Big Interview: Stalwart non-league manager Tony Hesketh
Andy Sykes talks to veteran non-league boss Tony Hesketh who has managed Chorley, Lancaster City and is the current manager of Fulwood Amateurs
For a man who broke his leg four times playing, you would forgive Tony Hesketh for being angry with football.
As a “tenacious” young midfielder for Preston North End, Wigan and Chorley, the now 64-year-old broke his tibia and fibula in his right leg three times at the age of 16, 17 and 18.
When his fibula gave way for the fourth time at the age of 20 while playing for the Magpies, he knew his much-craved career in the pro game was over.
But it brought forward a near four-decade love affair with football management in the North West that took in Barrow, Morecambe, Lancaster, Chorley, Netherfield and Kendal in a 38-year career which has seen him take charge of a remarkable 2,250 games.
Instead of being angry about those injuries, this affable and softly spoken Lancashire lad remains infectiously enthusiastic – and is now plotting one last hurrah.
Hesketh is manager of Fulwood Amateurs, of the West Lancashire League, who are bidding to redevelop their Lightfoot Lane ground in readiness for an assault on the North West Counties League in 2021/22.
“Someone suggested I had weak bones to break that same leg so often,” smiles Hesketh.
“The surgeon just said I had bad luck! Tell me about it!
“I probably lost my nerve a little each time it happened. I was a young kid who was out of the game I loved every season and it takes its toll.
“ My dad Ronnie, who was right back in PNE Reserves, died when I was 26 and that’s when I stopped playing.”
Little did he know it then but he was about to make a name for himself in the hotseat as well as the surgeon’s theatre.
A short spell at Barrow Reserves in 1982 was followed by seven years at BAC Preston in the West Lancashire League.
That led to a role as Alan Kennedy’s No.2 at Netherfield in 1990 – now Kendal Town – but he soon took over and rejuvenated a side struggling in the Northern Premier League First Division.
His talents were noted and he took the step up to Barrow in 1994 where he was offered a full-time role, unheard of for the level at the time, by businessman and boxing promoter Stephen Vaughan who had taken over the club.
But after two years he decided to move south and work alongside Jim Harvey at Conference challengers Morecambe in 1996.
Three years later came the start of his two happiest spells in management at Lancaster in the Northern Premier League where they finished seventh, fourth and third during his first tenure.
“It was a great league,” he recalls.
“There were some real characters like Tony Lee at Bishop Auckland.
“We were very, very competitive in that spell. We had Jimmy Graham with his wand of a left foot, Andy Whittaker, Kenny Mayers, Paul Haddow – players at the peak of their powers.
“Paul used to take his guitar on the bus to an away game. Many of us are still in a WhatsApp group now.”
Kendal came calling and he replaced good pal Pete Smith in 2004, guiding the Mintcakes to glory in the First Division play-offs against Gresley Rovers at the end of 2005/6.
A year later he took a break from football after getting married - but then took a call from Ken Wright, chairman at Chorley.
“They’d lost 7-0 at Skelmersdale on the Saturday and Ken rang me up the Sunday morning and said ‘There’s eight or nine games to go, I need someone to get us out of trouble.’”
Hesketh was the man, guiding the now National League side to safety in 2008/09.
But it was a turbulent time at Victory Park and the Giant Axe attracted him again – and a titanic battle with AFC Halifax Town ensued.
“I had a wonderful four seasons there and we pushed Halifax all the way in 2010.
“They ended up with 100 points and we were only four points behind them. Then we lost to Colwyn Bay in the play-offs. We finished 21 points ahead of them as well – but that’s football, isn’t it?”
In 2012, now aged 56, he needed a hip replacement.
And after a career where he had never been sacked, ‘I must have left before they had chance’, he handed over the reins to trusted No.2 Phil Brown, who is now boss at Clitheroe.
But the bug was too strong and now back on his feet after his operation, Fulwood Amateurs were the latest to court his man-management skills – although it didn’t start well.
“The first training night I came here there were three players and two coaches. I wondered what I had let myself in for. It was a culture shock.
“I’m delighted to say it’s now been built up to 40/50 lads with six or seven coaches.
“I still have problems – I never name the same side every weekend, someone is either on a stag do or they’ve got a family birthday or their girlfriend has sprung something on them. But it’s amateur football and I love it.”
He still has the same routine – a teatime pint on a Friday and home for 8pm, team picked and memorised on a Saturday morning without a piece of paper in sight, glass of wine with his partner Karen at home afterwards, win, lose or draw.
“If we win it dictates the mood in my house as all managers will tell you. Not even Jurgen Klopp can be happier than me if we win. It’s a great feeling – you just can’t wait for next week.
“Karen will have already found out the result long before I call her, 30 minutes or so after the game. She’ll have a glass of wine chilling regardless – she knows me inside out.”
Fulwood sat comfortably top of the West Lancashire League before the coronavirus outbreak ended the season for thousands of non league clubs.
But they have plans in place to redevelop their ground with a 250-seater stand, covered standing, all-weather pitch, new changing rooms and car park.
They aim to be in the North West Counties by 2021/22 – and Hesketh, who lives 100 yards from the ground, is looking forward to yet another challenge.
“It’s going to be a long haul but the aim is to be a semi-pro side ready for that season. Even at my age I’m excited about it – I’m daft, aren’t I?
“We have seen our near neighbours Longridge Town and Charnock Richard do brilliantly since they moved up from our league and you can’t help but be inspired by them.
“They’re pushing for the Northern Premier League and I firmly believe there is room for another club in this area – there’s lots of new homes being built so there’s scope to really grow the club.”