“The reason why that memory sticks in my mind is because when you say it now it doesn’t sound right. Jamie Vardy had to retake a penalty for Stocksbridge Park Steels reserves in a penalty shootout at Athersley Rec in the County Senior League Cup and he had a bloke on the sidelines trying to wind him up. You think ‘how can that possibly be the same kid who scored a hat-trick for Leicester at Man City in the Premier League the other week’? It is mind-boggling.”
Behind Matt Griffin’s voice is a sense of pride of being one of Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy’s first team-mates in men’s football.
“The Athersley Rec game is my best memory of him. I didn’t read his book because I have my own memories of Vardy, but someone has told me he mentioned that game in the book.
“It is my best memory because of the way he did it. He stuck it in the net and laughed at the guy who was at the side giving him grief and wandered off into the changing rooms.”
Ex-Parkgate, Buxton, Hallam and Dinnington Town player Griffin was a centre-half in Vardy’s often over-looked Stocksbridge Park Steels reserve days during the 2006/07 campaign in the Sheffield & Hallamshire Senior County League days.
Vardy won the Sheffield & Hallamshire Association Cup and the County Senior League Cup. The Steels reserves beat Hemsworth Miners Welfare 3-1 at Millmoor in the Association Cup. Wombwell Main were beaten 1-0 in the League Cup at Bracken Moor.
This is of course before he stepped to Gary Marrow’s first team and the subsequent Roy of the Rovers journey to being a Premier League winner and England International.
Read articles about Vardy’s Stocksbridge days and the County Senior League days are rarely mentioned in dispatches.
“When it all came about Vards and his Non League days, it was almost like it skipped a level because people thought he came out of the UniBond and it is like ‘no he came out of the County Senior football’,” Griffin tells Non League Yorkshire.
“People tend to only talk about the UniBond days and that does make sense because how far do you go back? Do you then go back to him playing in the schoolyard?”
Vardy is still going strong at 33 in the Premier League. Griffin is back in the County Senior League and into his third season as manager of Premier Division side Ecclesfield Red Rose alongside best friends Jon and Matt Wragg, who were also members of the Steels reserve team during the Vardy era.
Players from Vardy’s first team Stocksbridge speak of knowing he would go higher. Was that the same for those in the County Senior League days.
“He was already there when I went back (to Stocksbridge from Buxton) and Matt and Jon had mentioned him previously and they’d just said ‘there’s this young kid, he’s a good goal-scorer, but he’s a bit of a wide boy’” Griffin says.
“The first time I met him was when we were doing some pre-season training. Andy Ring, the Penistone striker, was actually in the same team and those two played upfront for us that season so you can see why we did pretty well.
“But this is the reserve team at Stocksbridge, it wasn’t the first team. I remember doing one-on-ones in training and that’s when I first realised ‘this lad is scary’.
“You’d be doing one-on-one defending and you’d get to the point where you think you’d have to kick him because you couldn’t get near him. But you attempt to kick him and you still can’t get near him. You were literally out of options.
“He was a good player, but did anyone think he’d get in the Stocksbridge first team, never mind play for England one day? Probably not at that moment in time.
“I would say as the season progressed and as he was scoring more goals, the consensus would have been ‘yeah he’s good enough for the first team at Stocksbridge’.
“His natural ability was there, but I think the step above Stocksbridge’s level was more about him as a person. He didn’t appear to be someone who was bothered about doing that or particularly in the travel or the commitment. He seemed to want to have a laugh with his mates and score some goals.
“Stocksbridge first team was definitely achievable at that time which may sound daft now, but he wasn’t top goal-scorer in the side. He wasn’t top goal-scorer for the reserves so to start talking about him going onto be a professional player you would have sounded a bit daft at the time.”
One thing Griffin’s memories do reinforce is just how amazing Vardy’s rise from Step 7 football has been.
“Matt and Jon will vouch for us on this one,” he says.
