Published Date: 30 January 2009 By Tony Dewhurst
Lancashire Evening Post
Tony Dewhurst talks to Clitheroe player-coach and former Shawbridge boss Neil Reynolds about his time in non-league football.
Neil Reynolds is Clitheroe's longest-serving player and until a week ago he was their manager.
When Reynolds wrote his name into the Clitheroe archives on the final day of the 2003-04 campaign, scoring the goal that secured the North-West Counties League title, it was – he admits – his proudest moment.
He was appointed Clitheroe's joint-manager at 29, and what he lacked in experience he more than made up for with a burning enthusiasm.
Reynolds is an energetic and purposeful man, who wears his heart on his sleeve and passion for football bubbles over like a cackling witch's cauldron.
"It had got too much, it was a relief when I stepped down," said Reynolds, a PE teacher at Fulwood High School in Preston.
"It was a terribly hard decision to make because I'd loved every minute of it, but it had become an obsession.
I think a lot of lads will tell you that when they get into the management game, but now I can understand why they go into it.
I listen to Sam Allardyce, Alan Irvine or Owen Coyle and they've got the pressure of a huge budget. They live or die by their decisions, but it means just as much to lads at this level.
Tony Hesketh, Phil Entwistle, Pete Smith, just go and ask them and they will tell you what it means to those guys.
You just feel a giant responsibility, and every second was a challenge.
Signing players, chatting with Reg who sells the golden goal ticket or just making sure the lady who sells the pies is okay, it just felt that was part of my duty.
I'm a huge fan of Jose Mourinho, and I remember him saying at his first press conference at Chelsea that he'd make everybody feel important, from the cleaners to his £6m striker.
I tried to make them feel as important as I felt on match-days, because everybody has a role to play.
But juggling that with family life and a teaching career just got too much in the end.
"There were also frailties in my managerial skills, and I need to work on them and toughen up."
He measures out his life in football matches, but says the chance to manage perhaps came too early.
He said: "It wasn't fair to Clitheroe or my family carrying on as manager because I wasn't 100 per cent committed to the job.
I just had to step away. Enough was enough.
It was the worst thing that happened when they made me manager in my own right a few months ago.
It gave me too pressure. I took on too much too soon. Peter Smith, who was joint manager, should have got the job.
"I was getting frustrated too – I wanted to polish my boots and get on the field again and that's what I've done.
I needed that spark back, to feel that fantastic buzz again. You know, it was weird going back into the dressing room last weekend, seeing my name on the teamsheet against Rossendale, sitting there and listening to the new manager give the team talk.
I had turned up at half-past one with my kit bag and boots, and I didn't talk to Lee Sculpher or Peter Smith (joint managers) about the
team. I just wanted to be a player again.
There was a bit of banter from the rest of the lads and a few of them said it was a bit strange. But it wasn't strange because it was all about the club – doing my best for Clitheroe.
When I walked out on the pitch I can say hand on heart it was one of the best feelings I've ever had in the game.
I felt free again, went to the centre circle and kissed the Clitheroe badge and that's just how I felt."
There's no glamour or Premier League glitterati to a bone-chilling winter's night in front of 250 loyal souls at Shawbridge, but Reynolds wouldn't have it any other way.
It is a hand-to-mouth existence, their highest-paid player pulls in £80 a week and the rest play for pocket money. But there is a rich history to be proud of at Clitheroe.
Formed as Clitheroe Central at the Swan Hotel in Castle Street, which is still in use as public house today, they won their first major cup in 1893 – a trophy they had to wait 92 years to win again when Eric Geldard's extra-time winner brought the old trophy back to Shawbridge in the 1985 final, staged at Deepdale.
Clitheroe's finest hour came a decade later, though, when under the stewardship of Dennis Underwood and Gary Butcher they played at Wembley Stadium in the 1996 FA Vase final.
The semi-final tie against Mangotsfield Town attracted their record gate, when 2,000 packed into Shawbridge. When Carlo Nash, the former Preston goalkeeper, joined Crystal Palace for £15,000 it was a record transfer which paid for the club's new stand.
"It really is a fabulous club, and I'm aware of our great tradition," says Reynolds.
My proudest moment was coming on as a substitute, scoring the winner at Nantwich.
I was injured but I had to get on. I was sat on the bench with a big bandage on my leg and the manager said, 'Fancy it?'
I hobbled on but scored a late goal that got us promoted.
There were low points too. Clitheroe played at Shepshed a couple of days after Tommy Lawson had taken virtually the whole team to Skelmersdale with him.
We had four reserve players and a few kids, and got beat 5-0.
The lads gave their all, and I remember them laughing at us, and a few uncomplimentary things were said.
We came away from there with our heads held high. I stored that memory up because when they came to Clitheroe a few months later we thrashed them.
I get disappointed sometimes when all I hear from young players is how much money will they get.
Sometimes I don't think they love the game as much as they should. It has to come from the heart.
Peter Smith, the Clitheroe manager, once told me that if a player spoke about money in the first minute of a conversation then don't sign him, and I think that's solid advice.
You have to love the game first, whether that's playing at Bradford Park Avenue in the snow or going to Ossett in the wind or rain, it is all part of the non-league magic."
Reynolds is the kind of modern player football should be employing to promote the many virtues of the game.
Instead he is frustrated by non-league's power brokers.
"Just look at the UniBond fixture programme – it is a joke," he says.
With junior cup competitions taking priority over league games, that has left many clubs with a huge backlog of fixtures.
In UniBond North Division One, Durham, Clitheroe's opponents at Shawbridge on Tuesday, have played just 17 league fixtures, compared to leaders Halifax, who have completed 25. And Clitheroe must squeeze half of their league programme into the final three months of the campaign.
Many clubs now treat competitions like the UniBond Cup simply as reserve games, and with one man and his dog coming through the turnstiles for the floodlit fixtures, Reynolds argues it has little financial gain for the cash-strapped clubs.
"The people at the league need to take a long hard look at themselves, because something needs to be done," he said.
"I hope someone is looking at the league table at the moment because the way they set out the season is nothing sort of farcical. The whole thing is preposterous.
"You go out of one cup and they seem to invent another one.
"Clitheroe have been involved in five different cup competitions, which is far too many, and it is taking the focus away from the bread and butter of your season, which is the league.
"We had a good run in both the FA Cup and the FA Trophy, and are now being punished for it because we can't fit our league fixtures in. "But take Durham, for example, I feel sorry for them because they're getting hammered for doing this league proud in terms of cup competitions. "It is the UniBond competitions that are theproblem and I'm not alone because many managers and players think that way.
"But none of this has destroyed my love for the game."I'm just as enthusiastic. I've had nine years here, seven as a player and two as a manager."But one day I want to manage Clitheroe again, that's a genuine ambition for me.
"I want to do that because Clitheroe are my team and there's a sense of unfinished business."