The big interview: Gary McAllister – 'Vinnie Jones showed me around Leeds in a limo – and I was replacing him'

Gary McAllister

How mardy was Cantona? Which meant more: Leeds’ title or Liverpool’s cup treble? Has he sung his own chant? And did the ball really move before his Euro 96 penalty? Your questions answered…

Gary McAllister strolls into the hotel bar, looking as if he could play a top-flight game tomorrow. Fit, relaxed, happy and enthusiastic to talk about his trophy-laden career, he notices a spoon on the table. “Oh, I know what that’s for,” he laughs. “Uri bloody Geller!”

He may have won the English league, the UEFA Cup, the FA Cup, the League Cup and 59 Scotland caps, represented his country at three major tournaments and collected an MBE, but McAllister will long be remembered as the man who missed that penalty at Euro 96 – allegedly thanks to a self-proclaimed psychic. The 51-year-old recalls, “Uri texted me once to say he could help my team win as he felt bad for what he’d done to me at Wembley. Weird.”

FACT FILE

  • Date of birth: December 12, 1964
  • Height: 6ft 1in
  • Position: Midfielder
  • Place of birth: Motherwell, Scotland

Even putting aside Geller’s telekinetic efforts, McAllister’s career has been sprinkled with magic, and without further ado it’s time for FFT to stop the clocks and ask him your questions.

Set the record straight: who was your boyhood team, growing up?
Sam Millar, Australia

I was a Motherwell fan – but I did have an interest in Manchester United. That sounds strange as I played for their two biggest rivals, but my aunt married into a family from Bellshill who were friendly with the Busbys, so I got to meet Sir Matt and couldn’t help but like him and his team. United actually rejected me as a boy for being too small, so I was always striving to prove them wrong. A lot of my mates from my schooldays still call me ‘Wee man’, so United were right, but luckily I shot up in height.

Gary McAllister

Leicester were McAllister's first English club, but it could have been Manchester United if he was taller

Who were the best players you played with and against while you were at Motherwell?
‘Dunks’ via Twitter

There was a player there called Brian McLaughlin who had a bad leg [injury] at Celtic as a boy. He had been destined to be a great. He ended up at Motherwell a couple of years later and was a fantastic player but just lacked that half a yard. The best I played against was Gordon Strachan. That Aberdeen team was superb. They were skilful and hard – very hard. We would assign someone to boot Gordon but he had the skill and he also had some bodyguards in Doug Rougvie and Dougie Bell. They were very hard men.

How fondly do you look back on your years with Leicester?
Rachel Sullivan, west London

They’d been promoted to the First Division. Gary Lineker had gone to Everton and Mark Bright had come in. I’d signed too late to play the first game of the season but watched us beat Everton 3-1. Everton were the champions! I thought: ‘What a team I’ve signed for here’. There were some struggles and relegations, but it was perfect for me. There were no expectations on me – I could just get on with playing each week and getting plenty of games under my belt. It was a fantastic time.

Is it true that you weren’t that impressed with Brian Clough when Nottingham Forest tried to sign you from Leicester in 1989?
Anthony Doherty, Birmingham

It was bad timing. Looking back, I’d have loved to play under Clough in his pomp, but I had options and just felt Leeds were a better fit. Brian wasn’t impressed when I said I was going to Leeds. “Leeds?!” he said, then the phone went down quite abruptly.

You replaced Vinnie Jones at Leeds. Did you ever feel the need to be hard?
Jesse Hawkins, Somerset

Me? Hard? Don’t be silly. Vinnie was great, though. He was a big figure at the club and was there with me for a bit when I signed, before he left for Sheffield United. I arrived and was on my own in a hotel room when I got a call. Outside was Vinnie, in a limo, and he took me around the town, showing me the right bars and introducing me to the right people. That was big of him, as it was known that I had been brought in to replace him.

You were in the Scotland squad for the 1990 World Cup but didn’t play. How frustrating was that for you? You were 25, so hardly going along just to get some experience…
Kevin Taylor, Edinburgh

Yeah, but I was taken as a Second Division footballer. It was very frustrating, especially in the last game against Brazil when Murdo MacLeod got injured. While I was warming up, thinking that this was my chance, Andy Roxburgh brought on Gary Gillespie and moved Roy Aitken into midfield. That was a blow.  

Would you have liked to have played for a club abroad? How close did you come?
Maddison, via Twitter

I came very close. Sven-Goran Eriksson wanted me at Sampdoria after the World Cup in 1990. After Leeds won the league, Murdo MacLeod wanted me at Borussia Dortmund. I spoke to Sevilla as well. I’d have liked to have played abroad – it’s a big regret of mine that I didn’t.

