Mariner Was Everything a Manager Could Ask of a Centre-Forward and More
Saturday, 10th Jul 2021 09:57
Mel Henderson, Town’s public relations officer during the Sir Bobby Robson years, pays tribute to Blues striker Paul Mariner, whose death was announced earlier today.
The record books will forever confirm details of Paul Mariner’s fabulous football career, in which he rose from the relative obscurity of the Cheshire League and progressed to the biggest stage of all.
But only those who had the privilege of knowing him as a friend will fully appreciate his qualities as an outstanding human being, someone who made an unforgettable impact on everyone he encountered during a life cut tragically short.
Those who admired him from afar, as spectators at his many games spread across the globe, from non-league football in his native North West to the sport’s highest pinnacle, the World Cup, will recall him for what he was – a brilliant footballer, someone who provided a consistently high level of performance as he strove to win and, if possible, entertain wherever he appeared.
One need only look at the messages posted on here to see he was revered by all Town supporters – a ‘proper’ centre-forward, someone with all the necessary attributes to rip even the best defences to shreds. Centre-halves beaten for skill would try to bully him. His response was to give them it back, simple as that.
Unquestionably, it was on Ipswich Town and the club’s loyal fans, during an era that saw him play a leading role in bringing the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup to Portman Road, that he made the greatest impact.
I remember the day Paul arrived at Portman Road in a battered – his word – old Mini with his then wife Ali, a teacher. That he had shunned the bright lights of London and the opportunity to pursue his career with West Ham suddenly made perfect sense.
The couple were more interested in exploring the Suffolk countryside, attending auctions and visiting antique shops, than anything the glitzy West End had to offer.
It wasn’t long before they were members of the gardening club in the village they made their home, with Paul in the role of president taking responsibility for organising the annual bus outing to the Chelsea Flower Show.
But the same Paul’s interests also included a passion, which he shared with Town team-mate Terry Butcher, for heavy metal music. This led to a long-lasting relationship with Deep Purple front man Ian Gillan, who invited Paul on stage at two venues – in Ipswich and the Hammersmith Apollo in London – with audience members fascinated at seeing England’s centre-forward in the background on the bongos.
When he first arrived in Suffolk he admitted he was in awe of the set-up at Ipswich and the presence of the many international stars with whom he was rubbing shoulders in the dressing room.
But it wasn’t long before he was one of the lads as he was made to feel instantly at home, his football later doing the talking to show team-mates and supporters alike what he had to offer.
He was an instant favourite in Suffolk, arriving from Plymouth Argyle in October 1976, in one of those rare occasions that manager Bobby Robson saw fit to venture into the transfer market to supplement a largely home-grown squad of top professionals.
Bobby pulled off a major coup, not only in persuading the Devon club to sell their star man, but also in seeing off First Division rivals West Bromwich Albion, who were also competing alongside the Hammers for his signature.
At a cost of £220,000, in a deal that also saw defender John Peddelty and striker Terry Austin travel in the opposite direction, he proved a huge bargain – even after the extra £20,000 that Town were only too pleased to fork out once he had clocked up three appearances for England.
He didn’t have long to wait for international recognition. Indeed, it seemed inevitable based on his stunning start to life as a Town player. His debut came in a 1-0 win at Manchester United, when he played a part in Clive Woods’s winning goal, and the following week he opened his Ipswich account in spectacular style in a memorable 7-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion with new strike partner Trevor Whymark netting four times, one of them – the side’s fourth – following a delightfully executed one-two with the new boy.
Paul’s strike, the fifth of Town’s magnificent seven, was an absolute peach. Collecting the ball just inside the visitors’ half, he weaved his way past several challenges before letting fly from just outside the area with a fabulous shot that clinched his hero status with the home crowd.
Someone may recall observing a more impressive home debut but in my 47 years of attending Town games I am struggling to think of any that compare.
Soon after the final whistle, the car transporting him to the railway station on the first leg of his brief return trip to Devon was besieged by hundreds of admirers eager to shake his hand. I should know; I was the anxious driver charged with the task of making sure he didn’t miss his train.
Regardless of your status as a supporter, whether you are old enough to have witnessed that unforgettable home debut or simply wish you had been there in person, watch it on YouTube – and while you’re there you can also check out Paul’s towering header just four weeks later to defeat a Liverpool side only briefly knocked off course en route to capturing a second successive title.
Paul’s arrival helped Town to extend a five-game unbeaten league run to 15 without defeat, surrendering a mere three points from the 30 on offer (two for a win back then) and enjoying an all too short spell on top of the table, while later in the season he celebrated the first of his three hat-tricks for the club in a 4-1 home win over West Ham.
