aston Villa’s reserves and big Ron Atkinson told me to go out and get a few games at a higher level. I went to West Brom for five or six weeks, came back and went straight into the first-team.
Q: Have you been approached by any clubs from a higher level, with a view to taking some of their players on loan? It worked for Newcastle United goalkeeper Paul Woolston at Blyth Spartans last season.
GF: The loan system is something we can possibly look at using. Plenty of clubs in our league use it, including Scarborough, who have Max Wright on loan from Grimsby Town. He’s doing well there and Scarborough are reaping the benefits. It’s something we can possibly look at going forwards, but again, it has to be right.
MS: I watch a lot of Under-23s football, and if I was in that environment, I wouldn’t be happy playing Under-23s. I would want to come out and get tested. Under-23s football is a bit false for me and I don’t think it gets the players ready for that level. I think Newcastle have 38 players in their squad. How many of them will realistically step up to the first-team? The vast majority of them will be overlooked. Players have got to think about themselves and realise that they might have to drop down. They should be willing to drop to clubs at our level and the Northern League to get a taste of it. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards in terms of levels to take a step forward in your career. Jamie Holmes came to us in the summer from Newcastle. I think players like Jamie can easily get lost in the system. It’s really frustrating for players. They’re fighting 38 others to get on the bench for the Under-23s. They might train all week but not play. So many players are released every year and haven’t really had any football experience. They come down to our level and they aren’t ready for it. They can be years behind others because they haven’t played at our level before. They might think it is going to be easy, but it certainly isn’t.
Q: Is Jordan Blinco an example of that?
MS: It’s very similar. He was in that situation at Sunderland, and he’s a real talent. He came to us and some of the games he played were excellent. I think the system has let Jordan down and not supported him along the way. His career has been up and down. There isn’t the support mechanism within the system to help people like Jordan. Some of the kids are in the academies for 10 to 12 years, and it’s not working.
GF: Let’s take Newcastle as an example and imagine you’re a kid going into their academy. They might think, ‘if I don’t make it at Newcastle, I can always drop down to the Championship’. It isn’t that easy. This is what they really struggle to get their heads around. They might be released by a Premier League club but other clubs at the next level and the next and the next and the next don’t want to take a punt on them. Clubs right the way down to some in the National League North are full-time. Managers are under pressure to get results quickly at every level. Are you going to take a punt on a kid playing Under-23s, unrealistic football to get you results? The players end up having to drop to Conference, Evo-Stik or Northern League level and a lot of them find it really difficult mentally. In the case of Jordan Blinco, I think he struggled to get his head around that. Hopefully he’ll realise over the next year or so and give it a go. I feel sorry for him, because he has been let down by the system.
Q: What happens to players when they’re released by pro clubs? Is there support for them?
GF: They all go on exit trials. They’re pulled in with everybody else who’s in the same situation, and it’s another scrap for them. With clubs taking kids from the ages of six or seven, the drop-out rate is astronomical. Kids aged six, seven, eight or nine are being told they aren’t good enough, and then they don’t want to play football any more, so you’ve lost them.
MS: I was reading an article recently which said that the chances of any player in the academy of a professional club progressing to become a professional footballer anywhere is something like 0.018%. You’ve got more chance of being hit by a meteor. The system isn’t working.
Ethan Biwer was at Sunderland for many years with my youngest boy, Oliver. He’s a real talent and I’ve seen him progress for years. He was released at the age of 15 or 16 and effectively told he wasn’t good enough. If he had been given a scholarship then, though, his career would have stopped. He would have become stuck in the system, playing Under-17s and Under-18s football. He was released and his career has actually started now. He’s now really tough mentally because he has been let down and kicked where it hurts. It creates a real desire and passion to make it. Don’t think that it’s a coincidence that he has kicked on. Look where he is now and look where the kids are who were given a scholarship. He’ll be years ahead of them now. In my opinion, that’s the pathway for North East kids now. Kids at professional academies get the tracksuit but that’s as good as it gets. The system is blocked full of players.
It was a different world when I was coming through as a young player. I can remember playing a reserve game for Rotherham against Bradford at Valley Parade. Terry Yorath was captain of their reserves for that game and was a fantastic player. It was such an experience for us to come up against him. We were playing against a respected seasoned pro and knew we would come up against players like that every week. It’s not like that now.
