Managers' men: football's 'special' relationships, by those who know best
As love affairs go, it had a shaky start. “The first thing Brian Clough ever said to me was to stand up straight, put my shoulders back and get my hair cut, because I looked like a girl,” recalls John McGovern about his fateful first meeting with Old Big ‘Ed as a teenage trialist for Hartlepool United in 1965. “It was a shock, because I thought he was just going to shake my hand and say ‘good luck, son’.
“I had a rounded left shoulder which I couldn’t put back straight due to a missing muscle, and I fancied myself as the next Mick Jagger, so I didn’t want a haircut. He intimidated me. But I eventually realised that this was Brian’s unique way of testing your character.”
The first thing Brian Clough ever said to me was to stand up straight, put my shoulders back and get my hair cut, because I looked like a girl
McGovern must have passed with flying colours: the tough-tackling Scottish midfielder romped into the first team under Clough, who later signed him for Derby County, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest – where he captained the side that won the European Cup twice. As a result, he also gained a sometimes unwelcome reputation as a ‘manager’s man’.
Being the apple of a gaffer’s eye is clearly a convenient way to get picked, but it comes with a hefty side helping of baggage. Team-mates, we will discover, can become envious, conspiratorial and try to sabotage a supposed ‘favourite’.
Should their employer move elsewhere, the golden child can suddenly find themselves exposed – and it can be plain embarrassing, too. “I bring him breakfast in bed,” joked James Morrison, after former Scotland supremo Craig Levein had ladled yet another gloop of effusive praise upon the West Brom star.
“Everyone asks me if I’m the manager’s pet, they keep bringing it up. Maybe he sees talent, or maybe he realises that I need confidence to get the best out of me. It’s nice. Hopefully he’ll get a top-four job and take me with him.”
Love at third sight
He’s a northern lad, he knows what a pull Leeds is. He’s the most important signing I’ll make here
But what makes a blue-eyed boy? Are they do-gooders, bringing teacher an apple each morning? Do they possess a dossier of compromising photographs to use as blackmail? Or are they simply popular with the main man because they’re decent at kicking a round object? And can the relationship sometimes blur the barrier of professionalism so that boss and employee become that rarest of things: friends?
Like the unsettling theory that owners end up resembling their dogs, coaches clearly prefer individuals cast in their own image. Straight-talking Yorkshireman Neil Warnock might as well have been eyeballing a mirror when he praised Paddy Kenny, the goalkeeper he’d then bought for the fourth time at Leeds in July 2012. “I think he’s great. He’s a northern lad, he knows what a pull Leeds is. He’s the most important signing I’ll make here.” Kenny replied in a similar no-nonsense manner. “He knows what he gets from me. I know what I get from him.”
If the savvy, cool and slightly sly Special One Jose Mourinho ever had a special one of his own, it was the savvy, cool and slightly sly Ricardo Carvalho. The Portuguese defender put pen to paper for his compatriot at Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid, and on occasion their man-love looked like veering out of control.
“He’s one of the best central defenders in the world,” purred Jose. “If there was a possibility to sign, I would go there right now - swimming or running,” responded Ricardo before being reunited with his leader at the Bernabeu. In summer 2014 it was Didier Drogba, re-signed at the ripe old age of 36.
Harry Redknapp’s hands-on management requires personnel that thrive on such methods, which is why he brought in Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch thrice apiece. “He’ll talk to me and be honest whether I’ve had an awful game or a bad game,” says Crouch, a confidence player who admits that Fabio Capello’s aloof attitude affected him negatively. “Harry’s way suits me.”
Capello’s own supremacy at Milan, Real Madrid and Roma was always aided by Christian Panucci, a hard-working, technically excellent defender who dovetailed precisely with his intelligent brand of calcio, while Marcello Lippi built from the back and deployed solid stopper Angelo Peruzzi in his net whenever possible, buying him on three occasions and praising him as “technically and morally” superb.
Kevin was the most important signing I ever made. It isn’t just about what he does on the field, it’s what he does as a captain
West Ham's former manager Sam Allardyce’s love affair with Kevin Nolan is largely thanks to the Scouser’s leadership qualities – something Big Sam possessed in spades as a combative centre-half back in his own boot-wearing days. “Kevin was the most important signing I ever made,” says Allardyce. “It isn’t just about what he does on the field, it’s what he does as a captain. He unites dressing rooms by his experience. And as a goalscoring midfield player, you have to look at his record. No one should underestimate Nolan.”
