Jon Macken has felt firsthand the rush of hitting the net at the highest level, but his switch to Manchester City owed to successes enjoyed at Preston North End. You still find the former striker in the North West today, with a promising start to management at Radcliffe FC, and a situation that shares one or two distinct similarities with the opening to his happiest era as a player.
Play-off showdowns, goals that aided promotions and relegation escapes alike, a £5million move, and an international cap for good measure. In the twilight of his playing days, not all that long ago, he might add, Jon Macken expressed his desire to continue on in football beyond his last game.
At the time, he left the way open for coaching, scouting, or whatever else may present itself within an industry which has been his craft and trade since his teenage years. Encouragingly, a couple of decades involved has not dulled his fervour for football, and having coached in Oldham Athletic’s academy, the former Premier League marksman was handed the managerial chalice for the first time last September by another Greater Manchester club – Radcliffe FC.
In the eighth-tier Evo-Stik North, it was gritty, it was gruelling at times; every bit an authentic introduction to life as a number one. As a player, he remains most closely associated with promotions he was part of at Preston North End and Manchester City, but he also treasures feats like helping keep Barnsley in the Championship.
Nevertheless, Radcliffe’s final placing of 20th from 22 teams – though admittedly 13 points above relegated Goole – left plenty of food for thought heading into his second (and first full) season this time around. After the league restructure, the Boro were placed in the newly-formed Evo-Stik West for 2018/19, and Saturday’s 4-0 win over Newcastle Town has propelled them to the very top of the tree.
Since the start of November, they have won 11 of 13 games in all competitions, and their one-time Irish international gaffer is brimming with upbeat enthusiasm as he shares what he has been bidding to instigate at the club.
“I’m from Blackley, born and bred in Blackley, which is not a million miles away, and I lived in Heywood for a little bit, so it’s not too far away. Obviously I knew about the club; I didn’t have any connections with the club at all but the opportunity arose and I took it.
“It was never going to be easy, but it was an opportunity for me, and at the end of the day, if you want to walk into a job and it’s going to be easy then you’re going to be a very lucky person, or you’re not going to challenge yourself. It’s been a challenge and I’ve loved the challenge.
“I think everybody should look for opportunities that are going to challenge them. When I first took over, it wasn’t doing so well on the pitch.
“To be fair, they’ve worked hard, they’ve had a new chairman, new owners in, and they’ve tried to look at a different structure before I came in. It kind of worked to a certain extent and then it needed I suppose a bit of a push as well.
“I think over the 15/16 months that I’ve been there we’ve all pulled together in the right direction and tried to promote it and push it as best we can. At the moment, we’re getting to a point where the playing side is getting better at all levels; from the first team all the way down to the academy.
“Results and performances are getting a lot better, the morale in the club, the attitude of the club. Instead of being just a ‘typical’ non-league club, it’s now looking to build and really create something.”
May 2017 saw the club announce their switch of name from Radcliffe Borough, which was ratified by The FA for this season. It was under their previous guise that the club had another ex-Man City player, in veteran midfield man Ian Bishop, as well as Liverpool’s European Cup hero Alan Kennedy and maverick former England international Frank Worthington.
Those were all on the playing side, but even as an untried manager joining the club, Jon was described by chairman Paul Hilton, who himself arrived in 2016, as ‘a real coup.’ The former Crystal Palace and Derby County man spoke late last season about how his side’s performances had started to get close to what they were looking for.
Off the pitch, meanwhile, last April saw a partnership with Radcliffe Juniors announced, which is intended to form a pathway up through the club for youngsters, while also bringing more people to first-team games and helping establish the Boro at the heart of the community. Jon was keen to emphasise that when discussing the potential for progression he sees around him.
“There’s massive ambition at the club. The owners and everyone associated, they want promotion, and they want to push the club forward.
“I suppose everybody, when you get involved with the clubs at this kind of level, they’re all looking at the FC Uniteds, the Salfords, and a lot of clubs which have had money ploughed into them and they’ve produced fantastic season after fantastic season. I think going into Radcliffe for the owners and the people involved, they looked at it and identified ‘let’s do it, but we’re gonna have to do it our way, without a mass amount of money.’
