The local lad who played over a half-century of games for Blackpool, today you can find Matthew Blinkhorn up the coast at Fleetwood Town, as head of coaching for the League One club. When Saturday and the midweekers roll around, though, he is very much still in the action, helping lead Lancaster City’s challenge for a place in the National League North.
Turning out as well for Luton Town, Bury and Morecambe in the Football League, the 34-year-old ex-AFC Fylde frontman enjoyed a productive spell with Sligo Rovers in Ireland, with cup success and a very definite sense of community illuminating his Showgrounds stint. Although he’s already a few years down the line with coaching, ‘Blinks’ is confident there’s a fair few minutes still to go on the second half of his playing days…
A very promising first three months of the season with Lancaster City, what’s your assessment so far?
I think looking at where we are in the league it’s been very, very good. We’re second in the league now, so that’s a massive positive. We’re enjoying that ride but now it’s a case of ‘can we maintain that and maybe push for promotion at the end of the season?’
How are you feeling personally? A few more seasons left in the tank?
Yeah, definitely. I think obviously once you get to the age of 34, people start saying ‘when are you gonna finish?’ but the last couple of years I had at AFC Fylde I didn’t really play that much, so I think that’s probably added a couple more years on! I’m feeling good at the minute, I’m feeling physically fit, Lancaster’s a good fit for me in terms of my work commitments as well. It’s local, and I’m playing, so it all fits in at the minute, and hopefully I can get another season or two out of it.
You’re also working at Fleetwood as head of coaching, when did the thought of going down that route first come into play?
It was probably when I went part-time at Hyde. When I came back from Ireland, I went to York, I did four or five months for York in the Conference, and then struggled to find a club. I went to Hyde and thought ‘I need to start thinking about a future after football.’ I went into Blackpool academy as a part-time coach, making loads of mistakes coaching the Under-9s! Just sort of figuring out my way like that really. That was the start of it – I think it was in 2011/2012 – and it’s just progressed on to my role now at Fleetwood. It’s been a long journey, and one that I’ve made loads of mistakes on, but also developed and improved as I’ve gone along.
How much liaising with the management (Joey Barton, Clint Hill etc.) will you typically do from one week to the next, and how much are you left to your own devices?
Obviously the manager has a keen interest in what’s going on with the academy. We have the Under-23s and the Under-18s training up (with the first team) on a regular basis, so the manager gets to see them. He comes to the youth-team games on a Saturday morning when the first team are at home. One of the coaches, Baz Nicholson, he’s the Under-23 coach and also the first-team coach, and he obviously takes a keen interest. We meet every six weeks to discuss the progression of the players, how we can challenge them and what players maybe need at different times. So there’s a strong link there and hopefully we can start getting players into the first team and making consistent appearances, because we don’t want to just give one-year or two-year professional contracts, we want them to be part of the club for a long period, or become big saleable assets for the club.
Back at Lancaster, in terms of the club itself, what’s your impression on what it particularly has going for it and what it can go on to be?
I drive in with Wolfy (Mark Thornley), the goalkeeping coach, and he’s been there 30-odd years. One of the games he mentions was against Burton, when they beat them 1-0 and there was a couple of thousand fans, so there is massive potential there. We have to be successful on the pitch to hopefully get the fans through the turnstiles as much as we possibly can. If we can progress and stay around the top of the league we might be able to add a few more on to the gate, which then obviously helps the revenue, helps the budget and to attract better players. It’s obviously the aim of any team that’s playing in the lower levels to progress through the leagues, but budgets can dictate that as well.
You had a spell in caretaker charge with Craig Stanley, did you find it seamless enough, or was it quite eye-opening?
It was eye-opening. Obviously it was for a short period, Craig was more the manager and I was more the assistant, but it was just a case of we needed to get the lads working for each other and change the style of play to what Browny (former boss Phil Brown) was trying to implement. We just kind of tried to get the lads together really and working that little bit harder. I felt we did that, and Mark Fell’s obviously come in and pushed that on, and his record since he’s been in has been pretty decent, to be fair. Long may that continue really.
In terms of characters in the team, who are the standouts?
