Paul Mariner: The Big Interview

Paul Mariner
Paul Mariner
Conor Chaplin could start againsyt Plymouth. Picture: Joe Pepler

Pompey v Plymouth: pre-match talking points

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When one former England striker departed Fratton Park, another arrived in his place.

Both, it could be levelled, were in the twilight of impressive playing careers.

But for Paul Mariner, whose 1986 summer arrival coincided with Mick Channon’s Blues exit, PO4 was to be no easy resting place.

The fire still burned inside the belly of a man who had scored at the 1982 World Cup and was eager to prove at 33 he was capable of playing his part in an ambitiously-assembled Alan Ball side.

The division two outfit had agonisingly missed out on promotion to the top-flight the previous term on the final day of the season and were keen to avoid a repeat.

Paired up front with Micky Quinn, Mariner, who had been let go from Arsenal by former Blues player George Graham, was to prove the perfect foil for ‘Quinny’ in a glorious campaign.

A 27-year absence from the summit of English football was duly ended as Bally’s boys – a mixture of skill and steel – earned automatic promotion behind champions Derby, captivating the Fratton masses along the way.

Mariner said: ‘George Graham released me as he wanted to build a younger side at Arsenal and Bally got in contact and told me about the project and the players that he had got.

‘Mick Channon had just left the club and he wanted me to drop in there (alongside Quinn) and it went well – really well.

‘Quinny was an incredible player around the edge of the box and a phenomenal finisher with his left foot, right foot or his head.

‘He just had that goalscoring knack – a thing you can’t really coach.

‘I was the link man in the middle of the park – I’d flick it on and he would run onto it, or I’d keep the team playing in the middle third and then we would get the ball out wide to Vince (Hilaire) and Cally (Kevin O’Callaghan).

‘We’d all get in the box and that was it

‘The side got a lot of knocks, in as far as people said it was just a bruising side.

‘Well, it was a bruising side but we could certainly mix it up.

‘We could play football as well and we had some very good players that were comfortable on the ball.

‘If you go through the whole side there was nobody who wasn’t comfortable on the ball, so we could stroke it around.’

A mixture of guile and guts proved a recipe for success, but the main ingredient in the Blues’ return to English football’s top table was undoubtedly the team spirit instilled in them by Ball.

A rag-tag bunch of ‘Gremlins’, as their manager described them, played without fear and were as united on the field of play as they were off it.

Mariner said: ‘Kenny Swain, Billy Gilbert and Noel Blake – you don’t want to mess with those guys.

‘The spine was very strong also with Kevin Dillon and Micky Kennedy in the middle of the park – it was a nicely balanced team.

‘And in hindsight it’s probably no real surprise that we went up to the first division.

‘I enjoyed playing with that side.

‘It was a great bunch of lads and the team spirit Bally created was just incredible – he could call us what he liked as far as I was concerned!

‘I lived just around the corner from the ground in Southsea, about a mile away – everyone lived close by.

‘And we all identified with the fans, who were incredible.

‘The vocal support we got home and away was absolutely ridiculous – it was just fantastic.’

That vociferous backing was not limited to the confines of a football stadium, though, as the city united in celebration with a civic reception for promoted Pompey at the Guildhall – but only after the players had celebrated in their own enthusiastic way first.

Mariner & Co were only too happy to embrace the drinking culture that surrounded English football in the 1980s when Oldham slipped to a midweek defeat at Shrewsbury to promote the Blues.

He said: ‘I was coming to the end of my drinking culture – I was kicking on a bit as far as a football is concerned.

‘I remember we were all playing pool somewhere, although I can’t remember the name of the place.

‘When we heard the result all bets were off, so you can imagine what happened!

‘It (the ability to let their hair down within the community) came from the top – Bally was a manager of the people, so he let his players mingle with the fans.

‘I loved that about the club.’

Evergreen Mariner scored Pompey’s first goal in the top-flight since 1959 when he headed in against Oxford in an opening-day 4-2 defeat but the striker was used as a makeshift centre-half for much of the early season as both he and the Blues suffered for form.

He said: ‘That’s not a part of my career that I look back on with a smile, I must admit.

‘I remember Clarkey (Colin Clarke) from Southampton scored two goals against us one day which probably put a bullet through my head as far as my central defending was concerned!

‘What happened was the gaffer went and signed a younger striker (Ian Baird) which was fair do’s.

‘The first division in those days you had to be able to get around the field and I probably wasn’t as mobile as I was in my younger days so I filled in now and again.’

Restored to his preferred forward role, Mariner gave an attacking masterclass against Spurs in a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane but with injuries beginning to take their toll, he knew his time was up.

Sadly, Mariner & Co were unable to consolidate in the top tier as the Blues suffered immediate relegation, which spelt the end of a whirlwind two-year stay on the south coast for the popular striker.

He said: ‘At Ipswich we had a big rivalry with Spurs and having played for Arsenal as well, every time I went to White Hart Lane I was remembered for those teams and got loads of stick

‘The natural reaction then was to ram it down their throat!

‘I did my best for Pompey and put in a good shift that day,

‘But unfortunately, I suffered a couple of Achilles tendon injuries earlier in my career which eventually caught up with me.

‘The medical techniques in those days weren’t what they are nowadays.

‘And when I came to 35, I knew it was time to pack it in at the top level and held my hand up to that.’

Mariner duly departed Pompey in the summer of 1988 with nine goals in 61 games and no regrets whatsoever.

Indeed the Fratton favourite was philosophical about the Blues’ relegation from the top flight.

He said: ‘Lets not beat around the bush, there was a gulf in class between the two divisions.

‘To keep building the side with quality players was very difficult, so it wasn’t a surprise – although it was obviously sad for me – that Pompey went down.

‘But I just want to say thank you to everyone, from the chairman to Bally and all the fans – I had a sensational time at Pompey.’

Mariner played out the remainder of his career in Australia, Malta and the United States, before enjoying managerial stints at first club Plymouth and recently Toronto in the MLS.

Now 61, he resides in Boston, in the States, where he works for major sports channel EPSN as a ‘soccer’ pundit.

He said: ‘I am still involved in the game.

‘I have been really fortunate, it’s been very good to me.’

PAUL MARINER ON...

...LIVING THE DREAM WITH ENGLAND

Paul Mariner scored 13 goals in 35 games for England – most famously netting in his country’s 3-1 win over France at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, left.

Most players in the old days started off in humble beginnings and I was exactly the same.

When you think about where I came from – a working-class background where my father worked in the textile mills – all we had was football.

To say that one day I was able to play against France in a World Cup and score for England is just incredible.

It is a cliche but those are things that dreams are made of and that’s what football is all about

It fulfils dreams for many young men and women.

...KNOWING WHEN TO CALL IT QUITS

Your body tells you when it is time.

At the end of my time at Pompey I just couldn’t get around – I definitely couldn’t play in the first division.

And I wasn’t the type of bloke who was just trying to keep in a job and pick my money up – thats not the way I was built.

It was the right time to go.

... TRUE VERSATILITY IS A RARITY

You hear it banded around nowadays that people can play in multiple positions.

I personally think it takes a special player and there aren’t many around, that can play at centre forward and centre half – like I was asked at Pompey – or fill in all over the field.

One truly versatile player was Stevie Nichol who is a Liverpool legend – I wasn’t as talented.