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Talking To Chris Kirk
Talking To Chris Kirk

Exclusive Interview: Kevin Drinkell (Part One)

By: Chris Kirk
Date: 07/01/2008

THE word legend is often banded about in footballing circles, and used to describe distinctly average players who do not deserve the accolade. The same could not be said of Kevin Smith Drinkell. Chris Kirk writes...

Home > Features > Interviews > Kevin Drinkell

After making his debut for Town at the age of 16 in 1976, the local lad went on to score 102 goals in 313 games before flying off to be a Canary in 1985.

His record for Town still makes him the club's most prolific scorer since the days of Ron Rafferty and Matt Tees in the 60s and early 70s.

Now working as a sports agent in Scotland, Kevin reminisces with Chris Kirk about his Town career and controversial switch to Norwich City, and his disappointing reception on his return to Blundell Park. In a revealing insight, he also talks about being courted by Man Utd and Spurs, Old Firm derbies, and his disappointment at not getting the job as Town manager in 1999.

Kevin, tell us a little bit about your childhood and your earliest memories of playing football.

I am a Grimsby lad and spent the majority of my early life on the Willows estate. I went to Whitgift School which was state-of-the-art in those days, and I seem to remember it was one of the first schools to be built with a theatre. The sports facilities were excellent and there was a swimming pool as well. It was a good place to start. We had a good football team, and it was particularly good because I was in it!

When I was 13,14,15-years-old, we had many lads in the Grimsby Schools' and Grimsby Colts teams. Whitgift and Wintringham were the two best schools around for producing good footballers and we would be fighting it out to win the schools' cup.

By the time I was 14 I was playing a lot of representative football in the schools' and county teams, as well as turning out for the Colts. My older brother, John, was already with Grimsby as an apprentice, and by the time I was 15 I was turning out regularly for the reserves.

That must have been quite scary, being a young lad playing with fully-grown men?

Yes, it was quite scary. I remember going up to play Sunderland reserves and was I marked by Sam Allardyce, who was a big, scary centre-half in those days. It was an early progression for me, and I was playing with the likes of Dave Moore in that reserves team who was the same age as me. We all played together. There was myself and Dave, as well as the likes of Tony Ford and Terry Donovan. We had a very successful under-18s team which won the league and cup, and also included people like Nigel Batch. The majority of that team - literally about seven of us - went on to play regularly for the first team.

John Newman had acquired an ageing squad in that 1976-77 season which was struggling and was on the way down. With about six games to go he decided to look to the future. I made my debut against Wrexham on the Saturday before Easter, and the game passed me by a little bit, but on the bank holiday Monday against Gillingham I scored both goals in a 2-2 draw. It was great, but without being big-headed, it just seemed like a natural progression, and the two or three years previous to that had been leading to that. People like Dave Boylen were still about then, and they had been championing me to get a go.

What are your memories of the game against Sheffield Utd in which you scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 win to win the third division championship?

I remember the occasion itself and how everyone seemed to come out to watch that game. It was like playing for Man Utd for the day, with everyone behind you. They were a very good team, with the likes of Tony Currie, and some Argentinean players. After an indifferent start, we got in front, and then just blew them away. I did keep the match ball. I gave it to Dave Boylen to put in the Legends Bar after my late father had it for about 20 years. I said it would be better there because more people would get to see it, and I was happy about that. I just hope it is not in the back of the cupboard somewhere now.

Just how good were the Town teams you played for in the late 70s and early 80s?

When John Newman gave the kids a chance because we were getting relegated from Division Three, we then had a difficult year. Then we got successive promotions and got into Division Two (now the Championship) and I genuinely believed we could have gone all the way. I was living the dream a bit, playing for my home-town team, and it was who I had always wanted to play for, but there was a realisation of how far we were going to get. The ambition just seemed to stop then. The powers that be decided it was good enough to win the third division, and then do well in the second. With a little investment and forethought - I think we would have needed another four or five good players - we could have made a real push for promotion. We knocked ourselves sometimes but the reality was we could be playing Man City, or Chelsea, or whoever, and we could go and match them. We just needed a bigger squad with a little more quality.

What was the best goal you scored for Town?

I got a really good header, against Bristol City I think. Heading was one of my fortés. I think it was from a corner, about 15 yards out. I will always remember that. There was also a goal I scored up at Newcastle. I ran the full length of St James' Park and smacked it in off the bar from the edge of the area. It was great to silence all those Geordies. I was lucky enough to do that on several occasions in my career. I scored the winner for Norwich at Old Trafford, and the winner at Celtic Park for Rangers. The main emotion you feel is relief to have scored.

What about your transfer to Norwich? How did it come about, and why did it end up going to a tribunal which decided on the £105,000 fee, something which was akin to daylight robbery in many Town fans' eyes.

There was a lot of nonsense written about that transfer at the time, and about the cash involved. The reality was, in the days before the Bosman ruling, that even when your contract ran out, your club could still demand a fee for you. Throughout my career at Town the club had tried to manipulate that so they could get as much as possible. They turned down offers from certain clubs because it didn't suit them. It got to the stage that by the time I was leaving at 23, I needed to move on. I think the supporters were fed up of me. I got an injury and Paul Wilkinson and Gary Lund had got in the team and were doing well. Nobody wanted me about. The club always made promises about moves that were reneged on. After I signed my last contract with Town, I was promised that if a certain offer came in I would be allowed to leave. By Christmas those offers had been made but I was not allowed to go. I was no longer a first team regular so I needed to move on, but that didn't happen. So, at 25 my contract ran out and I had to go. It wasn't that I wanted to go, but the club had not treated me very well. The contract they offered me was awful and disrespectful and I was made to look like a money-grabbing so and so. Ken Brown (then the Norwich manager) rang me up and said they wanted to take me on but they wanted to do things right. Three days before the tribunal I was at Norwich with Ken Brown who rang Grimsby and offered £175,000 for me so it wouldn't go to the tribunal. They said no, and that cost both them and me money. They could have accepted £1/4m for me the year before, and when I was 18, Middlesborough offered £300,000 for me, but I was never asked if I wanted to go. How did I feel about the supporters feeling let down? Well, it wasn't their careers and livelihoods.

I knew the market and I realised they were never going to get the £1/2m they were asking for.

At the tribunal, your previous history and contracts are all taken into account. Part of the literature at the tribunal was the contract Grimsby had offered me. The people on the tribunal board questioned why, if they were only willing to pay that for a player, then how can they value him at £300,000? They could have come to a deal at the 12th hour, but they didn't, and I knew they wouldn't. I had a bet with Bernard Fleming, the club secretary at the time. He thought Town would get a lot for me, and I didn't. We both put a fiver in an envelope and I wrote my guess of £100,000, and he wrote £300,000. No guesses who won that bet.

Second Part Wednesday

This interview first appeared in BAWC issue eight…for more information on the only current Mariners paper based fanzine email

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