There cannot be many teams in English football that have stayed in exactly the same division for over five decades. Even Rochdale, the nation’s most infamously static football club, only managed a comparatively short 36 year period in League Two. Hendon Football Club, however, will be embarking on their 52nd consecutive season in the top division of the Isthmian League (currently known as the Ryman Premier) come August.
It has been a rocky road for manager Gary McCann, who has led the team for over a decade. Having been the club’s goalkeeper for seven years until injury forced an early retirement at the age of 27, McCann took over in February 2004. Of all the managers in charge of the 92 league clubs at that time, only Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger remains in position. But McCann is the only one who has combined his coaching duties with a job as a London cab driver.
“When I took the (manager’s) job originally, I had a shop,” says McCann. “But we fell on tough times and I had to sell the business and then my home, forcing us to move in with my in-laws. This was just as the club were having real difficulties. After discussions with my wife I ended up doing the Knowledge. Cab driving fits around my football. There’s an affinity between the club and myself,” he says. “I had a really tough time early on when we were about to lose our ground, the budget had been slashed to a bare minimum and especially as I was a young manager in my first job, so you could say it served as my apprenticeship.”
“In 2009 we had to move out of Claremont Road (Hendon’s home ground since 1926) mid-season; we very nearly lost the club and I was very much at the forefront of rescuing the club at the time as I had to resist calls for voluntary relegation which would not have been in the long-term interests of the club. It would have lost supporters, people would have lost interest and would have made it almost impossible to get back.”
But thanks to McCann and many others who made a monumental effort to steady the club financially, Hendon survived. During this period, they became one of the phalanx of fan-owned clubs in 2010 when the Supporters Trust took complete control. McCann was at the heart of that transition.
“The next two or three years were all about stabilising the club, getting it on a level footing. I felt a loyalty and duty to the cause, I had other options to move on and the club were made aware, but each time I felt it was a sideways step and I still had this lasting affinity with the club. One season we played at seven or eight different home grounds, which was difficult but in the end we secured a three-year deal to play at Wembley FC and then I started to build the squad. In our position I had to find youthful, hungry players and many of them are still with me today, they could have moved on but they stuck with us.”
How did McCann go about attracting players to a club that had been in such turmoil?
“We had to sell ourselves and most of those players bought into me. We never had huge finances so I couldn’t put a big pay packet on the table. But our style of play was a big factor. I got the players to buy into an attractive passing game even though the pitches we were playing on were virtually quagmires.”
After all these struggles against the odds, this season McCann was so nearly rewarded for his loyalty. Two triumphant Cup campaigns, the London Senior Cup and the Isthmian League Cup, were excellent, but Hendon just missed out on promotion to the Conference South, losing 1-0 to Margate in the Play-Off Final. Nevertheless, that near miss does not take the gloss off an exceptional season.
Giving their success on many fronts in 2014/15, Hendon’s squad of twenty-two part-timers faced a total of just shy of 70 matches over the season. With a congested fixture list that would test the depth of Chelsea’s squad, let alone that of Hendon, their resolve is commendable.
“We had a few players who have played over 250 games for the club over the years,” said McCann, “so they have endured the journey with us. It’s a family that we have created. It’s a tight group with the players very close, both on and off the pitch. Nearly all my players have full-time jobs so they are often taking half days off work to play. The commitment, the application and the dedication that non-league players show doesn’t get commended enough. A player’s commitment is often more important than how gifted they are.”
Just to underline the relentlessness of football at this level, McCann was busy arranging pre-season training schedules the day after the Play-Off Final. “It never ends,” he says. “It’s 52 weeks a year for myself and the players are only getting six weeks off before they are back in early June.”
So why go through all this?
“There’s something about non-league football that grabs you. It’s tough, it’s a juggling act.” Remarkably McCann also spends time regularly coaching his youngest son Olly’s club, Magix. “I have a very understanding wife,” he adds. McCann’s optimism is an essential part of his make-up. “The future is as bright as it’s ever been,” he says. “Rob Morris getting on board with the supporters trust board has been a real breath of fresh air alongside Simon (Lawrence, chairman) and David (Bedford, president). With the new ground at Silver Jubilee Park coming, losing that nomadic tag will be pleasing and will also help with long-term prospects. We have a 3G pitch which suits our style of play too.”
Fittingly, McCann is having a stand at the new ground named after him in recognition of his services over the last eleven years. But he’ll still be driving his cab.
“My wife will tell you that I do too much,” he says. She may have a point.