“Simon and Garforth gave me some of the greatest experiences of my life and I’d do anything to get some of that life back,” Vernol Blair admits as he casts his mind back to the unbelievable ride Simon Clifford took Garforth Town on.
Blair was one of former owner/manager Clifford’s key lieutenants during the two promotions in three years and Garforth’s greatest day when Socrates played for them in November 2004.
His loyalty to football pioneer goes even deeper as Clifford’s revolutionary coaching methods also played a role in his two sons’ early football careers, one (Harvey) of whom is in the Liverpool under 18s side.
Blair’s long association with Garforth ended up in 2013, but he’s one of the most important managers in the club’s history despite suffering relegation in his only season in full charge.
Issues including Clifford’s ill health in summer 2012 led to the departures of the players and manager who had just delivered the club’s highest ever finish. Nearly all of Garforth’s volunteers and staff resigned as well.
Turmoil is an understatement, but history now shines brighter on Garforth’s 2012/13 season than it did at the time.
Blair stepped into ‘the impossible job’ to keep the club alive and his heroics in assembling a team – despite no budget – were undoubtably a key aspect in the club’s successful journey to safe and secure shores.
His contribution during the club’s darkest hour put him in the upper echelons with fellow former managers Clifford, Dave Parker and Steve Nichol.
This is Vernol Blair’s Non League Journey:
“I started at Yorkshire Amateur with people like Kevin Crombie when I was 21/22 so around the late eighties or early nineties. I also played for Selby Town, Hatfield Main, Goole AFC, Pontefract Collieries and Glasshoughton Welfare as well as Frickley Athletic for a short stint when Ronnie Glavin was manager. I had a good couple of seasons at Pontefract under Steve Kittrick (late nineties). He was my manager at Glasshoughton as well. I think the Glasshoughton season was a bit better as I scored 16 goals, but I hit the woodwork 30 times.
“I enjoyed every moment of my Saturday football. Because of the Sunday football connection myself and others ended up travelling with Dave Harding all over the place at the clubs he managed like Goole and Selby. Carlton Athletic was my last team before Garforth. I had four years at Carlton where I was absolutely flying and loved every minute of it under John Flynn. You had to fear cricket balls in those days at Carlton because it was next to a cricket pitch. Carlton had a fantastic team which should have been playing way higher, two leagues at least.
Life-changing meeting with Simon Clifford
Following the departure of Jimmy Martin two games into the 2004/05 season owner Clifford was left in the manager’s hot-seat. On a recommendation Clifford approached Blair about potentially taking over and the pair bonded during a car journey to an FA Cup game at Shildon. Ultimately, Clifford became manager on a permanent basis, with Blair acting as one of his lead assistants.
“I think (former Yorkshire Amateur manager) Phil Harding recommended me and Simon was introduced to me at the side of the pitch down at the Rec in Chapeltown (in Leeds) when I was managing the Fforde Grene Sunday team. I just said ‘hi’ because I was concentrating on the game.
“I met him properly after the game and I said I’d have a chat with him. I’d wanted to get into Saturday football management so when we did speak the opportunity was a no-brainer.
“So we drove up to the Shildon and I think that’s also the first time I met Steve Nichol…great coach. When we were driving up there he asked me about my life and he spoke about his ambition for Garforth which was very exciting. When he started talking about it I was blown away. I thought ‘this guy is not messing about’. I didn’t really know Simon prior to meeting him so when I also did my checks I was like ‘wow’. He changed my life.
“The man is a genius and has one of the greatest football minds. I didn’t really believe in fitness before meeting Simon because I was always naturally fit so when people used to say I needed to train I’d say they were talking rubbish. Simon taught me about fitness and he showed me his Brazilian Soccer Schools. I thought I was a connoisseur of football until meeting Simon. The relationship blossomed after the Shildon game and some of the things I saw Simon do were unbelievable. People talk about Bielsa and what he does…Simon was doing that in 2004. Simon was ahead of his time. We’re now seeing players (such as Robbie Gotts) who went to his football schools 16 years ago now breaking into the Premier League. I took the stuff that Simon was teaching and put that into my own children and my boys are flourishing at the moment. One is at Liverpool in the under 18s and my other son who is 21 has just joined a club in Iceland. They’re going in the right direction at this moment in time. Simon is a legend to me. I’ve not done anything in seven years (in management), but everything I learnt off Simon I have been methodically writing down just incase I get an opportunity to showcase those skills.”