Well I thought this interview was gonna be Rob Wilson doing another wind-up! He’s the wind-up merchant of the group, with the steak on Tom Preston’s ankle last year, he was behind that, alongside Paul Jarvis. Glenn Steel’s been a mainstay at Lancaster for a few seasons now, you’ve obviously got David Norris as well. There’s a few characters, I wouldn’t say there’s one that stands out as massively overpowering, they’ve all got their strengths that bring the group to what it’s been at the minute. Working for each other and having a ‘never say die’ attitude, that obviously came through last night (coming from 2-0 down to draw with Stourbridge), so it’s all positive at the minute.
On the same point, but in your time in football overall, who comes to mind for the biggest character(s) you’ve worked with, whether it’s teammates, coaches, managers?
I think in terms of managers, the main one would be Paul Cook. He was one that I had at Sligo Rovers, he was a decent man-manager and got the best out of his players, so there’s things I took from him. When I was at Fylde, we played Wigan in the FA Cup, and the way his Wigan team played was similar to how Sligo played; expansive, attacking football, full-backs bombing on. The way he was as a character as well was something that you take on board and try to implement in your own style.
Where would you say has been your happiest time in the game so far?
People say you don’t make friends in football, you make acquaintances, and that is a true saying, but the main group of lads I’ve kept in touch with is probably from the Sligo days. We all kind of lived in the same little village, got to know the girlfriends and the kids, we’d all eat together at night, so it was a real family feel. That would be one of the times where I was playing my best football and was at my happiest – not to say I’m not happy now with the Lancaster lads! Make sure you add that…
And on the flipside, has there been a toughest spell?
I think at any club where you’re not playing or you’re injured, it’s always very difficult. I used to joke at Fylde in my last year that I wouldn’t warm up until the 78th minute because I wouldn’t go on until after the 80th! Obviously at Fylde you had Danny Rowe scoring an unreal amount of goals, so you kind of accept that, but other times when you’re not playing it’s having the right attitude to show the manager that you wanna get back in the team.
— AFC Fylde (@AFCFylde) April 30, 2017
For managers you’ve played for previously, who’s probably understood you most and how to get the best from you?
Definitely Cooky, because through my career I’ve had various injuries and had to be dealt with sort of differently, and he was one that trusted me and what I was doing. If I had to take a day off training and go in the gym, he was probably the most understanding.
Is there an example you could give of a player you’ve played with whose ability alone deserved/deserves to be at a higher level (but for whatever reason it didn’t quite happen)?
There’s one that probably most people don’t know of, called Joseph N’Do; he played for Cameroon in a World Cup. He played in France for a while, but how he hasn’t had the opportunity with an English club, I’m not sure. Another one was Richie Ryan, who had a spell at Sligo when I was there, and he was at Sunderland and was the next big thing. He played in the Premier League against Arsenal – because I remember he used to tell me all the time! But his ability, he was like the pivot of a midfield three, his vision and his execution, he had a wonderful left foot. He’s been in America playing for the last few years, playing for a time (at Miami FC) under Alessandro Nesta. I’m surprised he never came and kicked on in the Championship here or in League One.
Have there been any initiations you’ve had to do when joining a new club, and if so, which song(s) have you gone with?!
All the time, probably every club I’ve been to. Lancaster I’ve probably done it two or three times, even when I’m not the newest player. My speciality is ‘Rock DJ’ (Robbie Williams); sometimes Rob Wilson says ‘come on, sing it’ and you end up just cracking on and doing it.
One singer/band/song you’d sneak on to the team playlist? Assuming that you don’t run it already…
I let the young lads do that and some of their music is questionable, to be fair. I’m into my soul music at the minute, so anything that chills me out, I’m more than happy with that.
Finally, when you reflect on all the highs, the harder times, what have you learned most from this time in football?
It’s a tough question to answer actually. (Pauses to think) You come across different people in the game, different characters, different personalities. It’s just taught me to be respectful, be humble, be hard-working, and there’s always somebody coming up who can take your place, so you always have to work hard to maximise your ability and your potential.
Interview by @chris_brookes