The following midweek Paul was in action again, this time for England as he won his first cap in a World Cup qualifier against Luxembourg at Wembley. I recall how Don Revie’s team led only 1-0 with half-time approaching and how most fans in the 87,000 crowd were chanting Mariner’s name.
The fans’ wishes were granted as England made the called-for change at the break, the Town favourite replacing Joe Royle, who couldn’t have known at the time that he had won the last of his six caps. Revie’s men went on the rampage to hit a further four goals as Mariner, in the number 16 shirt, won the first of his 35.
In the return fixture almost seven months later Paul netted his first international goal, a last-minute effort to earn a 2-0 win, but England narrowly missed out on qualification for Argentina in 1978, finishing runners-up to group winners Italy on goal difference.
However, the summer of 1978, was still hugely memorable as he made a massive contribution to Town’s FA Cup success with seven goals, including a hat-trick in the 6-1 drubbing of Millwall at The Den, and he was only denied a goal in the final against favourites Arsenal at Wembley when his early shot rebounded off the crossbar.
In what was undoubtedly the most successful chapter of his career Paul continued to find the target on a regular basis and in 1981 he helped Town to European glory – and close to an unprecedented treble of major honours – before also netting the most valuable of his 13 goals to beat Hungary at Wembley and secure qualification for the following summer’s World Cup finals.
Injuries cost him appearances for both club and country but he was able to equal Jimmy Greaves’ record of scoring in six successive England games when he found the net to round off a 3-1 defeat of France in Bilbao as Ron Greenwood’s men, amongst them Portman Road colleagues Mick Mills and Terry Butcher, made an impressive start to the tournament.
It was after England’s exit that Bobby Robson departed to serve his country and his successor, Bobby Ferguson, turned to Paul to replace the Southampton-bound Mills as captain. But with a host of players joining the exodus it was no surprise when Mariner eventually departed in February 1984.
His destination was, ironically, Arsenal, who paid 150,000 to sign him, and he scored on his farewell Town appearance, although the debut of Chantry High School goalscoring pupil Jason Dozzell somewhat overshadowed all else that day.
It was sad to see him go but it was far from the end of his career. He won a further two England caps with the Gunners, where he even helped out temporarily as a central defender, and then Portsmouth when Alan Ball was manager.
Then it was next stop America as he played for Albany Capitals before reverting to coaching in Phoenix and at the famous Harvard University before joining New England Revolution as assistant to ex-Liverpool and Scotland defender Steve Nicol.
His career went full circle when he was revealed as Plymouth’s new manager, tasked with keeping them in the Championship. Ultimately, they were relegated, but Paul revelled in the role.
I went to see him at the team’s hotel prior to their visit to Portman Road. My aim was to interview him for a book I was writing but he swiftly turned the tables and asked, instead, for some info on how to beat Ipswich.
I had never considered my input to be that important but when he appeared in the media room after his side’s shock 2-0 win he made a beeline for me, gave me a big hug and said: “Thanks pal!” It was a gesture typical of the man and it meant a great deal to me.
I mentioned Paul’s sense of humour earlier and one of my favourite tales concerned a trip to Everton. He was gazing outside as the bus pulled up at Goodison Park and I asked if he was looking for anyone in particular. “My granddad,” he replied. I asked what he looked like. “The FA Cup,” he said, going on to explain that the old man had, shall we say, large, protruding ears.
When the pair were eventually reunited Paul introduced him to me and it was difficult to stifle my laughter as he fitted the description perfectly.
That story also reminds me of how Paul terrorised both David O’Leary and Willie Young in the FA Cup final of 1978. With David Geddis and Clive Woods operating on the flanks it was up to Paul to take care of business in the centre and he turned in one of the performances of his career that day.
Years later, of course, Mariner joined Arsenal and although Young had moved on by then he was back at the club for a visit one day. Paul had never encountered the big Scot since the Wembley showdown but told me how Young popped his head round the dressing room door and when their eyes met he said: “Bloody hell, not only does he take the piss at Wembley but he comes here and takes my bloody peg as well!”
I knew Paul had been ill for some time and that he wasn’t going to recover, but when the news was confirmed this morning I was still stunned. He was everything – and more – that any football manager could ask of his centre-forward.
He fulfilled the main requirement and scored goals and while he mysteriously remained in the shadows during his teenage years he went on to enjoy a meteoric rise to stardom that was like something dreamt up by a Hollywood scriptwriter.
I have been asked by many younger people what Paul Mariner was like as a player. Trying to give my answer some context, I generally compare him to Alan Shearer. As if that wasn’t enough to impress the person asking the question, I tend to quickly add: “Only better!”
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