Steve Thompson & Phil Neale Dinner

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Future Imps Fund dinner with guests Phil Neale and Steve Thompson. I always try to support these dinners whenever I can, but being unable to raise enough interest for a full table I was offered a spot with director Roger Bates on his.

I’m a big believer in the Future Imps Fund and the hard work put in by Roger over the past six years should not be under estimated. Danny also puts a lot of importance in youth development and it was no surprise to see our hard-working manager in attendance too. He wasn’t the only familiar face in the crowd though, ex-players such as Tony Cunningham, Trevor Swinburne, Dennis Leigh and Matt Carmichael were there, as was current CEO Liam Scully, whom I had the pleasure of sitting with.

I also sat with Jim Brearley, a name you might not recognise but a face seen regularly down at the ground. Jim does a lot of unseen work with the players and staff, he’s a people person that works in areas such as team and organisational development, coaching and planning. He’s been around for a while now, I first bumped into him at the anxiety event hosted by Nathan and he puts a lot of good work in at the club. Both Liam, Jim and I chatted about the club, plans for the future and the like. I was, of course, off duty but in fairness there wasn’t anything discussed that was particularly sensitive. The people around the club are professional, they’re unlikely to be spilling secrets or breaching confidence at a social event. The one thing that strikes me, particularly about Liam and Jim, is the level of interest they show in others. It is refreshing to be asked about my experiences or how I feel the club is going, and I’m sure they ask the same of many that they speak to.

I wanted to pen a few words mainly in case anyone was thinking of attending one of these dinners in the future. Hosted by Rob Makepeace they’re a lively and interactive way to get to know some former City stars. In Phil Neale and Steve Thompson we had two very contrasting characters indeed. Phil is a measured and cautious man, famous for having for having played professional football for City and county cricket for Worcestershire. He’s now Operations Manager for the England team and will be out on tour this summer for the Ashes. Steve Thompson is something quite different, he’s a man with a massive personality and has more stories in his repertoire than Hans Christian Anderson and Stephen King put together. If he gets a bit of the old amber nectar inside of him, you’re guaranteed to hear a few of them.

The night kicked off with a couple of auction items, always a great way to raise a few quid for the fund, but the main event was the Q&A. Whilst you’d think these dinners bear little relevance to the current City side, you’d be wrong. Danny’s presence makes it much more relevant, and I was surprised to learn Phil had spent a couple of days watching training and chatting to Danny about things. Whilst it might seem like a former pro having a look around his club, I sensed Danny had been eager to learn from Phil the England Cricket team Operations Manager,  whether there was anything that could benefit his own management approach. During ‘questions from the floor’ Danny asked Phil if there was anything we could learn, Phil started his reply with something along the lines of ‘as we’ve discussed previously’. Of course, why would we expect anything less?

Whereas Phil was delivering concise answers and remained stoic and tight-lipped, especially when asked about Ben Stokes, Thommo was on top form. Both Rob and Phil often struggled to get a word in edgeways as he rolled out all of the old favourites, stories about Colin Murphy, Trevor Peake, traffic cones, and getting the sack at Notts County. I’m not going to recount them here, if you ever get a chance to chat to Steve you need to hear his rubber plant story, his reverse psychology experiences or his views on David Pleat.

Steve is well-known for commentating on the radio and is a well-known face around the club, but listening to him you tend to forget the career he had. Playing top-flight football for Charlton and managing Sheffield United in an FA Cup run was no small achievement, nor was guiding Lincoln to 8th and 10th during his two full seasons in charge. He’s an engaging and infectious personality, incredibly amusing mixing his football stories with some good old-fashioned coarse language wit. I like Steve, I’ve chatted to him on a few occasions before a game and I never grow tired of listening to those stories. He’s always got time for people too, I’m hoping at some point in the future to do an interview with him. I’s actually love to ghost-write his autobiography but I think the F, C, K and U buttons on my keyboard might get worn out.

