HE has played at high level for Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers. Now Jamie Pollock – older, wiser and very significantly heavier – is seeking to restore the fortunes of Billingham Synthonia, the Synners having dramatically fallen from grace.

“I just like a challenge,” he says ahead of last Saturday’s Ebac Northern League second division game at Willington, and the match will pose challenges even he might never have imagined.

The Northern Echo:

Now 44, he attended St Michael’s comp in Billingham, was raised in Norton on the other side of the A19, also had a spell at Osasuna in Spain – managed by a more youthful Rafael Benitez – before retiring, aged just 28, when with Crystal Palace.

Many also remember, though doubtless he would like to forget, that in 1998 he scored one of football’s most indelibly spectacular own goals, effectively sealing Man City’s relegation to the third tier.

Fans of Queens Park Rangers, the recipients, subsequently voted him the most important man of the previous 2,000 years. Jesus Christ was second.

He’s friendly, affable and realistic, rather resembles one of those wrestlers who in another age would grunt and groan before the football results, now runs a football academy and related businesses in Middlesbrough.

The huge weight gain, he says, is a result of developing a taste for red wine while in Spain – “I’m still enjoying the Spanish culture” – though he insists he’s now on a health campaign.

Really? “Well, it’s not showing any results yet.”

A decade ago he managed Spennymoor United, later Spennymoor Town, through difficult days. So why return to the grass roots with the only team ever named after a chemical fertilizer? “I guess,” says Jamie, “that it’s just the love of the game.”

Long story, Synners left their Central Avenue stadium two seasons ago and now themselves are tenants in Norton.

The club which reached the FA Trophy quarter-final in 1994 and the FA Vase semi-final in 2007 finished last season bottom of the Northern League first division, just two wins and 13 points from 42 games, scoring 27 goals and conceding 100 more.

“It was just a question of finishing the season, how many we’d lose by,” says Graham Craggs, club secretary for 30 years.

“Jamie has completely changed the atmosphere, there’s a belief that we can win games again. All that had stopped me folding it was the memory of some of the great people who’ve served this club.”

Pollock is both chairman and manager, demurs at the term “owner” – what, after all, is there to own? – insists that this season’s aim is a mid-table finish.

The hope within the next few years is to return to Billingham, certainly in time for the centenary in 2023, though it may not be to the once-lauded Central Avenue stadium – now decaying, vandalised and owned by someone else. Other sites are already being investigated,

“We made it known that we wanted someone to take the club over and Jamie expressed an interest,” says Graham. “I just wouldn’t have been able to carry on by myself, there’d have been no future. Now I believe there is.”

An hour before kick-off and loud music, though not what you’d call martial music, is playing in the away dressing room. “I keep on pulling the plug out but they put it back in,” says Graham.

When the music stops, Jamie offers his first little team talk of the day. Attentively absorbed, it’s nothing revolutionary – clean sheets, goals, discipline. “They’re a fantastic group to work with,” he says.

About half the squad have come from his Polton Allstars academy based at a former TA centre – motto “Together we will prosper” – only one player, midfielder Foster Garton, was with the club last season. The manager’s son Ben, formerly at Newcastle United’s academy, is captain.

Mattie, another of his sons, is at Grimsby Town’s academy. Premier League clubs, he says, need to give locally developed players more chances.

His own career had ended at Crystal Palace, partly because the eldest of their five children was about to start school – “we didn’t want that to be in London” – and partly, he admits, because things weren’t working out at Palace.

He is not, he insists, one of those familiar Northern League club chairmen who breeze in believing that it’s about breaking eggs with sticks. “We had a tough start, some very tricky games, but I believe there are already signs of progress. There’s a very good spirit within the club.

“It’s important to be ambitious but you have to be realistic. You don’t want to go racing through the leagues without the infrastructure to support it.

“I aspire to models like Marske United or Spennymoor Town. I don’t think we could ever be like Fylde United or Harrogate Town and have that sort of investment. We have to bring new people on board, establish new income streams, get the spectators back.

“It was a big challenge to take on but I inherited fantastic people like Graham, the best secretary in the Northern League. I want Synthonia to be a true community club again, I’m really, really enjoying it.”

A digression: Richard Tremewan, Willington’s chairman and secretary, received last week a text from the FA welcoming them to the second qualifying round of the FA Vase.

“Unless it was a bad dream,” replied Richard, “we got beat in the first.” The FA apologised.

A short time later another FA text arrived. “These are the match officials,” it said.

The manager leans against the dugout, occasionally shouts instructions – “Give me your heart,” “Show me some belief” – responds when someone else shouts “Let it go” with a rendition of the theme tune from Frozen, the pre-school children’s favourite.

The guy, you’d guess, is a young grandfather.

It’s goalless after thirty minutes when a reckless tackle by a Synthonia player leads to a fist-flying skirmish – two falls, two submissions or a knock-out – near the centre circle.

Young referee Tom Ross summons both assistants, a gathering compared on the terraces to wise monkeys. The original sinner and two others, one from each side, are despatched.

The column’s out of both sight and vision of the Billingham dugout, standing near the Willington bench 40 yards away. A home sub aims a casual kick at what appears to be a kit bag. “Nuttier than a fruit cake,” it says on the side.

Graham Craggs insists that his people have watched more or less dispassionately. “Among the great things about Jamie is that he doesn’t swear.”

There’s still no score after 70 minutes, but then Willington twice lead and Kallum Hannah twice equalises to end the match 2-2.

Jamie’s content with a point for the nine men, insists a mid-table finish would be progress, that it’s not another spectacular own goal. “There’s no pressure at this club, that’s one of the good things. After all that’s happened in the past couple of years, the only way is up.”