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|Talking To Chris Kirk|
Exclusive Interview: John Cockerill (Part One)
By: Chris Kirk
OH, Johnny, Johnny... Johnny Johnny Johnny Johnny Cock-er-ill! Aah, the halcyon days when that tune reverberated around the creaking, wooden stanchions of the Pontoon are gone, but not forgotten. Chris Kirk writes.
It's hard for me to imagine a generation are now watching Town that would never have had the pleasure of seeing Cockers in full flight, on one of his barnstorming, muscular runs through the middle of the Blundell Park pitch, which often ended in a net-busting shot. His career was brought to a premature end after he suffered a serious groin injury in the 1991-92 season, unfortunately just as he was entering his prime.
After remaining with the Mariners for the next ten years, working as a caretaker, assistant and youth team manager, the former midfielder is now driving petrol tankers for a living. He tells Chris Kirk about how he enjoyed his all too short playing career with Town, his progression into coaching, and life without Town.
Tell us about your early life, John.
Well, I was born in Cleethorpes after my dad moved to the area when he signed for Grimsby from Huddersfield. He went on to play for the club for ten years in the 50s and 60s before he had to pack up after he broke his leg. I was always playing football in my youth, at Reynolds Street, New Clee and Lindsey schools, but despite my brother, Glenn, signing for Lincoln, I never went down the football route initially myself.
I went for a trial at Burnley, but they said I was too small. I was a little left-winger then. I thought it was a pretty poor excuse at the time, but there you go. So after that disappointment, I decided I would join the forces. I went in the RAF for six years. I was mainly based at RAF Marham near King's Lynn. My main job was to refuel aircraft.
Sport and football still played a big part in my life though. I was in the air force athletics team, and played football for the combined forces. It was a good standard and we often played friendlies against football league clubs. I played with a few people who went on to play professionally, like Phil Stant, who played for and managed Lincoln for a while.
I never really considered the RAF as a long-term career. I worked briefly in Cyprus and Gibraltar, but I didn't get to travel as much as I had hoped, so I came out. I was still playing football at this time, and had turned out for teams like Skegness and Boston, but I decided to go and play in Australia.
I had always wanted to travel. A friend of my dad's from his playing days, Mick Cullen, had stayed friends with our family, and their son was playing in Australia. He became my contact, so I managed to get in with his team in Perth, playing in the Western Australia league.
What was the standard like out in Oz?
Well, I would say the league was split, but the top six teams were probably equivalent to conference level over here, so it was a decent standard. In the close season I travelled around Australia, and I joined another team in the second season. After those two years, I came back and signed for Stafford Rangers and played in the Vauxhall Conference. A friend had recommended me to them so I played for them for a season.
During that season Alan Buckley was managing Kettering and he tried to sign me, but I think Stafford wanted a few quid for me and Kettering said no. Anyway, the following season Alan got the Grimsby job and signed me for £18,500, which considering the state the club was in financially at that time, was a lot of money. The club had nearly gone bust after being relegated twice in two seasons.
Alan signed a quite a few players in a short space of time - Andy Tilson, Keith Alexander and Paul Reece all came from non-league clubs. He also brought in Steve Stoutt and Tom Williams - he signed about seven of us because he only inherited a squad of about eight players.
It was just really great, signing for my home town club after all that time. It really was a dream come true. I was 26 at that time, and at that age you think your chance has passed. My dad was obviously very pleased because he had played for the club.
Did you always think you would make it as a professional?
I suppose I was always confident in my own ability, and I had always tried to play at as high level as possible. When I was playing in the conference I played for the England non-league team. I used to watch games on the TV and think 'yeh, I could do that' but I suppose it was up to me to prove it. I was determined to do well because I was local and I knew a lot of people who cared about the club. You want to do well for them as well as yourself.
I had always considered myself fit and strong but I found the training in those first few months very hard. It was every day, and I had never done that as a semi-pro. I was finding it quite tough and I was picking up niggling injuries. I would get fit, play a few games, then get a calf strain, or something stupid like that. Perhaps I should have said something, and just missed a few more games to help me recover. It was probably October in that first 88-89 season before I really got going.
What are your memories of that first season in a Town shirt?