Much is made of Manchester United’s mid-’90s midfield, with Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham. Do you think that Leeds foursome of yourself, Gary Speed, David Batty and Gordon Strachan was better?
Iain Scott, York

The biggest compliment I could give us is that I honestly think we would compete today. We could do most things and could adapt to most situations. We had a youthful energy, thanks to Gary Speed and David Batty, but also thanks to Gordon. He was 35, but bloody hell, what a player he was. Speed and Batty had come through the ranks and were loved by the fans, but Gordon was the catalyst. I thought I was a decent player until I started to train with him – then I realised that I was miles behind.

Gary Speed, David Batty

Speed and Batty celebrate after the former's equaliser against Tottenham in 1991

Did Gordon Strachan ever offer you seaweed as a way of preserving those ageing legs?
Pete Curtis, Bristol

I never got the seaweed, but he advised me about massage and pressure points to release energy. Arsene Wenger’s arrival is often cited as this watershed moment when the game changed, but at Leeds with Gordon and Howard Wilkinson, everything we ate was monitored and tests were run at Leeds University. It was very new, and often goes unrecognised.  

What was Eric Cantona really like when he arrived in England?
Louis Pilger, Beckenham

Eric had been at Sheffield Wednesday for a trial, but because of the weather he'd only trained indoors. [Wednesday boss] Trevor Francis was reluctant to make a decision, saying he needed to see him on grass. You can imagine Eric’s reaction to being doubted. He came to our training ground and within 10 minutes we knew we had something special. Having said that, Howard had to sell him. Eric had become quite disruptive in training and while it looks like the maddest sale of all time, I got why Howard did it.

Portrait: SM2 Studio Ltd

FACT FILE

  • Clubs: 1981-85 Motherwell 70 games (8 goals); 1985-90 Leicester 225 (52); 1990-96 Leeds 294 (45); 1996-00 Coventry 140 (26); 2000-02 Liverpool 87 (9); 2002-04 Coventry 60 (12)
  • Clubs managed: 2002-03 Coventry; 2008 Leeds; 2011 Aston Villa (caretaker)  
  • International: 1990-1999 Scotland 59 (5)

Did Alex Ferguson’s mind games have any effect in the run-in to Leeds’s 1992 title win?
Rosie, via Facebook

I can’t remember if he was doing mind games, but I do remember that we at Leeds sensed things weren’t right with his team. Mark Hughes had been left out and we smelt a bit of a chance. We were well behind but went on a great run, and suddenly the pressure was on them. I was judging a karaoke contest one night in Leeds and it came through that West Ham had beaten them. That was when I thought: ‘This could be ours’. And it was a very good Meat Loaf act that won the karaoke!

Where were you when Manchester United lost at Anfield to hand Leeds the title?
Gavin Stark, Liverpool

A few of us were at Lee Chapman’s house. The television cameras were with us as we watched. The feeling when we won it was pure elation. Fergie wasn’t happy after the game and said that Leeds hadn’t won the title, but that Manchester United had lost it. Despite not ‘winning it’, we all had a great night in a restaurant called the Flying Pizza in Leeds.

Where were you when you heard Stuttgart had fielded an ineligible player [in the first round of the 1992/93 Champions League] and the game would be replayed?
Michael Morice, South Carolina

We found out the next day, but they should have been thrown out. The game shouldn’t have been replayed. We felt that, because they were German, there would be another match. It was weird playing in the Camp Nou in front of about 50 fans [Leeds won the replayed match 2-1]. What I do remember is that Howard [Wilkinson] let us have a night out in Barcelona afterwards, but we couldn’t get in anywhere. Steve Archibald turned up and suddenly doors were all open for us. Legend.

How big a shock was it to finish 17th the year after winning the league?
Steven Taylor, Kent

It was weird. We couldn’t win away from home. Our last away game was the only one we won. We had the best home record, but just couldn’t do anything on the road. The backpass law came in and seemed to have an effect on our defenders, who'd all had the season of their lives the year before. Thank God for our home form – we’d have been relegated without it. It was a horrendous title defence.

Gary McAllister

McAllister admits that Leeds' title defence in 1992/93 was "horrendous"

Is it true that Kenny Dalglish was a big fan?
Paul Minney, Merseyside

Kenny did try to sign me for Blackburn, but I felt that I had worked so hard to get to a big-city club like Leeds. If I had gone I would have won the title, but I felt that to leave a club as big as Leeds for Blackburn was a sideways step. There was also talk of Liverpool being keen earlier in my career, in the late ’80s, but nothing concrete. 

