I have lost count of the conversations I had with Andy Leese over the years discussing the fact that things are “coming to a head” and, one way or another, the end is nigh.
It is no secret (you only need to read the programme notes) that Andy didn’t always see eye to eye with the Board, so the news that there has been a parting of the ways this week was not the biggest of surprises. It was inevitable that we were going to lose one of the best managers in the club’s history. The relationship lasted a couple of years longer than I thought it would, which is great, as it gave us our best ever FA Cup memories.
At times the biggest pain in the arse and not adverse to sending the proverbial toys flying out of the pram, Andy wears his heart on his sleeve…and what a big sleeve he needs. We have had play-off finals and FA Cup runs, but the memory, the thanks I will always give to Andy, is the support received when I was Chairman and on the Board of Directors of Chesham United Football Club.
It seemed somewhat perverse that in the boardroom we would spend so much time chatting and gossiping about the football, when there were so many club matters to sort out. Then when I would speak to Andy, his interest would always spread much beyond the football pitch and the playing budget. He wanted to discuss the club, the finances, the clubhouse, the supporters, the youth, the ladies…A true club man that cared so much, gave an unbelievable amount of unthanked time to, and did it for very little return, certainly financially. It was all about pride.
For many years Andy was my football club soulmate. Someone I would talk to for literally hours on end about the challenges of running the club. He was more than just the manager, he was a friend, and we helped each other through some really REALLY troubled times at Chesham United. I would ring Andy on the way to work, calling as soon as I get in the car at 7.30am, and often still on the phone an hour later. We wanted to make the club better, sometimes it was literally a case that we wanted to save the club.
I always regretted jumping ship before Andy, and once I did, I always feared for what might happen and, as mentioned before, I’m just amazed, and delighted, it went on as long as it did.
i was always aware that my relationship with Andy could blinker my decision-making, but equally I was aware that I was in a unique position to see first hand the work that went on behind the scenes, the bits that very few others saw – Including fellow directors at the time, and now.
i also saw, and lived with the truth. Unfortunately Andy’s teams started to get a bit of a reputation for bottling the big games. Yes there were some big disappointments in the play-offs, but sometimes I had to pinch myself and question how the bloody hell did we finish in a play-off spot anyway after such a turbulent season behind the scenes? A bit like Claudio Raneiri being punished for not being able to meet the freak-ish performance of the previous season, was Andy a victim of his own success? Raising expectations, beyond that of which the club, infrastructure and finances were ready for? No doubt everyone will have different opinions on that. I know what mine is.
The play-off final defeat to St Albans City was heart-breaking. We were, without doubt, easily the best team in the league other than Hemel Hempstead and fully deserving of promotion. But we lost the final. Critics will say they choked. Maybe they did, but nobody really knows the amount of turmoil that was going on behind the scenes that season, going into those play-offs. The pressure on the manager went way beyond meeting supporters’ expectations. As a club, or maybe more Brian McCarthy, Andy and I, took a big gamble on getting a couple of decent games in the play-offs; Decent crowds, a bumper pay day to make up for the mistakes that the club had made throughout the season…There was huge pressure on Andy, distractions from the job in hand. Fail and he (we) would have players on his back, and a Board asking questions.
To many, that day against St Albans will be remembered as a failure. To some of us, a 3,000 crowd was a huge success, and an even bigger relief, despite the disappointing result.
This article is not about blowing Andy’s trumpet, he was not without faults and at times was a complete pain in the arse, but he cared, and that won the support of many fans, enabling us to forgive the tantrums and moments of no-reasoning.
At times in the past when it has looked as though Chesham might lose its financial backing (hey, he isn’t the only one capable of throwing his toys out of the pram) Andy’s first concern was the club, its longevity and the supporters. I needed that support and between us we came through tough moments, often making wrong decisions, but more often than not making the right one.
Having taken such a backseat over the past couple of years I still find it hard to believe that at one stage I was Chairman, Andy’s boss. I think we had a fantastic relationship and generally got on very well, a good team working for the club, and totally over-achieving for the set up we had.
I learned so much from Andy. I had never been a Chairman, I had never really people managed before, but we shared similar visions for the club, and similar views on how to get there and as a result we were able to keep the club going and, let’s be honest, disguise many of the problems that were going on off the pitch behind the incredible success on the pitch. We should have been relegation candidates, but we managed to portray ourselves as promotion candidates. Quietly, over a couple of pints, we would pat ourselves on the back over that, often in disbelief.
That also made it difficult. So many times common sense was saying the budget must be cut, we cannot continue to fund the budget we said we could, but on the field it was going so well. On the terraces, the crowds were growing, the supporters excitement was a pleasure to watch, the smiles on the faces, the singing, the chanting, the passion, the love…You will have no idea how it feels to be in the position where you are the one that knows the plug is going to have to be pulled on all of that, probably sooner rather than later. It is easy to criticise the Board and Chairman, but they have some bloody tough decisions to make, and I don’t believe any of them take their responsibility lightly.
If you are still not convinced that Andy has done a huge part in the history of Chesham United, consider this final thought.
Take yourself back to the dark days when the club was days away from dying; Drowning in unpaid VAT bills, organising meetings in the town hall, pleading for the town of Chesham not to let the club die. As a club we were most memorably rescued by Charles Manchester who went on to transform the way the club is run, introducing financial management that will hopefully stop us ever reaching such a desperate situation again, certainly not without the Board being aware of it heading that way.
It is not for me to say exactly what was going on in Charles Manchester’s mind at the time, but I know that key to his thought process in getting involved was the fact that there was a manager that he had ready to come in and help with the new era. Without Andy Leese lined up in the background, part of the equation that generated the interest, would Charles Manchester have even thought about taking the leap into the murky waters of Chesham United? Would our club even still exist? Possibly. Possibly not.
As it happens, all those years ago, we had our first experience of Andy’s determined personality, tempestuous ways, and he did not join the club immediately leaving us with a year of Luther Blissett in charge before Andy took his place at the club, and history was to be made.
Football moves on, fickle fans move on and forget past managers, but friends should never be forgotten. Things will never be the same, but the change was inevitable sooner or later, and deep down I think Andy knows that…and I have no doubt in a few months time he will be managing a top club, and relieved of the burden that had caused him such grief at times over the past decade.
Andy will be long remembered and it will take a very long time, maybe not even in my lifetime, for any moment supporting Chesham United to come close to recreating the emotions we went through in those last ten minutes down at Bristol Rovers. Sheer emotion, disbelief and unmatchable pride. I challenge anyone that was there that day to relive that Ryan Blake goal in your head and that feeling when the final whistle blew, and not feel a lump in the throat, or even a tear in the eye. It was magical and arguably the greatest moment in nearly 100 years of the club. Certainly my greatest ever sporting experience.
However, times move on. Through my many years in many different roles at the club the one thing I know is that there will always be rumours, gossip and attempts by people to assume they know more than anyone else about what is going on…but the reality is that very few people know what really happens. As supporters, we should not jump to conclusions and judge either the club or Andy based on hear-say, rumours and gossip; we don’t really know, so let us just enjoy the memories. That may sound harsh on the man who no longer has the job he has held for the past ten years, but, though he may not think it now, for Andy, his career, and, more importantly, his health, I truly believe he will go on to a better place…and I say that as what I like to think of as a friend, And not just a Chesham United fan.
Andy, thank you.