The day I played against Alan Buckley

Alan Buckley looking studious

Photo courtesy of leaguemanagers.com

Alan Buckley is Grimsby Town’s greatest manager of the modern era, and will probably remain as such for a very long time. On Friday 18th October 2013 he launched his book, ‘Pass and Move – My Story’. There’s so much to say about the man that it’s difficult to know what to concentrate on. But in this article I thought I’d write about the time I came face-to-face with the Great One on the football pitch.

And it wasn’t any old football pitch – it was Blundell Park. And I wasn’t wearing any old shirt, either. It was the Chairman’s Challenge match in the May of 2007 and there I was, playing right back in the sponsors’ team, wearing club record appearance holder John McDermott’s shirt. And then I saw Buckley lining up for the Grimsby Town Select XI on the left wing.

Before I had even kicked a ball, I was thinking how the £160 fee had already paid for itself. The match was just a bonus.

Me in the foreground, Buckley on the touchline in the distance.

I had him in my sights… sort of.

I’d been playing a lot of five-a-side football that year at university, so I felt in relatively good shape going into the match. However, to my shame I’d hardly ever played 11-a-side football on a full size pitch in my life. I was a late bloomer when I was a teenager and, as such, felt intimidated about competing with the big boys. So the size of the Blundell Park pitch was about three times bigger than I’d imagined.

Those representing the sponsors were thrown together in the home changing room about an hour before the match. This was the first time we had met each other. There was no time to talk tactics. Someone had played in a Chairman’s Challenge match before so he sort of took charge. He went around the room and asked everyone which position they’d like to play in.

By the time he got round to me there was only a right back and centre back position available. I’d always wanted to play centre back, but at 5’10’’ and weighing under 10 stone, I didn’t fancy my chances against ex-professionals. I insisted on playing right back, since I had Macca’s shirt, and that’s what I got.

My first touch was appalling. But I managed to pick out a fortuitous pass with my second touch. Five minutes into the game I noticed that our two central defenders – who never wanted to play in central defence – tended to go wandering. In short, our defensive line was all over the place.

Buckley kept receiving the ball on the left touchline. I’d go and close him down. But each time he was able to play the ball into a striker on the edge of the area, who’d be totally unmarked. The one time I anticipated the pass and moved inside to stop it, Buckley scuttled down the line and got round me. Which, for a man who had always taken pride in his agility and speed if nothing else, was a massive embarrassment given the age of the player I was marking.

The Select XI team took the lead after about 20 minutes – and of course it had to be Buckley who scored it.

Players pick the ball out of the net.

The sponsors’ team after conceding to the Buckley strike.

I’d got dragged inside because our centre backs had gone walkabouts. I was preoccupied by Neil Woods’ movement and that left Buckley free on the edge of the area. When the ball was rolled across to him he just placed it expertly in the bottom left corner, first time. Everyone looked at me. I was about to explain why I wasn’t there to close him down, but no one wanted to know. And since it was a charity match, I wasn’t about to start any arguments.

Then we conceded a second. I can’t remember who scored it, but it was bloody soft.

Proof that I didn't have both feet on the ground when I took a throw-in.

The evidence, captured on camera by my dad.

Not long after that, I was actually penalised for taking a foul throw. I didn’t realise what I had done wrong. The referee explained that I didn’t have both feet on the ground when I took it. I couldn’t believe I’d made such an elementary mistake, so I argued my case. But, as luck would have it, my dad had managed to capture the exact moment on his camera from the stands – which proved that I had indeed taken a foul throw.

Still, it seemed a bit officious given the context of the match.

As the half wore on I ended up swapping with one of the centre backs, who was much happier at right back where he could get forward more. Buckley barely moved from his left wing spot all half, but when he did, he made it count. I was actually quite happy not to be keeping an eye on him any more. And although I’d feared it before we kicked off, I felt much more at home at centre half.

Three times I had to chase back when the ball was lofted over my head, and three times the linesman’s flag went up. Amazingly, we were playing the offside trap perfectly. I became more confident and more vocal. And although I never won one aerial challenge against Woods, I felt like I was holding my own in every other department.

My feet are facing inwards while keeping close to Woods.

Not sure my feet are in the best position, but I marked Neil Woods well.

Down on the pitch it seemed incredibly difficult to pick out a pass to a teammate. Playing in defence as I was, I didn’t want to mess about when the ball was at my feet. I’d see someone, but then see about three people ready to intercept. So like the limited footballer I am, I just launched it each time.

I don’t want to blow my own trumpet or anything, but when I went to centre back we started defending much better. More of the game was played in midfield, rather than our defensive third, and we even created chances but couldn’t quite make them count.

Both sides were able to make rolling substitutions to give everyone plenty of game time (and to keep legs fresh). I was the only outfield player on the sponsors’ side not to be taken off in the first half, so when we got to the break I was knackered and my calves felt really tight. I started the second half on the bench, came on after about 60 minutes and then went off five minutes later when I got cramp attempting to shoulder barge Dave Moore. I bounced off him and landed heavily on my right foot, which set it off.

Shoulder barging Dave Moore. Ha!

We didn’t have a bad team in truth. There was plenty of decent Sunday League experience and we actually managed to pull it back to 2-2. But the ex-players were definitely taking it seriously, hence their winner five minutes from time. It should’ve finished 3-3 after the referee gifted us a very generous penalty in injury time, but the keeper saved it. By the sheepish look on his face as he got up, I could tell that he didn’t really mean it.

I'm wearing McDermott's shirt, David Pye's wearing Terry Barwick's shirt.

There’s me, wearing the legend’s last ever shirt. And there’s David Pye, the old Telegraph reporter, wearing a not-so legendary shirt.

It was handshakes all round at the end of the game. Gary Childs made the effort to come over to me and say how he was impressed by my performance “off the ball” at centre back. I don’t care if that suggested I was rubbish on the ball; a well respected ex-professional said I was good at something, and that was enough for me.

I also spoke to Buckley briefly after the game. He was very pleased with his own performance but said that if Dave Moore had put in a performance like that in a professional game under his management he’d have fined him two weeks’ wages. He said he’d have only fined me one.

Outwitted by Buckley – but there’s no shame in that.

‘Pass and Move – My Story’ will be available nationwide from 11th November 2013.

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