A footballers Journey – Jon Balm

In the second of our features on local sports people , Sport Furness caught up with Jon Balm about his journey from playing local football, to his time at Everton and then his journey after leaving the Toffees.
Jon kindly penned his memories down for us and his thoughts on where the game is now.

It all started as a young boy living in a small terraced house in my home town of Barrow in Furness over 55 years ago. I showed an interest in playing sports of all sorts and most days just played with all the local kids in the backstreet, kicking a ball or playing cricket.

It all seemed to come together after the England World cup win in 1966, the experience of our country winning the Jules Rimet trophy will live with me forever. I was 10 years old, and I wanted to be Geoff Hurst scoring for England!!

I represented my local school Greengate juniors at Under 11 as a 10 year old and again the following year and started to learn the game in more detail, and experience the buzz and excitement of playing football. I was the fortunate to be selected for Barrow boys in a number of representative games at this age group.

Like most kids at that time it was all I wanted to do, play football. I would practice juggling a tennis ball which was good for learning control of the ball. I also practiced playing one, two’s off the doors in the back street then smacking into a pretend net. Another exercise was to practice chipping the ball into what was call the coal hole. A small hatch like door in the wall. This honed your skills for hitting a small target. 

Anyway all this practice needed to be channelled into competitive football. and I joined Barrow Celtic under the stewardship of Tom McParland and Dennis Boyd who were starting a new under 14 side. I was 13. 

It was great experience playing in the iconic green and white hoops on a week to week basis. I was lucky to play with some great young players , Alex Ogilvie, Kevin Proctor, and my good friend Garry Penny to name a few.

At this time I represented Barrow Celtic through the age groups up to age 16 winning numerous trophies for this great local club. Also I was fortunate to represent Barrow Boys as Captain, North Lancashire Boys, Captain and Lancashire boys. I was also lucky enough to attend England School boy’s trials, which was great experience. At this time things started to happen for me and a number of clubs were taking notice of my progress. 

I had previously spent 2 weeks trials at Burnley FC when I was 14 after a recommendation from Tom McParland. Nothing developed from that, but the experience only filled me with more desire to do better and I wanted to play at the highest level I could. It was after I had been spotted by Dave Dryden, a local Everton scout, and was invited to attend Bellsfield, Everton’s training ground for a week’s trial that things started to move quickly with my career. I played for North Lancashire boys against North Yorkshire boys a few weeks after this spell at EFC and the buzz around the dressing room was that there was some football scouts attending the match.

 I managed to bag a couple of goals in a 3 -1 win and then my home telephone was hot. My poor mum didnt know what had happened as, Man Utd, Man City, Liverpool, PNE all wanted me to go for a week’s trial ASAP. EFC got wind of this influx of interest and the offered me school boy terms, which meant I was tied to the club and no other club could approach me. I was really pleased with this, I was wanted by the club I supported and I was potentially going to sign for them. A further weeks proved succesful and I signed apprentice professional terms with EFC. A dream come true.

I had a great time at EFC, being coached by the great Eric Harrison who had a massive impact on my career. I played in the great EFC youth team of 1974-75 and we were known as the invincibles playing all season unbeaten and winning the Lancashire league title. A highlight of my time at EFC was scoring 2 goals in the final of a European tournament in Dusseldorf against FC Antwerp.

News travelled back to the UK quickly, and my mum tells a story whereupon she was watching Granada reports sports desk on the day after the final and my mug shot popped up with Elton Welsby, giving a resume of the game and talking about the goals. Treasured memories.

I was lucky to lay as some fantastic football grounds, Old Trafford, Main Road, and Goodison Park and meet some great people along the way. I still have friends from my time at Goodison from over 45 years ago and we still meet and catch up on old football stories. I played with very good Everton Players who went on to play first team football, Mark Higgins, Dave Jones, and Ken McNaught. I  particularly enjoyed our battles with Man United who had the likes of Jimmy Nichol and Arthur Albiston in the side and were always fierce competitors and went on to play for their countries, Northern Ireland and Scotland along with the Man Untied first team.

Of course being an apprentice at Everton meant you often played in sessions with the first team, so you could be lining up with the likes of, Bob Latchford, Roger Kenyon, Mick Lyons, Joe Royle, Colin Harvey, and Mick Buckley, all first team players who were always keen to help you learn and develop. Halcyon days.

