For many of north-east England’s less celebrated clubs, the 2010/2011 season was one that will endure long in the memory. Whitley Bay lifted the FA Vase for the third consecutive year, Spennymoor Town played some sublime stuff en route to clinching back-to-back Northern League titles and Bedlington Terriers got Rich – all the way from upstate New York. Easington and Alnwick made their Northern League comebacks and, in perhaps the greatest achievement of the lot, Ryhope CW won every piece of silverware going in the Wearside League. Top scorer John Butler received many of the plaudits in Martin Swales’s quadruple winning squad but non-league veteran Lenny French, an early season signing from Northern League Ryton, was no less important to the team’s success, turning in a series of vintage displays as Ryhope successfully chased down Easington and collected all three cups.
Hi Lenny, thanks for taking the time out to have a chat with us. You’ve had a long and distinguished career – which clubs have you played for?
I started playing for Greatham in the Wearside League many moons ago. They then merged into Hartlepool Town and eventually made it into the Northern League Division 2, only to fold shortly afterwards due to financial problems. From there I went to Chester-le-Street, the club I played at the longest, and then I stopped playing for all of 3 months (disillusioned with football, I think). I returned to the game and I went to Esh Winning where we were promoted into the Northern League Division 1. Next up for me were Washington and then I signed for Ryton. After leaving Ryton I signed for Ryhope.
What’s your favourite Northern League club that you played for?
That would have to be Hartlepool Town. They were my home town club, even though it was only short lived.
What’s your favourite Northern League ground?
Durham City before the astro pitch was installed. That was the best ground by far.
And is there anywhere you didn’t like playing at?
Not really, but if I had to choose one it would be Bedlington. For some strange reason we could never beat them; it was always a hard place to play, especially with the crowd up there.
You started the 2010/2011 season at Ryton. The problems thay had at the start of the season have been well documented but you remained on their books even after signing for Ryhope. Why did you move on to Ryhope and why did you allow them to keep hold of your Northern League registration?
I stayed because we were a team and also out of loyalty to Baz and Porky (Barry Fleming and Paul Brown who have recently joined the management team at Birtley Town) and the rest of the lads. I left Ryton basically because after Baz and Porky were sacked I was reluctant to travel 80 plus miles for a home game and play for someone that I didn’t know. I initially signed for Rhyope to help them through a goalkeeping injury crisis but I enjoyed playing there so much that I ended up staying. I was always allowed to sign for a Northern League club and Ryton gave their word that they would let me go. That situation never arose and now they don’t have my registration.
How much of a shock was it when the sponsorship money suddenly failed to turn up at Ryton and everyone left?
The players were kept in the dark right until the end. But then nothing surprises me in football.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone at Ryton?
Yes, I still keep in touch with Don, the physio up there. All of the other lads left the club as far as I’m aware, though I do keep in touch with some of them through Facebook.
After spending the early days chasing Easington you came through the closing months in some style to lift every trophy going in the Wearside League. What were the expectations at the start of the season?
I wasn’t at Ryhope back then so I’m not sure what the club originally expected but for me I was just happy to be playing football again. I didn’t have any particular expectations of what we would achieve during the season.
How nervous were you and the lads before all of the ‘big’ games?
I get nervous before every game; it’s part of my preparation. The rest of the lads seemed to be more excited than nervous. We had the belief that we were unbeatable and we faced every game that way.
Was there one specific point of the season where you thought “this is going to be our year”?
Only after the last final at Willington when it was all complete. It was always in the back of my mind the more games we went unbeaten.
Which trophy do you think meant the most to the club and which trophy meant the most to you (and why)?
I think they were all important to the club, but personally it was the Shipowners’ Cup, because I won it with Hartlepool Town 20 years ago.
What was your highlight of the season?
It was when we beat Easington at home. It was a big game and they were expecting to win but in the end they didn’t come close.
Is there one thing in particular that you would say contributed to the club’s success over the past season?
Everyone enjoyed playing for the club and there was never any pressure put on the players from the management. All of the players are really good mates with each other and that showed in the way we played our football.
Was it disappointing to sweep the Wearside League but not be able to progress to the Northern League due to ground grading?
Yes, it was both very disappointing and frustrating.
I’ve heard that you were thinking of hanging up your gloves at the end of the season. Come on, after some of your performances you can’t be serious?
I’ve said that for the last three or four seasons now! Football is something I find hard to give up. I finished this season pain free which is always a good thing, so as long as I’m still required I will carry on playing.
What do you think is needed for the club to repeat their achievements next season?
It will be hard to repeat what we achieved again next season, but if we start with a positive attitude and don’t expect to win every game then who knows what will happen.
Do you have any plans for when you do stop playing – coaching, management or other roles in the game?
I would love to get into the management side at some point in the future. Where or when…who knows!
You’ve played alongside so many players over the years; who’s the best that you’ve played with and against?
The best players I have played with are Colin Wake, Greg Bainbridge and Paul Cook. They are the three that spring to mind. The best I have played against would be John Millner, Jamie Clark and Paul Pittman: for some reason those three would always score past me.
What’s your favourite story from the non-leagues?
The wages people say they are on. When I hear some of the figures it always gives me a laugh.
¡Viva Northern League! will of course be keeping a keen eye on Lenny’s progress back between the sticks for Ryhope CW next season. After predictably failing a Northern League ground inspection earlier in the year year, the club have already started making the necessary improvements to facilities, which include extending the changing rooms and laying hard standing all around the pitch. The 2012-13 season could yet see Lenny French – and a second Sunderland football club – playing in the Northern League.
Thanks also to Andy Hudson of Gannin’ Away who carried out the interview. Andy has recently launched a new blog, Blågul Fotboll, dedicated to all things Swedish football.