Two goals for Garforth against Worsbrough Bridge in the Wilkinson Sword Trophy (19th October 2004)
“There’s a video of my greatest goal. I picked the ball up on the halfway line from Duncan Williams and I shimmered the guy to the right and whacked the ball into the stanchion. It actually stayed in the stanchion spinning about. I ran back with my arms up and Greg Kelly shouted ‘slide on your knees, slide on your knees’. I was thinking ‘there’s no chance, I’ve got bad knees’! If anyone has got the clip please put it on social media! I could go viral, but it was that long ago it could look rubbish now!
“I also scored early on in that game when Worsbrough played the ball back to the ‘keeper. He tried to clear it and and I blocked it and it dropped perfectly for me to tap it in.”
Socrates (November 2014)
“I’d gone from managing a Sunday League team to being in the same dressing room as a Brazilian World Cup legend in the space of two months. It sounds ridiculous. Simon did things on a level I’d not seen before. Yes I had worked at Leeds United with Ces Podd, but then Socrates turns up…six foot two with size seven feet and smoking a cigarette. I kept thinking ‘am I dreaming here’? He ends up wanting to play and ends up sitting on the bench. He was freezing cold so I took off my woolly blue hat which I used to wear all the time and I gave it to him. He said ‘oh thank you’. I had to pinch myself. The man went on the pitch and did some ridiculous things. He nearly scored twice. He came off the pitch (at the end) and he had a banging headache. His chest was burning him and he went in the changing room and sat at the edge of the shower for about 15 or 20 minutes. He didn’t move and then we had to go get him a beer.
“The Socrates game definitely put Garforth on the map and for me. That game along with the FC United and Chester games are the greatest days in Garforth Town’s history.
“Simon and Garforth gave me some of the greatest experiences of my life and I’d do anything to get some of that life back. I met Careca and Juninho through Simon. Carlos Alberto stood in the Garforth changing room telling the players ‘when you get the ball just enjoy it and play’. I was like ‘this is Carlos Alberto you know, he scored the greatest goal ever in the World Cup’. That moment meant a lot.”
The 2004/05 Team and the Training Methods
“We ended up building a team what was fantastic. The players were fit when we took over, but Simon really drilled them so these players went from thinking they were at their best to now realising how good they were. Brett Renshaw; hands down what a player. He should have been a pro footballer, 100%. He was a centre-half who was unbeatable, but then you could throw him upfront and he’d bang in 17 goals a season. He was like Harry Kane. Anything that came to him; control, turn, bang, goal. Crosses coming in, goal. The only other person who I know who could screamers and go up top from defence was Nigel Danby.
“Greg Kelly had a wand of a left foot and speaking as a coach he’d take everything in and take it out onto the pitch and produce the goods. The goalkeeper Andy Brooke; we played at Selby and I played and we were defending a corner. The ball got cleared and then it got put back and I tried to hustle it back to the goalkeeper and I said ‘come and get it’. As he came to get it the guy behind pushed me and I was smashed into Andy’s shoulder. I ended up losing eight teeth.
“There were players like Andy Long. Injuries curtailed his career, but if he didn’t get injured…wow what a fantastic player. Michael Longfellow, a machine. Jay Sobers, Andy Rowan, I can keep going through the fantastic players. We were blown away by the dedication of the players. We trained at every opportunity we could and the number of times we did was unheard of that at that level. When I played you’d go training and you’d do a bit of running and then have a game. With Simon there was none of that. Simon had them doing 1000 press-ups once. Everyone bought into it though. It was fantastic how we were able to get everyone together and motivate the whole squad.”
Promotion at Carlton (2005)
Garforth secured promotion in the final game of the season, a winner takes all clash at Carlton. Greg Kelly scored the winning goal in the second half. The defining match is also remembered for Clifford leading a warm-up on the team bus and not letting his players leave it until literally before kick off.
“To me I was thinking ‘what are you doing, we’re not going to be ready’. But then you start to get the gist of it and understand where he (Simon) was coming from.
“What I remember the most about that game is the milk. Their manager was a milkman so we got our fans to get loads of milk and we put it around his dugout. We had a foghorn so every-time the manager tried to shout to his players, one of our fans would shout into the foghorn so he could never get his message onto the pitch all game! We also had a guy who did something like Tai-Chi and was a massive bloke and he was stood at the changing room door in his vest waiting for their players to come out. I think that broke them. So much went on that day.
The Goal: “I flicked it over my head and Greg Kelly ran onto it – so I’m claiming an assist there! If I’m right he lobbed the ‘keeper, but I sprinted my heart out and got to the far post because I thought it was going wide. I was there ready to tap it in, but it hit the inside of the post and dropped in. I thought ‘I should have put my head on it’! But that was a good day.”
Extremely talented coach and manager Nichol – who also worked for Brazilian Soccer Schools – had two stints in charge of Garforth. The first was while Clifford was employed by Southampton in 2005. The unforgettable second spell began in 2009 and culminated in him leading Garforth to the NPL Division One North play-offs in 2012.
