I’m an Englishman in New Lanark (well, about 23 miles away)

Hampden Park, the home of Scottish football.

I don’t take coffee, I take whisky, my dear. As an Englishman living in Scotland, I just want to say congratulations and slainte to the Scottish national team on qualifying for the European Championships next year.

Not only is it great to see our dearest rivals back on the big stage after an absence of 22 years, but the fact they will be in England’s group makes it even more special. International football needs these fixtures and if it’s anything like the meeting in Euro ’96, we are in for a treat.

There will be the usual cross-border banter flying around for sure, with England being expected to triumph, especially at our Wembley home – but write off the Scots at your peril. You only need to cast your mind back to the two sides’ last meeting in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, when Harry Kane spared England’s blushes very late on after Leigh Griffiths turned all Lionel Messi with the free-kicks.

You also have to factor in that, while England has an embarrassment of riches going forward, the days of Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, John Terry and David Seaman at the back are long gone. It’s a vulnerable position and one Gareth Southgate has still to satisfactorily address in my humble opinion.

Anyway, this isn’t about England, it’s about Scotland.

Manager Steve Clarke deserves credit, yes. He lofted West Brom to the peak of the Premier League for a time, he took Kilmarnock from relegation fodder to European football, and he has now taken Scotland to a first major tournament for 22 years.

However, he could have also cost them the latter. I was as amazed as my (Scottish) wife and children at the comfort with which Scotland handled Serbia for 80 minutes of the match last night. This was jeopardised when Clarke elected to take off Lyndon Dykes, Ryan Christie and John McGinn – all of who were instrumental in the ball sticking around in Serbia’s half – to replace them with Callum Paterson, Oli McBurnie and Kenny McLean. The likes of Paterson are fit and can run around, but the ball started coming back at Scotland more and more after their introduction and led to that inevitable last-minute equaliser from Real Madrid’s Luka Jovic.

It’s not just a Scottish thing to concede so late – I would be worried for any team having to face 30 minutes of extra time after that kind of gut punch. The worry was warranted. Serbia raised their game and David Marshall pulled off a magnificent save to ensure the match at least went to penalties.

As an Englishman, my aversion to penalties needs no introduction, and perhaps that’s something the Scots can teach us when it comes to football! Marshall’s save from Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović was magnificent. And here’s a lesson for you – don’t watch a shootout with the volume on mute. Why was it on mute? Too long and boring to explain, but it was on mute and, consequently, it initially appeared to me that David Marshall was amusingly unaware of the feat he had just pulled off in saving that final penalty. As it transpired, he was merely waiting for that bloody VAR thing to confirm he hadn’t committed any tomfoolery away from his goal line. Once again, technology delaying a reaction that should be immediate and natural. Not that anyone in Scotland will care about that now. I can still hear the good people of Cambuslang cheering.

Dan Altman: What’s his next move in this uncertain climate?

Dan Altman

The ambitious plans laid out for Rochdale AFC by new shareholders Dan Altman and Emre Marcelli look to have been put on hold as the pair have turned tight-lipped on how their investment proposition is progressing.

As exclusively revealed in June, former Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy, along with former director Bill Goodwin and a representative of former director the late Paul Hazlehurst, sold his shares privately to Altman and Marcelli, managers of investment group NYK Capital Management LLC.

Upon being contacted by this writer, Altman was very open about his purchase and issued a statement outlining his grand vision for the League One club, which involved attaining Championship football.

However, during a routine follow up to see how his planned route to investment funds was progressing –at a time when football’s finances are being strangled by the global pandemic –Altman declined numerous invitations from this writer to reassure supporters.

Altman, who is behind the SmarterScout player analysis software, initially said his primary aim was to guarantee the club’s long-term financial stability and success on the pitch.

“We are not billionaires, nor are we fronting for one,” he said. “Rather, we believe that with some prudent investments and carefully attentive management, the club can grow in a sustainable way.”

Altman said in June that his group had proposed an initial investment, principally for these purposes:

  • a permanent training ground to include facilities for the academy 
  • replacement of the pitch at the Crown Oil Arena 
  • a full-time sporting director 
  • funds to bolster the squad 
  • additional commercial staff

He added: “Together with the implementation of our analytical tools and the resources of our global network in professional football, we hope that these investments might equip the club to rise up the table in League One and eventually compete for a place in the Championship.”

Despite not yet investing financially in Rochdale AFC, it is believed that Altman had allowed the club to use his SmarterScout software free of charge for a short period. This arrangement is now understood to have ceased, however.

With so much uncertainty surrounding football and its finances at present, there is a genuine concern that Altman and Marcelli may seek to sell their shares on – and possibly not to somebody currently affiliated to the club.

The combined shares purchased by the Americans equal around 15% of those currently issued by Rochdale AFC, and Altman’s statement of ambition back in June prompted a response from director Andrew Kelly, who, via the club’s official website, said he feared an “attempt at a Glazer Manchester United style takeover bid”. 

Kelly revealed that he and the board had too been in negotiations with Altman with regards to direct investment, but declined his proposal as it was “not acceptable”.

Kelly outlined that Altman wanted 51% of the club and the promise of what is contained in the above statement. 

“The loan agreements and their repayment conditions, along with a potential exit agreement, were not acceptable,” Kelly said. “Had we accepted their offer, we would, in my opinion, have been ridiculed for giving the club away.”

Kelly, fearing Altman would attempt to buy up other shares privately, said he tested the water by offering his own shares to the American in a bid to see how much he was prepared to pay.

The response from Altman was as follows:“Emre and I have today placed negotiations with the Board on hold since we are far apart on a price for the authorised shares. As such we are not increasing our investment right now. If, however, we are in a position to go forward in the future, we will likely to make an offer to the club’s significant shareholders, naturally including yourself.”

Kelly said: “This reply left me very unsure about their future strategy or intentions. I scoured the shareholder list to try to establish where the club may be vulnerable. As a result of my actions, I purchased Leods Construction shares (22,500). I am now the second largest individual shareholder in the club, owning approximately 12% (58,250). Our Chairman has 110,000 shares (approximately 22%).”

He added: “Any future share issue will dilute their voting power. We need to be 100% clear that reducing it does not allow an influx of money today which could signal problems for future fans. My ambition is very simple, when I leave the club, I want it to be a better state than when I joined, and I look forward to a continued long-term existence in the Football League.

“In conclusion, let me make it clear, my shares are NOT FOR SALE.”

However, Chris Dunphy still believes Altman was the right man to sell his shares to. He had previously met the American when he was exploring investment opportunities while in post as chairman.

He said: “Some years earlier, Dan had contacted the club about potential investment, which was put to the board. At that time, however, we decided not to go ahead as we were already in discussion with developers regarding the Bowlee site. There was no figure put forward. Dan and Emre were more concerned about the team and how their analytics would benefit the club, so we did not get as far as discussing money. However, I did speak to a representative of Swansea City about them, where they had worked previously, and did not receive an adverse reaction.

“When I stepped down as chairman, I approached Dan and asked if he was still interested in buying shares in the club. I believed, and still do, that he would be good for the football club.”

He added: “I had been on the board for more than 30 years and every application for share transfer came before the board and new share certificates were signed by a board member. 

“Even shares that had belonged to a deceased relative could not be passed to another without board approval. If the board did not agree with a proposed transfer, they were at liberty to reject it and purchase the shares for the club. I do not know how the board chose to deal with share transfers once I left.”

ANALYSIS: Where are Rochdale AFC now?

Alex Newby

Last night’s game between Rochdale AFC and Oxford United marked the former’s 11th league match of the season. The 3-1 defeat at the Kassam Stadium, for me at least, perfectly encapsulates the current squad in the wider context of League One.

Manager Brian Barry-Murphy said after the match that he was “in awe” of his team for the first 60 minutes. By this he means that, in general, the passing and forward momentum of his players had been too much for Oxford to handle. I would agree with him. Where the problem lies, however, is that by the 60-minute mark we should have been out of sight. We weren’t. We were drawing a goal apiece – and having had to come from behind at that.

