The HFS Loans League front-runners aim to confirm their progress at Hartlepool on Sunday: Southport are on the rise – with a Liverpool old boy at the helm. Phil Shaw reports
Wednesday, 2 December 1992
THE Anfield ball-boy who went on to play for Liverpool, Brian Kettle has already lived out one dream. Now he has another – to go back there as manager of Southport for an FA Cup derby. On course to win the HFS Loans League after being voted out of the Fourth Division 14 years ago, Southport must at least hold Hartlepool United in Sunday’s second-round away tie before such money-spinning notions can enter the realms of reality.
That has not stopped Kettle imagining a nostalgic return to his footballing roots. ‘We all say we’ll take each game as it comes,’ he said, ‘but the likes of ourselves, Marine and Accrington Stanley would be lying if we said we hadn’t pictured ourselves playing to a full house at Anfield.’
Now 36, and with the same shock of red hair he had when he played behind Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish, Kettle seemed to have the world at his feet in 1973, when he completed his Liverpool apprenticeship and signed professional forms at the end of Bill Shankly’s penultimate season.
What followed was not so much a flirtation with fame as a long and tantalising courtship. There were times when the relationship seemed set to be consummated, notably a Uefa Cup match in which the former England youth cap helped Liverpool rout Real Sociedad 6-0, but it was not be.
‘That was a wonderful night,’ Kettle recalled. ‘Everything was brilliant. . . the performance, the atmosphere. I made a couple of goals and some people reckoned I was man of the match. Bob Paisley dropped me for the next game.’
There was no antagonism, no disregard for his ability. Kettle would not have captained Liverpool’s all-conquering reserves or been on the bench in a European Cup semi-final if there had been. The problem was the intense competition at full-back from Alec Lindsay, Phil Neal, Alan Kennedy and Joey Jones, internationals all.
‘I always thought I was good enough for the first team, though it seemed I was never going to break in permanently. It’s something I’ve always thought about, but I suppose I’ll never know why. It was probably my own fault. But I never look back with any regret or bitterness. It was the best football education anyone could have had.’
He became the eternal 13th man, Liverpool’s non-playing reserve in the days when only one substitute was allowed. ‘When Whicker’s World was on TV the lads used to rib me about Kettle’s Travels, because I was always going somewhere to do nothing. But I enjoyed it, and I saw the world.’
After four first-team appearances in seven years, and against his better judgment, Kettle sought a showdown with Paisley. ‘I would have stayed as long as I could – that was the way Shankly had made the club. But I had a young family at the time and felt I had to ask the manager a few things. Though he wasn’t negative, he never said he wanted me to stay either.’
He joined Wigan Athletic, but, after only 14 games, had to retire through injury in 1981. Since then he has been involved with seemingly every non-League outfit in the Merseyside area, though never with the success he is enjoying at Southport. Kettle’s men go to Hartlepool seeking to extend a run of 27 matches with only one defeat.
Their secretary, Roy Morris, claims a revival of interest in the genteel resort- cum-dormitory town. Gates are up 88 per cent on last season, and the last two, 1,328 and 2,082 respectively, were Haig Avenue’s highest since Southport lost League status to Wigan. The chairman, Charlie Clapham, has set his heart on becoming the first club not re-elected to win promotion back to the League.
First, Kettle cautions, they must get into the GM Vauxhall Conference. In 1979, Southport had a chance to be in on its inception, but backed off because of the travelling costs involved. The present board’s ambition matches that of the manager. ‘The club is ready for it,’ he said, ‘and the town wants it.’
Sunday’s tie, Southport’s first in the second round for a quarter of a century, will provide a useful guide as to whether the team is strong enough. Kettle is optimistic that the principles he learnt under Shankly will stand them in good stead.
‘I’ve tried to instil the Anfield standards here. For instance, we play lots of five-a-sides. Shanks wouldn’t stop playing until his team had won – once they started at 10.30 in the morning and didn’t finish until half past two]
‘The frustrating thing is when you expect too much of lads who’ve been at work all day. They think they’re doing quite well but you look at it differently. But I think we’ll master Hartlepool for football, even though they’re going well in the Second Division.’
Bold words, but then the North-east is a happy hunting ground for Southport. Their best Cup performance was a draw at Newcastle, the eventual winners, 60 years ago (no matter that they lost 9-0 in a second replay). Last month, in the first round, they won at Blyth Spartans.
Throw in FA Trophy victories last season at Alnwick, North Shields and Bishop Auckland, and a 5-1 success at Whitley Bay in their last away match, and the portents for a third-round place among the big clubs look promising for Southport.
Kettle is not alone in his dreams, although the practical side of running a shoestring team keeps intruding. ‘There’s a lad in the team, Kevin Mooney, who’s got this fantasy about throwing his boots into the Kop like John Aldridge when he left. I’ve told him I’d go out and get them back] Maybe it’s not so far-fetched. Anything can happen in the Cup.’