Was it weird having to call your former team-mate Gordon Strachan ‘boss’ when he took charge at Coventry?
Mus Akinjobi, London

I knew him so well, that was never a problem. Ron Atkinson had signed me and people had been surprised by me making that move. It was very much a financial decision, as I had to think about getting a good move towards the end of my career. Coventry promised me they would have a go, as well, and they did. We had good players, and some good overseas players like Mustapha Hadji and Youssef Chippo. We hung on at times, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister

Strachan managed McAllister for four years at Coventry

What was the best ‘Great Escape’ during your time at Coventry?
Helen, via Twitter

It would have to be the 1996/97 season. We were lucky that Middlesbrough were docked points [after failing to field a team due to illness] but we went to Anfield and won and then won our last game away at Spurs. We kicked off late, so we knew the other results, but I remember a young Stephen Carr at Tottenham going on an amazing run and almost ruining it. We all ran over to Stephen and said: “Pack it in! Your mind should be on a beach in Spain!”

How annoying was it that when England thrashed the Dutch 4-1 at Euro 96, they then eased off and Patrick Kluivert eventually scored a 78th-minute consolation that knocked Scotland out on goals scored?
Paul Grace, London

It was very annoying. I know David Seaman and I gave him some stick for getting beaten at the near post! To be fair, we battered Switzerland and should have got another goal. It wasn’t to be. As usual.

England

England celebrated a 4-1 thrashing of the Netherlands, but conceding a consolation meant Scotland were knocked out

Steven Gerrard has admitted he wondered why Liverpool had bought a 35-year-old midfielder in the summer of 2000. There were a lot of negative comments around the move. Were you aware of these comments?
Keil Hampton, via Facebook

I was very aware of the negativity. The editor of a local fanzine said that if I played more than 10 matches, he’d show his bare arse in Woolworths. I had lots to prove, so I trained all summer so that I could arrive at Melwood ready to go. I wanted the lads to see that I could run. That was key. I got there and was always in the top group of runners. What I could do with the ball would look after itself, but the guys saw that my legs were OK.

When did you realise that the 2000/01 season might be something special?
Kevin O’Rourke, Anfield

I’m not sure, but I was quick to realise this was a great move and a great young squad. Steven Gerrard has been nice enough to say I helped him, but it worked both ways: the energy of the youngsters, like Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Robbie Fowler and Danny Murphy, rubbed off on me. We had quality everywhere in that squad. Barring an amazing Arsenal team who went on a late run, we would have won the Premier League the following year.

Portrait: SM2 Studio Ltd

You looked pumped up when you scored the penalty against Barcelona in the 2001 UEFA Cup semi-final. Had something been said?
Jason Jennings, Derby

A lot had been said. It was Carles Puyol. I put the ball on the spot and started to walk back, and he was in my ear saying this and that in Spanish. I didn’t understand him, but I could tell it wasn’t complimentary. I was very pleased when that ball hit the net. I think I caught Stevie G in the chin with a right hook.

What do you think Gerard Houllier’s reaction would have been if you’d missed from that late free-kick against Everton, when you shot from an insane distance?
Jeff, via Twitter

I was more afraid of what Carra would say if I missed. Jamie could see I was twitching to have a go. The Everton goalkeeper was moving to his left and leaving a gap. “Don’t you f**king dare, Gary,” he whispered. On my run-up, the keeper moved again and so I thought: ‘Just go for it’. That was a nice moment.

FACT FILE 3

  • Playing honours: Scottish Division One 1985; Football League First Division 1992; FA Cup 2001; League Cup 2001; UEFA Cup 2001; UEFA Super Cup 2001

I heard that some strange things were thrown onto the pitch in Dortmund during the 2001 UEFA Cup Final. Care to elaborate?
Olly Patterson, Norwich

I scored, had a hand in the winner and was given the man of the match award by one of my heroes, Johan Cruyff, but what I remember most about that night was the huge dildo that landed on the pitch! I was taking a corner in the second half, Robbie Fowler was warming up next to me in front of our supporters, and suddenly there was a thud. Robbie and I both looked at it and I said: “Is that a…?” “Yes, Gary,” Robbie said. “That is a dildo.” Nonchalantly, Robbie walked over to it, flicked it up with his right foot and volleyed it back into the crowd with his left. That’s what I remember about that night!