This has been Rochdale’s problem all campaign – no consistent cutting edge. Midfielder Matthew Lund, on five goals, is currently the club’s top scorer, with the man leading the line, Jake Beesley, yet to register a single one. He is also being supported in the current system by Alex Newby, who has at least found the net, and Ollie Rathbone, who, in my opinion, is more a facilitator of goals than a scorer of them.

This is no criticism of Beesley outright. His tireless running and pressing of the opposition defence pulls them all over the place, but there is no one to take advantage – yet.

You see, I believe that Barry-Murphy’s recruitment is based heavily on analytics rather than old-school scouting. He uses stats to identify players that fit his ideas and who fall into the club’s budget. Beesley was very definitely purchased from Solihull Moors to complete a couplet with Southend United’s Stephen Humphrys, who Rochdale also outlaid upon. He would be the man to take advantage of Beesley’s endeavours. The issue is, Humphrys was injured just half an hour into his debut and has been missing for more than a month now. Based on the prognosis of his knee injury at the time, I don’t believe we will see him feature again until at least Charlton Athletic away, on November 14. And this is the problem. At times, it feels almost like Dale are waiting for that date to get the season properly going. Like they are almost making do until then.

Perhaps this is a touch unfair. The side overall has shown its capability to compete. The first half displays against Fleetwood Town and Sunderland – the best two performances from Dale this season – demonstrated that the side can go toe-to-toe with the heavyweights. These displays yielded four points.

Matty Lund

However, if I can go back to the Oxford game as an example, there is a trend that was prevalent in the two above games that cost Rochdale dear last night. Often, the side’s second-half performances have not matched the first. Last night’s turning point was obvious. Beesley missed a golden opportunity to put Dale ahead from six yards after the keeper had spilled. He put the ball wide when it was easier to score. This was compounded when Oxford advanced right up the other end and took the lead. A complete gut punch that seemed to be felt by the entire team. While last night’s dip in performance could be attributed to these psychological factors – it hasn’t always been so easy to nail down in other games. Against Bristol Rovers last weekend, Dale went in at the break the dominant side but allowed the visitors back into the game second half and only came away with a point. A point is not to be sniffed at, granted, but there was a feeling among the support that this may have been a case of two points dropped. There have been other occasions this season where this has been the situation – or worse.

It was always going to be a risk with a small squad. Numbers are understandably light amidst a global pandemic that has football’s finances in a stranglehold, but you have to also consider that Barry-Murphy might not have 100 per cent faith in the options sat on the bench, further constraining his ability to change a game when his charges on the field tire or the game begins to ebb away from them.

This may seem like a negative outpouring, but it is merely intended to be an analysis of a side that Barry-Murphy has made his own by this point of the season. Overall, the side has been crafted into a solid state, which is merely lacking a consistent cutting edge.

The defensive unit, which had become a major weakness of Dale sides in recent years, finally looks to be moving in the right direction, despite still being fallible to set pieces. There will be comparisons between last season’s loan goalkeeper, Robert Sanchez, and this season’s, Gavin Bazunu, but the truth is that they are both supremely talented and only with us because of their age and lack of experience. Because of this, Bazunu will make mistakes. See last night versus Oxford as an example (albeit he was impeded before placing the ball at the feet of Oxford’s Elliot Moore to open the scoring). In the main, though, the Manchester City man is capable of pulling off incomparable saves (such as his match-winning one against Shrewsbury) and is adept at playing the ball with his feet. And this latter trait is shared by the side’s current two central defenders, Eoghan O’Connell and the on-loan Hayden Roberts. There is no route one by default here. These two are so good that I don’t imagine O’Connell will renew his contract with us this season and Roberts will go on to become a Premier League star. For this season, though, they are Dale’s and keeping them both fit is a priority as the back-up options, while decent, are entering the twilight of their careers.

The full back slots have been addressed to some degree, too, which was vital after the sublime Rhys Norrington-Davies returned to Sheffield United last season. At left-back, on-loan Arsenal youngster Tolaji Bola looks quick and strong, and, while his end product is sometimes lacking, he is a much sturdier option in the role than the makeshift Matt Done. The right side is perhaps not as cut and dried. The role swaps between Ryan McLaughlin and Jimmy Keohane, both of who are able in the position, if perhaps not completely dominant. 

Jimmy Ryan

In midfield, Jimmy Ryan and Matt Lund have proven very adept, albeit Ryan’s inability to last an entire match causes an unnecessary reshuffling at times. When he is on the pitch, though, his driving runs, combined with Lund’s aerial prowess, have allowed the ball to stay in the opposition half for longer than in past seasons. The one question mark, I suppose, is Aaron Morley. A very talented product of the club’s youth system, he seems somewhat wasted and uncomfortable in the deeper holding role, with a number of his ambitious passes going astray. It’s a shame for Morley, who I feel would be better utilised further up the park if there was a viable option to replace him in the anchor role.

And this takes me back to both Ollie Rathbone and Alex Newby. In my humble opinion, neither are suited to playing either side of Beesley. Rathbone is an absolute Dynamo. His strength lies in taking the ball in a deeper position with his back to goal, turning his marker around and then driving forward. He’s brilliant at it. 

Newby, considering he has just stepped up from non-league football, has really impressed me. He is the type of player we have missed recently – one who is prepared to run at the opposition and take them on. He is, for my money, a natural No.10 or winger. We have seen numerous times the lovely drag back he performs before delivering a cross. If there was one criticism, it’s that he perhaps holds on to the ball too long on occasions. I believe, as he gains league experience game after game, that timing will improve.

And perhaps by the time Humphrys does return, he may initially come in to the side in place of Beesley, for a game or two at least, in order to let the forward recover his confidence and energy levels, before we see what Barry-Murphy’s grand plan really is.

So, there is still much to be optimistic about. When both Humphrys and Kwadwo Baah resume full fitness, there will be plenty more options for Barry-Murphy to deploy and perhaps that missing cutting edge will be found razor sharp.

INVESTIGATION: Radio Ga Ga

The sporting arm of a regional BBC radio station has been accused of bias by licence-fee payers.

Listeners have accused BBC Radio Manchester Sport of disproportionately featuring Bolton Wanderers games for whole-match live commentary when compared to other clubs in the Greater Manchester area. 

Fans are angry that, during the current ban on supporters attending football stadiums, they need to pay £5 to private supplier iFollow for audio commentary for each match, while Bolton supporters can listen to their games on the radio for the sum of their licence fee – which other supporters still have to pay.

While supporters don’t need a BBC licence to listen to the radio, latest figures published by the BBC show that £2.17 of the compulsory monthly £12.54 television fee is spent on its radio stations.

Bolton Wanderers have already featured in the live commentary game six consecutive times this season, despite other local sides – Manchester United, Manchester City, Rochdale AFC, Oldham Athletic, Salford FC and Wigan Athletic – all playing matches during this period.

The trend was picked up by supporters last season and led to growing frustration. A Freedom of Information request from this writer for exact figures of coverage for all the above teams over the past five seasons was repelled by the BBC.

However, a manual countback shows Bolton Wanderers have featured in the live commentary game a staggering 18 times out of a possible 20 this calendar year alone. On 16 of those occasions at least two other Greater Manchester teams were also in action. 
The two times Bolton weren’t featured as the main game when playing, was when Manchester City played Crystal Palace, and when Rochdale had an FA Cup tie at Newcastle. The Man City game aside, the only occasions where Bolton haven’t featured as the main commentary game at 3pm on a Saturday have been when they haven’t been playing. 

Fans of other Greater Manchester clubs, who have taken to calling the station ‘Radio Bolton’, took to Twitter to challenge the trend of lopsided coverage – and met with responses that lacked consistency.

Bill Rice, who works for Radio Manchester, was quick to deny that Bolton featured more than any other team. “It isn’t Bolton week after week,” he tweeted.