Jim Pearson also played with me at Everton and later we were together at Barrow AFC. I bumped in Jim at an Everton v Man City match some years later and we had a good old catch up. 

Unfortunately Everton released me, and I was broken hearted not making if for my team. I then signed for Preston North End and was there for a period on short contracts. At this time I was a little disillusioned with the game and really needed some guidance. PNE offered another short term contract, however I did not sign. I am not sure if this was the right or wrong decision at the time, but sometimes things just happen that way.

I signed for Barrow AFC when Ron Yeats was manager and played with some great local players and made friendships for life. I was fortunate to play alongside the great late Brian Arrowsmith, Brian McManus , Dave large, Alan Cook, Barry Stevens , to name a few at this time. It was a tough time at Barrow AFC but it was good to representing my home town club. Ron Left Barrow AFC to manage in America and I decided I wanted to play local football.

I signed for Dalton United and had a most enjoyable time, playing with some good players. One of the most enjoyable times when I was at my most relaxed, was when I played a front 3 with Des Johnston and Paul McManus. I recall this time as real fun. We just clicked as a front 3 and seem to know each other’s movements telepathically.  I then moved to Vickers Sports Club and played for Brian Hetherington and Ron Staniforth, two excellent coaches and both had an influence on my career. I was playing as a kind of striker – number 10 role they seem to call it now – for Dalton, and Brian wanted me to go back to playing to midfield. My confidence had been shot after my time at PNE, and this was the inspiration to move forward I needed.  His and Ron’s belief gave me the burst of confidence I needed at this time. What also was helpful, I was partnering the midfield with Phil Hudson a super football player, we complemented each other well and we went on to win the Richardson Cup for Vickers Sports Club. 

It was around 1983, my confidence was high, I was 26, fit and playing good football. I decided to give semi-professional football another shot, (If I could get into a team). Barrow AFC appointed Vic Halom as their new manager, and the rest is history for that great 1983-84 season. I was one of the 3 players Vick signed to put in a challenge for the NPL league title and broke into the side. We won the league by 20 points. This was in my opinion one of the best Barrow AFC sides for a long time. Vic had a great influence on my playing career, he was a super coach, but I also learned in more detail the technical side of the professional game. I was always interested in the technical side of the game and studied it in detail.

After playing a short spel the next season under the management of Peter McDonnell and Joe Wojciechowicz, Brian Kidd was appointed. He turned an unbeaten side into a team with no confidence and no cohesion.  Morecambe FC signed me which turned out to be a great time with the Shrimps, making great friends, enjoying my football and helping them rebuild into a strong semi-professional force.

I always wanted to coach and develop players  after I stopped playing, and put something back into the great sport. Around 1988, I had a call from my good friend John Goodwin and he asked if I would like to join him as a player- joint coach of Vickers first team. This was a great opportunity to put into practice what I learned plus I had the added benefit of still playing (when selected).

John and I had a very successful time at VSC coming 2nd in the league 3 out of the first 4 seasons together, eventually wing the West Lancashire league and Richardson cup double and coming runners up in the Lancashire FA cup final 1992-93 season. I must make a special mention to the other person other than the great players and back up committee of VSC, this was Ken Robinson. His knowledge and support to John and I was tremendous. He was the gel between the players and the management team and he also gave a strong candid view on issues that he could see needed dealing with. Thank you Ken, a great time with super people.

I had a short spell out of the game as a coach as I was developing my career and bringing up a family. John and I were linked with the Barrow AFC job, when Richard Dinnis was in situation and we had an interview with Holker Old Boys at this time, but we didn’t get appointed.

My two boys started playing football, around age 8, so I offered my services to Furness Rovers where they both played. This was a great time seeing young talent develop and helping these players learn new skills and develop their game. As this programme developed it was obvious that my next few years were going to be involved in youth development. I worked with Tony Callister at Furness Rovers and Tony was appointed to run Barrow AFC under 18 side. Tony asked if I would assist which I gladly took up the offer.

It was evident from our early experiences that a full overall of the youth development at Barrow AFC was needed. So I wrote a document called “Blueprint for the Future “. This was a project for Barrow AFC to have a full youth development programme for all promising youth players who eventually would represent Barrow AFC. It was my view that we have all this talent in the local area and it going to other clubs in the county and beyond and really it should have been nurtured here in Barrow.  It was to get the development side of things on a more professional footing, this was the beginning of a Barrow AFC centre. It worked well getting great support from players, parents, local coaches, businesses and the Barrow AFC board. Unfortunately it didn’t fully develop as we would have liked because of financial restraints, however at least the idea was good and with a bit more support it could be a success.  