What do you see as your biggest achievement: the league championship with Leeds in 1991/92 or the cup treble with Liverpool in 2000/01?
David Fleming, via Facebook

That is a big question. There is no doubt that winning the league is the pinnacle in football – playing for your country, too, but winning a domestic league is massive. Howard had very little in the way of a budget at Leeds. He paid a million for me, a million for the Wallace brothers and a quarter of a million for Gordon. We’d come up from the Second Division and won the title within two years. I don’t think Howard or Leeds ever got the recognition they deserve. But then again, winning three major cups in a season – who's going to do that again? That was very special and I find it very, very hard to separate them. I guess the thing is that most people at Liverpool would swap that treble for a Premier League title any day.

Liverpool

Robbie Fowler, Danny Murphy and Steven Gerrard celebrate Liverpool's unique treble

What did you make of Uri Geller’s claim he moved the ball before your penalty against England at Euro 96? Did you notice it move? Have you ever met him... or bent a spoon?
Eddie Starrs, via Facebook

I have met him and to this day he is adamant that he moved the ball. The ball did move. I couldn’t use that as a lame excuse after the game, but it did affect me. When I planted my standing foot and my kicking boot was about to strike the ball, it moved and I just panicked. I didn’t want to fall over, miss the ball completely or stub it, and so I chose to blast it. I have never blasted a penalty before or since. So, I have no idea why it moved, but it did and it’s something that will never go away.

Liverpool fans still sing your chant and list your many attributes, including your “baldy head”. Ever got drunk and joined in?
Phil Santangelli, Liverpool

[Laughs] I haven’t had that pleasure, but I’m sure it will happen someday very soon.

What went wrong for Brendan Rodgers during his time in charge at Liverpool?
Claire, Chester

I arrived on the coaching staff in the summer of 2015 and didn’t realise just how hard the end of the previous season had hit the place

He went so close, but then to lose so many goals from the side was key. Luis Suarez goes, Daniel Sturridge gets injured, Raheem Sterling gets his head turned – those three were massive players the year they almost won the league and so to lose that was a massive blow. Luis Suarez, though... not many players can go to Barcelona and make them better, but Luis could. Losing that sort of creativity and goals was always going to make life hard.

I arrived on the coaching staff in the summer of 2015 and didn’t realise just how hard the end of the previous season had hit the place. Losing 6-1 away at Stoke on the last day of the season just doesn’t happen to a club like Liverpool, and you could sense anxiety. The pressure was on Brendan. Ironically we had to travel back to Stoke for the first game of this season, and I have never known so much pressure on a first game. It isn’t healthy to start a season looking back on a defeat, but that’s what had happened. It was always going to be uphill for Brendan from there.

Jurgen Klopp

Klopp's a winner, says McAllister, who believes the future is "very hopeful"

Who was the best striker you ever played alongside in your career?
Duncan, via Facebook

I played with a few: Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Alan Smith at Leicester. I missed Robbie [Fowler] at his peak before his injury took hold, but the things that boy did in training – wow! No backlift, left foot, right foot. And Ally McCoist was great. The one I struggled to combine with, but who was the most selfish and prolific, was Lee Chapman at Leeds. He was a limited player, but get that ball in the box and he would score. We worked on it. Chappy needed to be the last touch of any move. If he was involved in the move, it would break down. It was designed that we would build up play, eventually get it wide and then get it in to the box where Lee would be waiting.

Lee Chapman

Lee Chapman: limited technically but lethal in the box

Why didn’t things work out for you in the end as Leeds boss? What was Ken Bates like to work with? And how painful was losing at Histon in the FA Cup?
Danny Miller, Leeds

Ken was fine. When he talked about Chelsea he’d say “we”, which I found a bit hard, but he had saved the club, so fair dues. I took over from Dennis Wise, who had built a great team. We got to the play-off final despite the 15-point deduction [for problems surrounding the club going into administration] but lost 1-0 to Doncaster at Wembley, which was tough to take. We had a bad run. The Histon game shouldn’t really have been played as the conditions were awful and the ball wouldn’t run properly, but it was live on TV so I can understand why it went ahead. I had positive moments. We signed Robert Snodgrass from Livingston for £25,000, gave Fabian Delph some early games in his career, but Jermaine Beckford got injured and we lost a run of matches. Simon Grayson got the job, Beckford came back into the team and scored 15 goals in 14 league games. That’s football.

Would you go back into management? If you could manage any club, who would it be?
Darren White, Portsmouth

Never say never. Life has always been about me and my career. My family have followed me around wherever I’ve gone, so right now I am happy with my work as an ambassador at Liverpool, but you never, ever know.

Gary McAllister

McAllister is currently an ambassador for Liverpool

This interview originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe

New features every day on FourFourTwo.com • More One-on-Ones