Liam Bradford, who also works for the station, at least seemed to acknowledge Bolton featured more heavily than other local teams when he replied to further challenges on the social media channel, saying: “There’s always an evidence-based reason” and “I understand the frustration, but there is no ‘Bolton Bias’ just well-researched editorial decision making”.

However, his response was at odds with an email response direct from the BBC, issued to another complainant, which read: “Editorial decisions are more of a judgement call, than an exact science…”

Rice also challenged one disputing supporter, saying: “You want to be featured every week?” To which the supporter replied: “No, just on an equitable basis instead of it being Bolton week after week. Your station knows how fans feel; they’ve had plenty of communication about it and there are regular comments online.”

Another supporter said he would cease to pay his TV licence unless the balance was redressed. The trend of consistent Bolton Wanderers coverage has even given rise to a parody Twitter account dubbed ‘BBC Radio BWFC Sport.

However, BBC Radio Manchester denies it has any form of contractual arrangement with Bolton Wanderers, claiming it has no commercial agreement with any club and rights are negotiated at the beginning of each season.

When pressed for an official statement on the Bolton coverage specifically, a BBC spokesperson said: “BBC Radio Manchester provides coverage on all football clubs in the Greater Manchester area, including live match commentaries of all our local clubs in the EFL plus Manchester City in the Premier League. Commentary games are carefully selected, factoring in a number of considerations such as fan base as well as derby, relegation and promotion matches. Radio Manchester also has reporters at every single game of the season, keeping fans up-to-date with all the latest action through match reports, interviews and analysis, plus regular updates across social media.”

BBC RADIO MANCHESTER SPORT MAIN COMMENTARY GAMES IN 2020:

• January 1st: Bolton vs Burton Albion 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 11th: Rochdale vs Bolton 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 14th: Newcastle vs Rochdale 
Other games: Bolton, Oldham

• January 18th: Man City vs Crystal Palace  
Other games: Bolton, Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• January 25th: Salford vs Oldham (Bolton not playing) 
Other games: Rochdale 

• January 28th: Bolton vs Bristol Rovers 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 1st: Bolton vs Tranmere 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 8th: Coventry vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 11th: Doncaster vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 15th: Bolton vs Wycombe 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 22nd: MK Dons vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• February 25th: Blackpool vs Bolton 
No other games

• February 29th: Bolton vs Accrington 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• March 7th: Wimbledon vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan, Macclesfield

• March 10th: Burton vs Bolton  
No other games

(NEW SEASON) 
• September 5th: Bolton vs Bradford 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 12th: Bolton vs Forest Green  
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 19th: Colchester vs Bolton 
Other games: Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• September 26th: Bolton vs Newport 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• October 3rd: Harrogate vs Bolton 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

• October 10th: Bolton v Grimsby 
Other games: Rochdale, Salford, Oldham, Wigan

EXCLUSIVE: New investor promises good times ahead for Dale

Dan Altman

Former Swansea City FC analyst Dan Altman has acquired a stake in Rochdale AFC – promising a tilt at the Championship for the League One club. 

Altman, along with Emre Marcelli, managers of an investment group NYK Capital Management LLC, have been in confidential discussions with the Rochdale board for some time regarding a possible purchase of the club’s unissued shares. In the midst of these discussions, they were privately offered shares owned by three of the club’s major backers – former chairman Chris Dunphy, former director Bill Goodwin and former director the late Paul Hazlehurst. 

Altman said his primary aim is to guarantee the club’s long-term financial stability and success on the pitch. 

“We are not billionaires, nor are we fronting for one,” he said. “Rather, we believe that with some prudent investments and carefully attentive management, the club can grow in a sustainable way.

“We believe the board, Trust, and all of our fellow supporters share these goals, and we would like to put on record our profound respect for the men and women who have safeguarded the club until now.”

Altman said that after visits to the club’s facilities and meetings with the board, his group has proposed an initial investment, principally for these purposes:

– a permanent training ground to include facilities for the academy 
– replacement of the pitch at the Crown Oil Arena 
– a full-time sporting director 
– funds to bolster the squad 
– additional commercial staff

He added: “Together with the implementation of our analytical tools and the resources of our global network in professional football, we hoped that these investments might equip the club to rise up the table in League One and eventually compete for a place in the Championship.

“These are unprecedented times, and the club already faces a challenging environment in League One.

“We strongly believe that the club could benefit from full-time management on the sporting side, especially by people with deep expertise in professional football. We are still in contact with members of the board and maintain our interest in helping the club to succeed.

“We have had the great pleasure of watching matches at the Crown Oil Arena and have witnessed first hand the affection and passion that the supporters have for this club. We are proud to be among you and will be cheering the squad along with you when play resumes. Up the Dale!”

Dan Altman has been working in professional football since 2014. He is the creator of 
smarterscout.com, an online scouting platform covering dozens of leagues with advanced player and squad analytics. He has advised multiple clubs in the Premier League, Major League Soccer, and other competitions around the world. He holds a PhD in economics from Harvard University.

Emre Marcelli is a fund manager and credit risk expert. After a lengthy career in commercial and investment banking, he opened his own fund in New York. He also has significant experience in financial due diligence of lower-division football clubs in Europe. He holds an MBA from Columbia University.

Player interviews: Stephen Humphrys

Stephen Humphrys

It’s not that Southend’s sea front doesn’t have its charms, with its pier, Adventure Island and the Sea Life aquarium appealing to the British traditionalist. 

It’s more that there is a lure to the north west of England that only someone who hails from that part of the land ever truly feels. It’s so much more than Hollands Pies, mithering and cruckled ankles on cobbled entries.

As Stephen Humphrys stared out of his hotel room window, bags packed behind him, he desperately awaited the call that would reunite him with that place and his family. As the setting sun cast its final rays over the Thames Estuary, finally, it came. Southend United had accepted a bid from Rochdale AFC and he was free to discuss terms. This was a no brainer for Humphrys, who had been well aware of Rochdale’s courtship for several weeks, with Shrimpers chairman Ron Martin already having repelled two previous bids.

He didn’t need to be told twice. Humphrys was ploughing up the A1 in less time than it takes to say so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night. Personally, it hadn’t been an unhappy experience at Southend after Fulham agreed to let him leave in 2019. His goal against Sunderland kept them in League One at the end of that season. Sadly, despite thriving in a struggling team the next, he was unable to keep Southend up a second time – and relegation triggered a 50% pay-cut clause in his contract that meant he had to give up his apartment and adopt a Travel-Tavern-style existence made popular by a certain Mr Partridge. Although born and bred in the Royton area of the Oldham/Rochdale border, Humphrys was used to being away from home, having been snapped up by Fulham at an early age. But, with a full-blown coronavirus pandemic providing the backdrop to Southend’s much publicised financial woes, home was now calling more loudly than ever before.

Stephen Humphrys

And it wasn’t a case of any old North West club fitting the bill. No. Humphrys had enjoyed a loan spell at Rochdale in 2018, which saw him net a memorable goal at Wembley in an FA Cup replay against Tottenham. It was a return to this club, and happy memories made there, upon which he had set his heart.

“I felt like I had unfinished business at Rochdale,” he says. “I showed glimpses of what I could do here last time, but I was only 20% of the player I know I can be. The fact I would be playing under BBM [manager, Brian Barry Murphy] was massive. He’s a coach who I think will go to the very top and I want to be a part of what he brings to the club. The fans also played a massive part in my desire to return here.

“I’ll never forget when I returned to Rochdale with Southend. I was out of action due to my facial injury but still went out on the pitch. The Rochdale fans all stood up and applauded me and I instantly felt the kind of love from a group of supporters that I hadn’t felt since I was here the first time – I knew I had to come back. I’m a northern lad, I live 10 minutes away from Spotland, so, for me, this was also about coming home.”

And Humphrys very openly revealed that the club helped him tackle some personal demons when he was last at Rochdale. 