Once upon a time Steve used to be quite critical of the Imps on the radio, and rightly so. He’s not employed to be a sycophant, fawning over the side if they’re not doing well, but he drew the ire of many City fans. However, last night when asked about how he felt to be around the club he directly addressed Danny and congratulated him on his achievements at uniting the team and the fans as he has. This was Thommo’s night, a time for him to take centre stage which anyone who knows him will tell you is his favourite place, yet he ensured he took the time to acknowledge the great situation the club is in. It drew a rich round of applause too, as it should.

Phil was very heartfelt when asked about how he felt to be back at the club. He spoke of the ties being severed when he left in 1985 and although he retained a fondness for the club he never got a chance to come back. He spoke emotionally of losing Percy Freeman and Graham Taylor and how now felt like the right time to be back. He’ll be at the game Saturday before jetting off to Australia, but it was touching to hear him speak so passionately about being back at Sincil Bank.

It struck me that this was the same sentiment echoed by Paul Smith recently when he attended the Mansfield game, and doubtless the same thoughts echoed by many of the former pros joining the Former Players Association. I haven’t really passed comment on that endeavour before today, but it does seem to be such a positive step getting the former players together in a group for various events. Of course, for a passionate follower of Imps history like me it is fantastic, I’m looking forward to seeing Phil this weekend to sign my copy of his book as I ducked out before the signing session last night. I’m looking forward to seeing Gavin Gordon too, and I’ve already had the pleasure of Trevor Swinburne signing an old programme.

Another aspect of these dinners worth noting is the incredible organisation and hard work that goes into catering for around 120 guests. Anyone who has visited the Travis Perkins suite will know the kitchen isn’t very big, yet Ian McCallum and his team provide a superb three-course meal, effortlessly delivered to the table by friendly and polite staff. Throughout the last few years one aspect of the club that has remained consistent is the catering and service in the areas managed by Ian, genuinely he’s a credit to the club as are his group of waiters, waitresses and bar staff. Top work.

The number of former players at these events only serves to underline the good feeling around the club these days, people want to be involved in a forward-thinking and progressive football club such as ours. The fan zone will feature a couple of them every match at present, and whilst the new area is only in its early stages it is positive to see so many ex-players already wanting to be involved. As more sign up to the association I’m sure we’ll see a variety of faces, young and old. Alongside Gavin Gordon this week is former keeper John Kennedy, both had good careers with City and both are keen to be associated with us now. That goes for all of the guys last night, both on the stage and in the audience. For a while there we ‘lost’ our club, from 2008 (ish) until Chris Moyses started the rebuilding job, the connection was gone. Now, more than ever, it is back and although I write about it constantly I can’t enthuse enough about the people involved currently and the positive steps being taken.

As I mentioned I slipped off early due to a forty minute drive home, but not before a good four-figure sum had been made on the auctions items and  I imagine a similar amount made from the raffle, bar takings and other fund-raising bits from the evening. Rob Makepeace had managed a room full of increasingly drunken people very well, conducting his questioning professionally, despite some rather cheeky barracking from Thommo (what’s your name again, Smallpeace?) The two guests were like sweet and savoury or bitter and lager, different in their approaches but equally as entertaining. The three of them kept the room amused and involved as the well oiled machine provided the food and service. As I left I noticed a big smile on Roger’s face, the Future Imps Fund has been his baby for a long while and to see the night well supported only means good things going forward for our younger players.

In a month’s time it is the ‘Champions Dinner’ featuring stars from the GMVC and from last season’s squad, organised by the Red Imps Trust. It’s another chance to mix with players, both current and historic, have a few beers and spend money for a good cause. I love these events, genuinely I can’t wait for the next one.

If the opportunity ever arises, do not hesitate to go along. Even if you’re an individual, get in touch as quite often I try to put together a table of ten. You won’t be disappointed, watching various businessmen and sponsors try to out do each other in the auctions is entertaining enough in itself, and the guests are always guaranteed to raise a chuckle with their stories.  Most importantly though, the club benefits and ultimately that is what it is all about, this bloody great football club we blindly follow through good times and bad.

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