Indeed, when the midfielder picked up a second red card in four matches in 2013/14, the disappointment from Allardyce was palpable. “I'm going to have to find out what's wrong with him, becuase there is certainly something wrong with his mentality at the minute,” sobbed Big Sam. “You can expect it from somebody who's starting out - but not Kevin.”
I think I must hold the world record. We were both two-footed, but mainly left-footed, and we relied on a similar trick - feinting to cross but chopping back onto your right foot
For FourFourTwo’s secret columnist The Player, it’s entirely logical for a manager to have preferences – after all, it eliminates gambling on someone you might not be able to work with. “I’ve followed a manager twice,” he says. “It’s what you know, so that helps, and it’s what he knows, so that helps him. Doesn’t the same thing happen in other businesses? Managers don’t know a personality or how they’ll gel before they work together.
"They can eliminate what can be a major problem by buying someone they trust. One former manager called me, and that led to a move. On another occasion, I was sat at home, not enjoying life at a Premier League club. So I called a former manager and told him to consider me. ‘That’s interesting,’ he said. A week later I moved clubs.”
Junior Lewis is surely the ultimate manager’s man, having been purchased six times as a player (for Dover Athletic, Gillingham, Leicester City, Brighton, Hull City and Stevenage Borough) and brought into clubs twice as a coach (Wycombe Wanderers, Bradford City) by Peter Taylor. “I think I must hold the world record,” he tells FourFourTwo. Lewis believes that Taylor saw similarities from his younger days. “We were both two-footed, but mainly left-footed, and we relied on a similar trick - feinting to cross but chopping back onto your right foot. I watched a video of him play once and I thought: ‘I do that’.
“He trusted me to keep things ticking over. I fitted his philosophy, and he brought the best out in me. But I didn’t assume that when he moved, I’d automatically follow. When he took over Leicester in the Premier League I did really hope I’d join, but I didn’t hear from him for ages.”
Now a coach himself at Boreham Wood, Lewis has another theory as to how certain types can become invaluable to their boss. “Operating in a difficult position is one way to become a favourite, and I was always a two-footed holding midfielder. There aren’t a lot of us around, compared to more attacking players, probably because you don’t get as much glory.
"So having me in that role meant Peter always knew he had one position sorted.” Lewis, never encountered hostility from team-mates thanks to his status. “I was playing a position which nobody else really did, so the competition wasn’t there. There was a bit of joking, but not much beyond that.”
This puts him in sharp contrast with John McGovern. In his excellent biography From Bo’Ness To The Bernabeu, My Story, the Scot recalls with distaste the abysmal treatment he received from Leeds United’s fans and players after Clough brought him in during his ill-fated 44-day reign.
“I was booed before I even came on for my debut. I was seen as his man, and I was wearing Billy Bremner’s shirt. Clough knew it wasn’t going to go well. Then Johnny Giles hit 60-40 balls in favour of my marker, which ended up with me being hurt by a crunching tackle. Johnny held his hands up in apology as I looked at him in disbelief – this was a player capable of pinpoint passes. Soon after, it happened again and I was cleaned out by an opponent’s tackle. Johnny lost an avid admirer that day.”
I was booed before I even came on for my debut. I was seen as his man, and I was wearing Billy Bremner’s shirt
After Clough was sacked, McGovern found himself in a deeply awkward dressing room. “Angus McLean, the new boss, said ‘you’re Clough’s blue-eyed boy but I’m going to change that’. He treated me like dirt. I used to be sick on the pitch before games.”
The Player has also experienced this discomfort. “Being considered the manager’s pet can be a problem if he isn’t popular,” he says. “Other lads don’t trust you and think that you’ll blab to the manager.” There can be truth in this suspicion, too, he admits. “At one club where the manager wasn’t popular, I told the assistant manager what was going on in the dressing room, knowing full well it’d get back to him.
"I did that for the good of the club, because there were one or two devious characters who were trying to undermine an honest, hard-working coach. I realised that they knew what had happened two days later when some of the other players refused to sit next to me in the canteen. I’m glad I did what I did though, and I did it again. The manager eventually got rid of the bad eggs and things began to improve.”
McGovern didn’t have such power, and considered retiring from the sport – before Clough, now at the Derby, rescued him. But he wasn’t exactly treated like royalty by his supposed benefactor either. “When it is known that you’re a strong character, a manager can get harsh with you,” McGovern tells FourFourTwo.
“I worked for him for 14 years and probably got more rollockings than anyone. At Derby, Brian Clough used to say he was going to sign Keith Weller to replace me. At Forest he said he’d get Asa Hartford - and he did. But it raised my game, the threat to my position.”