“I was extremely distracted off the pitch when I was here on loan and was going through a lot of personal struggles, which affected my mental health,” he says. “This, in turn, affected my performances. The club were great with me though, and I spoke to Keith [Hill, then manager] about the issues I was facing off the pitch. He understood and gave me the option to either be part of the squad or to take time off. I chose to keep training and made myself available for selection. Thankfully we managed to stay up. I’m grateful to Keith for being understanding and helping me at that time.”

But could he have returned to Spotland sooner?

“I don’t think so,” he says. “My Southend move came about so quickly. I got a call and a contract offer on the same day. I agreed and signed within 24 hours. Looking back, I rushed my decision and I think if Rochdale had come in for me, I would’ve gone for it. But, at the time, there was just Southend and another League One club who offered me deals on the day, and I didn’t wait long enough to explore other options.”  


So, what are Rochdale getting this time around? Just what was it that made Brian Barry Murphy and the club pursue Humphrys through protracted negotiations with Southend and part with a decent fee in a time in which many clubs are cutting back?

“I’m a more confident player as well as person now,” Humphrys says. “When I came to Rochdale the first time, I was still just a boy with little experience.

“I’ve had to come through a few hardships since then and I feel like a man with a lot more to offer. I want the ball all the time. I don’t shy away from receiving the ball in tight areas. I back myself to take on defenders and score all types of goals. Also, before I joined Rochdale the first time, I had only trained for five days and hadn’t played a game in six months due to a hamstring injury. I was 97 kilograms of pure muscle and struggled to last longer than 65 minutes at full throttle. I’m around 87kg now. I’m fitter, faster and more confident than ever. I’ll maintain my fitness throughout the rehab of my current injury and I’ll be back stronger and better than ever.

“I think Brian knows how much I want to be at the club. He knows I’m a player with untapped potential and some players just need a bit of time to develop in to what they really are. Ivan Toney took a while to become the top goal scorer he is and now he’s at a top championship club. I think myself and Brian see that in me. I believe in myself enough to reach those levels and I know Brian does too.”

Stephen Humphrys

Humphrys mentions the Championship. Is that his ambition? Or even higher?

“Every young lad’s dream is to play for England,” he says. “But for me, I don’t like setting targets that are more than a year ahead. I just want to get my head down, work hard and score goals at Rochdale. Whatever happens after that is out of my hands, but I’d like to be a Rochdale player and ultimately help Rochdale climb the league table over the years and, if possible, get promotions.”

More importantly, a return to the North West means access to quality pies and, with that, perhaps the most important question Humphrys has ever been asked.

“My favourite?” he says. “Steak and kidney.”

Photos: Dan Youngs and Mark Wilbraham

Finland has positive Ions

First published August 2016

Billy Ions

Lapland might be best known as the home of Santa Claus, but it’s a 22-year-old English striker currently providing gifts to the people of the Finnish region – in the form of goals. 

Yet while Billy Ions is a name now readily on Scandinavian lips, the mention of the Northumberland-born forward on UK shores evokes little more than a furrowed brow and a shrug of the shoulders. 

Despite being under the radar in his homeland, and still very much in the formative stages of his career, Ions has already achieved, and suffered, enough to fill out the CV of a more experienced professional. 

Currently in his fourth year at Finnish top-flight side Palloseura Kemi Kings, Ions has smashed an incredible 52 goals in 103 appearances, helping the club to two promotions along the way. 

Billy Ions celebrates with supporters

His journey to the Veikkausliiga – Finland’s premier league – is as impressive as his goal-scoring exploits and perhaps goes a long way to explaining the ease with which he has settled into – nay embraced – Lappish culture. 

“I was brought up near Newcastle in a place called Blyth, where I lived with my dad, mum, younger brother and older sister,” Billy says. “My earliest memories of playing football are in the school yard of Blyth Plessey Road First School. As I was brought up near Newcastle, getting into football seemed the normal thing to do, as the football culture is massive there. 

“Even playing in the school yard, I always took my football seriously and I was always better than the other kids. I also remember watching my childhood hero, Alan Shearer, back then. He made me want to play football even more.” 

However, instead of taking a direct route to St James’ Park, young Ions found himself upping his Geordie roots and heading to the altogether warmer climes of the Canary Islands. 

Billy Ions

“My parents decided to move to Tenerife when I was six years old,” he says. “We had spent a few summer holidays there and my family enjoyed the place so much they thought it would be a nice place to live. 

“My dad wanted me to continue with my football out there. Because we didn’t know much about football on the island, he asked around to find out the best place for me to go.” 

Billy recalls he had a choice of two local clubs − UD Guargacho or CD Constancia. 

“I chose Constancia because I thought the name sounded better,” Billy admits. “They were in the Spanish fourth tier. I just turned up, asked for trial and it was pretty straight forward from there. 

Billy Ions

“Growing up in Tenerife over the next 10 years, I played for five different youth teams − Constancia, Juan Miguel, Adeje, UD Ibarra and CD Tenerife. Tenerife was where I really hit my stride and I was the top goal scorer every season. 

“When I turned 15 I was playing so well that Tenerife wanted to sign me as a professional. I was delighted. It was a fantastic club − the set-up they have there is the best I’ve ever been involved with. The weather, coaching and facilities are great and it really doesn’t get any better than that for a footballer. Hopefully one day I can return to experience the football and lifestyle again.” 

Ions’ form for the Tenerife youth set-up had alerted clubs back in England and a year later events conspired to usher him home. 

“At the time, my family wanted to move back to England due to family reasons,” says Ions. “Newcastle United was one of many clubs that wanted to sign me, so, naturally, with my family being from the area, it was an easy decision to make.” 

Billy Ions in the box

Sadly, playing for his boyhood heroes didn’t work out. 

“Signing for Newcastle United was meant to be the big start of my career,” Ions says. “When I signed, [former players] Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley ran the youth set-up. After my first two weeks of being there, Kenny left the club and Peter moved up to the reserve team. New management came in for the U-18 squad and this was led by [former Barnsley full back] Joe Joyce. 

“Being at Newcastle United was probably the worst year of football in my career so far. I went from playing well all the time in Tenerife to not even being in the squad. As a 17-year-old, it really destroyed my confidence.” 

When Ions heard Leeds United were interested in him, he decided to transfer to their youth set-up. 

“Leeds signed me on a one-year-deal for the youth squad,” Ions recalls. “Neil Redfearn was the manager and I thought he was great. Unfortunately, I simply wasn’t good enough to make the cut for a professional contract, probably because of the rough time I had at Newcastle. I really didn’t get my confidence back and didn’t play the football I grew up with.” 

Billy Ions was prolific in Finland

It was then Ions turned to the Nike Academy as a way of rescuing his career. The academy, based at St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent and funded by Nike Inc, operates with the intention of helping unsigned players under the age of 20 find a professional club. 

“Leaving Leeds, I was struggling to find a club and the Nike Academy was my only option,” Ions explains. “At the time it was run by [former Cardiff striker] Jimmy Gilligan with [former Bournemouth defender] Ryan Garry as his assistant.” 

It was to be a friendly arranged against Lapland-based side Palloseura Kemi Kings that would get Ions’ professional ambition back on track. 

“When we played against PS Kemi, they were on a pre-season trip to the UK,” Ions says. “I was injured quite a lot at the academy and had just recovered from a bad ankle sprain. Playing against Kemi was my first appearance in a long time. I played 30 minutes, scored two goals and we won. 

“After the game I really didn’t think much about it, or Kemi, I was just happy I was finally getting some minutes on the pitch. 

“About a month later, Ryan Garry sat me down and gave me the news that Kemi wanted to sign me. At the time they were managed by [former West Ham defender] Tommy Taylor. 

“With no hesitation I said yes because I was desperate to get back into football. Next thing I know, I was on a flight to Kemi!” 

