(Photo credit: Macclesfield express)
There are many things a football fan in the modern day yearns for. A return to sensible ticket pricing, for a start. A serious discussion with the powers that be about safe standing would also be welcomed with alacrity. The prohibition of selfie sticks and half and half scarves would undoubtedly go down a treat. The list is endless.
A small semblance of loyalty, from both players and managers alike, wouldn’t go amiss from time to time either. In the current climate where transience trumps longevity, it is becoming increasingly rare that supporters can relate to those that represent their club. The people they help to employ often don’t have the courtesy to stick around long enough for that to happen.
At Macclesfield Town it is a different story. The Silkmen, like any other club in the land, aren’t without problems. In their case, the issues are chiefly financial. In May 2013, the club was thought to be in £500,000 worth of debt.
Later that year, names such as Bryan Robson, Frank Sinclair and James Beattie turned out in a vital fundraising game for the club. In recent years, players and staff haven’t always been paid on time. All is still not well at Moss Rose. Financial problems cast a portentous shadow. Yet at least the club and the fans can rely on John Askey. They have been doing so for 31 years now.
Askey has been at Macclesfield since Dario Grady has been at Crewe. He was playing at Moss Rose before Alex Ferguson had even been considered for the Manchester United job. The year Askey started playing for the Cheshire club was the year that now-Uefa president Michel Platini inspired France to European glory. It is therefore a gross understatement when he describes Macclesfield as a ‘‘big part of my life.’’
‘‘I feel as though Macclesfield is my football club. As a lad you support a team. I would say now, if I wasn’t managing or playing or whatever, then Macclesfield would be my club,’’ Askey says.
‘‘Over the years I’ve got to know, if not by name, by face, most of the people who come and watch Macclesfield so obviously people recognise I’m involved with Macclesfield, so I suppose I have become part of the fixtures and fittings, which is nice.’’
Askey joined Macclesfield, who were in the Northern Premier League at the time, in 1984 alongside his brother Bob to fill a gap when the club were short of players. He arrived having not made a first team appearance for the club of his youth, Port Vale. Despite not making the grade at Vale, John’s ambition was to play league football.
The Silkmen reached the Conference in 1987, and after a few years of consolidation they won the title in 1994-95 season under former Manchester United midfielder Sammy McIlroy. However, the club was cruelly denied promotion to the Football League because Moss Rose did not meet league requirements of having a 6,000 capacity, including at least 1,000 seats by the deadline of December 31 1994.
To Askey, it was a decision that ‘‘just didn’t make sense,’’ one governed by ‘‘politics’’ rather than facilities. For the many of the squad who dreamed of playing league football, the news would have been a hammer blow.
For Askey, the ruling presented a double-edged sword. His dream of playing in the football league had been temporarily put on hold, but he was able to keep his day job working in insurance.
‘‘It was a disappointment, but at the time it wasn’t a great disappointment for me because I had a good job, and going to the Football League I thought I might have to either pack my job in or pack Macclesfield in. So although I was disappointed for the club for myself it wasn’t too bad because it enabled me to do both,’’ says the 50-year-old.
When Macclesfield did reach the promised Land in 1997, Askey continued to balance his work and football life for the first season back.
‘‘When you’ve got a family and you’re getting older you need security, so that’s why I carried on working as well. I was able to do the two and it didn’t stop me from being able to compete and do a job for the team. Again, it worked out really well for me.
‘‘In the team I think there was only me who did that so I was lucky that the manager allowed me to do it. But there aren’t many players. There’s no reason why not though. I think it does you good if it’s a certain type of job. It keeps you mentally active. As long as it’s not a physical job, if you worked on a building site it would be difficult, but if the job’s not too manual and it doesn’t take too much of your time up then it is possible.’’
It was a good time to be playing at Macclesfield, and the first season back in the Football League eclipsed everyone’s expectations. Under McIlroy the club went unbeaten at Moss Rose and finished third, gaining an unlikely promotion.
Askey, who had spent his lengthy career in non-league football, was now facing the likes of Manchester City, Stoke City, Preston North End and Fulham. Although it lasted only a season, the striker from Stoke-on-Trent found success very sweet.
‘‘It was a fantastic time to be involved with the football club and it kept me going.The hardest thing in football is to keep your enthusiasm, but as I got older we got more successful and that enabled me to keep my enthusiasm. Instead of coming down the leagues as would normally happen when you get older, I was going up the leagues so it couldn’t of worked out better for me,’’ he says.
It is often said that no good thing lasts forever. Askey did his best to disprove that theory for as long as possible with a 19-year playing career, but in 2003 he finally hung up his threadbare boots. The next stage of his affiliation with Macclesfield beckoned.
While playing, Askey had already taken the reserve team manager’s job, something that proved to be a rousing success. He led the team to the Alliance League trophy, competing against bigger names such as Hull and Stoke.
