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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, April 24, 2005
    Goodbye Roly
     
    Quite a turn-out at Rossett Park this afternoon for a match they billed "The Return of the Kings". The Marine team who won back-to-back UniBond League Championships in 1994/5 versus a Liverpool and Everton Legends select. Mark Lawrenson still in tight shorts; Gary Ablett still in fine form, Uriah Rennie with the whistle. The Marine old boys looking rather podgier than in the all-conquering years I last saw them; the old pros looking suntanned and still deliciously slick in their stroke-it-about-the-park game.

    All this was to honour Roly Howard. Senior football's longest-serving manager at 33 years, who in two weeks time, two games time, retires at 70. No-one in football has more earned a testimonial than that single-minded, multiply-successful one-club man.

    As I confess elsewhere on this website, and celebrate today, I was a teenage Marine supporter. It strikes me that I've followed Roly and his teams for thirty of those years. Started with the Rochdale FA Cup game in 1974; peaked early with that fantastic Cup run the following year (Barnsley 3-1, Hartlepool 1-1, drawn away at Maine Road in R3 if only they hadn't collapsed in the Teesside replay); stuck with them through all the Cheshire League title-winning years and Roly's canny rebuilding to make the tiny Crosby club a notable force at the higher level. You don't spend years being asked to manage the Northern Premier League Representative Side without good reason; you don't spend years managing the Northern Premier League Representative Side without gaining insight into rival teams' styles of play and spotting footballers of emerging quality.

    For three years I even lived alongside the ground. Not on the posh Rossett Road side whose occupants live with a constant fear of broken greenhouses via the wayward clearances of hit-and-hope centre-backs. No, I was in a cramped terraced house on Jubilee Road, two-thirds down, backing directly onto the place in the ground where my granddad used to stand, and me with him, in my years of keen teen fandom. It was possible to watch the match through the back bedroom window - but the design of the house meant that only half of the pitch was visible. On those Saturdays when I tried this out I found I could quite well follow progress in the part of the pitch invisible to me by the sounds of the crowd and the various bellows, groans and exhalations of Roly, ever-voluble in the dugout opposite.

    On cup runs and when the Guinness Book of Records awarded him Longest Serving Football Manager in the World, the press always described Roly as a window-cleaner. Which he is; and there's nowt wrong with that in itself, except their use of it has a whiff of incredulity about it: how could a window-cleaner be such a successful football manager?

    How? Because he's Roly, a one-off, a single-minded, straight-talking, often brutally decisive man-manager, who has always had a good eye for the best players at their level and a good mind for the best deals, who must be an awesome motivator in the dressing-room and who has always won success at Marine on a shoestring, largely ignored by a suburban Crosby public apathetic towards this gem of a club in their midst.

    Today's events featured a number of under-10s games played out before the main feature, organised by some of the ex-Marine first-teamers, and in the last twenty minutes of the main match they brought on six young men, a selection of today's Marine fans, to compete against the likes of Gary Gillespie and John Aldridge, and do very well. Noticeable that the ex-champs knew the young fans by name; treated them as equals; encouraged them in the game. That's the strength of football at this level: community; continuity. I hope Marine keep on moving upwards without Roly; I hope he's happy in retirement.

    The score, by the way: Marine Old Boys 4, Legends 1. It was a hugely enjoyable game. The highlight: witnessing the always-large, now gigantic Marine marksman Chris Camden marshalling the game, intimidating the rookie linesman ("'Ey mate, do you work for the railways?"), scoring two and thudding down the line after helping defend a free-kick telling nearby spectators, "They used to put five of us in the wall for free kicks - only needed three today!"