There were a few differences for Ions to get used to once he arrived in Finland. For one, due to the harsh winters experienced by the country, professional football is usually played between April and October. Kemi isn’t your typical Lappish settlement, either. It’s an industrial town on the Gulf of Bothnia, dominated by pulp mills. The city of Rovaniemi and its world-famous Santa Claus Village is an 80-minute drive away. 

“Kemi is a very small place,” Ions says. “There are only 22,000 people who live here. In the summer it’s very nice but in the winter it can get tough because of the low temperatures. 

“Finland as a whole is a really nice country − clean and very relaxed. It seems like there’s no rush. Everyone goes at their own pace.” 

Ions has been utilised to great effect as both a left winger and a striker during his time with Kemi Kings. When he first joined, the club was playing in Finland’s third tier, the Kakkonen. Within two seasons, Ions had helped propel the club to the second division, the Ykkonen, which Kemi Kings won at the first attempt and, with it, their first ever promotion to the top tier. Ions’ 17 goals and numerous assists during the campaign saw him voted the Ykkonen’s Players’ Player of the Year. 

“PS Kemi is a small club if you compare it to the other clubs in the top division,” Ions says. “It’s improved massively since I first came here, though, and I think the only way is up now. 

“The fans have been great over the past couple of seasons. They give us great support, no matter if the team is winning or losing. We have a fan group called the Kempton Royals who come and support us at all of our games around the country. I think that is fantastic! 

“My team-mates are great, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of lads to be with – both on and off the pitch. There is a good mix of nationalities and cultures. Me, Ryan Gilligan [English], Christian Eissele [American], David Bitsindou [French] and Zeljko Savic [Serbian] spend a lot of time together off the pitch. Although the boys are from different parts of the world, we get on like best friends.”

In the mix

Ions believes the standard of football in Finland is improving. 

“If I had to put the Finnish premier league in a bracket in terms of the standard, I think the top teams in that division could play in England’s League One and do really well,” he says. 

“Myself, I’ve been doing well scoring wise. I’ve been looking after myself a lot better than I used to over the past few years. Eating right, sleeping well, training hard and playing with confidence. 

“The coaching is good here. It’s not on the level of other places I’ve been at, but it’s getting there. Everyone is full time and the money can be good depending on which club you go to. 

“I would definitely recommend English players consider playing abroad. I think a lot of young players back in the UK think their career is over if they don’t manage to get a professional contract, but there are tons of opportunities abroad. Hopefully one day we will get to see a few more English lads outside the UK playing football.” 

But would Ions ever consider having another crack at the English game? 

“Yes of course,” he says. “If something right comes up and makes me happy, I would definitely consider it. My ultimate ambition is to play at the highest level possible and be happy − whether that’s playing in the UK or abroad somewhere.” 

Photos: Teemu Kvist

Supporting the underdog

First published September 2014

Spotland Stadium

The rain falls hard on a humdrum town… so opens the 1984 Smiths classic William It Was Really Nothing. 

If you visited the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale today, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon Morrissey’s inspiration for said track. 

A once proud industrial town that is dubbed the birthplace of cooperation now stands wet and boarded up in the shadow of the imperious Pennines. Employment and opportunity are in scant supply. Even Ronald McDonald has taken his franchise out of town. 

It seems fitting then that Rochdale AFC, the town’s professional football representative, has endured a similarly negative reputation since its formation in 1907. The club has spent longer than any other in England’s basement (so much so that the fourth tier became known as ‘The Rochdale Division’) and has a trophy cabinet as desolate as a Martian tundra. 

It begs the question then: ‘What masochist would give up their Saturday afternoon to watch such a toiling outfit?’ 

I’ll hold my hands up here. Twenty-five of my 34 years on this earth have been tally marked into the terrace wall at Spotland. 

Celebration for the supporters

To get into the why, we must first look at the how. Like most fathers with sons, mine wanted to get me into football at the earliest opportunity. As a staunch Man United fan, Old Trafford would have been his preferred destination. Even in 1988 though, costs were a little prohibitive. Instead I was dragged to the local club, a mile down the road, and into a shed of a terrace that held a curious mix of aromas – meat, tobacco and ripe farts. An eau de toilette for the lower league football fan. 

At first it was all a bit too intimidating. Grown men growling at other grown men. Grown men they had paid to support. Angry screams of “Gerrit on’t deck!” echoed around a stadium at one tenth its capacity, as the ball sailed skyward for the 30th time that minute. 

However, after a few weeks of peering over a cold metal bar and out onto the churned pitch, I found I had actually warmed to these chaps huffing and puffing in their blue shirts. I found myself looking forward to my Saturday jaunts. The occasional wins made up for the usual defeats. Like with Morrissey, I found I could identify with this team of losers. Over time, I fell in love with the place. 

While my school chums were declaring themselves Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe in the playground, I found myself emulating Andy Flounders and Steve Whitehall. It was worth the thumps. 

For almost two decades, my service saw scant reward. There was a pre-season friendly win against Man Utd (containing a young David Beckham) and there was an FA Cup Third Round trip to Anfield (which we lost 7-0). We flirted with the play-offs in 2002 and enjoyed a cup run the season after, but these were rare highlights. 

Now, though, the Football Gods have finally smiled on little old Rochdale and the club’s long-suffering supporters. In Keith Hill they have delivered us a messiah of a manager. To the opposition, he is a lower league leviathan. Since 2007 (a small absence between 2011-2013 aside), Dale fans have been treated to silky football, ‘broken toys’ developed into talented players, and that holiest of grails – promotion. Twice. 

And it feels so much better than anything Man City’s megabucks could ever buy. It feels earned. As a supporter of the underdog, it is the ultimate reward. 

As Morrissey once opined, “There are brighter sides to life and I should know, because I’ve seen them… But not very often.” 

Photos: Mark Wilbraham

Cornish football – past time or pasty

The rise and fall of Truro City FC

First published August 2013

Treyew Road

Cornwall. An enchanting land renowned for pasties, summer staycations and, apparently, some king who was in possession of a very circular table. 

But despite its popularity and size, the south-west English county has perhaps been notable over the years for its lack of representation in the Football League. 

That all looked set to change, however, thanks to Truro City FC’s recent charge up the pyramid. 

Sadly, finances deserted the White Tigers before they could fulfil their ambition and they are currently fortunate to still be in business, never mind participating in the Southern Premier League. 

But, just three years ago the picture was a lot more scenic. 

Treyew Road

When they took the Zamaretto Southern Premier League title in 2010, after a thrilling race with second-placed Hednesford, Truro created a new English league record, becoming the first team to achieve five promotions in six seasons. 

This feat left them only two divisions from the promised land of League Two and getting there looked all but a formality with local property magnate chairman Kevin Heaney and manager Lee Hodges at the helm. 

In fact, the club’s run to that point was quite remarkable. In 2005–06, Truro finished as runners-up in the South Western League and were promoted to the Western League Division One, which they won at the first attempt. And despite becoming the first Cornish club to play in the Western League Premier Division, they were in no mood to hang about, gaining instant promotion to the Southern League. City also became the first Cornish club to win a national trophy when they lifted the 2006–07 FA Vase at the new Wembley Stadium. 

However, there were early signs the wheels might fall off this express train when Heaney had second thoughts on turning the club fully professional, a decision that led to the resignation of then boss Dave Leonard. 

The club proceeded to work their way through no less than three further managers before settling on Hodges, and the former Plymouth defender, assisted by Dave Newton, guided City to their fifth promotion, aided by the goals of evergreen striker Barry Hayles and the prolific Stewart Yetton. 

But while a sound structure existed on the pitch, off it there was a stumbling block in the guise of City’s Treyew Road home. Only in recent years had they carried out work on the stadium – and then only boosting the capacity to a not-so-lofty 3,500. 

In 2005, the club did announce plans to build a new 16,000-seater stadium in the city, but residents who lived near the proposed site opposed the £12 million plans. 