“As a coach he was unbelievable. He had all the techniques and whatever he tried to show he could do it himself. That made me even more go ‘wow’. His attention to detail was second to none. When he became manager he stepped up another level. There was stuff he was doing that I was blown away by. We had some good times with Steve. He had innovative ideas like some of the formations. You’d think ‘what are you doing’, but they worked. He taught me so much and he’s gone onto different things. He’s at Halifax now, but without a doubt he should be a manager somewhere, 100%.”
“Lee Sharpe signed for Garforth and when Simon said he was coming everyone really started freaking out. Everyone was thinking ‘Lee Sharpe, is he any good, does he still have it’? We were all in a circle in the first training session with him and everyone was booting the ball in the air and trying to control to impress Sharpey. Anyway, someone boots it right up in the sky and it came down with snow on it and it was going to Sharpey. Everyone was looking thinking ‘what’s he going to do’? He stuck out his left foot and it just stood still on his foot like it was glued. Everyone looked around in amazement. I had never seen anything like it. It is alright doing it from a little kick up, but that ball came down with snow on it and he made it look like it was nothing.”
FC United of Manchester home game (April 2008)
“They turned with all their fans and some were giving it. They were singing to me ‘he’s Adebayor, he’s Adebayor’. They were killing me and I laughed off because I do look like Adebayor! They then said ‘you’re alright you’. But what happened next; some were giving it large saying ‘oh we’re in Leeds’. Next thing you know, about ten Leeds supporters turn up. Well that was it; straight in, bang, bang, bang. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was a full-on fight for five minutes and these FC fans were getting knocked out right, left and centre. Kids had to be helped over the barrier as they were getting squashed as people were running for their lives. Luckily it got sorted and the game carried on.”
Quite remarkably, for nearly all of his association with Garforth, Blair used to commute by train from Huddersfield
“Apart from the season when I was manager when I borrowed Simon’s car, I used to catch the train on Huddersfield to games. I’d get off at Garforth and walk all the way to the ground. I’d always have cars beeping at me when they saw the tracksuit.
“What used to happen after a game is I’d to have finish up and say to a player ‘which way are you going, are you going anywhere near the train station’? So if they were I’d ask them to drop me at the train station. I used to have my two boys with me as well and we’d get the train to Huddersfield and then get the bus home from Huddersfield Town Centre. Obviously for the midweek games we’d get home very late. I loved it though. It was murder at times though. On some Saturday nights you’d have fans from loads of different clubs got on the train and I’d have my Garforth tracksuit. I always tried to keep quiet!”
“The West Riding County Cup finals were good as we won two on the bounce. The second one against Barnoldswick ended up 5-4 and that was an unbelievable humdinger. Dom Blair scored an absolute screamer in the last minute of extra-time. He’s living off that up to this day! Those times were great.
“The 2010 to 2012 team was brilliant and I thought we were going to onto some magical stuff. We had Matt Dempsey, Darren Kelly, Jamie Price, Ollie Hotchkiss, Chris Fisher, Dave Brown, Paul Walker so many good players and I’m so privileged to have worked with those players.”
Saving Garforth Town – 2012/13
Steve Nichol and his players left in the summer of 2012, along with the club’s staff and volunteers. Some supporters also boycotted matches. Clifford’s health was now at its lowest point and Garforth’s fortunes significantly declined.
Blair took charge of the team and although the club ultimately finished bottom of the NPL Division One North table and were relegated, he kept the club afloat while Clifford sought a new owner.
“It was one of the saddest times of my life and I’m only still recovering from it now, but we saved Garforth Town so they are here today. I didn’t get paid a penny that year, I did it for free and it was like five seasons in one.
“I didn’t really know what was happening at the time (in the summer of 2012) as I didn’t work for Brazilian Soccer Schools. I was sat at home and I got a phone call from a young lad who was at the club and looking after it. I said ‘what’s going on’? He said ‘there’s no-one at the club and there’s this and that happened’. He offered me the manager’s job and I said ‘you can’t throw that on me like that, but you’re telling me there’s no bar staff, no committee’? The answer was yes.
“I’m a loyal guy so I went up there to see what was going on. There was three of us; Joe Fella, Chris Wright and myself. The whole club was going to get closed and Dave Smith ended up getting involved with us and he had to go to the FA to stop the action of closing the club. So we saved the club from that and we found that we had one player who hadn’t been released or still wanted to be involved. That was Andy Villerman.