It’s a society problem. We speak every day about it. Everything seems to be wrapped in cotton wool now, but we’ve decided to be different here. I believe you have to be tough on talent. You have to have a strong focus on discipline. If you do that, you’ll get players through the system, which is what we’re trying to do here.
GF: You’ve got to be resilient if you’re going to make it. You don’t become that if you’re only told how good you are all the time. You’ve got to be honest with kids. You need to tell them what they’re doing well, but also what they need to do better. If they can’t handle that, this is not the right football club for them unfortunately. To progress into our first-team and play alongside the likes of Julio Arca, Jon Shaw and Craig Baxter, they have to realise that. These players have played at a very high level but their will to win is as strong as ever. You won’t last long in that company if you don’t listen. You have to be honest from the start, and the academy lads have been great. We’re at the beginning of what we’re trying to do.
Q: Someone like Julio Arca must be a fantastic example for them? They must look up to him?
GF: There are lots of examples of lads who have played at a very high level and give every single ounce of energy they’ve got. Those are the examples we use with the academy lads. If it’s good enough for the likes of Julio Arca, it’s certainly good enough for them.
MS: We’ve started to dip a few of them into training with the first-team on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s a fantastic experience for them. The standard of training and quality of football is just fantastic. For kids to dip into that and train with Julio Arca, whose standard in training is really high, shows them the demands and standards it takes to be a success. Callum Guy has trained a few times for us and is now close to the first-team squad. He’s progressing very quickly. He’s not the biggest, but he has bit heart and big ability.
GF: What is there to be afraid of, in terms of giving young lads a chance? Unless you think they are ready, you won’t stick them into that situation. If we think an academy player is better than a first-team player, they will be in. We have to dip them in at the right time and in the right game. That’s right the way through to the top level. Look at Ruben Loftus-Cheek. He played for England in the recent friendlies against Brazil and Germany, but he gets nowhere near the Chelsea team and has had to go out on loan to get minutes on the pitch. You have to look at these kids at the right time. You have to hope they swim and don’t sink.
One of the academy lads to have made an appearance for the first-team this season is Ryan Colquhoun. He was absolutely distraught when he came off after his debut against Farsley Celtic, having given away a penalty. Ryan’s a great lad and that experience will do him good. He was gutted at the time, but we put an arm around him. He made a mistake but we won the game. It was a learning experience for him. You’ve got to dip them in and have a look at them in a real environment. In the FA Youth Cup game against Spennymoor at Mariners Park, Ethan Biwer and Ryan Colquhoun did well to earn their opportunity.
Callum Guy is another one who has been in and around the first-team squad. I pulled him aside recently after an academy training session. He almost collapsed at the end because he had worked so hard. I put my arm around him and said ‘you’re starting to look like a pro’. He’s training like a professional footballer. We’ve got high hopes for him. He still has to develop, but he shows great brightness on the pitch and looks like he has gained a yard of pace.
MS: I worked with Callum at Kepier for four years. He left school and asked me where the best place to go was. I said at the time that there was only one place for him, which was with Lee and Graham at Monkseaton. Then when the academy was set up here, he was desperate to be a part of it. He’s developing really well at the moment. He’s someone who has had to be really patient, having been told constantly that he wasn’t big enough. Now he’s developing into a fantastic footballer. His size was never a problem – not for me, anyway. I think we’ll benefit from him a lot over the next two or three years.
GF: The academy players like Callum also get help with strength and conditioning, with two sessions a week focussing on that. We’re a little bit limited with what we have at the moment, because the course is tailored around their education. At a professional academy, the players have a day release for education. The lads here are doing the education side of it every day, so don’t get as much time for strength and conditioning. They get it on Monday and Thursday mornings at Sunderland College.
Q: I’m sure the league will be the priority, but what emphasis are you placing on the other two cup competitions we’re still in? Is there a preference between the two?
GF: Our priorities remain the same as they were at the start of the season. The priority has always been the league, followed by doing well the two national FA competitions, then the other two cups. We’re trying to defend the Durham Challenge Cup, and have to plan each game as it comes. We’ve got a tough one coming up against Sunderland RCA in that competition.
