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Growing Up

I was born in Inverness and brought up in Caul, a village of about 3,000 people. My first school was St. Colombus at Fort William. It was about this time that I started to knock a ball around, played a few games for school and couldn't get enough of it. I then went to Loch Harbour High School where another Scottish International also attended. Duncan Shearer is a couple of years older than me and he set the standard to follow. Things went well and I signed schoolboy forms with Fort William, at the age of 14yrs I made my first team debut. During my schooI days I also played in goal, but it was centre forward where I made my mark, and although I've been known to play wide right, there's nothing quite like pulling on the No.10 shirt and banging them in the back of the net! As wells as the school team and Fort William, I was also playing for Loch Harbour District and at 16 yrs represented the North of Scotland. I love my country, and it was a great honour to represent the North, little did I know that one day I'd score on my debut for the full international team.

Duncan Shearer

At 18 I moved to Nairn County and played for just one season before the Manager - Mel Cowey emigrated to New Zealand and took me with him. It's a big move for anybody, but at the age of 19, it was even more so. I'd never been away before and it would have been difficult to have travelled any further than Auckland. The standard was far higher than the Highland League, but I adapted well and enjoyed my time out there. I played for an Auckland team, Hanimex North Shore United (Hanimex were the sponsors, they made cameras, camera film etc.) It was a very family orientated place, after a game we'd used to all pile round to one of the player homes, have a few beers and a bar-b-que.
Eight months later and I was back in Scotland. Although it was a great place and I really enjoyed my time there, it was always a temporary move. Nairn had an option to take me back and they took it up. The goals went in and I was very happy. I then got to hear that Sunderland were interested in me. Again, the difference between Highland League football and the old Second
Division was massive. Len Ashurst was the manager with Frank Burrows his assistant, although I only went on trial, I had to actually sign for Sunderland as I needed International clearance (Scotland is an independent UEFA body so a move to England was an international move!) I ended up playing a few games for the reserves and did ok.

However Frank Burrows took me to one side and told me that the boss didn't think there was a lot between me and a young lad they had called Paul Lemon. Paul was a couple of years younger than me and they felt they could bring him on. I was disappointed with the decision, and disappointed that Len Ashurst didn't feel able to tell me face to face. But that's football, and now I'm a manager I can still remember how I felt, treat people the way you'd like to be treated, and that's what I aim to do. I took an interest in Paul Lemon after that, but I never heard much about him.

Gerry Gow

However it wasn't all negative, one of Sunderland's part-time coaches was a guy called Cecil Urwin. He'd had links to Yeovil Town where Gerry Gow, the ex-Bristol City player was manager. Yeovil were in the then Gola League and with only about one month of the season remaining, I thought I'd give it a try. I went down at 21 and then signed a three-year contract.

I had a good time at the club and also met my wife, Lee, during my time there. The Chairman, Mike Spearpoint gave me job as a labourer and I was a very happy boy! I was impressed with Gerry Gow, but he was replaced Brian Hall. Brian was well known in the non-league circle after his time at Wealdstone where he brought through players such as Stuart Pearce and Vinny Jones. I had a few fall-outs with him and although Yeovil had an option for another year, I felt it was time to move on. Steve Patterson, now Caledonian Thistle manager (summer 2002), was player-manager at Elgin City and he asked me to go up. It was one of the best moves I made, after three years at Yeovil, I was having to prove myself again. It freshened me up and the goals began to flow. There was talk of a number of teams watching me, but to be honest, I just got on with my game and enjoyed my football. I was twenty-four years old and genuinely thought my chance as a full-time pro had passed me by. By the end of February I'd scored 32 goals and then the phone went. It was Gerry Gow, now manager of Weymouth. It was good to hear from him as not only did we have a good professional understanding, but he's also a great bloke. He said he really wanted me, and that's something that every player likes to hear. He told me that Elgin had agreed a fee of £20,000 and he'd be flying up the next day. I thought great, and was looking forward to seeing and working with him. The next day I collected him for the airport and drove to the ground, we waited in the bar for the Directors to call us in, then one of the biggest twists in my football career occurred... The secretary came out of the board room and said 'can I have a word John?'. I thought it would be something to do with money, but as I got into the boardroom, the Chairman says…'McNeil's in for you', I didn't know what he was on about, and at first I thought he meant Billy McNeil at Celtic!!! He then told me that they'd accepted a bid of £25,000 from Shrewsbury. Hey, I couldn't believe it, I was nearly 25 and suddenly I was being offered a full-time contract with a club in the English Second Division - it was a dream…that's until I remembered Gerry Gow was sitting in the bar probably wondering what the hell was going on! From elation to feeling sick about Gerry, talk about a roller coaster!

I asked if I could speak to Gerry alone. On telling him what was on the table Gerry then spent five minutes trying to persuade me to sign. He tried, but not that hard as he realised the Shrewsbury would be a great move. There were no hard feelings, because that's the type of guy he is. I took him back to airport and he shook my hand, wishing me all the best.
I couldn't work out where this bid from Shrewsbury had come from. I learnt that Ian McNeil, the Shrews manager, had a son in Aberdeen and he'd been watching my progress. Although he hadn't seen me play himself, he went in on the recommendation of his son…a big gamble, especially for a 25 year old - but it did pay off.

The new day I drove to my mothers and ditched my car. I couldn't drive all the way to Shrewsbury in my car - I'd never had made it! On arriving I was impressed, it was my big chance, just when I thought a full-time contract would never come my way. I made my debut from the bench in a 1-1 draw at Walsall, then made a scoring full debut at home to Plymouth in a 2-0 win. For me, this was the big time… I was playing against teams such as Man City, Leeds, and Chelsea - a far cry from the Highland League. I was playing upfront with Alan Irvine, and Carl Griffiths. After signing on the 22nd of February (1989) I finished the season with 16 appearances and added another 5 goals to my 32 I'd scored for Elgin.

Next Part: Life as a Pro