“Once he went to Fleetwood and started scoring goals and Leicester bought him and people started saying ‘can he do it’ we sort of had a theory if he started scoring he’d have a chance of an England call-up.
“At the time England didn’t have a mass choice of centre-forwards so anyone scoring goals had a chance of a call-up. The reality of it was nowhere near.
“You can’t comprehend a kid that bought you a pint now and again in the pub getting a Premier League medal. It is beyond and you can’t comprehend that it is the same person.
“He’s off in a different stratosphere, but in times gone by he’s had the lads down to Leicester for a night out. Matt, Jon and all the lads went down and he was still very much Jamie Vardy.
“But to see him on the stage collecting a Premier League medal makes you think of memories like Athersley away, of midweek games at Wombwell Main. He did turn up and he was one of the lads. He wasn’t anyone who thought he was going to be this big-time kid. He was just a young lad playing football.”
What we haven’t mentioned so far is like Vardy, Griffin’s football journey actually began at Stocksbridge and that was down to current chairman Graham Furness, whose service to the Steels stems back years.
“High Green, Chapeltown (in Sheffield) is where I grew up and I had almost decided to stop playing,” he says.
“Graham Furness was a High Green fella and he’d heard of me and he said ‘do you fancy coming to play for me’?
“That’s how I started up at Stocksbridge with the under 18s side. It is a bizarre link, but Graham Furness had a coach company and as a five-year-old kid in High Green, I actually got run over by one of Graham’s coaches.
“I did remind him several times! I don’t know if that got me a few games in the under 18s or not, but it was definitely something I mentioned. His dad was still alive at the time and he was Mr Furness if you like. Graham was Mr Furness junior and his dad used to give me lifts to the games at times. I brought it up numerous times, but it became an in-joke that they nearly killed me and now I’m playing centre-half for Graham.
“When I was with the under 18s, I got a sniff of the first team now and again under Mick Horn. I had a go, but it seems like travelling millions of miles every weekend as a 17-year-old kid so Non League didn’t catch me then.”
Eventually it did and he played for variety of well-known managers. Wilf Race at Hallam, Doug Shelley at Parkgate, Steve Toyne at Dinnington Town and even Nicky Law at Buxton.
His association and friendship with the Wragg’s go back to the Hallam and Stocksbridge days.
“So I went back to play for Stocksbridge reserves and that’s when I met Jon and Matt again and we became really good mates and we clicked from the word go,” he says.
“We ended up having similar interests and going out to similar places for a drink. We’ve been best mates for 15 or more years. Because of Matt and Jon are twins, you’re best mates with both of them. They’re really good blokes and in terms of football they live and breathe it.
“Matty’s claim has always been that he actually outscored Vardy when they were in the same team. It sounds absolutely outrageous!”
Grfffin enjoyed plenty of success during his playing days. He won the NCEL Premier Division title during the Nicky Law glory laden years at Buxton and was a member of the Parkgate side which finished runners-up in 2011 and pushed Farsley all the way under Shelley.
The highlight though is Dinnington Town’s unexpected 2008 Division One title success.
“I should naturally say winning the NCEL Premier with Buxton, but I never felt part of it even though I played most of the time,” he says.
“It was so far away and it was a fair old drive. The best thing I ever did was winning Division One with Dinnington. The reason being because there wasn’t one player on that pitch getting a penny to play.
“Somehow Toyney (Steve Toyne) had pulled together this team that didn’t look like anyone knew each other, but we managed to walk that Division. I don’t mean that in a cocky or overconfident way, but we broke almost every record that season.
“We broke the record for amount of games won on the trot, we broke the points record and we scored more goals than anyone had in that Division. These records had been held by teams like Parkgate under Russ Eagle a couple of years before.
“We did it without any expectation and Scarborough had dropped into the NCEL that year as a new club and all the talk was that they were going to beat everyone quite convincingly
“From the outside it may look like a team winning the NCEL first division, but that circle at the time realised we had done it on so little resource compared to other teams.”
