Grantham Town

A François Zoko without a bolt of unpredictability seems a contradiction in terms, but the Ivorian-born forward has his next step very clearly mapped out these days. A player-coach role at Grantham Town this season has the former Carlisle United favourite’s hands full, though it is not quite time to bid ‘bon soirée’ to the playing days of the artist informally known as ‘Uncle’.

Trailing Oldham Athletic 3-1 at home, Carlisle United boss Greg Abbott introduces François Zoko at half-time of an October 2011 League One encounter. The switch pays dividends three minutes later, as he races through to clip a right-footer between sliding defender and onrushing keeper, into the far corner.

A brief but ultimately futile glimmer of hope it seems, until a 94th-minute crowd scene in the Oldham box. With Carlisle keeper Adam Collin’s presence ramping up the havoc, there is the home side’s aforementioned lucky number 13, on the line and seemingly pinned by his marker, only to flick home with continental class to cap a three-goal Cumbrian comeback.

The first of his English clubs, Carlisle remain treasured by the Parisian, and in that final season at Brunton Park, there were all sorts of finishes to enjoy. Five more Football League clubs followed for François in the next seven years, with Yeovil Town somewhere he has left a particular impression. This season has brought his first journey into non-league, though not with the relegated Glovers.

Instead he is over 200 miles away, as player-coach at Grantham Town in the top flight of the BetVictor Northern Premier League. As well as his first-team involvement, the role encompasses football in the community, with François recently leading half-term soccer schools.

“This position, I was kind of doing a bit at Yeovil,” he explains. “When you are the club captain, you are the experienced player, and I was playing with a lot of younger players.”

“I had to try to help them to develop, so I’ve been doing that for two or three years now, even if last year I didn’t do it like I had been, for different reasons. The responsibility that I had is kind of similar to what I have now as a player-coach.

“The manager at Yeovil, Darren Way, pushed me more towards coaching, giving me some sessions to take; finishing, some sessions with the youth team. So, it’s something I have a plan with to progress, and I believe Grantham is a great step for me to go forward.

“Grantham have a lot of history and it’s a good town. They did a lot of good things in the past and I believe we can reproduce that in a better way.

“I knew some of the players – James Berrett, (Danny) Racchi – and the team has some good potential, but it will take time to change things. Two, three weeks, or one month, you don’t really see the impact, but we are starting to work now and I’m looking forward to help the club and to help the team, alongside the managers.”

As well as the role alongside Russell Cousins, Paul Rawden and the staff at Grantham, his locality to the Lincolnshire club was a significant factor in the move for the former Notts County player. Relegated back to non-league in April after 16 years, previous club Yeovil were officially taken over by Scott Priestnall in September, and are currently 5th in the Vanarama National League in Darren Sarll’s first season.

François, whose departure was confirmed alongside eight other players at the end of 2018/19, details whether there was any possibility of extending his stay with the Somerset side.

“At Yeovil, I did my work there for three-and-a-half years, and I think it was possible (to stay), because they already started talking about being a player-coach there. The thing is, the distance between me and the family after four years started to be a little bit harder.

“Also, when I took the decision to leave, there was a lot of uncertainty over there; you don’t know who will stay at the club, and with all of that, I didn’t see myself developing well as a younger coach, or a player-coach, and I didn’t know who the manager was going to be. Fortunately for them, now it looks to be solved, but for me, being at Grantham, I live in Nottingham, and like I said, it’s a very good club to develop at.

“They have a good academy and the challenge is exciting for me, so, Yeovil was just a decision made for personal reasons.”

He arrived with the club only a few months on from suffering successive relegations, but scoring 36 times in all, it became the most sustained spell at a club in his career to date. It also happened to be where his ‘Uncle’ nickname was cultivated!

“At Yeovil, like I say, I was one of the experienced players, and players like Olufela Olomola, who plays for Carlisle, Connor Roberts, who plays now for Swansea, all of the young lads, it was just natural, because I was kind of the protector! They started to call me Uncle, because sometimes I have to be angry with them, sometimes I have to be relaxed with them, and it came naturally like that.

“So now I don’t even know if they call me by my name!”

There was a time when he himself was the novice, in an English football sense at least. François was 26 when he first linked up with Carlisle in 2010, impressing on trial with the League One outfit and choosing to spurn other interest, as the Cumbrians had pursued him first.

He recalls a settling-in period with no shortage of welcoming faces.

“It was all the team, the manager, Greg Abbott, Graham Kavanagh, Paul Thirlwell, the captain at that time, Peter Murphy. I was living in the same house as Gary Madine, who’s still my good friend, so I was with the Newcastle boys!

“It was a very good club, and it was because of the group we had that we won the (Johnstone’s Paint) Trophy that year. I wasn’t lost, like sometimes when you come to a new country, I was with the boys, looking after me.

“My English was rubbish! We were joking about that every time, but I was speaking every day and I wasn’t shy to try it. When I played in Turkey (for Hacettepe), I tried to pick up a little bit of English, because over there, they were translating French or English.

“The boys helped me and tried to speak French too to help me understand. Things like TV can help, but it wasn’t easy at the start, because it was too fast!

“After that, you pick it up. My family came up there, the club helped me, and everything was okay.”

He tells how his experience living with Gary Madine could not be further from the impression some have of the controversial Cardiff City striker. Like him, François would go on to test his credentials at a higher level, though his move to Blackpool was an especially belated one in the end.