“We’re gonna have to try and build, and build the academy, build the reserves and get the first team playing, and build an environment where players want to come and play for the football club. That was a real, difficult task at first, attracting players to the club; when I first took over we were at the bottom end of the table and it’s never easy to bring players to a club when you’re fighting relegation or you’re not winning regularly.
“We’ve now done a tie with Radcliffe Juniors, who are in the community as well, and that’s from 7s all the way up to 17s. So it’s bringing the community together and trying to build that real, club mentality, where it’s a town or it’s a borough, and we’re trying to get the whole area involved in the club and the uplift of it.”
It cannot hurt either to have a man in the dugout who not only knows what it is like to be on board at an upwardly mobile club, but someone who was such a key element at one. Jon had signed pro with Manchester United, having first joined the club in the beginnings of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure at nine years old, though his career began in earnest once he became a Preston player in the summer of 1997.
“It’d become almost comical, your confrontations in training, because you wanted to drive each other to get the maximum out of each other."
With the Division Two side, his footballing adventure caught fire in magnificent fashion in his third season, as he scored 25 goals as the Lilywhites, beaten play-off semi-finalists the year previous, won the title under young manager David Moyes in 1999/2000. Jon led from the front again in the following campaign as they were only denied reaching the top flight by Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers in the play-off final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in May 2001.
His exploits for North End ultimately led to the standout move of his career, as he joined a team he had netted home and away against in 2001/02, with one of those an unforgettable 40-yarder which dropped in perfectly over Nicky Weaver at Deepdale in a televised match. The club were of course Kevin Keegan’s Division One title-bound Man City, and the deal for £5million in March 2002.
It proved the gateway to his three seasons as a Premier League player, but his 74-goal stint with Preston, which began under Gary Peters, was to go down as the most productive of his career. For beginning low down a division and gradually moving up, as well as for the very definite community objective, he notices some similarities to the place where his management journey has now started.
“When I first went to Preston, we were in a similar situation, where we weren’t doing fantastically well in the league that season. I think when David Moyes took over, it was a learning curve for me because I’d come from the reserves at Man United, and you learn a lot about yourself, your attitude, about team spirit and bonding.
“It was a very exciting, happy time for me at Preston, because in the five years that I was there I made some fantastic friends who I’m still friends with now. We had great success and we had a great team spirit.
“It was everything and I’ve always believed that was how we created the success; with the hard work and the team spirit and bonding. We had many arguments on the training pitch, but come a Saturday, we were always together, and then we’d go out together and we’d laugh about it.
“It’d become almost comical, your confrontations in training, because you wanted to drive each other to get the maximum out of each other. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in having that kind of environment and attitude.”
While much has changed in a wider sense for football and for society in recent times, bringing a certain need for its people to adapt in kind, many have urged for the game to hold a place for the ‘characters’ of the sport. In the age of hyper-scrutiny, perhaps some of the players so fondly remembered from the preceding generations, at varying levels of the pyramid, might not have emerged today, with the criteria of modern football deeming them unsuitable.
What many of those players had, however, was an elusive ingredient, and that is not just the attacking guile or spellbinding skill to win a game, as Jon points to when highlighting a Preston teammate who sticks in the mind that bit more than most.
“There’s loads but Sean Gregan was a massive character. He was obviously captain but on and off the pitch he was a leader.
“Some of the things he got up to, it was comical, it was brilliant, but that brings a team together sometimes. His performance when he got on the pitch, it was up there.
“He’s still a very good friend of mine and I still ask his advice on things, because like I said about the arguments, me and him must have had hundreds in our training sessions, but after it we were always shaking hands and we were always best mates, because we strived to be the best and to push each other and everybody else. You need leaders, you need characters in your team.
“Characters doesn’t mean you have to go out and do something stupid and cause controversy; characters can be ‘I’ll speak up when something needs to be said.’ They won’t shy away from the big questions that need to be asked.
“The big characters are the ones that stand up after a match and help clean the dressing rooms, or the ones who’ll say to the manager ‘well, this isn’t good enough, we need new equipment.’ They’re the people you need around the place, who look to deal with situations within the team group themselves, without having to come to the management or the club.
“I’ve tried to bring those types of players in.”
