Rodney Shaped Me As A Spireite
Rodney Fern, who passed away aged just 69 on 16th January 2018 after a long battle with dementia, sadly an ever increasing disease linked to footballers. As I get older, ever more footballers I’ve seen play are passing away, but few hold a place in my heart like Rodney Fern and no one player has had more influence in shaping me as a Spireite.
I started going to home games regularly, initially with my sister Diane in 1972, her first hero was the long curly haired Scottish waif Sam Ferris whereas I didn’t really have an out and out favourite, preferring to focus on the team, though the likes of hard workers Ray McHale and Ernie Moss did most to win me over. But for a while I lacked a real hero. Sean O’Neill came in from Leeds United, I really liked him but the first ‘exotic’ signing in my supporting career came in 1975, one Rodney Fern. Crikey, he’d been on telly, in an FA Cup Final for Leicester City in their 1969 loss against Manchester City, one of the first live televised matches I recall watching. He was going to be the man; but he wasn’t.
Rodney had been at Luton Town, he cost Chesterfield £8000, a huge sum for us at the time, but his introduction into the team was somewhat lukewarm, indeed he was pretty awful, what a waste of money. And he was an old man, an assumption made by everyone as he was prematurely balding, 26 at the time he moved to Saltergate, but he looked at least ten years older! Played by manager Joe Shaw on the wing, he was overshadowed by penalty winner and taker supreme Malcolm Darling and another penalty king, Terry Shanahan.
But when Shanahan moved back to his native London with Millwall, Fern became his centre forward replacement, and the Rodney we began to love came out of the shadows and into the spotlight of the glamour position. In 12 post-Shanahan games at the end of 1975-76 he scored seven goals, including a brace in a come from 3-1 down to win 4-3 cracker against Grimsby Town. Oh Rodney Rodney had arrived, albeit a bit later than hoped for.
During that second half of 75-76, I’d started to venture to a few away games, none too far away, one of them a memorable 3-1 win at Hillsborough, Rodney scored but Darling got two, one an inevitable penalty, so at the start of 1976-77 I decided to venture a bit further. Our first away excursion was just down the road to Port Vale, a 1-1 draw, enough to tempt me to invest heavily to go on the supporters club coach to Portsmouth, my first long distance away trip. Pompey had just come down to Division Three and they had Ian St John as gaffer and featured famous players like ex-Liverpool full-back Chris Lawler, this was a big deal.
The journey down seemed to take an age. Branson’s coaches were speed limited even before speed limiters were invented and the driver was generally an old curmudgeon, Bob, who always wanted to stop at Leicester Forest Services on the M1, presumably because he got the best free food there as a coach driver. We’d stop there every south bound trip, even though it was only an hour into the journey!
Eventually we got to Portsmouth with plenty of time to kill and we may even have sneaked an underage pint of Brickwoods Better Ales in the process. Into the imposing but crumbling Fratton Park and the match began with 8700 souls hardly cramming the arena with home fans thinking they’d hit a new low, playing Chesterfield for the first time ever in their impressive League history.
I can’t remember many details about the match, but on 77 minutes, the unthinkable happened and Rodney scored the winner. The journey back was magical, no toilets on the bus and hours to hold anything in until we made Leicester! Rarely have so many pop bottles been filled with Lucozade that wasn’t Lucozade, but the spirit was akin to nothing I’d ever experienced in my sixteen years of life. I was a committed travelling Spireites and Rodney Fern was the hook. I didn’t miss another away game for six years; I still wonder what might have been had we had been tonked 3-0.
Rodney was voted Player of the Year for 76-77 for his 18 goals (ironically I voted for Sean O’Neill) and he’d firmly won his place in all Spireites; hearts, but for me, it was that goal at Fratton Park that made my association with Chesterfield Football Club so much more than a committed home fan and an occasional away fan.
In 1977 I joined the Supporters Club Committee and since then have always been a volunteer in some capacity or other including being a Club Director, Programme Editor, Fundraiser and General Factotum, a journey started because of a successful long journey one August Saturday in 1976.
It was a sad day when Rodney left for Rotherham United, where he enjoyed great success, initially under a former Spireite boss Jimmy McGuigan. I went to visit him when he kept the Ferrers Arms pub in Lount, near his birthplace of Measham in Leicestershire, an odd venture for him as he was naturally quite shy. That was some years ago and the last time I saw him.
He may have passed away, but he will never be forgotten in these parts for being a great footballer, a great guy and the man that shaped me as a Spireite. RIP Rodney Fern.