“The pitch was in a bad way so the next question was ‘where’s the groundsman’? No groundsman. The water has been cut off as well. So it was all about putting out fires right, left and centre. I’m not going into the full reasons because I don’t really know them, but all I know is my football club was on the verge of death. I thought ‘what am I going to do’? I started ringing people and gave them the talk of ‘I’m here, we’ve no money, do you want to play football’? We ended getting my Fforde Grene players together with a few other players from here, there and everywhere.
“We played an FA Cup game against Wakefield with no electricity. We had a generator in the passageway between the changing rooms so we could shine a light into them. The changing room doors had to be open and that’s no way to play football or prepare to play football. I had seen the best of Garforth when there was 30 staff preparing for a game. Now there was four of us doing everything.
“It was hard because when you’re not paying at that level, you’re struggling because you’re travelling all over the place and you can’t even give the players expenses. The worst thing that happened in the first seven games of the season we had seven red cards. We’d be playing and 15 minutes gone; red card, game over, goal, goal, goal.
“We went to Curzon Ashton and players were going down like flies saying they were injured. That finished 7-0. My son, the one who is playing in Iceland now and who must have been 12, came in the changing room after that game and he told the players ‘you’re lucky I’m not as big as my dad because if I was I would be knocking people out. You’re on a pitch getting beat six or seven nil and you’d stopped running and given in’. He was nearly crying and he nearly brought tears to my ideas. I didn’t say anything to the players after that. I looked at them as if to say ‘he’s 12-year-old’.
“I hardly slept that season. I’d be sat at home at three o’clock in the morning drawing up formations and thinking ‘what do I do if he doesn’t turn up’ etc. I’d think I was sorted and then get to the game and I’d get a text from someone to say they couldn’t make it.
“There were good moments. We went to the top of the league Warrington and won 4-1 (in November 2012). It was a weird thing because the nucleus of the team was good. We’d concede a goal and heads would go. We drew 5-5 with Ossett Albion and they were a decent team. We played Warrington off the park and that’s kind of how we played all the time – the attacking and possession based game. But little things like the quickest right-back getting injured at the wrong time. Patrece Liburd could only play in certain games and he was a top quality centre-half. The people I brought in to score goals weren’t really scoring. It was tough. We’d go to teams and it would be 3-2 at half-time and you’d think ‘we’re in this’ and then you end up losing 9-2.
“Around the New Year we beat Harrogate Railway when we had brought in Rob Pacey, Chris Kamara and his brother Nathan. That filled some gaps and bang, we beat Harrogate. We filled those gaps against Wakefield and we beat Wakefield. When we could fill the gaps we became the team I knew we could be and we were able to compete and beat teams. Once as those gaps became empty again we went backwards.
“We played Cammell Laird at home and we were beating them 2-0 and ten minutes into the second half the floodlights went out. We were absolutely terrorising them. Everything that could go against us went against us.
“We played Ossett Albion and practically had to win that game. Dan Sherrife got sent off. My main striker Brett, a guy from Manchester, came to the game and he had been out drinking the night before so I had to put him on the bench. We won the game 1-0 as Brett came off the bench and scored the winner. We also got a penalty and the goalkeeper saved it and the player who took it ran in and scored, but the referee disallowed it for encroachment. I also had a bit of labyrinthitis around those times and when the whistle went at the end my ears popped and when everyone was cheering I couldn’t hear a thing. My ears popped again and tears started coming out of my eyes and I walked away to the middle of the pitch on my own because I couldn’t let the players see me like that. So that was one of the toughest days.
“We thought after that win we could stay up, but it just didn’t happen. The only thing I should have done differently is play 5-4-1 and just drawn games 0-0. We should have just tried not to concede. That’s the only thing I regret.”
Departure (summer 2013)
Clifford successfully sold Garforth to former Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe at the end of 2012 – saving the club. In June 2013, Lowe agreed a deal with RIASA to run the club on his behalf with a locally-based committee. That led to a change of team management as RIASA wanted to appoint a new head coach.
“I did think I was going to be in charge for the following season, but the new people running the club wanted to go in a different direction which you can’t blame them for. These things happen in football and you move on. It was probably a blessing in disguise because my wife passed away three years ago and because I wasn’t at the football (from 2013) I got to spend time with her.”
Move to the North West
With son Harvey signing a professional deal with Liverpool, Blair now lives in the North West.
“I remember driving (for a Garforth game) to Prescot Cables and thinking ‘what a quiet place, I don’t think I could live here’. I live ten minutes away from Prescot Cables now. I go to watch Bootle because they have a beautiful pitch and they play some good stuff. Then there’s Widnes, Ashton, Marine so I have a load of football clubs around me.”
Vernol Blair was interviewed by James Grayson
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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. When we return to ‘action’, our work will play an important role in reintroducing our players back into society.
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