Ten years ago, on 8th September, I boarded the Fleetwood Town coach, destination Farsley, between Bradford and Leeds.
It was to be my first game involved with Fleetwood and at the time none of us would realise how significant Farsley Celtic would be in that Conference North season. We stopped on the way to pick up one Gareth Seddon who had just signed and was making his debut that night. Sedd's dress sense contrasted markedly with the club track suits being worn by the others. Town won 2-0 and our new striker was soon off the mark, scoring the opening goal. Farsley came to Highbury in the following January. It was a match made memorable by a Jamie Milligan goal from inside his own half. The action, and Rod Allsworth's voice, went viral and I had the pleasure of interviewing Milly after the game. By now I was truly hooked in to life in the press box. Press Officer, Derick Thomas, offered me opportunities and I grabbed them with both hands.
Sadly for Milly, his wonder goal was later expunged along with the six points gained in the two fixtures. Farsley Celtic went out of business. It led to a dramatic denouement to the season, Fleetwood eventually going up to the Conference via the play-offs.
The press box was at the back of the Highbury Stand and a much smaller operation than now. Matches were covered on the late-lamented 'Codcast', an online text service which allowed for comments from those tuned in. I took over briefly for the first time at Kidderminster while Derick had a toilet break and in my only written comment I succeeded in confusing two players' names, one being the goalkeeper! However, I recovered and became a regular at the helm. You couldn't correct errors once they had gone so when I once wrote 'sh*t' instead of 'shot' you can probably imagine the reaction as comments flooded in!
The Conference North grounds were not always helpful for the visiting press. At Hinckley, I did both Codcast and match report perched on a seat in the stand, surrounded by animated home supporters looking over my shoulder and shouting across me. At Corby, local youths threatened to pull all our wires out as we tried to commentate through a pea-souper. What I took to be a stand on the opposite side of the ground turned out to be a line of trees.
I became familiar with the 'dongle' as we tried to get some kind of internet link. At Harrogate Town it worked on the side of the pitch but not in the press box. At Stalybridge Celtic we had to operate in front of the Cod Army at one end of the ground. Stalybridge was where I dropped the club lap top in excitement as Fleetwood came from 2-1 down to win a crucial game when Adam Warlow scored twice in the last few minutes. Cue pandemonium behind the goal.
After home games, the manager and players would walk along the front of the Highbury Stand on route to refreshments in the club bar, now Jim's. We halted their progress and grabbed an interview. BBC Lancashire, Bay and Radio Wave were all involved and Derick or I wrote reports for the Gazette and the Weekly News. Interviews would be posted on the website but it might be over the next two or three days, in contrast to the instant responses of the modern press operation.
With the opening of the Parkside Stand in 2011, the press box moved across the ground and expanded in size. Fleetwood Town were in the Conference, full-time and ambitious.
Lincoln City will always be remembered as the place where Derick and I were left behind on a Friday night. We specifically asked the last interviewee to tell the coach to wait, only to find that when we emerged into the dark Lincoln night it had disappeared. We called it back and stepped on board half an hour later, heads bowed as we sidled into our seats. All the press stuff would be done on the way back from games including updating the stats. The aim was to complete and send it before we got to the dodgy internet section near Windy Harbour.
By the time the promised land of the Football League was reached, training had moved from Collins Park to Fylde Rugby Club, half an hour and more down the coast. I arrived a few times to find that a player had already gone home or training plans had changed. It was at Fylde that I had a particularly enjoyable interview with Jason Robinson and Micky Mellon about similarities and differences between rugby and football. It was also there when Jamie Vardy spotted me doing a touchline chat and hoisted a ball from the opposite side of the pitch which landed on top of me. Jon Parkin's reply when Phil Brown asked for an interview, while out of management and working for radio, is unprintable.
I handled Ian Holloway's post-match press conference after the FA Cup tie against Blackpool in 2012 and took charge of the assembled media when Joey Barton came to train with the lads later the same year. They were each in their own way quite different experiences.
There have been many match reports. In the early years I could take them home and re-read them, now they are handed in at full-time for immediate insertion on the club website. You just hoped to avoid last minute dramas such as a goal which altered the result. That necessitated a frantic rewriting. On one occasion, covering the second leg of the Johnstone Paints Northern Area Final against Chesterfield, I accidentally submitted my match report from the first leg and the Weekly News published it! On another, I pressed 'delete' by mistake and lost the lot. You don't do that twice!
There have been hundreds of interviews with players and managers, pre-match, post-match and for programmes. It has been a particular pleasure to explore their back stories for the match programmes. Only last season I recorded the thoughts of a former Premier League player... or so I thought. The recorder was blank when I returned home. I hastily scribbled everything I remembered and picked out some items from previous interviews. I got there in the end!
Two recent interviews which will remain in the memory featured Jamie Vardy and Nathan Pond. Thanks to our current media man, Sam Duffy, I was able to travel to Leicester's training ground last season and chat about Fleetwood times with the man who spearheaded our promotion drive in 2011-12. We recalled games from that unforgettable season and I thought back to previous interviews with him on the muddy touchlines of Alfreton and Southport. It was an honour to have the final interview with Pondy before his move to Salford last season. Over the years he has changed from a reticent guy who ran a mile when he saw a microphone to a man increasingly in demand from the media and an assured and interesting interviewee.
In recent years we have introduced match commentary. This has provided a different challenge from the written side. I soon learnt not to scream my delight down the microphone as my colleague was describing a goal (Gary Hunt, Burton Albion), thus rendering it useless later in the results programme.
As the club has got bigger and the story ever more exciting there have been opportunities to meet well-known media figures. BBC Five Live covered the FA Cup tie against Leicester City at Highbury. I introduced myself to John Murray before the game and enjoyed a few minutes chat with an affable and delightful man. He asked me to clarify some fishy names as former players. Having got the answer, I pushed a piece of paper in front of him at the start of the second half and got a name check for my efforts!
Some might wonder why I haven't referred to Wembley. My only regret is that I wasn't on duty on that memorable day. Actually, there was another regret which wasn't realising that I had been given the name of a porn star in a programme feature on a certain former player with a mischievous streak. I had asked him to name his favourite player. Naively, I let it go and the players loved it. Player humour is something you have to get used to but not try to outdo. It is one aspect of the decade that hasn't changed. The player just referred to followed me back from training at Fylde and convinced me that I'd triggered a speed camera on the promenade! He also walked past an interview with Lee Thorpe at Tamworth and deliberately passed wind audibly.
Another consistent is the need to be patient when waiting for interviews. I've lost count of how often I have picked the player suddenly needing treatment, called in by the manager or requiring to produce a urine sample. Sometimes you wonder if they are taking the p*ss!
Writing up the six promotions in ten years in 'Living the Dream' was the icing on the cake.