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Exclusive: Jim Bentley talks 17 years at Morecambe, his new adventure at AFC Fylde, and that Facebook poll

Jim Bentley_780519

Player, captain, coach, player-manager, manager.

In 17 topsy-turvy years at Morecambe, Jim Bentley lived and breathed football in every possible way, often under the most testing of conditions. Over the course of eight-and-a-half years as Shrimps boss Bentley constantly defied the odds to preserve the club’s Football League status, before he decided to make the tough decision to undertake a fresh new challenge at AFC Fylde.

Five weeks after Bentley’s appointment at the National League side, The Sack Race ventured over to Mill Farm - the impressive multi-million pound Sports Village he now calls home - to discuss the 43-year-old’s managerial career to date in the third instalment of our In The Manager’s Office series.

“When myself and my assistant Kenny [Ken McKenna] drove in for training the day after I was appointed at AFC Fylde I had to remind him to put on his indicator and get off at Junction 32, as 33 is for Lancaster where we used to train, and 34 is for Morecambe. I think we’ve just about got used to it now though!”

It’s difficult to not be impressed by the surroundings of Mill Farm, and it doesn’t take long to see what attracted Bentley to make the unusual decision to step down the managerial ladder from League Two to non-league; with the state-of-the-art facilities, swish 6,000-seater stadium, and 3G pitches providing a solid foundation for the club’s not-so-secret goal of becoming a Football League club.

“The Chairman is very ambitious, he wants promotion and if that means me working all hours God sends then I’ll do that. I base myself on hard work and if it means me making the sacrifices of my family to help things happen at Fylde then I believe that I’d do that to make my family’s life better in the future.

“The approach came after AFC Fylde had sacked Dave Challinor after eight years - he was the longest-serving manager in the top-five divisions after myself. He did a fantastic job there. I saw a few people were getting tipped for the job then suddenly Morecambe got a phone call asking for permission to speak to me. The timing was right as Morecambe hadn’t given me a new deal in the summer.

“Fylde is a successful club on the up with a great story so far. Now I’m here it’s up to me to stamp my personality on it and do what I think is right to move the club forward.

“I don’t want to be seen as a manager that can just keep a club in a division every year, I want to go down as a manager who wins promotions and goes on good cup runs, and I now have the opportunity to do that at AFC Fylde where I will give it my absolute all.”

Ahead of the weekend’s trip down to the capital, there’s a real buzz around the place following back-to-back league wins, a winning streak which was extended to three matches in a row after Fylde beat Kingstonian and progressed through to the FA Cup third round for the first time ever. Five weeks in and Bentley had already created history, both for the club and on a personal level.

Jim Bentley in his new surroundings at AFC Fylde
Jim Bentley in his new surroundings at AFC Fylde

It was towards the start of the decade that Bentley made his first steps into the coaching arena at Morecambe. Then come May 2011 he was unveiled as the club’s player-manager following the departure of Sammy McIlroy.

“I was at an end-of-season do having a chat and a drink with the General Manager at the time. All of a sudden I started to think ‘hang on he’s asking me a few questions here’.

“I then got a phone call off Peter McGuigan [then Chairman] and he wanted me to go and meet him for a chat. As I headed over I was thinking he was going to ask me who I thought should replace Sammy McIlroy but in the back of my mind I was hoping it might be me as I’d cut my teeth managing the reserves.

“We had a cup of tea and a good honest and open chat, and it didn’t take long for me to know that it was in fact an interview. I did myself no harm as he offered me the job.”

Bentley managed Morecambe for a whopping 8-and-a-half-years
Bentley managed Morecambe for a whopping 8-and-a-half-years

So at the age of just 34 Bentley had opened the door to his managerial career, but while his position was titled ‘player-manager’ he decided against stepping out of the field of play. He now had the challenge of managing players he was previously teammates with.

“If you’re honest, open and do things the right way then people will respect you for it. I’d already coached the reserves for 18 months, during which I’d made the move from the player’s dressing room to the staff room. I’d had a foot in both camps which was a great transitional period for me, although I must add that I never grassed anyone up and I wasn’t a spy!”

You may think that training facilities are a given at Football League clubs, but there were occasions when Bentley’s Morecambe had to look to the local community for help, just so they could prepare for games.

“The toughest thing was having nowhere to train. So many things went on that I could write a book on it. We had a high-school where we used to train so anytime it rained it wouldn’t just go and sit on top of the surface but come underneath as well.

"It was even waterlogged in August, three days before the start of the season.

“We also used to lean on the local college - Morecambe & Lancaster College - but they’ve got lessons and their own teams that played there so you had to juggle around to try and get a pitch. It was a big headache.

“There was a lot of doom and gloom when everyone wasn’t getting paid. It was all over the local news and even the national news. It was a really stressful time for us all. The owners had gone away, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was the threat of administration and even worse liquidation. 

“That’s not football, that’s life, with people coming to see you about mortgages and child care and things like that.

"But I’m proud of what happened at that stage, we put on a positive front, battled hard and thankfully we got through it and we moved on to a positive outcome.”

During his time at Morecambe Bentley worked under difficult financial restraints, and quite remarkably he never spent a single penny on transfer fees in over eight years at the helm.

