The Seventeen Year Itch.
Until today, James Graham Bentley was the longest-serving manager in the entire English Football League. No longer. He has left the Globe Arena to drop down a division to take charge of National League strugglers AFC Fylde. The move means that Jim is now marginally nearer to his home on the Wirral but it will certainly come as a big wrench for a man who has spent the best part of half of his lifetime associated with Morecambe Football Club.
He moved from Telford United – where his father Jack was already a legend – to join the Morecambe team managed by Jim Harvey during 2002; seventeen long years ago. During the time which has elapsed since then, Shrimps’ fans have been privileged to see the development of a relatively young and apparently pretty undisciplined individual into an experienced Football League manager. In this time, he has matured far beyond some people’s expectations to the point that he would serve as a proper role model for any professional footballer anywhere.
I’ve never actually met Jim so my impressions of him as an individual are not necessarily either accurate or fair. But I think it’s reasonable to suggest that he was quite raw as a player and probably possibly even pretty feral as a person when he first arrived from Telford all those years ago. The first time I personally saw him play was at Giant Axe where Morecambe beat Lancaster City by the only goal of a dreadful F.A. Trophy 3rd Round match on Tuesday 14th January 2003.
At the time, I described him as a `tame gorilla’ – not that I would have been daft enough to say it to his face. He played in a pretty thuggish manner and I was personally really taken aback by the extremely aggressive tirade laced with four-letter expletives which he loudly aimed at long-time Morecambe Keeper Craig Mawson in front of the assembled masses of Shrimps supporters at one point in the game. This was not the way things were done at Morecambe…
Within very little time though – and clearly strongly influenced by the urbane Jim Harvey off the pitch and also noticeably by Captain Stewart Drummond on it – his attitude and behaviour rapidly improved. He became a better, less impetuous and calmer player. He stopped bawling people out on the pitch. This was the man who the Manager clearly had marked down for greater things once Drummond moved to Pastures New after Morecambe’s failure in their first Play-Off experience against Dagenham & Redbridge during the summer of 2003. He became team Captain; then Club Captain and finally – to quote team-mate Barry Roche’s description of it at the time, he `went over to the Dark Side’ – as Player-Coach and Reserve Team Manager under Sammy McIlroy. He was clearly being set-up to replace Sam as Manager – and this duly happened on 13th May 2011.
Since that time, he has managed to keep the most poorly-supported and under-resourced club in the EFL in League Two. In doing so, Jim has never been afraid to call a spade a spade. In an era when some footballers sound more like politicians (you can tell when they are lying: it’s whenever their mouths are moving), Jim eschewed the Dark Arts and told it like it was. Even that being a football Manager was interfering with his own sex life: perhaps a bit too much information, Jim Lad. He did this in the teeth of poor leadership more often than not in the Boardroom and in situations where neither he nor his staff were reliably paid on more than one occasion. Throughout his tenure, the very existence of the club itself has frequently been in doubt. To repeat something I wrote just over a year ago:
“One of the things I personally admire tremendously about our former Club Captain and centre half is that he never complains: to use his own words,
“It is what it is – you just have to get on with it.”
However, I think a couple of choice quotes speak volumes about the character of this man and the enormity of the struggle he has faced on a virtually daily basis.
On the budget for new payers, for instance. Rather – the lack of any budget for new players:
“It’s like looking at a nice red wine or expensive vodka and then checking your pocket and you’ve got nothing in the wallet, so you go home and you have a cup of tea.”
On the training facilities. Or – again – the lack of training facilities:
“We ended up at Morecambe High School, with an area big enough for two pitches, two grids and a goalkeeper area. They had one pitch with drainage installed, so it was a case of improving it. When we got there, it wasn’t fenced off and there was loads of kids playing on it. People took their dogs for a walk on it and there were barbecues all over it. Every time we went down to training, you had to check for cans and everything.
The biggest problem was dog poo. I couldn’t have players sliding through dog poo so every morning, me and the staff set up then scoured the area just to make sure there wasn’t any. I remember doing one session where a dog ran on the pitch and starting getting its teeth into the ball while we were trying to use it.””
Currently, the team are training at Lancaster University but this is clearly an interim measure and it must be this continued uncertainty and the lack of resources which have bedevilled his time at Morecambe which have led Jim to accept a move. Who can blame him? Many if not most National League clubs have better resources; bigger budgets and larger fan bases than can be found at Morecambe. Personally, I wish Jim and whoever he takes with him to his new club all the luck in the world. I’ve no doubt that the majority of my fellow Shrimps fans would think the same. That small minority who have been calling for him to go for ages have finally got their way. Only time will tell if our club will prosper in his absence.
Whatever happens, though, Jim Bentley has become a legend in his own lifetime at Morecambe Football Club. In my opinion – and I have been supporting the club since the 1960s – he has been the outstanding individual to have been associated with the Shrimps in all that time. The majority of fans both appreciate and love Jim Bentley – that’s why they collectively paid a £1000 fine for him on one occasion in the past; that’s why there’s a bar named after him at the Globe Arena. Whingers may say that leaving the club at a time when they are bottom of the Football League is not a good thing to do. But it is unrealistic to expect anybody to continually make silk purses out of sows’ ears: he will almost certainly inherit a better quality squad and have a much easier life at his new club. A Bentley is a luxury brand – and in my opinion, we have been extremely lucky to have had one of our own for so many years.
Well done Jim for sticking with us for so long. Good luck to you mate.