Lawrie McMenemy recalls the golden days

Lawrie McMenemy is big enough to have been an ex-guardsman on duty outside Buckingham Palace.

Lawrie McMenemy

Lawrie McMenemy is big enough to have been an ex-guardsman on duty outside Buckingham Palace.

And in an era when soccer was bursting at the seams with exciting talent and extrovert characters he, Bobby Robson and Brian Clough stood tall as the three brightest young managers in football. A North East dominance of soccer's leaders.

McMenemy, a Geordie with the sharp wit of a raconteur, won the FA Cup with Southampton and finished second top of the old First Division, the sort of country bumpkin challenge to the big city clubs that Robson had pioneered at Ipswich.

Inevitably such feats drew envious glances and Lawrie was offered the managers' jobs at Newcastle United, Manchester United and Leeds United no less but - probably unwisely - remained loyal to The Dell.

Spectacularly, of course, when McMenemy eventually left for pastures fresh he made the wrong choice and fell flat on his face at Sunderland amid boardroom bickering. Yet he rose from his bed of nails to become assistant manager of England and manager of Northern Ireland.

It was a career made more startling by the fact that the big Geordie had no background whatsoever as a player, unlike the superstar performers of today who demand instant access to the managers' offices of top Premier League clubs.

He learned his trade coaching in the backwaters of his hometown club Gateshead and Bishop Auckland then graduated through the hardknocks school of Doncaster Rovers and Grimsby Town before entering soccer's rose garden.

Yet to underestimate his achievements at Southampton, where he managed world stars like Kevin Keegan, Alan Ball, Peter Shilton, Peter Osgood and Mike Channon, is to allow the passage of time to blur the memory.

"I stayed at The Dell for more than 12 years and built five sides," McMenemy told me. "Like Bobby at Ipswich, the club enjoyed more success than its stature warranted but they were exciting times.

"Bobby, Cloughie and myself were three North East lads defying the logic of needing a big city club to gain success and recognition.

"But yes, with hindsight, I should have taken the Man U job or one of the others I was offered."

That pulls at his heartstrings as he enjoys retirement at his Hampshire home - former England Test cricketer David Gower is his next door neighbour - as does never managing the club he loved, Newcastle United.

He may have made a disastrous sojourn home to the North East to take over at Roker Park as their high-profile answer to Kevin Keegan up the road, but Newcastle is where the missed opportunity lies.

"I had one chance to go to St James's Park when Lord Westwood phoned me but the timing was disastrous - it was between the semi-final and final of the FA Cup when we won at Wembley," smiled McMenemy. "At any other time I would have gone.

"But then I should definitely have taken the Manchester United post. It was mine. They made that plain when they contacted me in Kuala Lumpur but Southampton wouldn't release me and I didn't fight it.

"I could also have gone to Leeds - I was in San Francisco when the offer came. It seemed that whenever I was out of the country a big job came up back home!"

Lawrie shook football with the signings of a succesion of big personality stars - none more so than Keegan from Hamburg where he had twice been voted European Footballer of the Year - but ironically it was his youth policy that was responsible for one of the brightest lights ever to emerge from The Dell.

Alan Shearer was ensnared in the net McMenemy used to trawl his native North East and the career of one of the finest strikers England has ever produced was about to begin.

"I knew how much raw talent there was back home and I went out unashamedly to get it," admitted Lawrie. "I had Jack Hixon and a couple of his pals working the area for me and we set up an academy at Gateshead where schoolboys could train regularly instead of getting bored waiting to come down to the other end of the country in their holidays.

"We were the first club in the country to do that - I put Tom O'Connor and ex-Sunderland keeper Jimmy Montgomery in to run it.

"The likes of Tony Sealey, George Shipley and Neil Maddison came down to Southampton as a consequence but Hixon's signing of Shearer turned out to be the big coup of course.

"Jack was a quality scout - his patch was from Scotland to Yorkshire - and Shearer was a kid with massive potential.

"I'd left before he became a big star but I was the manager who first signed him, just as I was with other kids I took into Southampton who later matured big time like Matthew Le Tissier and the Wallace brothers."

McMenemy's association with Shearer didn't end, however, with his departure from football's gentile south coast club.

When Graham Taylor appointed McMenemy as his right-hand man with England, one of the Geordie's jobs was to run the Under-21 side.

"I actually gave Alan his first Under-21 cap," Lawrie told me. "Appropriately it was at The Dell.