During this time he helped to invigorate the career of Rickie Lambert, who was without a club after being released from Blackpool. Askey spoke with Lambert and it was decided that he would best be deploying the future England man at centre forward rather than midfield.
He was also assistant manager at this time, so when manager Dave Moss was sacked, Askey naturally stepped into his shoes. In his short period at the helm he felt he was helping the club ‘‘turn a corner.’’
Ten players were replaced, with John Parkin (later sold for £300,000), Paul Horsley and Matt Carragher all arriving. Yet just as Askey began to feel ensconced in the role, he was replaced by Brian Horton and demoted back to assistant.
‘‘I don’t think the club or the owner really wanted me as manager so I was sacked, but still kept on as assistant to Brian Horton,’’ says Askey.
‘‘But with everything you have to learn from which I did and I have tried to pick up good things from all the managers that have come into the football club. Some things you think I wouldn’t do it that way. Good things you’d say I would do it that way. It has been a good learning curve.’’
Fast-forward to the current day and Askey is back in the hot seat, seven managers and eleven years after he was rudely interrupted during his first spell. This time round, he has had ample time to exert his control.
He has been in charge since the summer of 2013. Macclesfield are reaping the rewards for a touch of managerial stability. With seven games left they sit in third, four points off the coveted top spot. The play-offs at the very least seem a formality. Yet you can’t help but feel they are achieving spite of poor decisions at the top. Askey is adamant he wouldn’t have ever got the job again if the club could have avoided it.
‘‘It’s only circumstances (financial) that have meant I’ve got the job. I said before, because of the financial position of the football club, they couldn’t afford to bring anybody in, they couldn’t afford to sack me so it fell on my lap.
‘’Hopefully it has benefited the football club and myself and people realise now that they should have given me the job a long time ago.’’
It isn’t hard not to sense a simmering undercurrent of discontentment. When asked about his working relationship with chairman Amar Alkadhi, Askey laughs and says, ‘‘fantastic. No comment on that.’’ The fans also remain apathetic to the current situation.
‘’I think people still don’t believe that we can do it. On Tuesday when we played Telford there was 1,200, which for a team that is going for promotion compared with the gates of a few years ago is not great.
‘‘There is still apathy about the town, but we believe we can change that and the only way to change people’s minds is to keep winning games and that is what spurs us on. Not just me but the players and the staff, to prove people wrong.’’
There remains a steely sangfroid about Askey, despite all that has gone before and all that is still going on. They may have the lowest budget in the league, but promotion is now firmly within reach. He is open about what that could mean to the club.
‘’I think it’s worth about a million pounds if we go up. Obviously a million pounds to us would be like winning the lottery. Even today we’ve had to come and train here (the home ground) because we can’t train at the training ground because we’ve not paid the bill. So to get around a million pounds in would mean a great deal. The wage bill could probably increase double if we were to get up.’’
Macclesfield’s money troubles appear even starker when you consider the town sits just twenty miles from Manchester, where City and United continue to spend with reckless abandon. Askey believes the Premier League clubs are trying to ‘‘wipe out’’ clubs such at Macclesfield, yet he insists he doesn’t think it will happen.
‘‘Each town has a football club and that is part of the town’s identity. If you are from Scunthorpe or if you are from Bury, you want to support those clubs. Most people do if they are into football. Not everybody wants to watch Manchester United and Manchester City.
‘‘I don’t think the people at the top get that. They don’t understand football. You can watch a good football game at the top level and you can watch a good football game on a Sunday morning. Sometimes it can depend on what the game means. It could be a cup final, it could be somebody trying to get promoted and it could be a relegation battle.
‘‘That’s what creates the tension and the atmosphere. I’ve watched fantastic games at the top level and I’ve watched fantastic games at the lower level so it doesn’t matter what game you watch, you never know what you’re going to get.’’
There is no money coming in at Moss Rose. The club may be slightly over the worst of their financial problems, but it’s worth remembering that they were three days from being evicted from all leagues last summer. Some staff don’t get paid. Askey may only be able to take his chargers so far. Although his ardour for Macclesfield remains, he is realistic enough to realise it may not last forever.
‘‘I think everybody is ambitious and you’ve got to move on, especially as a manager. I think it’s different with other jobs but as a manager if you stand still too long then eventually you have to walk down to the job centre, so you’ve got to move on and be ambitious. Now it’s my only job as such, I’m looking to be ambitious.’’
For a man who has been tied to the same team for 31 years now, it seems like a preposterous thing to say. He can never leave. Can he? Maybe modern football has caught up with John Askey. Maybe he aspires to manage at a level Macclesfield can ever get to. Maybe, just maybe, he feels a tad under-appreciated.
After all, he did slip into the job by default. Those who support the club revere their current boss. Do those in charge hold him in the same regard? They might not know it, but they need him more than ever.