“We didn’t have a scout, you’re going off any information you can get. Myself and Kenny would go to a lot of games, do a lot of homework, and speak to people who we know in the game about certain individuals who we were looking to sign. There’s a lot of players who lose their way. I did mention once that Morecambe had become a bit like a dog’s home with regards to bringing players in like a nice pedigree dog which just needed tidying up.

“Tom Barkhuizen was probably the best example. He left Blackpool and looked like he was falling out of love with the game but we got him in, and while he took a bit of time to get going once he was up and running and he had a platform to show what he can do. He’s now one of the Championship’s best players.

But Bentley did rue the time Morecambe didn’t have the cash to snap up a talented non-league player who would go on to play in the Premier League.

“I once went to watch Hinckley United and saw a player that I liked the look of. I did a little bit of digging and found out that he was going to cost x amount of money. I asked Morecambe if it was possible to get him, they said no. If there was a couple of quid spare I would have taken him there and then based on that one game. 

“A couple of months later he moved on to Luton, then Brentford, Burnley and now he’s at Watford - that player was Andre Gray. A few seasons ago when Morecambe played Burnley in pre-season I told him that instead of being in the Premier League he could have been living the dream and playing at Morecambe. He looked at me like I was mad!

“But we did have success stories and it shows that you don’t have to just have money to succeed. I’m proud that we’ve played a big part in a lot of players’ professional careers.”

Andre Gray: From Hickley to the Premier League
Andre Gray: From Hickley to the Premier League

Mid-way through the 2017/18 season the FA smacked Bentley with a fine and a two-match touchline ban after he was sent to the stands during Morecambe’s clash with Cheltenham.

“That was my first ever touchline ban. It was a difficult week for me as I’d lost a family member and the club hadn’t been paid.

“I didn’t agree with the decision that was made and I didn’t agree with what happened after the incident with regards to opposition players and how they reacted to get one of my players sent off. It was just a culmination of everything. I’m quite mild-mannered although I look like I could flip me lid! I have got breaking points and that was my breaking point at that stage. I didn’t do myself any favours, I got sent off, I got fined and a touchline ban.”

Then, unbeknown to Bentley, the Morecambe fans clubbed together and paid for his fine, which produced a heartwarming managerial moment, captured live on TV.

“It was after we beat Notts County at home 4-1. There were four of us in the room and when I was told what the fans did I saw a little tear in the eye of each person present and I got quite emotional, but I don’t mind that. It’s the way I am. I care about my football club. It was an unbelievably nice touch.

“From day one I’ve always had a great relationship and interaction with the fans at Morecambe. So when they paid my fan I teamed up with Sky and we got them all a pie and a pint, which was just my way of repaying them.”

The summer of 2018 saw Arsene Wenger end his 22-year tenure at Arsenal, then soon after Paul Tisdale left Exeter City after 12 years at the helm, meaning England’s top-four leagues had a new name at the top of the ‘longest-serving manager’ leaderboard: Jim Bentley.

“I was out and about at the time and suddenly my phone started buzzing with Whatsapp messages and texts. As soon as I opened the first one I knew what had happened. 

“It was a bit strange because when you grow up and see the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger having such long tenures you think that you’ve got to be in your 50s-60s-70s to be the longest-serving manager, but I was 41 - I’d only been a manager for seven years.

One of Bentley’s most memorable Morecambe moments came against one of his good mates, with his instrumental half-time teamtalk hailed as the ‘best-ever’ by Morecambe player Kevin Ellison, who knows a thing or two about team talks given that he’s spent 23 years - and counting) - playing the beautiful game.

“We played Chesterfield when they were managed by Paul Cook, a good mate of mine. They were the best side in the league and they came to Morecambe one Saturday and we were 3-0 down at half-time, and honestly it could have been eight - they absolutely battered us. 

“The players were probably expecting a bashing from me, and while it would have been easy to have gone in and ranted and raved, I could sense that the players were all tense with their heads down. It was only afterwards that Kevin Ellison said something in the paper about it being one of the best team talks he’d ever heard because we came back and won 4-3. It was unbelievable and cracking to be involved in. I’ll take a big pat on the back for that one!”

Bentley battled for a new deal in the summer of 2019 but nothing ever materialised. His frustrations then soared after it was revealed that one of the owners had publicly voted against him.

“There as a Facebook poll which asked whether I should be sacked. One of the owners voted that I should be, not knowing that his face and his name was going to flash up. When I was shown that I knew I didn’t have the backing and that was the final straw. I base myself on respect, hard-work, relationships and people so after that I felt the time was right to leave.

“It was 17 years of my life. All the biggest events of my life happened when I was at that club. Getting married, having kids, losing family members, it’s been a big part of my life and always will be.

“When I walked out the door for the final time as manager I thought that there wasn’t much more I could actually have done there.”

Bentley will now look to make more history in the FA Cup third round, and if fate has its way then, who knows, he could soon manage against his beloved Blues in the competition.

“I’ve said this in the past but it would be my dream job to manage Everton, it’s a long way away but if you can’t aim for the top then you shouldn’t be in the game. It would be the top job for me.

"However, at the moment all I’m focused on is my job at AFC Fylde, which I’m extremely passionate and excited about.”

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