What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#9 Ipswich Town

Nuthin’ But A G Thang

When Michael asked me to write a few words about Nigel Gleghorn for Northern League Day I thought ‘excellent, one of my favourite players’! Actually, I didn’t, Nigel was a good player who I remember warmly and wondered why we let him go but my abiding memory was telling people at school to ‘stop calling him Cleghorn, it’s spelled with a ‘G’!’.

The popular early story of Nigel Gleghorn is one of a remarkable rise from obscurity. He was yet another gifted footballer out of the North East playing part time for Seaham Red Star and not looking as though he’d make the step up to league football. Things went mental when, somehow, he won a trial with recent UEFA Cup winners and top flight regulars Ipswich Town. Worried about leaving his well paid fire service job it took his wife to urge him to give professional football a go.

Nigel may well have surprisingly joined Ipswich Town shortly before his top flight debut, at Highbury no less, on 19 October in 1985 but there’s an angle on the previous year that Nigel himself has apparently not even really touched on. It’s a short unremarkable tale but one that underlines the contrast and the shock a call from Ipswich Town might have been to all concerned.

Having been a regular squad member for Seaham from 1981, Nigel was still youngish and well established in Red Star’s 1984 Northern League Division 2 squad. Despite this and for reasons best known to those concerned, in December 1984 Nigel and his brother, Ian, signed for and appeared for Dawdon CW in the Wearside League & Cup.

This was not a transfer and the pair didn’t appear for Dawdon too many times, they signed simply to help out Dawdon’s former Red Star coach Joe Dixon. I say ‘help out’ but, although Dawdon made it through one League cup game with just 10 players when even Joe had to play, that wasn’t actually until four months after the brothers signed and the whole thing does rather have the faint whiff of ‘ringer’ about it.

I am in no way suggesting impropriety but the fact the Gleghorn’s seemed only to really play in the Cup might suggest a pattern, as Magnum PI might say. I am being a tinker, in those days it was perfectly acceptable for players to be registered for different clubs if they were in different leagues and if they and their parent club were sufficiently benevolent, as Seaham and Nigel were. These days, though, it does seem odd, not to mention exceptionally generous, for a player destined for the top flight of English football just nine months later, to be helping out an old coach in a league from which he’d ascended just two years previously. I am now imagining Kyle Walker popping back from England duty to help Sheffield United stave off relegation to League 1.

The brothers were eligible for the League cup semi final and they helped beat the mighty (Newcastle) Blue Star where Nigel scored both in a 2-1 win. Those two goals might have gone some way to erasing the memory of Seaham losing 1-0 to Blue Star in the FA Vase earlier in the season. Having upset the odds by beating the Champions elect, Seaham faced fifth placed Eppleton CW and beat them 3-1. Job done, the boys had helped out.

Back to normal, the 1985/6 season re-started with Nigel and Seaham in Northern League Division 2. Then Ipswich’s scouting network kicked in. When was the last time you heard of a Premier League manager delving 7 tiers down the football pyramid, plucking a 23 year old from the ranks and sticking him straight in the first team at Highbury? I’m struggling but that’s exactly what Bobby Ferguson did in 1985, for the princely (and alleged) sum of £3,000.

Nigel was way too good for the third tier, as his 22 goals for Birmingham in 1991/2 shows. He was very good in the second tier, as promotion with Man City illustrates. It’s a bit of a shame he didn’t get a proper shot at the top flight, one season with Ipswich as the light of the Bobby Robson years burnt out and a couple of games for Man City before joining Brum. What a story a successful and prolonged top flight career would have been.

Despite not starting as a pro until 23, Nigel had a 13 year league career and racked up 500+ appearances. Andy Drury has recently signed for Ipswich from Blue Square Premier League side Luton Town. It’s a leap that has had Ipswich fans furrowing their brows, ‘that’s too big a gap for a 27 year old to jump, isn’t it?’

It’s a big leap and one the early signs suggest might be successful but it’s nowhere near as big a leap as Gleghorn made. West Ham have recently signed Dulwich Hamlet’s 18 year old youth Paul McCullum, which is about on a par with Nigel’s rise, but two months later and Paul is very much in the youth team and not yet close to getting a shot at a debut. Will such a rise as Nigel Gleghorn’s ever happen again?

Thanks to Joe Dixon’s website for some of the info gleaned on the Dawdon months!

For much, much more from the wonderful Damon Threadgold head straight on over to The Real FA Cup. You can follow him on twitter here.

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