"I knew we had something special on our hands - Shearer is one of the highest scorers ever at Under- 21 level which will surprise no one back home.

"I recall us playing against the Republic of Ireland Under -21s in Cork. I was on our bench and Jack Charlton was in their dug-out.

"Shearer picked up the ball near where we were sitting and set off on a run. `Pass,' yelled Big Jack. I smilingly told him he'd never do that. `Greedy young blighter,' sniffed Jack - and a second later the ball hit the back of the net. `Oh, bloody hell,' moaned Charlton. Shearer scored a hat-trick that night."

McMenemy is delighted at the success Shearer and Robson are currently enjoying at St James's Park.

"They are both back at home and are loving it," he said. "Bobby is proving that there should be no age barrier when it comes to managing a top club.

"He has struck a blow for people of my era. Wherever he has been he's enjoyed success because he was brought up the right way and learned his profession."

While Sir Bobby hones the multi-national talents of Newcastle United, McMenemy, his one-time rival and fellow North Easterner, is managing ... the Houses of Parliament team!

"And don't think that's an easy job with all the egos around," laughed Lawrie.

Mac and Kevin in old pals act again

Recently two old pals, Lawrie McMenemy and Kevin Keegan, got together again and discovered that their old pulling power hadn't been eroded by time.

For two eventful years they'd been manager and superstar at Southampton and they were teamed once more on the south coast for Matthew Le Tissier's testimonial.

Great mates in the old days when they'd socialise with their wives, they decided to go out for a meal and talk of what once was.

"We drew up outside an Indian restaurant I used to know," McMenemy explained.

"It was late at night and about to close but when the owner saw me he was all smiles and agreed to open up again. Then Kevin got out of the car and his eyes widened even more.

"He made a phone call and the chef returned to the restaurant on the back of a motorbike!"

McMenemy caused a sensation when he brought Keegan back to English football - just as he did here in the North East when he later sold him to Newcastle United.

"For a club like Southampton to sign the double European Footballer of the Year and England skipper was mindboggling," maintained Lawrie. "We only got small gates but we doubled prices on Kev's arrival such was the interest.

"He was phenomenal and I have nothing but admiration for him.

"With hindsight I think he moved on to Newcastle not just for the challenge but because I gave Mike Channon a free transfer. Channon, Alan Ball and KK were great mates but I felt that Mike was getting on a bit and I didn't want to insult him by playing him in the reserves.

"We survived without Keegan of course - indeed we finished second top of the old First Division after he'd left. I tried to sign Trevor Francis from Manchester City and John Bond agreed to the deal but his chairman Peter Swales over-ruled him. If I'd got Francis I believe we'd have won the championship."

Wear and tear took its toll

Perhaps Lawrie McMenemy should have realised that his high profile move to Sunderland was doomed to mind-numbing failure on his very first day of training at Roker Park.

He was confronted by a hobbling Howard Gayle and a display of player indifference which ought to have sent alarm bells ringing across the Wear.

"I was watching the training session and I noticed that Gayle wasn't running right," McMenemy told me. "I asked the physio what was wrong and he told me casually that Gayle needed a cartilage operation.

"I thought: `Bloody hell, he's a good physio if he can tell that just by watching a player run.' But I was then informed that Gayle had been examined and told of his need for an op at the end of the previous season. His response was `I'm not having it in my time' and shot off on his summer holidays to Liverpool.

"Some players had developed 'mysterious' injuries the season before I arrived after there'd been a rumpus over League Cup final tickets. I wasn't aware of that but it soon all surfaced."

McMenemy admits that his short stay at Roker Park was "a disaster - the saddest part of my career."

Looking back he maintained: "The foundations of the club were rotten and the political in-fighting reached ridiculous proportions.

"Remember I was appointed managing director, not just manager, and while I could easily have just looked to the dressing-room I felt my responsibility was wider than that.

"A mountain had to be moved but I couldn't do it in just 21 months.

"What went on behind the scenes was incredible. I was used to the smooth atmosphere of the Southampton boardroom but what we had here was one director taking another to court and a second director banned from the team coach. It was the era of Tom Cowie and Barry Batey and it was desperately confrontational.

"Of course I made lots of mistakes and if I had my time over I'd do things differently. The Sunderland public don't know half of what went on behind the scenes and never will unless I write a book. As my old mate Jimmy Tarbuck used to say `Lawrie McMenemy and the Titanic have one thing in common - neither should have left Southampton!'"