Although having grandparents hailing from Cavan led to Jon representing Brian Kerr’s Republic of Ireland against Bulgaria in August 2004, he was part of an England side that competed at the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championship in Malaysia, appearing in the group win over the United Arab Emirates. Ted Powell’s squad contained Michael Owen, Danny Murphy, Jamie Carragher, Matthew Upson and Kieron Dyer, but the Young Lions would lose 2-1 in the last eight to an Argentina team including future world stars Juan Román Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Walter Samuel and Esteban Cambiasso.
While erstwhile top-level competitors are dotted around non-league, the vast majority who ply their trade at these levels have a very different background in the game to someone like Jon who began at Manchester United, and so too his assistant, Frank Sinclair, who came up at Chelsea and played 26 seasons, and in a World Cup for Jamaica.
Jon was never a teammate of the ex-Leicester City defender, but there was a familiarity which grew considerably once their respective attentions turned to life after playing.
“We’ve known each other for a while. I’ve known him from playing against each other and then we’ve done a few courses and we went away with the PFA together and we got on.
“When you meet people you kind of get a connection, and when I was thinking about my role (at Radcliffe), automatically I thought about Frank. I said he’d suit exactly my mentality, and I suppose philosophy; I’m not a big believer in that word, but the way I do things and the way I want to be a manager of a football club.
“I told him my ideas and how I saw him involved in the club and he was of the same mindset as me. We work hard together.”
Former Colwyn Bay and Hednesford Town manager Sinclair’s playing days ran pretty much concurrently with Jon’s, but while sharing the same key ideals is hugely important, so too is having different perspectives to bring to the table. Jon concurs with the school of thought that there is precious little value in a ‘yes man.’
“A million percent. I brought a lad (Steve Atkinson) who I worked with at Oldham Athletic in their academy set-up and he’s a similar mindset as us; we all have our opinions.
“I’m a big believer in that at the end of the day, the axe will fall on my head if we make bad decisions and the results aren’t right, but we have a collective of ideas and then we come to an agreement of the best way. I couldn’t think of anything worse than having somebody next to you who just agrees with everything that you say, because I don’t think then you’re going to be challenged or doubt yourself.
“You’ll just keep saying ‘yeah, I must be right,’ 100 percent of the time, and I don’t know anyone in human history who’s ever been right 100 percent of the time! It’s very, very pleasing at times when I’ve got people like Frank and Steve at the side of me who in certain game situations will say something to me, it’ll jig my mind and I’ll go ‘yeah, great idea, let’s do it.’
“That’s what you need; you’ve got to build a good team around you who you trust to make good decisions, have ideas and speak up and say them. As we all know anyway, Frank is outspoken and he knows his stuff, so why wouldn’t you take advantage of that and listen to somebody like Frank Sinclair?”
Sinclair’s final season (2003/2004) at Leicester saw him come up against Jon, who struck in Man City’s 3-1 FA Cup third round replay success away to the Foxes. What followed in round four was a tie at Tottenham Hotspur that Jon remains somewhat synonymous with.
Three down at the break and with Joey Barton sent off, the City fans at White Hart Lane created an atmosphere through the interval that seemed to indicate that they held the advantage and not their hosts. In the second half, Sylvain Distin, Paul Bosvelt and Shaun Wright-Phillips brought it back to 3-3, leaving the crowning moment to Jon, who expertly headed home Michael Tarnat’s cross in the dying minutes before celebrating in front of a disbelievingly jubilant away section.
Then there was his goal in the 4-1 Manchester Derby win the following month, a swivelling finish to put Keegan’s side two up just after the half hour on a memorable day in front of 47,284 at Eastlands. You do not have to have played for the club to appreciate just how much separates the Man City of then and now, though certain elements do indeed remain from Jon’s time as a Blue.
"That’s one thing where you look back and you’re disappointed, but it is what it is; if someone invents a time machine, you go back and you look to do things differently."
When he reflects, did it feel a very different setting for him to try and make his mark within, compared to what he had known at Preston?
“It did, to a certain extent. They were a lot bigger club, they were fighting for promotion, as were Preston at the time, and when I went there it was massive.
“Massive characters who were at the top of their game or who’d done some fantastic things in football, and it was inspiring. It was a great time for me to be there.