Q: What does the future hold for Stephen Ramsey?
MS: He’s completely different to what we’ve got. He’s got to get his fitness back first and foremost. He’s a lovely kid and has fully supported the lads while he has been out. He has been injured for a long time and it has been difficult for him, but he’s a massive part of what we’re doing. He’s doing really well.
Q: We mentioned whether there had been interest in your players earlier. How about interest in the management team?
MS: I was in for the Everton job but didn’t get it! I’ve sampled what it’s like to manage in the Football League during my time at Hartlepool United. I think I personally work better as an assistant like I am here. I couldn’t stand everything a manager has to deal with away from football. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff. Eventually I’d had enough and left. I love the feeling of the dressing room. I didn’t change as a manager, but people changed towards me and I didn’t like that feeling. The mentality towards me changed. As an assistant, you get a better feeling with the players. Lee and Graham are doing an absolutely fantastic job here. If they continue the way they are, there will be interest in them from other clubs, but where in the North East at the moment is there a better club for them to be at, apart from the very top ones? I’m not sure personally.
Q: What are your personal ambitions as a manager? Is it to go to the top, as you did as a player?
GF: I haven’t really got that ambition at the moment. Whether it will come in the future, I don’t know. I went through good times and bad times in my pro career. With all the experience I now have, I think ‘if you’re enjoying something, why look to move?’ There are financial gains, but that’s not everything. Myself and Lee are really enjoying what we’re doing at the moment, and want to stay for a long time. If you are enjoying something, why look for something else?
Q: It might not be your department, but do you know what the long-term plans are with the ground? Might the club look to move in the future?
GF: There are plans to develop the ground here at Mariners Park. There are no plans I’m aware of to move to a different site. Some of the drawings we’ve seen setting out the possible future of this ground are fantastic. If there was a demand for a capacity of something between 7,000 and 9,000 in the future, then realistically we’d probably have to move. That’s a long, long way away at this stage, though. We’re just enjoying the journey, and everything has to be done at the right time. The plans are there to develop Mariners Park but it has to be done at the right time.
MS: The atmosphere, home and away, is fantastic. There’s a great feelgood factor around the place and it’s a real family club. Many Sunderland fans I know have started coming here instead. They’ve fallen out of love with football at that level. They have regained their love for football by coming here and are enjoying it, because of the atmosphere and the football being played.
Q: The players and staff are always very accommodating with the fans. Is that a big focus?
GF: Why shouldn’t there be a connection between fans, players and management at every level of the game, including the Premier League? It’s silly. The fans are the people who pay your wages. Some of them seem to have no time to sign autographs are have conversations.
MS: I was involved at Middlesbrough when Gareth Southgate was manager there. One year, we had a Christmas party with the supporters and players. We all turned up and there were 10 big tables. I said to Gareth, ‘where are the players?’ and it turned out they were downstairs in a private room having Christmas dinner. The supporters and staff were upstairs, and the players were downstairs. They didn’t want to mix. They brought them all up at the end of the night, and the supporters were allowed to queue up to get one autograph from one player. It was wrong. Football isn’t about that. It was totally wrong.
You see with a lot of Premier League clubs, they come to the ground on the coach and the gates are closed, and the fans are allowed around the side of them. There are blacked out windows, and you can’t get anywhere near the players. I still get invites to supporters’ clubs for Christmas parties. They can’t get current players there, so I’m still doing them now! For me, it has been taken away from the genuine supporters at that level.
Q: Are you always thinking about next season, and whether you’ll need to improve should you win promotion?
GF: We’re always looking to move things forward. We’re looking to get some help on that side, with someone to look at the recruitment with us. We’ve spoken to a couple of people about that. Hopefully that will get sorted soon. We’ve heard all the rumours and most of them are false. We can’t take our eye off what we’re doing right now. We may well bring one or two people in this year with a long-term goal.
Q: The academy are doing really well. Did you bring many of them across from your previous role at Monkseaton?
GF: Three of them came across from Monkseaton. It’s difficult to jump to a different academic provider. They might end up missing certain modules and it’s not ideal. We managed to get three lads across. It’s the same product in terms of full-time education, full-time training and a games programme. This is the next level on from that.