Monsieur Salut writes: John McKenna*, our interviewee for the penultimate league game of the season (and if only it could be our season’s penultimate game of any kind), comes to us via Pete Sixsmith and the interest they share in groundhopping.
John proves to be a master of restraint and balance when asked about a certain Joey Barton – he says elsewhere he is acquainted with the laws of libel and nothing in his reply would be of interest to Messrs Sue, Grabbitt and Runne – and provides an informative guide to the recent history of his club, pointing out that it plays in a town with a smaller population than the crowd that turned up at the Stadium of Light for the first game between us …
Salut! Sunderland: I’ll get the obvious question out of the way without further ado. What do you make of Joey Barton – the manager and the man – and how do you feel he is more widely seen among Fleetwood supporters?
John McKenna: with his chequered career in football, the appointment of Joey Barton was always going to divide opinion. Certainly he does not hold back when dealing with the media giving forthright opinions on refereeing standards, how other clubs are run and even why players were released during the season.
There have been the usual differences of opinion among supporters over recruitment and non-selection of certain players. However, he has introduced players from the academy, something other managers were reluctant to do. Overall, I think he has done a decent job with our limited resources and most fans view him in a positive light.
When you came to the Stadium of Light early in the season, you were among those who impudently took a point – and played well in the process. I think you were there: what were your impressions?
I did attend the game at Sunderland in September to witness what in my opinion was our best performance of the season so far. Despite being a Football League club for seven years it still seems incredible to me that my club are playing at a venue such as the Stadium of Light which was hosting Premier League football two years ago and has one of the largest capacities in the country. As the supporters coach pulled in to the car park, one long standing fan remarked wistfully “it’s not like going to Clitheroe is it!’.
Mid-table, playoffs beyond you but comfortable. How does that rate when you think back to personal expectations at the start of the season?
At the start of our fifth season in League One with a new manager and several new players, my only expectation was to survive and be competitive which we have achieved. The vast majority of the season has been spent in the top half of the table.
Which players have shone for you?
Ched Evans has been the outstanding performer and has formed an excellent partnership with Paddy Madden.
I have also enjoyed the performances of our wide players, Wes Burns and Ashley Hunter who have contributed important goals and numerous assists for others.
And which players, going back over your own time as a fan, have given you most enjoyment over the years?
Going back to the formation of the Northern Premier League in 1968, ex-England youth international Fred Willder was an outstanding midfield player and Tony Hallam was a gifted player who not only scored goals but created them for others.
Between 1987 and 1991 Phil Clarkson scored over 50 goals from midfield before enjoying a successful career in the Football League with Crewe Alexandra, Scunthorpe United and Blackpool. Nathan Pond joined Fleetwood in 2003 as an 18-year-old when we were in the North West Counties League. He went on to become the club’s record appearance holder and achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records by playing and scoring at seven different levels for the same club. He never gave less than 100 per cent in every game he played before joining Salford City at the start of this season.
With regard to the best player I have seen play for Fleetwood, simple answer Jamie Vardy. What more do I need to say about a player who is now one of the Premier League’s top strikers.
Who should have been allowed nowhere near the place?
Too many to mention and I am fully acquainted with the libel laws!
Your highlights and low points as a supporter?
Highlights include six promotions in ten seasons from 2005 to 2014. For Sunderland fans who may not be aware, this sequence began with the club playing in the North West Counties First Division which is the equivalent level that Shildon, Sunderland RCA and Seaham Red Star are currently at.
Another highlight was seeing Fleetwood play at the “old” Wembley in the 1985 FA Vase final and the “new” Wembley in the League Two playoff Final in 2014. The low points playing wise were finishing bottom of the Northern Premier League three times in four seasons between 1973 and 1976 during which time they won only 13 of the 138 games played. Worse still was seeing the club go into liquidation in 1976 and 1996 and having to reform at a lower level.
Describe the extent to which the football club is part of the community in your town and how well it does in installing local pride despite big clubs being not too far away.
The club has Community Trust status and runs various activities and tournaments for schools at the excellent Poolfoot Farm training ground. There is also an ever increasing ex players association who meet every month.
What did you make of Sunderland’s sharp decline and did you expect us to be more assertive in League One?
To be honest I wasn’t surprised by Sunderland’s relegation from the Premier League in 2017 after several years of struggle. However, a second successive relegation was a major surprise. With three games left in the season Sunderland still have [had! – Ed] a chance of automatic promotion so they are where I expected them to be.
Any other thoughts on SAFC, the club, fans, Jack Ross etc?
The support you have had in League One is incredible and a tribute to the loyalty of the fans after two traumatic seasons.I remember seeing 10,000 Sunderland fans at Blackpool at Easter in 1976 prior to winning promotion to the old First Division.
Sunderland also gave me one of my favourite Cup Final memories with their victory in 1973. I was unaware of Jack Ross prior to this season. He seems to have brought much-needed stability and hope he can provide the quick return to the Championship the club craves.
Hand on heart , where will each club finish come the final game?
With games running out and Portsmouth hitting form at the right time it looks like Sunderland will have to settle for the playoffs. Fleetwood will probably finish in 12th place where they are at present.
Tell us a little about your groundhopping – how its started, how much you’ve done, meeting Pete Sixsmith at games?
I’ve always been interested in visiting different grounds since I attended my first Fleetwood away game in 1967. In 1993, I became aware that the Northern League had become the first League to organise a Groundhop weekend over Easter where supporters could attend up to eight matches in three days.
Once I attended one, I got the bug and have attended numerous Hops in various parts of the country even including one in Sweden.
I have met up with Peter at matches in Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire and the Scottish Borders as well as the North East where I question him on all matters relating to the Northern League. So far this season, I have watched 67 matches and visited 24 new grounds which has taken me to over 600 in total. This includes 73 of the 92 in England and 35 of the 42 in Scotland.
Will you be at our game? What will the be the score?
Ironically I will not be at the game on Tuesday due to a longstanding family commitment which I can’t get out of. I expect Sunderland to win a close encounter as they have everything to play for. Fleetwood are already assured of another season in League One and will have a number of players unavailable.
John McKenna on himself: I celebrate my 65th birthday this weekend. I am a retired civil servant who will have been married for 38 years this September. We have one son who will be 30 in July lives and works in the USA. My dad first took me to watch Fleetwood and Blackpool in the 1962-63 season and I watched both clubs for a number of years. I began watching Fleetwood regularly in 1965 and have done so ever since. It is difficult to believe that in the last five years Fleetwood have won away games at Portsmouth, Sheffield United and Coventry City, all teams who have played in the Premier League.
Perhaps we can add Ipswich to that list next season. Our chairman believes we can win promotion to the Championship perhaps inspired by Burton Albion a club of similar size to Fleetwood. One statistic you may not know is that the 29,000+ that watched Fleetwood at the Stadium of Light last September is more than the population of the town itself!
Interview: Colin Randall