After finishing at Barrow AFC I was the approached by Alex Ogilvie, the then Dalton FC manager if I would help coach Dalton FC. I gladly took up this post, and again was fortunate to work with a super club, and committee, players and staff. Again this was a successful time, as we managed to win The Richardson cup and enjoy top 3 West Lancashire league positions on a number of occasions.

Football has took its toll on my legs as with a lot of sports people, I have had my right hip replaced twice and waiting for my left hip to be replaced shortly.

It was then, whilst I was recovering from my second hip replacement operation, that by chance I was asked to help coach Duddon juniors with Ben Shirley. Once again a great opportunity to coach some fine young players at U/16 level. This side won most of the local trophies on offer and I am pleased to see most of these young lads still playing now at a very good standard. Not only were they good players, but they turning into fine young men. This is what sport  development brings to individuals, discipline, skills, time keeping respect, winning and losing, working in a team and as an individual and moreover friends and memories for life.

My views on the English game at present:

I think that youth development is excellent and coaches are better qualified which can only be for the good of the game. Pitches and stadiums at elite level are a lot better, and the game is quicker and more skilful than yesteryear. The principles, formations and systems are just the same. Pundits and ex-players over complicate a very simple game. I recall playing and coaching  a back 3 or back 5 , wing backs, protected midfielders , pressing for the ball, number 10, In the hole , between the lines years ago. Nothing new in my opinion.

It is also very evident from the games which have been played in empty stadiums, supporters are the life blood of the game and their opinions and views should be listened to.

There is too much money being taken from the game by lots of different sources and not enough filtering down the grassroots game and the lower leagues. This will continue as clubs have greedy owners interested in only one this, profit. Look at the recent European Super League debacle!

I think social media has its good points and also its bad points. I don’t like how some individuals vilify players or others, The social media platforms need heavily regulating.

Biggest influences on my career– Eric Harrison, coach at Everton FC, Vic Halom- Barrow AFC coach- Joe Wojciechowicz– Coach Morecambe AFC. Brian Hetherington and Ron Stan forth- Vickers FC coaches.

I learned from all the coaches and managers I played with, these people steered me at key mile stones in my journey.  

Best player I have played with– Too many to mention them all. I have been fortunate to play with a lot of outstanding players. At a push Mick Buckley at Everton FC    

Local Scene – It is great to see lots of ex-players getting involved in coaching junior and youth football. There is some super coaches operating, and they are developing some good players with great potential. It is good to see local talent, like Georgia Stanway and Ben Davies playing for elite professional clubs. This will inspire local talent to pursue their dreams and see it can be done with hard work, dedication, commitment and a bit of luck.

I hope to see a local team win the West Lancashire League premiership title  as I believe we have the talent in the area , it is just spread too thinly over many clubs. 

Barrow AFC– I am so please Barrow AFC have gained and retained league status. I remember, like a lot of people in Barrow the great league and cup games of yesteryear, with packed crowds under the super floodlights at Holker Street. I hope the board have learned from their experiences last year and are in a stronger position to take the club forward. I am surprised they haven’t sought the views and help of the vast amount of football knowledge and experience we have locally. 

Barrow AFC youth development– This looks to be in great shape and now we have fantastic foundations in place for local players to develop in their home town professional club. This is a great project and need as much support as can be allocated to this important project. These players are the future and I want to see them on the great Holker street turf, representing Barrow AFC.

The future – My coaching days are behind me now mainly because of fitness. I am soon to have my left hip replaced and then will tackle the road to recovery. I miss the involvement of players and the football club environment with a passion. I love this game which has given me so much enjoyment friends and lifetime memories. Who knows, I may be able to help a young enthusiastic coach bounce ideas off this old experienced head some day!

Thank you – A massive thank you for the unconditional support I have had from my wife Sandra, who has supported my passion of this wonderful game throughout this journey together, and also to my wonderful family who have always believed in me and been there through thick and thin. 

Would I do it all again…? I wish I could …..I would start tomorrow.

Jon Balm  

Written By
Ian Allington

Ian Allington

Cricket Correspondent

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