A year later, the club looked into plans for a £7 million football-training complex with two new pitches and a clubhouse on land in nearby Kenwyn, complete with a 60-bed hotel and offices at their present Treyew Road base. However, in 2007, Carrick District Council rejected the plans for the new stadium. 

This clearly left chairman Heaney a frustrated figure, with his ambitions seemingly being thwarted at every turn. 

Heaney was a London property developer before moving to Cornwall in 2001, where he became a leading player in Truro through his cornishhomes.co.uk company. His investment in the club had allowed City to attract players capable of playing at a much higher level but the ground issue saw the dream fading. 

And it soon became a nightmare. 

In 2011, Heaney found himself refuting allegations that Truro were in financial trouble and set to be sold. His case wasn’t helped when the club was faced with a series of winding-up petitions from HM Revenue and Customs over unpaid tax bills. 

Dogged by this, Heaney finally stepped down as chairman in August last year, after being declared bankrupt, and was replaced by vice-chairman Chris Webb. By now, however, Truro’s financial plight was very much in the public domain, with first-team players claiming they hadn’t been paid. 

It was perhaps no surprise when City filed for administration after the players refused to play in a league fixture against Boreham Wood. 

Treyew Road

Administration saw ten points deducted from Truro’s league total, leaving them adrift at the bottom of the Conference South table. 

Worse, the Conference wanted a £50,000 bond from the club’s administrators to cover the costs of visiting teams, should Truro have been liquidated before the season’s end. 

Thankfully, after protracted negotiations with administrators, local businessmen Pete Masters and Philip Perryman stepped in to pay the required £50,000. The pair then completed a deal to purchase the club at the end of last year. 

But, while the club’s short-term survival was assured, Truro were relegated back to the Southern Premier Division before the 2012/13 campaign had even finished and, with that, ended their Arthurian-style vanguard charge for Football League representation west of the Tamar. 

Despite the tumultuous season, new manager Steve Massey intends to make the White Tigers competitive again, and there is renewed talk of relocation. Whether or not the club will be able to truly pick up the baton for Cornwall once more is anyone’s guess. 

If there is one silver lining for Truro’s fans, however, it is that the daunting prospect of a long trip to Carlisle on a Tuesday night can at least wait a little while longer. 

Photos: Extreme Football

The impending collapse of it all

The story of the infamous 2003/2004 Greenock Morton season

John Maisano

It’s easy to pinpoint where it all started to unravel. I remember it clearly. It was 3 January 2004. Greenock Morton were playing away at Dumbarton and I, like most of the press bench, was nursing a protracted New Year hangover. Morton put in an abject display and lost the game 1-0. “Maybe they were suffering from a hangover, too”, some wag jested. If they were, it was a hangover that lasted for the rest of the season.

You see, up until that point, Morton had lost just one league game (a blip against Berwick Rangers). They had amassed a 12-point lead at the top of the Second Division and looked unstoppable. After the Dumbarton match, their form… well, you could have almost skied down it.

Until then, Morton, under John “Cowboy” McCormack in his favoured 3-4-3 system, were playing the type of football that was worthy of a higher tier and they were regularly notching four or five goals per game. It made sense – they were a full-time outfit playing against, for the most part, part-time opposition. They made it count. They made it count in spades.

But from January to May of 2004, Morton struggled against those very same sides. From a football perspective, it’s easy to say why. As a team, the Ton simply stopped being a cohesive unit. Players such as Alex Williams, for example, who had excelled in front of goal, inexplicably became less prolific. An industrious and creative midfield began to huff and puff in tune with their part-time opponents, all creativity effectively nullified. The defence, while a little leaky prior to Christmas, began to make costly mistakes. Suddenly, the underdogs had a scent of blood and they went for it. Teams stopped setting up to frustrate Morton and actually began to attack them.

What is harder to explain is the reason for this lack of cohesion. The rumours – rumours that were reported in the national press at the time – suggested dressing room unrest. Player dissatisfaction with McCormack’s “hard-line” methods was one such theory. There were more serious allegations in the press, though, concerning the development of a laddish booze culture and, worst of all, certain players betting on the outcome of the title race – and not in Morton’s favour. It has to be stressed that the latter was never proven: not one shred of evidence was produced publically and no one was ever formally disciplined.

The only thing that seemed a certainty was that McCormack had lost control of the team. A monumental lead began to ebb away in a fashion similar to Newcastle United’s famous Premier League slump in 1996. Worse for Morton was that Airdrie United, previously languishing in mid-table, had strengthened an already talented squad. The arrival of the experienced Owen Coyle spurred on the likes of Alan Gow, Willie McLaren and Jerome Vareille and, all of a sudden, it was the Diamonds who were charging towards the top.

Chris Millar

Morton opened the season with a win against Airdrie – a game I’ll always remember for the fact one of the Cappielow crowd was asked to run the line after an injury to an official – and, on that day, they were far superior. When the sides met on the final day of the season, they were poles apart – and not in a way that flattered the Ton.

It’s important to note here that there had been a brief respite for Morton in early March, where the team looked to be in the process of shaking off the post-Christmas malaise via wins against Stenhousemuir, Dumbarton and Berwick. However, by the end of the month, Airdrie had finally toppled Morton from the helm by a single point and that enormous advantage held over the festive period had amazingly been frittered away.

Morton did regain top spot on goal difference shortly after, but the lowest point of the season for the Greenock side was waiting for them when they visited Hamilton Academical in early April. Although not quite enduring the 10-2 humiliation of a decade later, the result that day dealt an equally fatal blow. It allowed Airdrie to overtake them at the top of the Second Division once again and, from there, Morton failed to recover.

The Ton set up that day with their usual three at the back. Captain Derek Collins, who was deployed as a sweeper, looked uncomfortable with such a cavalier approach against a proven attacking force. As Hamilton notched goal after goal (the game finished 6-1 in their favour), Collins cast a forlorn look at McCormack on the bench. It was a look that said, desperately: “This isn’t working, boss”. McCormack did nothing until it was far too late. Morton were caught flat-footed time and time again. The Accies’ Brian McPhee, Mark Corcoran and Brian Carrigan continued to run riot. That result told Morton supporters, the press and the rest of Scottish football that the title was lost. More worryingly, it told all and sundry that the team was lost, too.

The criminal thing is, however, Morton didn’t just throw away the title that season, they threw away promotion, too. From what seemed an unassailable lead come Christmas 2003, Morton finished the season five months later in fourth spot.

Incredibly, McCormack was allowed to continue as manager over the summer before he eventually left the club early the following season following a poor start. It marked a sad end for a man who had led Morton to the Third Division title just over a year earlier and, along with chairman Douglas Rae’s arrival, had been instrumental in ending a tumultuous time for the Cappielow side. Just over two years earlier, the club had faced extinction during the disastrous Hugh Scott regime.

Back in 2003/04, my relationship with McCormack was typical of that between a local sports reporter and a football manager – he would feed me, and my colleague Roger Graham, more information than he would the national press, but still no more than he felt we ever needed to know. I never sensed he had truly taken me into his confidence. At the end of the season, he did open up slightly, however, telling the Greenock Telegraph: “I could give you every excuse under the sun, but there are lots of problems as you go along, shall we say. It’s not just loss of form.”

Fourteen years on, I wanted to get a better picture of what happened that season from the players’ perspective, hoping that time had proven the old adage true and healed some old wounds.

One person I always found amenable, even during those testing times, was Chris Millar. Currently known as one of St Johnstone’s more experienced midfielders, Millar was still finding his way in the game when he joined Morton from Celtic’s youth set-up in 2003. Born in Port Glasgow, Morton was Millar’s local senior club.

“We’d come up from winning the Third Division and we carried on that momentum,” he remembers. “The crowds we got were unbelievable. There was a real buzz about the town and the club. For a young lad like I was then, it was a really good taste of grown-up football. We signed Peter Weatherson from Queen of the South and he was a revelation. He was just what we needed to add to the title-winning side. We signed big Stewart Greacen for the defence and the tricky Paul Walker, too. We were blowing teams away, scoring lots of goals in the process.

