With two promising young stoppers having both played a significant part in the Green Army’s play-off push, the 2013-14 campaign is proving to be an enjoyable ride for goalkeeping coach JOHN BOTTENSIEN, in his maiden season at Croft Park. On the books at Durham City as they won the Northern League title in 1994, he chatted to Rory Mitchinson about a successful career in the game, his life off the pitch, and just what it’s like to be working with Messrs Misiewicz and Grant.
“We have come a long way in six months”, muses John, as he thinks back to Spartans’ 4-3 reverse at North Shields in July, a fixture which got the Green Army’s pre-season campaign underway, and heralded the dawn of his own time at the club, “we were all over the place that day – we just weren’t good enough.”
As the season approaches the home straight, Tom Wade’s young side find themselves firmly in contention for a place in the annual end-of-season lottery – a feat that few would have predicted following defeat by the Robins (who have gone on to enjoy a thoroughly impressive campaign themselves).
“The last two years have been a nightmare for the club”, he says, “but I have think it’s really settled down. The potential is there now for the club to kick on. We want to make it a big, proud club again. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s great to be giving the crowd something to cheer about again.”
As a talented young goalkeeper himself, John started out at Langley Park – in-keeping with his County Durham roots. After impressing from the off, it wasn’t long before he attracted the attention of the region’s leading lights.
“There was a chance of me going to Newcastle. Jim Smith – who was manager there at the time – came out to watch me a couple of times at Langley Park, and offered me the chance of going there for a couple of games. But, obviously, it wasn’t as simple as that, and never worked out that way. Being busy with my own work at the time meant that I couldn’t get there.”
He did not have to wait long, however, before making a step up, as ambitious Northern League newcomers Seaham Red Star tabled an offer of £3,000 for the services of John, and teammate (and ex-marine leader!) David Robinson.
“Obviously it was £2,999 for me and a quid for David!”, he chuckles, “But Seaham were a big money club at the time – they really did have a lot of financial backing. The two years I was there, we went on a massive pre-season tour to Holland and played in a tournament against the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. We won that two years in a row, with a side full of familiar names -including the likes of John Gamble, Dean Gibb, and Mark Liddle.”
He has fond memories of his time with the former Wearside League outfit, both on and off the pitch – and can’t help but laugh as he remembers the personality within the squad.
“We had a lot of character!”, he continues, “We were crazy, to be honest. We were absolutely nuts. I suppose we were a bit like the old Wimbledon. Dean Gibb and John Gamble were absolute lunatics! But they were great footballers, and that’s been proved over the years. John’s a bit of a legend at Blyth.”
After an exceptional spell with the Star, came quite possibly the highlight of John’s playing career. Midway through his second season at Seaham Town Park, arose the chance of a move to Football League side Bristol Rovers – a club enjoying a successful period under the helm of future Tottenham Hotspur boss Gerry Francis.
But looking back at what brought the move about, John can’t help but laugh.
“Gerry was a big pigeon man! And he and Chris Copeland – who was manager of Seaham at the time – raced pigeons together. They were really good mates. Chris phoned Gerry and told him to come up and have a look at me. Rovers said they’d
have me, and they took me down.”
John remained with the Pirates until the end of the season, playing a series of reserve games, but struggling to force his way into the first team ahead of two older heads.
“I was only about 22 or 23 when I went down. They had two goalkeepers there – one a seasoned pro. There were three of us battling it out, so it was hard work. I wasn’t down there very long in the end, but it was an enjoyable experience, and a great learning curve.
“The one guy who stood out for me was Ian Holloway. Even back then, you could tell that he was going to be a manager. Marcus Stewart was coming through at that time as well.”
John returned to Seaham at the end of the season, only to come across a side in transition – with a number of his old teammates having departed the club.
“It was never really going to be the same there after that”, he recalls, “I had chances to go across to the likes of Sweden and Finland, but it didn’t really appeal to me. I had a decent job and I was about to get married. Plus, it’s more of a seasonal thing over there.”
In the end, John signed for Durham City. He was with the club as they won promotion from the Northern League’s second tier, and the first division title two years later.
“I had a brilliant time there. They were on my doorstep, and it was an ideal place for me to be at the time. They were really setting the standard that is the norm now for clubs at that level. They really were a professionally run club.
“The year we won the title, I think Blyth had a 17 point gap at Christmas!”
John finished his playing career with Brandon United – his hometown team – before concentrating on his working life away from football, eventually launching his own business in tyre dealing, a commitment with which he continues.
“I’ve had to work very hard to get to this point – it hasn’t come easy. I still work very hard now. Big companies, like Michelin and Goodyear, trust me to do their work in this area. That’s a real feather in my cap, and it has resulted in financial security for me and my family. But it has not happened overnight. Combining that with my work at Spartans can get hard – because it too is run like a professional club.”
John began life as a goalkeeping coach at the turn of the millennium. With his business established, he found the time to gain the qualifications necessary for his return to the game in a new role. He started out at New College Durham, before moving on to coach two sides at Durham University.
“I then had two-and-a-half good seasons with Bishop Auckland, and there I got to work with Pete Jeffries, who is one of the best goalkeepers in the area. He earned himself a big move to Spennymoor last summer. All three places were very different – everywhere I have been as a coach has given me a different insight. I am learning all the time myself.”
It is safe to say that John – for one – did not see Spartans’ push for a play-off spot on the horizon as he arrived at Croft Park in the summer of 2013. Nor would he have anticipated working with two goalkeepers he now regards as being among the best in the division.
“We’ve got two young goalkeepers, but two good goalkeepers. Unfortunately, only one of them can play. As characters, they’re like chalk and cheese! But I can’t speak highly enough of them. In all honesty, they’re up there with some of the best in the division. They are both really professional. In training, there’s no hassle – they just get on with it. And they put a lot of work into it away from training, as well. I’m not a coach who says ‘you have to do it this way’, because it might not be the right way for them. I pose questions to them, and ask them to go away and think about their game. And credit to them – they’ll come back and they’ll have done just that.
“I’m a great believer in the mental side of goalkeeping. They’re going to make mistakes, and it’s all about how they react to that. Are they going to go into their shell, or are they going to admit to it and get on with it?
“Technically, especially in terms of kicking, we’re making a lot of progress. I’ve been impressed with how good all goalkeepers are in this division with the ball at their feet. I’ve watched a lot of goalkeepers smash a diagonal ball 40 or 50 yards, not for the attacker to run on to – playing an actual pass. That puts the defenders under pressure straight away, and it’s that technical side of goalkeeping that is much better at this level.”
With the season’s end fast approaching, John is convinced that no side will be relishing a trip to Croft Park between now and the climax. Whether the Spartans clinch a top-five berth come April or not, he believes an overwhelmingly positive campaign can be attributed to the work ethic of Tom Wade’s young squad.
“They’re all looking after themselves so well away from the pitch. They know what they have to do to stay competitive in this division, and we don’t have to remind them of that. In 20 years or so, that’s how far football has come.”