Centre-half John McGreal enjoyed a good playing career, starting out with hometown club Tranmere in 1990, and was a part of the side that performed so well throughout the 1990s under prolific player-manager John Aldridge. Three successive near misses in the First Division play-offs and a League Cup semi-final proved a good return for a relatively small club. A unique claim to fame is that McGreal scored just one goal in 233 appearances for Tranmere, in a 1-1 draw at Leicester in 1993-94; unfortunately, he cancelled out his only goal for the club by scoring Leicester’s equaliser with 22 minutes remaining. After nine years at Prenton Park, Ipswich Town won the race for his signature in the summer of 1999 for a fee of £650,000.
His first season at Portman Road could hardly have gone better, making 40 appearances as Ipswich won promotion to the Premier League with a 4-2 Wembley play-off final win over Barnsley. Far from struggling in their first season in the top flight as the experts predicted, Ipswich qualified for the UEFA Cup by finishing fifth and also reached the semi-final of the Worthington (League) Cup before losing 4-1 to Birmingham after extra time. Although they reached the third round of the UEFA Cup the following season, Ipswich surprisingly managed just one league win from their first eighteen games, and were relegated back to Division 1 with a 5-0 defeat at Liverpool on the final day.
Ipswich were unable to return to the Premier League at the first attempt in 2002-03, but McGreal did add another milestone to his career by scoring in Europe, in Ipswich’s 8-1 UEFA Cup qualifier against Luxembourg’s Avenir Beggen. Despite being relegated from the Premier League, Ipswich had qualified for the UEFA Cup for the second successive season through the Fair Play rules. Injury affected McGreal badly that season, and he also missed half the following season as Ipswich lost to West Ham in the Championship play-off semi-final. Having rejected a new contract, he elected to sign for Championship rivals Burnley in the summer of 2004, where he finished his playing career in the summer of 2007 after three mediocre seasons.
Having failed a trial for Colchester United that summer, McGreal decided to turn to coaching rather than try to extend his playing days at a lower level. Joining Colchester as an academy coach in 2009, he led the development side to the Youth Alliance South East championship in 2013-14, also winning the Youth Alliance Cup with a 4-2 win over Bradford. His success earned a promotion to U21 manager in September 2014, and he also took over as caretaker manager for one match in November 2015 (a 5-1 defeat to Burton Albion as Colchester headed for relegation from League One). After the dismissal of Kevin Keen following relegation in April 2016, McGreal was appointed in his place with the title of first-team coach.
Despite some good runs throughout the 2016-17 season, Colchester lacked the consistency to challenge for automatic promotion and ultimately failed in their bid for the playoffs by a single point (effectively two points due to a relatively poor goal difference). To come within a win of making the playoffs in his first season as a manager was a satisfactory result, and Colchester would have been expecting a promotion challenge in 2017-18. Unfortunately, that inconsistency struck again. Although they hovered around the top seven until the end of March, Colchester tailed off badly to finish in the bottom half.
Despite having just two full seasons on his managerial cv, McGreal has more experience than nine other managers in League Two. The number of rookies in the division is astonishing, perhaps an indication that the new breed of younger manager appeals to the powers that be in each echelon of the football pyramid. Either that, or clubs are taking the cheap option. At some indeterminate point, the young up-and-coming manager must progress and start to achieve, and that is where John McGreal surely finds himself at the start of his third season at the helm.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and playoffs are not included.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) July 4, 2018