Chris Millar

“People will forget how good we were back then because of how things ultimately turned out. We beat Airdrie 3-1 in our first league game, but don’t forget we also annihilated them 6-1 in the November, too. We were without doubt the best side in the division at that point – Airdrie and Hamilton were miles off by comparison.”

Millar opines that an injury to star striker Weatherson was the catalyst for Morton’s downturn in fortunes.

“Peter got injured around the time we had that huge lead,” he says. “He broke his foot and was out for six weeks. That was the pivotal moment for me. Our form seemed to go right out of the window from then on. I think we won only four or five games from that point. When Peter came back, his form wasn’t what it was. We were losing and drawing games that we should have been winning and the season fell apart.

“From being a dream at Christmas, it turned into a season to forget. I remember I couldn’t get away on holiday quick enough, despite the fact I won the club’s Player of the Season award. It was terrible. We lost the last four games particularly badly and I needed to get away to reflect on what had happened to us.

“When I think about it now, I still struggle to comprehend it. We had Alex Williams up front, as well as Peter − two out-and-out goal-scorers. They were the best in the division. When their form went, it was as if we were scared that we wouldn’t or couldn’t score. I remember a game against Stenhousemuir. It was one of the few we did win after Christmas. They were there for the taking but we were labouring about. I remember thinking: ‘I’ll have to do something here’, and took a shot on from about 30 yards which flew in. I couldn’t obviously do that every week, though.

“Looking through the squad, we had enough to win these games, or at least on paper we did. It must have been really hard for the manager. I believe he was doing everything right. He was doing nothing differently from when we were easily winning games before Christmas. He was trying everything to help us regain our form – one-to-one chats and sessions on the training pitch. Nothing seemed to help, though.

“Cowboy was brilliant. Let that be said. He probably comes out of that season looking bad, but I really enjoyed his training. Even looking back now, I remember those sessions fondly. They were all football-orientated. Everything was geared towards us playing the game the right way − attacking football with a lot of goals. I was only 20 back then. It was my first full season of senior football, but I played 35 games or so. That’s down to Cowboy. He gave me my chance in football. He was doing everything he could to get it right.”

While Millar attributes a lot of weight to Weatherson’s injury being the key reason for Morton’s decline, he cannot deny the unsavoury allegations also played there part.

“We were a tight team off the pitch,” he says. “We all socialised together on a Saturday night. In my view, there was nothing wrong with that. We all enjoyed each other’s company and I think that benefited the team on the pitch. People talk of a booze culture but there was nothing of the sort. Perhaps a few lads went too far individually on several occasions, but collectively there was never an issue.

“The betting thing, though, was absolutely ridiculous. I mean, where did it even come from? I don’t think anybody ever found that out. The accusations, I remember, were levelled at Alex Williams, Peter and the Maisano brothers, John and Marco. It was said that they had all bet on Airdrie to win the league. The Maisanos had never put a bet on in their life. They were total professionals. They had come to Scotland from Australia, lived in Greenock, integrated themselves in the community and they loved the club. I couldn’t think of anyone less likely to bet against Morton than them.

“But instead of getting laughed off as nonsense, the rumours started to be taken seriously and got press coverage. I remember a game against Airdrie in the second half of the season. I went to take a corner and the Airdrie fans showered me with betting slips. That’s how widespread the whole thing had become.

“As far as I’m concerned, it never happened,” Millar asserts. “It just wasn’t true. I was tight with Peter Weatherson and I know he would’ve told me if there was anything in it. I remember he was really upset by it all. He said to me: ‘They’re saying I’ve put thousands of pounds on Airdrie to win the title. I’ve not even got the kind of money to put a bet on like that.’ It was a horrible time. With us having bad form on the pitch and then these rumours emerging, the fans were understandably getting unhappy.

“Sure, a few of the lads would nip into the bookies to bet on themselves to win or to score, as was allowed back then, but I’ve never known anyone at any club who has bet on themselves to lose. What’s the point? Even if you could single-handedly make your team lose a game, you’re doing yourself out of a win bonus. It just doesn’t make sense.

“Alex was a bit of a boy, and Peter, too, everyone knows that, but they wouldn’t bet against themselves. They were known as cracking goal-scorers and would always want to protect that reputation.

“Mud sticks, though, doesn’t it? By the final run-in, those rumours caused a bit of resentment in what was previously a tight dressing room. You could sense some of the lads’ doubt towards those accused. You could feel some thinking: ‘Did you place a bet?’ It was horrible.”

Peter Weatherson

In light of Millar’s comments, I thought it best I caught up with Peter Weatherson. My lasting memory of him is that he was a very gifted footballer. My first glimpse came just after he had arrived at Morton from Queen of the South for a sum of £30,000. He was a powerful forward who could use both feet and score quite easily from outside the 18-yard box. His hold-up play was equally impressive, allowing his foil, Williams, to make blistering runs into the penalty area. Originally from North Shields, he was an affable lad, who, like Millar, always had time for a chat.

He chuckles when I tell him of Millar’s recollection of his “critical” injury that season.

“I was out for about six weeks with that broken foot,” he says. “Now that time has moved on, I can admit that it was something that happened outwith football. I’ll not disclose exactly what I did but it was stupidity on my part. I was young and daft. I knew I’d hurt my foot at the time, but I didn’t know it was broken. I arrived for training on the Monday morning and there was a bit of swelling. I thought I’d be okay but then I tried to train and pulled up. I thought: ‘Yep, that’s sore. I’d better go for an x-ray.’

“I tried to cover it up with the gaffer and said I’d hurt my foot in training. The x-ray confirmed a broken metatarsal and I was out for six weeks. To be fair, it healed pretty quickly. I should’ve been out for eight weeks but was back training within five.

“Before my injury, the team was flying and I was scoring for fun. It was naivety and stupidity on my part that cost me those weeks of that season. You learn from these mistakes, though, eh? When I was playing well and scoring, it was all happening naturally. I was in the groove, so to speak. After the injury, I was conscious I had to hit the ground running. I felt guilty. It was my fault I’d been out of the team, so I was desperate to get back to where I had been right from the off. I put extra pressure on myself because of this. It was my way of wanting to make amends.

“Collectively, though, the team had stopped gelling as a unit when I came back. Before I was injured, we all got on brilliantly off the pitch. That’s well documented. We all hung out together. On the pitch, we played off the cuff. Cowboy was a good football person and had us organised, but we were good players – really good players – at that level. The fact we hung out together made it work all the more.

“Then, without warning, the club put an alcohol ban on us. It was basically said that if we were seen in a licensed premises, we would be sacked. In my opinion, that was one of the things that really hindered us. We had guys travelling from Glasgow to play for Morton. They would stay with the lads who lived in Greenock all weekend. It wouldn’t all be partying. We’d go for a game of golf on the Sunday, for example. It was just real mates stuff, real bonding.

“Yes, there were some drunken nights, but that wasn’t all the time. The drink ban put paid to those weekends. As a group, alcohol and socialising never affected our training or our match days. Look at the top clubs over the years, the old Liverpool and Man United teams. I’m not saying it’s right, but they all socialised that way and had a togetherness that won them trophies and titles. We were on the way to achieving our own up until Christmas 2003.”

And then came the betting allegations. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how much they had hurt Weatherson.

“The money they were talking about me putting on was thousands of pounds,” he says, sadly. “At that time, I was living week to week. I didn’t have savings or anything like that. Come on, I was a young lad playing football for a living, I wasn’t thinking about the future. It now seems to be public knowledge that I liked to have a small bet. It’s true. I’ve gambled in the past. But there is no way on this earth I would bet against my team. Absolutely no way.