Taylor made for an elder statesman role

While Bobby Robson was producing an epic finale to his England tenureship at the World Cup finals of 1990, a secret meeting in Rome between Graham Taylor and Lawrie McMenemy sealed the immediate future of our national side.

"It was an open secret that Bobby was leaving the FA after the World Cup," said McMenemy. "Graham Taylor, who was taking over, was working for a newspaper and I was covering the finals for TV.

"We were both staying in the same hotel in Rome and Graham invited me out to dinner. Then came the bombshell - he asked if I would join him. I think he wanted an elder statesman to help out because the higher you are the lonelier it is.

"I was licking my wounds at the time after Sunderland and it was just the lift I required."

Taylor, of course, got himself embroiled in a controversial fly-on-the-wall TV documentary which did him no favours as he was repeatedly shown in England's dug-out moaning: "Do I not like that!"

McMenemy insists that he warned his boss of the dangers it was producing - but Taylor went ahead anyway.

"In the end it got so silly that I couldn't get in Graham's room on the afternoon of an England game to discuss things with him because of the TV cameras and technicians etc," Lawrie told me. "I said I thought the whole idea wasn't a good one but Graham insisted: `I'll be the judge of that.' So I stepped aside.

"Taylor ended up deeply hurt over the Turniphead slur. It took him a long time to recover - for ages he wouldn't go back to Wembley.

"I'm just pleased he's back in the game at Aston Villa because he had a really bad time."

Aaron wanted to learn all the time

Aaron Hughes may now be a Premiership star with Newcastle United and about to become a part of the Champions' League showcase.

But he was no more than a reserve team performer when Lawrie McMenemy plucked him from an obscure list of bit players and gave him his first Northern Ireland international cap.

When McMenemy was appointed to the Irish job - a controversial decision over the water given that he was viewed as a 'foreigner' just like Sven-Goran Eriksson with England - McMenemy was handed a list of eligible players.

"I had about four Premier League stars - Keith Gillespie, Neil Lennon, Michael Hughes and Steve Lomas - and the rest were players in the lower divisions or the reserves," said Lawrie. "Aaron Hughes was on it and I got him in the squad. He was a nice lad, but could he play?

"He was in the reserves at Newcastle at the time and I had to find out.

"Yeah, he could play and importantly he'd listen and wanted to learn. What's more, Hughes was versatile - he played in both full-back positions and centre-half for me. That was a Godsend with an international side as limited as Northern Ireland.

"Aaron has come through marvellously since I first capped him and he's a player whose career I follow more than most. He'll go on to be a regular in the Premier League and with Northern Ireland. Aaron is a proud lad who cares about his game."

McMenemy was appointed in part, he believes, because "there were a few rascals around and they thought I could handle them."

Lawrie explained: "The Irish love a good time, which is fine if you pick your moment, but they'd had a few disciplinary problems."

Maybe problems with the likes of Keith Gillespie?

"Oh, I didn't mind that," he insisted.

"The main trouble with Keith was that the Irish fans expected him to play as they'd seen him on TV in the Premiership. But at Manchester United and Newcastle he'd been surrounded by great players and it was different here."

Different indeed for Lawrie too after helping to run England.

"It was a world apart," he smiled.

"With England I watched Premier League games all the time and if I wanted to fly abroad I just phoned up the FA's full-time travel man and tickets and a car were laid on.

"But with Ireland I was scouting at Second and Third Division matches and there had to be a council meeting if I wanted to fly.

"We simply didn't have the resources, either financially or player wise.

"I remember us facing Germany and our right-back Danny Griffin was in Dundee United's reserves!"

When McMenemy joked with German legend Franz Beckenbauer about the mighty v minnows match it fell on deaf ears.

"I told him that we should play a handicap system like in golf where we'd get a three-goal start," he said, "but Franz looked puzzled. Germans have never had a sense of humour."

The Irish were actually four goals down at half-time and McMenemy admitted: "As I was walking to the dressing-room I didn't have a clue what I was going to say. But I took off two players and changed things around. We drew the second-half 0-0 so that was a moral victory for us."

Sadly McMenemy believes Northern Ireland have no chance in the foreseeable future.

"They won't qualify for any major finals," he said. "They had their spell when they reached two World Cup finals under Billy Bingham but they had a crop of really good players at the time."


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