The mention of the 2010/11 Premier Division title race enables the question ‘were you one of the players fighting in the bushes at Parkgate against Farsley’? Griffin laughs down the phone and cannot believe someone remembers it.
The backstory is basically Farsley, who had a year earlier were a Conference North team, found themselves in the NCEL and were expected to walk away with it. They did eventually by winning 13 and drawing one of their last 14 games.
However following a 3-2 win over the Celts at Roundwood in January 2011, Parkgate went three points clear at the top with three games-in-hand. It has been said numerous times that the after-match scenes inspired Farsley to their incredible run and Griffin admits the game is unforgettable – especially the mass brawl after the final whistle.
“I was on the pitch and I had to try and split it up, but it is one of the funniest and comical things I’ve witnessed in football,” he says.
“It is all starting to come clear again now and I’ve remembered what triggered it. The lad (Simeon Bambrook) in the middle of the park for Farsley, I wouldn’t have fancied having a fight with him, had a ding-dong with Will (Senior) throughout the game.
“They hadn’t come to fisticuffs though and at the end of the game, the Farsley lad must have said ‘I’ve had enough’ and he ran over to the corner where Will was. I saw him running and I shouted to Will ‘watch your back’ and they went for each other and it became a bunch of blokes fighting in the conifers.
“There was a centre-back for Farsley, I don’t know his name (either Mark Jackson or Lee Connor), but we looked at each other and gave that look to say ‘I won’t go daft if you don’t go daft and we’ll try and get people out of here’.
“There were people in the conifers and I remember pulling Ash (Worsfold) by his waist to get him out of the conifers. It is a mad memory because it was almost a Sunday morning thing., but it was two really quality sides that ended up in the conifers.
“The conifer fight was just amazing. I remember going in the changing room after and there was people walking in with literally bits of conifers sticking out of their hair.
“I played centre-half with a Scottish kid called John Drennan and he came in and said ‘I think I’ve hit about four people, but I don’t know who they were and whether or not they were ours or theirs’?
“The game was brilliant and Nathan Forbes-Swindells scored one of the best goals I’ve ever seen ever.
“It is funny how football can come back to bite you (because of the chanting) and I remember thinking this (title race) isn’t done because they are a good side and credit to Farsley. We threw it away, but they were absolutely relentless afterwards. They won nearly every game after that and you had to take their hat off to them.”
After Parkgate, Griffin slowly faded out of the Non League game and only really resurfaced two years ago as manager of Ecclesfield alongside his assistants the Wragg brothers.
The trio are doing a great job with a club who live a nomadic existence and they are competing with the best of the County Senior League.
“I did my level one badges and did a bit of Junior footy because my lad was starting to get to an age where he started playing so as an ex-player I got dragged into helping run the team,” he says.
“That’s where I got the bug to go and coach. It is very rewarding and I also played a bit of over 35s until the Red Rose opportunity came along.
“I don’t quite remember how we got asked to go, but we got invited to meet a bloke in a pub and we ended up taking the job.
“We’re at the start of our third season. The interesting thing with Rose compared to other sides in the Division is that they have so little resource. They have a committee, but they haven’t got a ground. Even up to six weeks ago we were having to find a new ground for this year.
“But we got promoted from Division One in the first year which people were surprised about. Me, Matt and Jon weren’t surprised as we have done relatively well when we played so we had a bit of ambition to do well.
“Last year we were joint second (in the Premier Division) when it ended and that was a massive achievement for our side. Hopefully we’ll have a stable season. Realistically in comparison to Swinton, North Gawber’s, we are competing with them which is a massive achievement.
“The first thing our secretary will tell players is it costs £6 a week so we’re in a battle to attract players. But we pulled in Tyler Bates who played for Handsworth and he’s our skipper.”