That season, we struggled in the league, but I seem to remember that it all turned around when we played Wolves at home in the cup. I scored direct from a corner and we won 1-0, and this was when Wolves were a good, emerging side, with the likes of Steve Bull in their team. After that, our league form picked up. I think at the end of the season, if we could have beaten Tranmere away on a Friday night, we could have got into the play-offs, but we lost 3-2. In the end, I think we finished about ninth, but that good cup run was the highlight of the season.
I think Rotherham beat us twice that season, but we beat them in the cup, 3-2 I think. We then beat Reading after a replay, and then drew the cup holders, Wimbledon. That was a great day. They were doing well in the top division at that time. I seem to remember we had a couple of good chances, they I swung over a corner and Keith Alexander headed it in. Then they got two quick goals after half-time which killed it. They were a strong team at that time. It was such a great atmosphere though, and what about all the Harry Haddocks on the terrace behind the goal? It was an amazing sight.
That cup run gave us a boost for the following season because there was no stopping us. The money we made from that run meant we could bring in a few players, like Dave Gilbert and Gary Childs, and it blended the team together. Garry Birtles came in and brought in plenty of experience. You need that, and it makes a big difference.
How did that team maintain its momentum the following season, considering there were so few changes?
Well, it was a really well-balanced team, but then Andy Tilson was sold to QPR for quite big money, I seem to remember. Alan brought in Paul Futcher. Not everyone got on with Futch, but I always got on really well with him. Anyway, he didn't really look like a footballer when he first turned up, but what a player he turned out to be. He wasn't quick, but he had two good feet and read the game incredibly well.
Neil Woods was brought in and he struck up a great partnership with Tony Rees up front. The four of us - Gary Childs, Shaun Cunnington, myself and Dave Gilbert on the left - was a strong, settled midfield. After we had played 50 or 60 games together, it made a difference and we had a great understanding.
What are your memories of that massive game against Exeter on the final day?
Well, as usual, I woke up late as I always did. The gaffer wanted us in early so we wouldn't get stuck in traffic. On the way in, it was really busy, and people were everywhere, waving scarves and that. I remember coming out to warm up about 2.15pm and the ground was already packed full. It was a great atmosphere, and probably one of the last times the ground was packed before it went all-seater.
For the first goal they played the offside trap but I started my run from deeper. Futch would often give me the nod, and I was definitely onside. It was a really good feeling.
The referee could have given a foul for my second. I was determined to get to the ball, and I did clatter the lad a bit, but the referee gave it and I wasn't complaining.
It was a bit nervy at the end. They got a goal back and then had a bit of pressure, then they hit the post with a header. We were all looking at the ref, and we could see he was ready to blow because all the fans were close to the pitch. I think he blew a bit early because he was concerned for our safety.
I think it means more as a local lad. On the day, everything went right for me and the club. It was great for headlines - two goals for the local lad meaning promotion.
I think we held our own the following season before that team started to break up. Shaun Cunnington went to Sunderland, and all of a sudden, the team had changed. The following season we only stayed up after winning at Port Vale on the last game of the season. You don't know what might have happened had the team stayed together. We might have been able to push on further, and I thought we were good enough to do that.
What are your memories of that tackle that resulted in you suffering the broken leg which ended your career?
We were playing Bristol City around Christmas time. I went in for a tackle at a different angle to their lad. It forced my leg out on the other side. It tore all the groin muscle, rupturing it, and I never really recovered. I was out for about six months, and when I started to train again, I kept breaking down. I saw a few specialists and they all advised me to pack up because some of the muscle had pulled away from the bone, and it was causing me problems with my hip. All three specialists I saw said the same thing - pack up, or end up a cripple. I remember driving home, thinking 'what am I going to do next?'
I had always fancied being a PE teacher so I went back to college to do my exams. After about three or four months, Alan Buckley called me and asked me did I want to be the club's Football in the Community officer? I thought about it and decided to go back to the club. It had been shattering to leave in the first place, but I was pleased to be going back so soon after.
The aim of that job was to try and get children interested first in football, and then Grimsby Town, and then blending the two. I quite enjoyed it really, holding the coaching courses and going out to the schools in the community.
I did that for about 18 months until Alan, Arthur Mann and Richard O'Kelly left for West Brom.
Part Two Tomorrow
This interview first appeared in BAWC issue nine…for more information on the only current Mariners paper based fanzine email firstname.lastname@example.org
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