“It’s just unfortunate at times that certain clubs you go to, certain players pick up injuries, and it was just one of them times for me. I just picked up injury after injury, and it was always kind of stop-start; I never really got a good run at things where I could express myself and build myself into the environment.
“That’s one thing where you look back and you’re disappointed, but it is what it is; if someone invents a time machine, you go back and you look to do things differently. You can’t do that, so you’ve got to look at it and move forward, and take from that into where I am now.
“I’ll look at different scenarios, how I felt as a player, being injured or not getting back into the team, and try and advise people in the correct way. I’ll also take the positives and try and turn some of those negatives into positives for where I am now as a coach and a manager.”
In just over three years with City, Jon featured 59 times, though only 31 from the start, scoring 12 goals. Kevin Keegan had left towards the end of his final campaign there, with another ex-England international, Stuart Pearce, taking over, initially as caretaker.
The final day of 2004/05 is part of Premier League folklore, not just for West Bromwich Albion’s great escape under Bryan Robson, but for what happened at Eastlands. City required a win over Steve McClaren’s Middlesbrough to pip their opponents to a UEFA Cup spot, and with the score at 1-1 and time fast ebbing away, Pearce famously replaced midfielder Claudio Reyna with goalkeeper Nicky Weaver.
The substitution was City’s third of the game and saw keeper David James go up front, despite Pearce having an orthodox striker on the bench in Jon. It appeared an especially bemusing move as towering England keeper James clattered clumsily into players as he tried to adapt to an outfield role, though City had a golden chance to win, only for Robbie Fowler’s penalty to be saved by Mark Schwarzer in stoppage time.
Less than a month later, Jon signed for Crystal Palace, and as he looks back almost 14 years later at his manager’s decision on that final day, does he feel any differently to how he did at the time?
“It’s a strange one. At the time, I knew it was happening, because you hear little rumours about it; someone’s got a shirt and so on.
“Did I think he was going to do it? Honestly, no, but then again, managers sometimes do things for their own reasons, rather than for the benefit of the group.
“I think at the time, that was the case, if I’m perfectly honest. People mention it to me all the time and I just say ‘well yeah, he made that decision, that was up to him.’
“I could have gone on and scored a goal to win that game; I may not have, but we’ll never know because that decision was taken out of my hands. I would never do that; I think that was a little bit disrespectful, if I’m honest.
“It was disrespectful not only to myself but to the players that were playing as well. If you speak to lads now that were in that team they’ll all mention that as a big part of the way they felt afterwards.
“So, I wouldn’t do that. I think I’d have too much respect for people and also too much respect for myself than doing something like that.
“There’s no reason why that should have been done. You look at coaching, you look at management, you try and improve yourself, and in my eyes, doing something like that is not going to improve me or the team.”
In a strange, loose sort of parallel, Radcliffe faced Curzon Ashton this season in the FA Cup second qualifying round, with their opponents’ keeper Cameron Mason taking a penalty at 1-1 in the first half, which was saved by Ollie Martin. Of course the conclusion to Jon’s City career had not played out as he wished, but had he enjoyed a decent rapport with Stuart Pearce, a City teammate from 2002, prior to that?
“I never had a problem with him at all. We can all have our difference of opinions as coaches and managers, but they all have their own styles, and you just get on with it as a player.
“In terms of afterwards, if you’re honest, you’re going to lose a bit of respect for somebody if they do something like that, aren’t you? It’s a case of ‘I don’t understand why you’ve done it,’ nobody’s ever done it again, David James has never gone up front in any team he’s played for, so that should tell its own story.
“Jamo’s a great lad, but I think he’ll be the first to say that when he came on, it’s not the most productive or greatest thing he’s ever done! In a way, I suppose he was a little bit embarrassed about it as well.
“At the end of the day, that’s history, and we all learn.”
Another striker who came to part ways with the club in 2005 was Nicolas Anelka, who left for Fenerbahçe in the January transfer window. The Frenchman’s talents were always impossible to deny, though the former Arsenal and Real Madrid man acquired a reputation as an aloof character during his years in England.