Whilst the Non League memories may seem a lifetime ago, Griffin and the Wragg’s cherish them and even put into practice the methods of their old managers at Red Rose.
“We talk about our managers quite regularly because we’re quite in the early days of management,” he says.
“I’ve coached kids football for a while now, but going into men’s football is a different thing. Russ O’Neill who is now the Guiseley joint manager was the assistant manager at Buxton and he was my Sunday manager and he asked me to go there when Nicky Law was the manager. But people like Nicky Law didn’t really have an effect on me because he liked to shout a lot and basically tell you what to do.
“In terms of man-management, people like Russ O’Neill and Graham Furness were absolutely brilliant because before a game they’d run through the team, but specifically mention something you did the week before.
“Russ would probably end up saying ‘have a good game again Griff at centre-half, win them headers like you won them five last week, you were colossal at the back’. He’d really make you feel like the main man in the team. Every person I’ve spoken to about Russ says the same – that was on a Sunday morning or on a Saturday. People said the same when he was at Alfreton and that he made you feel a couple of inches taller.
“Graham Furness was very similar and it is one of the things I’ve took into the team I’m looking after. In this day and age, young lads especially, they need an arm round them more than before.
“It is one thing I do in every team-talk. I try and mention every individual and try and highlight something they do well. Tactics aside, that does seem to have a massive effect I find.”
Will we see Griffin and the Wragg’s in an NCEL dugout in the future?
“In terms of ambition, to say we’re not ambitious and we don’t want to go higher would be wrong,” he says.
“I think we’ve seen a project here and we’ve all had young families in the last few years. So for a first dip in it is ideal. I played long enough in the North East Counties and enjoyed the challenge so it would be wrong for me to say I don’t want to step up and try higher levels.
“I’m not in any particular rush to do that because I’m learning so much at the minute.”
One more burning question remains: How many does he tell people he played with Vardy in the County Senior League?
“Only people close to us,” he says.
“But my father-in-law Dave tells everyone he meets! If he goes on holiday anywhere he’ll be sat on a table having a coffee with someone and they won’t even bring football up, but he’ll go ‘our Matt was in Vardy’s team at Stocksbridge’.
“I think the reason he likes to talk about it is because he used to come to every game so he’s seen Vardy play a lot.”
If you have enjoyed reading Non League Yorkshire over the past few months, please consider making a donation to the not-for-profit organisation NLY Community Sport which provides sport for children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties. CLICK HERE to visit the JustGiving page. There is a video at the bottom of the page showing our work.
NLY Community Sport, run by James Grayson and Connor Rollinson, has always had combatting social isolation at the top of our objectives when running our Disability Football teams. As we slowly return to ‘action’, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players, who have disabilities and learning difficulties, back into society.
We have six teams, a mixture of Junior and Adult teams – Nostell MW DFC, Pontefract Pirates, Selby Disability Football Club and the South Yorkshire Superheroes (Barnsley) – across Yorkshire.
We have enjoyed great success over the past three years. Several of our players have represented Mencap GB in Geneva, including Billy Hobson from Selby and Greg Smith, whose story is quite inspiring.
Like most organisations, we have been affected financially by the Coronavirus and because of the cancelled Lucille Rollinson Memorial Tournament, we are down on projected income for the year and we have incurred losses in the last few months.
We have not been hit as badly as other organisations, but we do need raise £2000 to put us back at the level we were at in mid-March and enable us to make a difference once again to our players’ lives in the future, without having financial worries. Several of our players are suffering from effects of the lockdown and we are determined to be in the strongest position possible to provide services for them.
Any amount raised above £2000 will be put towards new projects (when the world returns to normal) designed to further benefit people with disabilities and learning difficulties. You can learn more about the organisation HERE and on our Facebook page.
Watch the video below to see highlights from our three years as an organisation. The video was produced for our players at the end of March to remind them of good memories from the last three years.