He never forgave me for us losing a cup final, and he brought it up every single time we played in the FA Cup after that
Clough was downright sadistic at times. “He never forgave me for us losing a cup final, and he brought it up every single time we played in the FA Cup after that. He even ran down the tunnel once at York City after me, because he’d forgotten to mention it.”
So why did it last? Clough valued obedience, hard work and character above all – and McGovern did what he was told. “I realised that if I put into practice what Brian was telling me, it would benefit both me and the team,” he says. “I developed a blind faith into carrying out his instructions on a football field, because I knew it’d work.
He had that annoying habit of being right. I was always striving to be better, so remembered what would benefit me, and Brian’s teaching was full of those things. We set exceptionally high standards, and if I didn’t meet them he’d admonish me.”
“I could pass with both feet. He’d ask me after a game: ‘why do I play you?’ I’d say: ‘to pass the ball.’ He’d say: ‘so pass the ball, or I’ll get somebody else who can, because you have that ability.’ He made me confident, and you play well when you’re confident.”
I suppose we were friends, although it didn’t go beyond football
Ultimately, however, a manager’s favourite will only remain such for as long as he is useful to the cause. “Ricardo is not part of our plans for the season,” Jose Mourinho said at a press conference about his former superman, before adding – rather coldly – that: “it is up to him whether he wants to continue playing football or stay at Madrid, meet his contractual obligations and practically end his sporting career.”
But a real closeness can develop between the two parties. “I suppose we were friends, although it didn’t go beyond football,” says Junior Lewis of Peter Taylor.
“I could always ring him up and discuss things, get advice. After the fourth time he signed me, we got on well. He could still kick me up the arse, but he knew it made me stronger. Peter didn’t really fall out with players, and that’s partly why he succeeded and won so many promotions.”
Kevin Nolan concurred when talking of his former gaffer. “I can’t get away from the fact that I’m close with the boss. I’ve grown up with him. I want to do it for him at West Ham. He deserves it.”
For others, the idea of actually being mates with the boss is laughable. “I never, ever got close to Clough, and I didn’t want to - the relationship wouldn’t have worked,” says John McGovern. “I was in management for seven years and you can’t have favourites. You pick the players that will do you the job, or you won’t last long.
Clough loved me if a tackle I put in saved us a point, but he only liked me if I did in on a Saturday. I was never Cloughie’s blue-eyed boy. We only ever had a couple of cordial conversations in our entire lives – years after I’d retired.
I was an estate agent in Tenerife and he brought the Forest team out for a break. He came to my house to have a coffee and watch a John Wayne film. We enjoyed the pleasantries of the day. It was genial, and not about football.”
I can’t go anywhere without people saying ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad’
As Julian Lennon and Kelly Osborne can confirm, it’s not always a bed of roses being the offspring of a celebrity – and being the child of a world-beating footballer can be particularly traumatic, especially if your old man keeps signing you. Consider Nigel Clough, signed by a father who referred to him as “the number nine”; Anthony Pulis – brought to clubs twice by dad Tony during a deeply unpromising career; and Fernando Sanz – who joined Real Madrid in 1996 when his dad, Lorenzo, was club president.
“I can’t go anywhere without people saying ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad’,” laments Paul Dalglish – who, it should be noted, will never be as good as his dad – of his career.
He probably wasn’t helped by the fact that despite a mediocre record as a youngster, said father gave him a schoolboy contract at Blackburn, before joining Celtic (Kenny’s old club), Liverpool (where pop certainly had some pals) and Newcastle (guess who was boss). He was frozen out by Ruud Gullit at St James’ Park following Kenny’s sacking, with the Dutchman telling Paul he was never going to play again because “he didn’t like my dad”.
Dalglish Junior has now found peace working in the USA and now Canada, where he coaches Ottawa Fury. “The American attitude to sport is positive,” he claims. It probably also helps that they’ve never heard about his connections.
Alex Bruce also suffered after signing for his father, Steve, at Birmingham City, with unavoidable accusations of nepotism being levelled – and the pair have since been reunited at Hull City. “I’ve had it all my life,” says Alex.
“When I joined Norwich they asked how I’d cope with being the son of a Norwich legend. For Leeds it was ‘how’s he going to cope with being a former Manchester United player’s son?’ But it’s water off a duck’s back.”
Steve added: “I just hope supporters can judge him like any other player. Lads like him have more advantages than disadvantages. Even at school people would say he’s only playing because of his dad.”
This feature originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!