When he joined City in summer 2002, it was a symbol of the exciting new era for the club, returning to the top table far stronger than they had in their ill-fated 2000/2001 campaign. He would deliver plenty of goals, though one tale, as told by Shaun Goater in his book 'Feed the Goat,' was that on Robbie Fowler's first day of training, having completed the standard meetings with medical staff which mean you join training a little later than the rest of the squad that day, City still had not started.
As Fowler enquired why they had yet to begin, he was told they were waiting on Anelka, who was then dropped off at the pitch by the golf cart used to collect training equipment. Does Jon think that sounds plausible, from what he recalls of his former teammate?!
“Well I remember he was always...not late, but very, very last-minute on the training pitch! If we had to be out at 10:30 it was always 10:29:57 that he was coming out.
“But once again, I always got on with Nic. He was always okay, he was a very quiet lad, he’d never really get involved with massive conversations; not with the English lads anyway, he’d speak a lot with the French lads.
“He was a good character. I suppose he had his issues with the management team that I don’t know about, but he was alright, Nic.
“He did well for Man City at the end of the day.”
In truth, it was not until Jon’s move to Barnsley in 2007/08 that the games and goals flowed regularly again, as he played his part in the Reds staving off relegation from the Championship on three occasions. He would also register tallies of nine and eight for Walsall in League One to round off his Football League career, before non-league called, with Northwich Victoria, Stockport County and Bamber Bridge (as he came out of retirement with the latter in 2015).
"The mind’s a very powerful tool, and if you can get into the mind and make them believe they can run through brick walls, then they’re at least going to try."
As much as Man City have changed, so too have another club who were prepared to shell out a few million for him – Wolverhampton Wanderers. He was hot property, Preston’s reigning Player of the Year, and Wolves’ £4million bid in 2001/02 proved unsuccessful, so it was Keegan’s side who would later land him.
Save his brief return to Newcastle United in 2008, City was the charismatic Keegan’s last managerial venture (to date). Many who have worked with him say his style would lean far more toward managing personalities than intricate tactical masterplans, which Jon goes along with.
Although very evidently his own man, he has tried to sprinkle a touch of his old gaffer’s approach into his own highly encouraging managerial beginnings.
“We always knew exactly where we stood. In team talks he’d give us information about every single player, their strengths and weaknesses and so forth.
“He was very much a people’s person; he’d try and lift you before games, he’d get you feeling really confident. That’s something I look into as well, because I try and get them believing in each other and in themselves before a game, and at half-time and after games, at training.
“The mind’s a very powerful tool, and if you can get into the mind and make them believe they can run through brick walls, then they’re at least going to try. I’m a big believer in the positive side, positive thinking around squads.”
Each manager in The Bosses’ Lounge also takes on a unique Q&A...
When did you want to start coaching/managing?
It was after I finished playing, if I’m honest. I wasn’t really too interested in it while I was playing, which I regret now, but I think after you finish you have a bit of time to reflect. When you’re at home on your own and everybody’s gone out and you’re watching things, one month, two months’ rest you were looking forward to becomes frustration and boredom, so you look into it. Fortunately, I’ve done (the badges) now and I just want to progress as far as I can.
Which training sessions do you enjoy leading the most?
Well, I like to manage. I like to manage sessions, I like to manage people, I like to explain what I want to do, and then go and do it. In terms of sessions, I like to be in and around the lads. I like to be part of it and telling them when it’s not right, and then also laughing and joking with them, but I suppose that’s management. You can’t always be happy and jolly, sometimes you have to let them know that standards aren’t good enough.
Will you ever take part in training (in terms of actually being in the sessions as an active part, like an extra player)?
Yeah, I have done. Me and Frank, we both have, a few times. He actually went in net the other day for a session that I did and he was unbelievable, so I might be signing him up as a reserve goalie!
Favourite ground that you’ve visited or would like to visit
I used to love playing at White Hart Lane. It’s just one of them grounds that you always wanted to go and play at, it was a great environment to be in. I always loved playing there before that game (Spurs 3 Man City 4, 2004), and after that game. Sometimes you just get grounds you really enjoy going to, even as fans.
Favourite player to watch (past or present)
The first World Cup I remember was ’86, and after watching Maradona in that, it was just ‘wow.’ You saw him do things and he just inspired me to be better – although I never modelled my game on him!