“I know now where the rumours came from. I’ll be honest with you there. I’m not going to divulge exactly from whom or from where they came, but I know. It was a few years later when I found out − the season we eventually won the league [2006/2007]. I was nominated for Player of the Year. I attended the awards ceremony and it all came out that night. I’ll say no more than that. At the time, I was baffled and hurt. I’ve since moved on.

“You see, it was the worst time of my life. You have to imagine it. I was pulled into Cowboy’s office every morning. He’d look at me and say: ‘Go on, son, just admit you did it’. How can you admit to something you haven’t done? It got to a stage where myself, Alex Williams and the Maisano brothers got together and confronted the manager as a group. We said: ‘Come on then, which bookmakers are we supposed to have used? Tell us, and we’ll go there to confront the accuser face to face.’ We never got a response. All we got was: ‘Look lads, just admit it and then we’ll go about sorting this mess out.’ That was my life for weeks.

“I remember we were to play Dumbarton on a Saturday in the May of 2004. We stayed at the Erskine Bridge Hotel on the Friday night. God knows why, as the game was just across the water, but there you go. Fair play, Douglas Rae put his hand in his pocket. We had a quiz night and when it was finished everyone filed off up to bed. Then I got it: ‘Peter, not you. Can you stay behind?’ This time the chairman was grilling me, too. I denied it again and again and again. Then I was asked if my head was right for the game. I told them honestly: ‘No, my head’s in bits. I’m fed up of being accused of betting against my own team’. I said: ‘If you’re asking if I’ll give 100 per cent to the team, then yes, I always have and I always will.’

“We lost against Dumbarton and it all kicked off with the fans after. Marco got involved in a dispute with them. There were TV cameras there, too. They had got wind of the rumours. It was crazy. You start to doubt yourself. You think: ‘Hang on; have I done what they’re saying in my sleep or something?’

“Sure enough, we all got grilled by Cowboy again after the match. He said: ‘I can’t help you if you don’t give me an answer.’ We told him straight: ‘We have given you an answer. We’ve told you we haven’t done this thing.’ Then he advised us not to go back to our homes that night as we wouldn’t be safe. Can you believe that? I stayed in the club flat at that point, near the ground. Supporters knew the flat. I was scared, I’ll be honest. I went back to the flat regardless and nothing did come of it, but it was yet another example of how out of hand those rumours had become. I was considering heading back to Newcastle and quitting football by this point. It seemed that no matter how many times I denied it, the rumours just got more and more severe. I’m sure the other accused players considered doing the same.

“In a strange way, however, those allegations turned out to be the reason I actually stayed at Morton for so long. I wanted to eradicate people associating my relationship with the club with betting. I stayed at the club until 2013, made well over 300 appearances in a variety of positions and scored more than 100 goals. I believe, now, that people will remember me for what I did for Morton on the pitch and not what some bullshit rumours claimed I did off it.”

It was early May when the accusations of betting began to truly saturate both the media and football websites alike. We at the Greenock Telegraph also looked into the allegations but, just like everybody else, found no supporting evidence whatsoever.

As Weatherson referenced, it was after a 3-0 defeat at Dumbarton − a result that saw Airdrie move five points clear of Morton at the top of the table − that ugly scenes erupted outside the Strathclyde Homes Stadium. Marco Maisano had to be held back by stewards when fans levelled accusations at him directly.

This led football agent, Lou Sticca, to issue the following press release on behalf Marco and his brother John:

In response to the rumours currently circulating Morton FC in regards to players of Morton FC allegedly throwing games, I take this opportunity to refute any involvement of John and Marco Maisano in such matters.

John and Marco Maisano play football to the best of their abilities and do so with passion and love for Morton FC. They play to win and their sole goal is to win another championship and promotion this season with Morton FC.

Both players are deeply hurt that any player’s names, let alone their names, have been used in such a disgraceful manner. Both players are indebted to the Chairman and Board of Morton FC along with the fans of Morton and the city folk of Greenock for the manner with which they have been treated since their arrival at Morton FC.

John Maisano

John and Marco have flown their parents out from Australia to be in Greenock to celebrate the promotion of Morton FC into Division 1.

Is there really any need to say more?

Well, according to John Maisano there is.

The attacking midfielder was both a creator and scorer of fine goals for Morton; an elegant, intelligent, continental type of player in many respects. Sadly, for football in general, he decided to retire from playing at the age of 27. He has now returned to Australia where he runs a chain of fitness outlets in Victoria.

“At first we thought it was a joke,” Maisano remembers. “As professionals, we’re trained to just focus on our job and not to listen to anything outside the changing-room walls. So, when the chairman called a meeting to discuss this, you can imagine my shock. The funny thing is, I wouldn’t even know how to put a bet on.

“I have no idea where the rumours came from. All I know is, as a club − and by club I mean players, staff, officials and supporters − we weren’t strong enough collectively to combat them. Everyone wanted to believe that there was something else going on apart from the simple fact that we had lost form. I was a young guy, 24 years old, and I was too worried about my own form to think of anything else, but, if I had that time again, I would stand up and make sure the whole town heard what I had to say.

“In house, we were told that we were all being investigated. It wasn’t a great way to help already low-in-confidence players deal with the expectations of a club such as Greenock Morton. We were expected to fly out of the division and score three goals a game while playing the perfect brand of football.

“We all took offence to the rumours but no one had the courage to speak up through fear. Well, what good did not speaking up do? The rumours didn’t go away, did they? Regardless of the betting allegations, our season was finished. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were not going to be able to pick ourselves up. Those rumours just gave people something else to talk about and made everyone focus on that rather than why we weren’t taking responsibility for the poor performances on the pitch. It gave us players an excuse to hide behind. Ultimately, we took the same poor performances into the next season because we didn’t deal with the real issue the season prior.

“The reason we started the 2003/04 season so well is down to a lot of factors. We were the new team going into the Second Division and, during the first half of the season, teams didn’t really know us. Once they had done their homework, they started playing on our weaknesses and being more aware of our strengths. You can’t complain about that. In fact, it’s great, as that’s what any competitive sport is about − trying to outsmart the opponent. Our problem was that we didn’t adapt to it ourselves. We were a very young team with a lack of experience. In my opinion, we required three or four small adaptations to our play, and a couple of player additions in January, and things would have been different. Above all else, the confidence and belief completely disappeared and we never recovered.”

Despite his torrid time that season on the Tail O’ The Bank, Maisano still remembers Inverclyde fondly.

“For me, the best part of being at Greenock Morton was that the town embraced both me and Marco as their own and for that we will always be grateful,” he says. “Greenock feels like home and Morton will always have a special place in my heart. I keep in regular contact with the club and, every time I go back, I literally feel like I never left. I love it.

Goal!

“Those betting rumours had nothing to do with why I chose to retire so young. I was, and still am, battling a lot of demons with regards to football. I wasn’t aware of how to overcome them while I was playing, so I just stopped playing. I was 27. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my football career and the opportunities that I wasn’t able to completely fulfil. Despite this, I would like to think that I brought a high level of professionalism to Greenock Morton with a style of football completely different to what was around at the time. Hopefully, I entertained, which was the reason the chairman brought me to the club, and hopefully I created long-lasting memories for the supporters at that time, many of who I now class as friends.”

As these events took place 14 years ago, there will no doubt be some who question the merits of revisiting this particular season, especially as Morton are currently in a very positive place. It is not my intention to upset the establishment. In my opinion, the 2003/04 season was one of the biggest stories of the Scottish lower leagues this century. As a football writer, it is certainly the most interesting I have been involved in.

And on that note, I’ll let Chris Millar have the final word.

“For half a season, we were playing some of the best football I’ve been involved in. The final league table doesn’t lie, though. Perhaps, ultimately, we just weren’t as good as we thought we were and the spectacular collapse of 2003/04 is down to nothing more sinister than that.”

An abridged version of this article originally appeared in Nutmeg Magazine. The quarterly periodical is a must-read for any fan of Scottish football and features great stories told by great writers.

An enormous debt of gratitude also goes to freelance photographer James McFadden for the kind use of his images.