Have boots, will travel - Barnsley legend Neil Refearn’s odyssey comes to an end

In 2006, 41-year-old Neil Redfearn sat on a tractor in Huddersfield thinking his life in football might be over.

Now hear this: Neil Redfearn in charge of Leeds United. Picture: Tony Johnson

In July, he had resigned as player-manager of Scarborough, his first full-time management job after two caretaker spells at Halifax Town and one as Boston United’s player-coach.

At Scarborough and Boston, the Barnsley legend’s “addiction” to playing stopped him hanging up his boots as planned. At Rochdale, he had made his 790th Football League appearance, a total just six players in English football history had bettered (though David James would reach 791).

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Now, though, he thought matters might be taken out of his hands, and began applying for jobs outside the game. Before the year was out, he had played his 1,000th competitive match, a tally he added to with Stocksbridge Park Steels, Frickley Athletic, Bridlington Town, Emley and Salford City, as well as having spells managing Northwich Victoria, Leeds United, Rotherham United, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Liverpool Women, and as caretaker at York City and Newcastle United whilst in their youth set-ups.

Premier action: Barnsley captain Neil Redfearn challenges Steve Harkness, of Liverpool.

“When I left Scarborough, I was down the job centre quite a few times, I thought that might be it for me in football,” admits Redfearn. “One of the guys on security was an older fella and he said to me, ‘You’re Neil Redfearn! What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I need a job!’ You’ve still got to work.

“I ended up applying for a parks department job at Huddersfield council. I’d sat on the tractor and started the training when I got a phone call from Phil Sharpe saying did I want to play for Bradford Park Avenue?”

Sharpe, who would be Redfearn’s assistant at Northwich in 2007, a spell which ended bottom of the Conference after just one point from his nine matches, was Park Avenue manager.

“I said I didn’t want to train twice a week but I’d play a handful of games,” explains Redfearn. “My dad (Brian) made his debut for them and there were a lot of old characters from his time still around. I made my 1,000th appearance in a cup game. You don’t really add them up as you’re going along, you just enjoy playing.

JOURNEYMAN: Neil Redfearn, pictured in action for Scarborough battling with Harrogate's Chris Mason.

“I don’t think people believe me when I say it, but if I wasn’t deemed good enough to play for money I would just play anyway.”

Twelve months after leaving Premier League Bradford City, Redfearn’s addiction had taken him to fourth-tier Halifax in 2001.

“When I left Wigan for Halifax Town, it was the pull of being a player-coach,” he says. “I was 36 and thinking about my post playing-career. Paul Bracewell was in charge but they were struggling financially and it was tough to survive at that level. Paul wasn’t there long (resigning in August, 2001) and I ended up as the caretaker manager a couple of times.

“When you looked at the infrastructure and training facilities, the fact we were having to travel to places like Torquay on the day, it was a real eye-opener, you had to think on your feet.

LANDMARK: Bradford Park Avenue's Neil Redfearn (captain) on the day he celebrated his 1,000th game as a player. Picture: James Hardisty.

“I was a fit lad who could still do a job so I wanted to keep playing. I’d never been sent off but I was sent off twice as caretaker manager at Halifax! It was an out-of-body experience with the build-up of pressure. Looking back, to play and manage is impossible.

“When I managed Leeds, where I had the facilities and the players, it becomes so much easier for having had that experience.”
Halifax were relegated in 2001-02, and Chris Wilder took on the rebuild as Redfearn moved on.

“Boston was next for me, where my mate Neil Thompson was player-manager,” he recalls. “Tommo just wanted me to coach and initially that’s all I was going to do. But Steve Evans had been sacked and we were docked four points (for financial irregularities). The £100,000 fine came out of Tommo’s budget. We got beaten in the first couple of games and Tommo turned around to me and said, ‘You’re going to have to play.’ I played pretty much every game that season and scored quite a few goals.

“I loved it. I’d got my mate in charge and I trusted him. He had a good knowledge of the game and an empathy for players. We’d got a good group of players, good people around us, and we finished 15th. Then there was a change of ownership and the new people wanted Steve Evans back. I’d gone there to work with my mate so I moved to Rochdale.

Neil Redfearn celebrates scoring for Bradford City against Leicester City

“(Manager) Steve Parkin was another really good football guy and he saw me as an experienced head but it was only going to be a short-term thing. They gave me squad number 38 because that was my age!

“The fans were brilliant and had a good sense of humour and we scraped up and did all right.”

Former Oldham Athletic team-mate Nicky Henry took him to Scarborough as player-coach and in 2005, he became his replacement.

“I loved it there,” says Redfearn.

“The journey from Huddersfield was a lovely run. In the second season, there were problems with the players’ wages and it was just one thing after another.

“I’d basically just gone there to coach but as soon as you start playing again it’s a drug, you get addicted. If you’re fit and you can still do it, why not?”

SIDE-BY-SIDE: Neil Redfearn, right, pictured with assistant Steve Thompson in December 2014. when in charge of Leeds United 0th December 2014. Picture by Simon Hulme.

In 2008, football took Redfearn in a new direction.

“York City wanted me to take their centre of excellence and I was able to do a few other bits and bobs around it (he played for Emley and Salford).

“Colin Walker, had been youth coach at Barnsley, and Eric Winstanley (first-team coach during Redfearn’s days at Oakwell) were there, we had one or two kids coming through and it was a great little ex-Football League club. I got the bug again.

“But Neil Thompson became academy manager at Leeds and asked if I wanted to do the Under-18s job just after Martin Foyle had got the (manager’s) job at York and the club were fine about it.”

Redfearn’s 26-year playing career was finally over.

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