And how would you sell the club to him, if you were trying to sign him for Radcliffe (in his prime)?!
(Sheepishly, given the player in question) We’ve got a great social community…(laughing). I try and tell any player that I try and sign, how we try to play football, our mentality going forward, what I see his role in the football club and how I want him to make it better.
Pre-season tour anywhere in the world
Ibiza. Everybody looks at it as being a massive party island, which it is, but it’s also a fantastic vacation as well. You can go over there with the family, and it’s got some unbelievable beaches. I just think it’s an all-round beautiful island.
Most challenging/frustrating part of your job
I think recruitment is the most difficult part of it. We can all go on about finances but at the end of the day you get a budget and you try to stick within the limits of that. I think recruitment’s the hardest, because we’re all out to get the best players, for as much as you can afford, so I think the biggest challenge in these divisions is to get your recruitment right. If you get it right, you can get the type of player and character you want in the club, which is going to help you play the style of football you want, and it’s also going to help the club go forward in terms of the team spirit and the belief.
Funniest player/coach you’ve worked with, or just one of the funniest
There’s two: Sean Gregan and Kevin Horlock. When something serious has happened and you’re a bit down, the one-liners come out and you’re all relaxed again. Those two, once again, big players and big characters in the game.
Most embarrassing moment as a manager/coach
I suppose there’s been loads that people can tell you but I always just try and laugh it out! I try to forget them ones.
Your routine on a match day
I don’t like to be totally structured and one-dimensional, and that comes back down to adapting. I could be driving to get there for 12:30, and there might be traffic, so I don’t get there until quarter to 1. If I make my own mind believe that there’s something going on, ‘it’s not right,’ that’s my problem; I can’t take that out on anybody else. So I’ve always put that far away from me, when I was a player and now as a coach and a manager.
One singer/band or song you would sneak on to the team playlist
You’ve got me there. Anything Oasis, I think.
Advice you remember getting that’s stuck with you
I honestly believe you’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to go and enjoy yourself, and if you’re not enjoying it, move on, because it’s too short of an opportunity. This is kind of a daft answer, but every manager, every coach, it’s all so serious all the time, and they forget to enjoy it. I tell my team now, some of the lads, ‘you got into football for what reason? Because you enjoy it. You didn’t get into it because you thought ‘I’m gonna do this for 12 years and then get a job in it.’' It’s the same with coaching; you got into it because you love being on the training pitch, or on the sidelines on a Saturday or a Tuesday etc. So go and enjoy it; take it seriously, but don’t take everything on board as if it’s do or die.
If you could have some time with any manager, past or present
There’s a few, if you think about it, but I’d love to speak to Sir Alex Ferguson. I think Brian Clough as well; I’d love to have a couple of days with him and hear his stories and his attitude on people and players, on everything. Then you can look at Pep (Guardiola) as well, because he’s revolutionised the game.
Any misconceptions about you as a manager/personality, myths you’d like to dispel, or something you wish people could understand a bit more?
There was one that I was 6 foot 4, in a team talk from a manager apparently! It was one that a friend of mine was in and he actually put his hand up and said ‘no, excuse me, he’s only 5’11”, I played with him last year.’ But 6 foot 4 sounds better!
And finally, what’s the best thing about having this life around football? When you wake up and football’s your focus for the day, do you still get that same buzz as you always did?
Absolutely love it. I love the game days; you get that buzz back for the game, you can’t wait for it. I can’t wait for tomorrow’s game; the weather’s not gonna be fantastic but it’s just the buzz. That feeling of a Saturday afternoon, you turn up at the ground and you can see people getting ready, being busy sorting out what they need to do. Then the players turn up, and 'bang,' you’re out. It’s just a fantastic environment to be in and around. I suppose every ex-player will say they’d give their right arm to be back out there, but I’ve had some fantastic times in football and this season and even last season, I’ve had some great moments. Hairs standing up and you get that adrenaline back as well, because you’ve got a win when you needed one, someone scored a goal out of nothing and it’s got you back in the game. It’s fantastic to be around.
This feature is dedicated to Radcliffe FC photographer Peter Lee, who tragically died last month on the way back from the club’s Lancashire Cup game at Ashton Athletic.
Interview/article by @chris_brookes