“The thing is, people know Carlisle is special for me. At that time, the manager was Greg Abbott, who I have a good relationship with, and at the time, I didn’t really see if the club was wanting to push for promotion.

“I wanted the opportunity to play Championship football…which I then turned down! I had the opportunity to go to Blackpool with Ian Holloway and I turned it down because the contract, the chairman, all of that, I wasn’t sure.

“I signed for Notts County, and we had a very good team, but unfortunately, we were changing managers and there was instability.”

As a League One player with that desirable ‘X factor’ in the final third, there had been plenty of admiring glances from Championship sides while he was at Carlisle. It was 2014/15 when he finally featured in the second tier, after one season at Notts County and another at Stevenage that sadly brought relegation (though he top-scored with 16).

His first goal for Blackpool was a match-winning effort. The only goal of the game at home to Cardiff City, it lifted Jose Riga’s side off the bottom of the table in October 2014, and was their first win of that campaign.

It came at a time when the Tangerine Army were under a cloud that was not to shift for quite some years, with protests against the Oyston family’s ownership a significant part of that Cardiff game and indeed so many others. François spent the final few months of the season on loan at Bradford City in League One, and he played in four rounds of the FA Cup for the Bantams. Although he started the 2-0 scalp of top-flight Sunderland on their way to the quarter-final, he missed the 4-2 away win over Jose Mourinho’s Premier League title-bound Chelsea in round four.

Sidelined at the time, that would have been one of the most spectacular memories of François’ career. Fortunately, he has many, but is there a happiest time in football – for life on and off the pitch, the company he shared and more – that he reflects on today?

“It’s different experiences I’ve lived as a player, so you can’t really pick one to say ‘this is my best one,’ but you have two or three points in your career that you will pick. Winning the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy with Carlisle was one, at Wembley, and in my first season in England.

“In France, at Nancy, I went through the academy and played for them, scored on my first start. Also playing at Parc des Princes, against Paris Saint-Germain, my club, because I’m from Paris.

“In the stadium, I was going to support them, and a few years later I was playing against Ronaldinho in the cup. I have a lot of memories and good experiences.

“When I went to Turkey, different style of football, different culture, and I really enjoyed it. Every country I played in, I had highs and lows, but I focus more on the highs.

“I’m happy with all of the experiences.”

Although he almost certainly wasn’t in the crowd at London Road, Ronaldinho would have been mightily proud himself of François’ ‘double roulette’ and nutmeg to break away from two Peterborough United players during Stevenage’s 1-0 win six years ago. He was given his breakthrough at Nancy by the late Francis Smerecki, and Tottenham Hotspur boss Mauricio Pochettino and Manchester City assistant Mikel Arteta were also in the Paris Saint-Germain side he faced in that 2002 game he mentioned – not too many in non-league can claim similar.

Humility is something that he keeps with him, however, and his travels have played no small part in the appreciation and respect for the wider world he has. He played in Turkish capital Ankara for Hacettepe, in a nation where fan fervour is effectively redefined, and for Belgian side KV Oostende, where he got back in the groove after around eight months out injured.

Along with his invaluable experiences to share as a coach, he has been among the goals since his late-September arrival at Grantham, coming on to bag a late consolation in the recent FA Trophy defeat to Halesowen Town. The Gingerbreads are 14th in the Northern Premier League’s Premier Division, but in touch with the play-off places, and François believes afternoons and evenings will not be wasted supporting the side in their push for progression.

“I think people should come to the stadium because it’s a great club. Any club needs the fans, any club needs the people around to make the place more exciting, and players will respond.

“I believe the club is going the right way and the club wants to go forward and be ambitious. I think Grantham have every ingredient to be ambitious and our fans should be excited to come and push us on.

“If you see no fans in the stadium, maybe some players don’t bother, but when the stadium is full, you have to give. I already respect the numbers, and the people have to come and push us, because anything is possible.”

Yeovil’s Championship promotion hero of 2013, Paddy Madden, was a Carlisle teammate of François, and it is fair to say the Irishman’s music preferences haven’t always resonated with teammates down the years! Nevertheless, François says the Fleetwood Town striker can take some credit for something he still turns to today to help fill his admittedly limited non-footballing time.

“My mate Paddy Madden, he made me listen to Kings of Leon, and I still listen to them! I’m really open with music, but most of it is Afrobeats – makes me move a little bit!

“My family is very important. This is the transition period for me in football, so my time is very important and I don’t want to waste anything, I want to observe, learn.

“Music is always important, and I’m also a very big fan of playing chess, so that’s one of the things that relaxes me and I’m passionate about.”

Ability has always been apparent with François, and without his footballing attributes, it is true that fans who have taken to him would likely never have had the chance. Graciousness not goals, though, are his most commendable trait, as many will attest to.

That comes to the fore as he stops to consider what football has taught him the most along the way. A last dose of wisdom from this esteemed Uncle.

“I learned to understand you are a person before a footballer. This is what I will carry on as coach, as manager; I will see people as a person, not as a player.

“The more you treat them as a person, you will get more from them, because people respect that. When you treat someone just as a player, no relationship, you don’t know his life, it’s harder.

“Also, if you don’t work, you get nothing. In life as well, football allowed me to travel, to see another side of the world, so after that, you can be calm in a situation and say ‘it’s just football,’ because the world is vast.

“So, it’s a lot of humility, if you want to say it like that.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes