In collaboration with Tim Rich

First published as a hardback by deCoubertin Books Ltd in 2016.

First Edition

deCoubertin Books, Studio C, Baltic Creative Campus, Liverpool, L1 OAH

eISBN: 978-1-909245-41-9
Special editions:

Copyright © Ron Atkinson, 2016

The right of Ron Atkinson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be left liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Cover design by Leslie Priestley.

Typeset by Sabahat Muhammed.

Printed and bound by Standart.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by the way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it was published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders for photographs used in this book. If we have overlooked you in any way, please get in touch so that we can rectify this in future editions.

I would like to dedicate this memoir to all the many decent people in football and
in broadcasting who have helped me to understand the game a little better.
























  1. My playing career began at Oxford United. Here I am aged 23 at the start of the 1962/63 season, Oxford’s first season in the Football League. (PA)

  2. Somewhere in this mass of supporters, you can see me getting carried off the pitch after Oxford knocked Blackburn Rovers out of the FA Cup in the fifth round, the furthest in the competition the club has ever reached. (PA)

  3.As Oxford’s captain it was my duty to lead the team out in front of an expectant Manor Ground crowd. (PA)

  4.Kettering Town and Cambridge United were great times but being appointed at West Brom was my most important break in management. This was taken in the summer of 1978 ahead of my first full season in charge at the Hawthorns. (PA)

  5.At Heathrow Airport following the end of an eye-opening post season tour to China with West Bromwich Albion. Mick Martin, Bryan Robson and Ally Martin are also pictured. (PA)

  6.Willie Johnston tested positive for a banned stimulant at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. I met him at Heathrow Airport on his return to Britain. (PA)

  7.I went to France to test Astroturf football pitches with five other First Division managers. One of them was Everton’s Gordon Lee. (PA)

  8.In Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and Brendon Batson, West Brom had football’s answer to the Three Degrees. The lads are pictured here at the Hawthorns with the real thing: Valerie Holiday, Helen Scott and Sheila Ferguson. (Mirrorpix)

  9.A proud day in white shoes. Addressing the Old Trafford crowd for the first time after landing the Manchester United manager’s position. (PA)

10.Bryan Robson: one of the greatest players I’ve coached. He was developing into a fine international standard midfielder at West Brom. So I brought him with me to Old Trafford. Martin Edwards, the chairman, was quite pleased by the decision. (PA)

11.The Bell’s Whisky manager of the month for February 1983. Finals in the Milk Cup and FA Cup awaited. Everton were beaten immediately after this presentation. (Mirrorpix)

12.A trio of international players that I hoped would propel United to the next level in the 1984/85 season. A Dane in Jesper Olsen and two Scots, Alan Brazil and Gordon Strachan. (Mirrorpix)

13.Tracksuit, flip-flops and feet up. A rare let-up at Manchester United Cliff training ground in October 1984. (Mirrorpix)

14.Glory, glory Man United: winning the FA Cup at Wembley with a 1-0 victory over First Division champions Everton in 1985. (PA)

15.Two months away from the sack at Manchester United. Mounting pressure. September, 1986. (Mirrorpix)

16.Back at the Hawthorns after returning to management with West Brom. The club had fallen on hard times since my first spell there. (PA)

17.Sharing a joke with Jesús Gil y Gil, the volcanic president of Atlético Madrid, before being appointed to the Spanish club in 1988. Our working relationship didn’t last too long. (PA)

18.Winning the Rumbelows Cup with Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley in 1991. My old club Manchester United were the opponents. I consider Roland Nilsson, pictured here, as one of my best buys. (PA)

19.Doug Ellis, Aston Villa’s legendary chairman. He was as tough and demanding as they come. (PA)

20.Dean Saunders was an important signing for Aston Villa. He didn’t really want to leave Liverpool. But I persuaded him to do so, even though the deal dragged on. (PA)

21.Relief! Beating Tranmere Rovers in the semi final of the Coca Cola Cup in 1994. We needed two legs, extra time and penalties to do it. Manchester United were beaten in the final a few weeks later. (PA)

22.Winning the League Cup again – beating United in the final again! Dalian Atkinson was one of the scorers at Wembley. (PA)

23.Another job, another Midland club. This time the brief at Coventry City in 1995 was simple: avoid relegation. (PA)

24.Under pressure: another missed chance against Leeds United at Highfield Road as the season nears its conclusion. Fortunately, we stayed up. (PA)

25.Back to Sheffield and back to Hillsborough in 1997. The fans seemed quite happy with my re-appointment at Wednesday. And so was I. (PA)

26.The job at the City Ground with Nottingham Forest was hard enough, with the team rooted to the bottom of the Premier League table. In Pierre van Hooijdonk, the club had a talented but temperamental striker. (PA)

27.In position with the wonderful Brian Moore working for ITV in 1996. I loved working as a football commentator. (PA)

28.A huge mistake. Something I regret. After making an off-air remark about Marcel Desailly, I decided to resign from ITV. The press were waiting for me the next morning. (PA)

29.At home in Worcestershire during my first spell as manager of West Brom. Maggie and I are big dog lovers. (Mirrorpix)

30.This was taken a few weeks after I took charge at Coventry City. The job meant I didn’t have to move home. (Mirrorpix)

31.As manager of Sheffield Wednesday – back in the city I called ‘Rome’ because of its seven hills, I commuted most days from Worcestershire. (PA)

32.Love and success. Maggie and I leaving London for Manchester in the wake of FA Cup glory in 1985. (Mirrorpix)


I’D LIKE TO ACKNOWLEDGE ALL THE HELP GIVEN TO ME THROUGH-out my career by so many people and for the love and support of my wife, Maggie, and our family. I would like to thank the publishers, DeCoubertin for engaging me to write my memoirs and to Tim Rich for directing the book and putting my thoughts on to paper.

Best wishes

Ron Atkinson,
July 2016


THEY WERE ALIENS. NOT THE ALIENS WE WOULD READ ABOUT in the comic books of the 1950s but in their long leather coats they seemed to come from another world. They looked like gods.

It was December 1954; I was fifteen, a ground-staff boy at Wolverhampton Wanderers watching Honved’s players walk out on to the pitch, a pitch that I and the rest of the Wolves staff had done our best to turn into a bog. I can still see Ferenc Puskas walking through the rain and the Molineux floodlights.

In theory it was a friendly but nobody was treating it as such. Wolves were the champions of England, Honved were the champions of Hungary. When Wolves came back from two goals down to win the Daily Mail carried a headline that proclaimed ‘Hail Wolves, Champions of the World’. It was the game that inspired the European Cup.

We knew many of that Honved team had been the core of the Hungary side that had put six past England at Wembley and then scored seven against them in Budapest. We were standing in a little enclosure at Molineux called the Players’ Pen. Wolves ran out in what they called their ‘Floodlit Kit’ with big, billowing, luminous shirts. Then on came Honved in white shirts with two thin red hoops. The shirts were tight, everything about them was tight.

They were two up in minutes. And then our work began to tell. It had been pouring down over the Midlands but the Wolves manager, Stan Cullis, had ordered the pitch soaked. We stood in the rain, hosing it and then rolling it. The Daily Mail said it resembled the surface of a four-day-old cattle show.

As the rain came down, the Hungarians couldn’t cope. Puskas tried his trademark drag-back and the ball became trapped in the mud. They literally became bogged down. Wolves, who ought to have been beaten by six, won 3–2.

Cullis had intended to use more than just ground-staff boys with hoses to beat the Hungarians. Wolves employed an analyst called Wing Commander Charles Reep, who argued that most goals resulted from three passes.

It formed the basis of the theories that Graham Taylor was to use so successfully at Watford. Reep dominated Molineux to the extent that, if you played a square pass in your own half of the pitch, there would be trouble. If Stan Cullis saw it, he would go absolutely barmy.

Cullis believed in the power game but Wolves were not as crude as Wimbledon were to become, and in Peter Broadbent they had one of the best footballers England ever produced. Cullis was, nevertheless, very anxious to prove to us that the Hungarian way was not the way football should be played.

Before the game, Cullis took us all into the Molineux Hotel at the top of the ground to watch a film of the Hungarians beating England 6–3 at Wembley the year before. We analysed the first goal: Hungary score almost straight from the kick-off. There are half-a-dozen passes, Jimmy Dickinson tries to get his toe-end on to one of them, and turns it into a square pass. The ball is then played out to Nandor Hidegkuti, who whacks it in the net. Cullis turns round and says, ‘There you go, three passes.’ Through my teenage eyes it looked like fifteen passes but, naturally, nobody in that room had the courage to say so.

Cullis never received the recognition he deserved. He won the championship three times and the FA Cup twice. The irony was that he was a classic ball-playing centre-half who when he became a manager emphasised power and drive, but he ruled with a rod of iron. The only person I ever saw stand up to him when I was on the staff at Wolves was Peter Broadbent. Even the internationals like Billy Wright were in absolute awe of him.

Broadbent was a fantastic footballer who had a body-swerve you wouldn’t believe, and one day Cullis had a go because he wasn’t tracking back and Peter just let him have it. He knew he was a player and he didn’t need to be told how to play.

While the names of Busby and Shankly resonate across football, Stan Cullis’s reputation disappeared outside the Black Country. Wolves sacked him very messily in 1964 and when he reappeared at Birmingham something was missing, something had gone. He never achieved anything much at St Andrew’s and when he left Birmingham, he left the game completely.

But he was a visionary. The floodlit games Wolves staged against Honved, Spartak Moscow and Moscow Dynamo changed everything. It sparked an idea. It was the first time any of us had seen foreign footballers up close, and Puskas and Kocsis would be among the greats, worthy of inclusion in any World XIs you could name. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 they were scattered throughout Europe. Kocsis and Czibor went to Barcelona, Puskas to Real Madrid, where he scored hat-tricks in two European Cup finals and managed to be on the losing side in one of them.

Foreign footballers are everywhere and the Premier League has far too many mediocre ones. What was once exotic and special has become mundane and ordinary. The argument is that they are cheaper than British footballers but I wonder how true that is. The Premier League argues that it is the best in the world but how many overseas players who have come here can be said to have been truly great?

Gianfranco Zola might have been the very best. Sergio Aguero is probably the best finisher, perhaps just ahead of Ruud van Nistelrooy.

People talk about Dennis Bergkamp but Alex Ferguson never really rated him. Fergie’s argument was always that Bergkamp seldom produced in the big games, and my memory of Bergkamp is clouded by one match. In September 1994, Aston Villa played Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup and Bergkamp was hopeless, anaemic. If I flick though the games where I stood on the touchline and watched him take on one of my teams, I cannot remember a game in which he shone.

Roy Keane said that he could not remember a single European game Eric Cantona turned. I remember watching him at Stuttgart in the European Cup when he had just started for Leeds. He struck a long cross-field ball that was cut out and led to Stuttgart scoring their first goal in a 3–0 win. Leeds won the return at Elland Road 4–1 and were out on away goals. Then they then discovered Stuttgart had fielded an ineligible player and the tie had to be replayed in Barcelona – a game that Leeds won.

But despite his error, watching from the stands in Stuttgart I thought Cantona was an extremely useful player – but not the phenomenon he was to become at Manchester United. When I talked to Gordon Strachan and Gary McAllister about him after that match, they hadn’t the time of day for him. They thought Cantona a waster.

And yet though they worshipped him on the training ground at Manchester United, there was an element of waste about Cantona’s play in Europe, especially in the Champions League semi-final against Borussia Dortmund in 1997. United had reached the semis despite losing three matches in the group stage, but Dortmund did not seem the strongest opponents and Cantona had chance after chance. He squandered them all.

Thinking of other players, Thierry Henry was phenomenal, Patrick Vieira was magnificent and, though he might have been an acquired taste, I did like David Ginola. Obviously there would have been days when as a manager he would have driven you up the wall but he had a beautiful way of playing. He made his debut for Newcastle when I was managing Coventry and he stretched us until we broke.

Of the foreign footballers I managed, Arnold Muhren and Roland Nilsson at Manchester United and Sheffield Wednesday were complete professionals. Pierre van Hooijdonk wasn’t, while Paolo di Canio was simply mad.

And yet a generation and a half before I began studying Di Canio’s body language for clues, there was this sense of wonder that foreign footballers existed at all when as a fourteen-year-old I sat in front of a nine-inch television screen that came complete with a magnifying glass. It was the only one in our street and in November 1953 Hungary were playing England at Wembley. It was the day football changed forever.

The last time I’d been invited in front of that screen was for the 1953 FA Cup final, the Matthews Final.

My dad was a boxer, swimmer and sprinter, who played baseball for a factory team in Birmingham and played football for Ayr United during the war, although he was never a pro.

I remember my dad urging me to go and watch Stanley Matthews because ‘this will probably be his last season’. We duly went and he played on for another ten years. He was the world’s greatest player, although the world we knew comprised of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. We had been beaten in the World Cup by the United States in Belo Horizonte but none of us at Lea Village Secondary School imagined England was not the greatest football nation on the planet.

Matthews was ahead of his time. He was a vegetarian, a teetotaller and he was big on endorsements. He launched a range of boots through the Co-op. The bog-standard one was like an army boot but the deluxe version was beautiful, probably lighter than the modern boot and with a ply fitting that meant you could almost fold them. They were black. The one thing I cannot imagine Stanley Matthews in all his glory doing is playing with one lime-green boot and the other shocking-pink.

It seemed to us that we were the luckiest kids in the world. We grew up in a house in one of the newer council estates on the edge of Birmingham that had what I can only describe as an arena, with a big grassy area on an island in front of the houses.

It was football every day. Even the fathers would come out and play. Come April, without anybody saying anything, dustbins would be taken out and used as wickets. The only time the games would ever stop was at quarter to seven when somebody’s mother would shout that Dick Barton, Special Agent was on. You would go in for fifteen minutes, spend the next five talking with your mates about what would happen to Snowy White or whether Jock Anderson could get out of trouble, and then the games would resume.

I was born in Liverpool, my mum’s city, and although I was only a few days old when we went back to the Midlands, I tended to spend the summer holidays there. My uncle had a dairy in Goodison Road, on the corner of Peter Road, and when I was a teenager I would help him deliver the milk, pulling a handcart.

The highlights would be putting bottles on the doorsteps of Tommy Jones and Tony McNamara, who played for Everton, and delivering to Michael Holliday, a singer who was briefly known as the ‘British Bing Crosby’.

To be a professional footballer was the great dream. The standard of school football was pretty good and the teachers would encourage you – one of my old schoolmasters still umpires in our village. My heroes were Billy Wright, above all Duncan Edwards, and Albert Quixall, who played on the wing for Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United. British footballers were of course the best in the world. It was so obvious it was never discussed.

And then we all gathered round the nine-inch telly for the second big sporting event of 1953, the one that was billed as ‘The Game of the Century’, the one between England and Hungary.

What amazed us was that at the kick-off Puskas flicked the ball up and caught it on his instep, and we all turned to each other to say, ‘What the hell was that?’ Any footballer now could do it; any silly centre-half could probably do it. Then, it was extraordinary.

Hidegkuti scored from the kick-off and what stuck in all our minds was the third Hungarian goal, Puskas dragging the ball back with the sole of his boot as Billy Wright came in to tackle him. Billy went crashing into empty space and he remarked afterwards that he needed a ticket to get back in the ground.

That thrashing was thought then and is still thought now to have been inflicted by a team whose tactics came from nowhere, and yet the FA ought to have had an inkling of what was to come.

There was a coach from Clitheroe called Jimmy Hogan, whom the Hungarian players called Uncle Jimmy. Their manager, Gusztav Sebes, when asked how they had beaten England, replied that Hungary had simply played the football Jimmy Hogan had taught them.

Hogan had managed Aston Villa before the war but he had made his name coaching in Austria, Switzerland and Hungary; later in his career he had been brought back by Villa to coach the kids – and, having left Wolves for Villa, I was one of them.

Aston Villa ran seven teams in those days and Hogan was put in charge of the A team, which was composed of 17–21-year-olds with the odd senior player. I often think that, when people talk of tactics, there is very little that is new in the game and his sessions were astonishingly modern. All the training was done running with a ball.

We played in the Birmingham League, which was full of hardened pros, and Jimmy would say to us, ‘If you have the ball, wherever you are on the field, you are attacking. If you are a wing-half, you are a waiter in a restaurant; your job is to service the forwards.’

I took a lot from Jimmy when I became a manager and so did Malcolm Allison, who – although we would fall out badly – was one of my heroes. Jimmy preached close control, the ball passed constantly between two, on your toes, left foot, right foot, always ready to turn. He would have you turning, dragging the ball back, all the things that would become standard practice over time. If you see ‘master coaches’ at work now, the chances are that they will be overseeing an embellishment of what Jimmy Hogan once taught.

One thing I never became a fan of was the warm-up. When I managed Manchester United, the team was afflicted by a spate of hamstring injuries and I mentioned it to Ron Pickering, who was involved with British Athletics at the time. He said British athletes had the same problem and the suspicion was it was all the stretching they were doing before competing.

Now you see footballers warm up for twenty minutes before a match, and how many times do you hear there has been a late substitution because somebody has been ‘injured in the warm-up’? I used to warm up in the dressing room and, while I can’t imagine he modelled his career on mine, so did Andrea Pirlo. ‘Masturbation for conditioning coaches,’ he called the sight of an entire football team stretching before kick-off.

I had gone to Aston Villa from Wolves. I was doing some coaching at a local school with a mate of mine called Herbie Smith, who played for the Villa and asked me if I fancied moving. There was a bit of controversy but the Villa fixed me up with a job as an apprentice toolmaker at BSA. This enabled me to play in the Birmingham Works League, which was then the biggest football league in the world, with 24 divisions. I played for the county first team and they tried to persuade me to remain as an amateur because they were sure I would get an England Amateur cap.

I wasn’t bothered about England Amateur caps. I wanted to play first-team professional football, a prospect that receded dramatically when Joe Mercer became manager of Aston Villa in December 1958.

He got rid of twenty of us. We learned about it from the back page of the Birmingham Mail. Every one of us who had been sacked had our photo in the paper. It looked like an appeal from Interpol, although at the time we felt like Aston Villa’s least wanted.


AFTER I LEFT ASTON VILLA I WAS GIVEN SEVERAL OFFERS BUT the one that interested me most came from Oxford.

It wasn’t called Oxford but Headington United then, and they weren’t even part of the Football League. I had never been anywhere like it. The football grounds I knew were tucked in behind rows of terraced houses but when I was trying to find the Manor Ground, what confused me was I was surrounded by trees and fields. I thought I might stick it out for six months. I stayed twelve years.

The main reason I went and the main reason I stayed was that Headington had an extraordinary manager called Arthur Turner.

Arthur was the most successful manager in Birmingham City’s history. He had won them promotion and in the following season taken them to the 1956 FA Cup final against Manchester City, the one in which Bert Trautmann broke his neck. From there Birmingham had competed in the Fairs Cup, reached the semi-finals and were only knocked out by Barcelona in a replay after the tie ended up 4–4 on aggregate.

But Birmingham’s chairman, Harry Morris, decided to make some changes at St Andrew’s which saw Turner being made joint-manager. Arthur only discovered this through the press and, eventually, not long before I was shown the door by Villa, he resigned.

It might seem extraordinary that someone should voluntarily go from games against Barcelona to the Southern League, but the thing about non-league football was that it had no maximum wage.

Aston Villa’s star player was Peter McParland and when I went to Headington I found myself on only three pounds a week less than him. When Leeds gave Turner a way back to the First Division by offering him the manager’s job, the board at Headington were able to keep him by bettering the money. He was on £3,000 a year, a sizeable salary for the time, a little bit less than the cost of my home, which was a new-build bungalow in Wheatley. Leeds gave the job to Don Revie.

There was a lot of money in non-league football in the late 1950s and Bath City, who beat us to the Southern League title in my first season at Headington, had more than most.

In 1958, Stan Mortensen went to Bath for about £80 a week, whereas at Blackpool he would have been on about £20. Charlie Fleming, who was called ‘Cannonball Charlie’ for the power of his shooting, left Sunderland in his prime to go to Bath for three or four times the money he was making at Roker Park. They had Tony Book playing at right-back.

Oxford was a thriving, vibrant place, based around the Morris works at Cowley. I would describe the team as a kind of Wimbledon who could play a bit. Because the money was so good, the core of that team stayed together. Things were always happening at Oxford, whether it was a cup run or promotion challenge. We were elected to the Football League in 1962, reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup two years later, and by 1968 we were in the Second Division.

I had chances to leave. In 1964 Tony Kay, the Everton captain, was imprisoned and banned for life following a betting scandal while he was at Sheffield Wednesday. Their manager, Harry Catterick, had identified me as Kay’s replacement.

I was never told. I only found out because an Oxford director came to my house pleading with me not to go. I had no idea what he was talking about: ‘Go where?’ Manchester City and Newcastle both made offers that never made it past Oxford’s board.

What Arthur was good at, and one thing I learned from him, was that he was very strong on getting players in with character. You never saw him from one game to the next. If you’d lost, you’d get a bollocking on Saturday night. If you’d won, you’d get a ‘well done’ and a little speech that would invariably contain the words: ‘your success is my success’. Then he would clear off and you wouldn’t see him again until the next match day.

He made me captain when I was twenty and, if things weren’t going well, he would single four people out at half-time. It would be me, the goalie, the big left-back Pat Quartermain, or the centre-forward Bud Houghton, and he would go for us. Turner did it because he knew he would get a reaction; that we would go out wanting to show him he was wrong.

It was a technique I picked up on. When I was manager of Manchester United, we faced Watford at Old Trafford just before we were due to play in the 1983 FA Cup final and they were murdering us. Graham Taylor had shifted his centre-half, Richard Jobson, to play almost as a right-winger and just before the interval he missed an absolute open goal that should have given Watford the lead.

Their two midfielders were Les Taylor and Kenny Jackett; ours were Ray Wilkins and Bryan Robson. I said to Ray I wanted more pace: ‘I want it quicker, you’re fiddling with the ball, we have to hit the front quicker.’ I kept it precise and technical.

Then I turned to Robbo. ‘When are you going to start playing?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I meant what I said. When are you bloody well going to start playing?’

‘I am playing.’

‘No, you’re not. Les Taylor used to clean my boots at Oxford and, I’ll tell you what, he wasn’t much cop at that and now he’s absolutely burying you.’

‘I am not having you talk to me like that.’

‘I don’t care what you think. You either get it done in the next fifteen minutes or you’re off.’

He was magnificent in the second half, we won and when it was all over I greeted him, arms outstretched, saying, ‘That’s the Bryan Robson we all love and adore.’ He called me a bastard because then he knew why I’d gone for him in the dressing room.

You couldn’t have talked to Ray Wilkins like that. He wouldn’t know how to take it.

Even though I learned a lot from Arthur, management did not seem an immediate option. Six or seven years into my career at Oxford, I was offered a job at a big builders’ merchants. I would do an hour or two’s work in the morning just before I went into training. In the afternoons I’d be on the phone, make some house calls or spend some time in the office.

I learned a lot from that, more than you’d probably imagine. How to conduct yourself in meetings, for example – and I was quite good at selling. They put me on paints and sent me to a course right by West Ham’s training ground at Chadwell Heath.

Then one day, I was told that if I wanted a job as sales manager, full time, I could have it. It seemed appealing because this was the first preseason when I’d gone back without the usual zest for football. It was 1971 and we’d taken Oxford to a position where they were well established in the Second Division but we knew that was as far as we would go.

I was also doing some coaching, at the technical college and at Witney Town, where a mate paid me a fiver, and I ended up being practically full time in the evenings. When Bill Foulkes got the job a few years later, he found himself on £100 a week.

There were more lucrative football jobs in the offing. Reading and Crewe both offered me a player-manager’s position. John Bond asked me to come to Bournemouth with him as a player-coach.

Then, I got a call from John Nash, a man who looked and talked like Alfred Hitchcock. He wanted me to manage Kettering Town in the Southern League Division One North. I wasn’t interested. ‘Come and talk to me,’ he said. So I went to meet him in Bedford. He offered me £5,000 a year (about £70,000 in today’s terms) and a car, and laid down some pretty ambitious plans for what he wanted done at Rockingham Road. I would be the highest-paid manager in English football outside Division One.

I was mulling this over in the car, driving back home, and then suddenly pulled over to a red telephone box and rang my old man. ‘If you don’t have a go, you might never know,’ said my dad.

So I found myself as a football manager and ended up signing the smallest contract, in terms of words, of my professional life. ‘You will run the football team and be responsible for it.’

Nash had made his money in the Stock Exchange but, unusually, he didn’t work in the City of London but in Kettering. He was up all hours, playing the Japanese markets. In 1976, under his chairmanship Kettering became the first club to have shirt sponsorship. We would turn up in Aquascutum blazers, the coach that we took to away games was top of the range, immaculately kitted out, and we would stop for a pre-match meal in some lovely restaurants. One lad at Dover came over to me and said, ‘When we’re playing you, we feel like we’re playing the Arsenal.’

Kettering had a board of four. One was a surgeon, one was a broker, and one was the leader of the local Labour Party. Nash had stood as a Conservative candidate for Kettering in the 1955 general election and allowed me into the board meetings, which I found fascinating.

In one year, the club made £100,000 through a share issue, which even today would be an astonishing sum of money. The gates were big – around 4,000 – and the commercial department, who ran the lottery, brought in a lot of cash.

It allowed them to build the Main Stand that dominates the ground. The aim was get into the Football League and after successive promotions we had our chance. Now, we would have qualified automatically; then you had to be voted in and usually you were up against the team that had finished bottom of the Fourth Division. In 1973 we were up against Darlington and the following year, Workington Town.

We had been promised Nottingham Forest’s vote but their representative’s car broke down on the way to meeting so it was never cast. Workington survived until 1977 when they lost their place to Wimbledon.

Our big rivals for election were Yeovil. They were managed by Cec Irwin, who devised a stunt that when they came to Rockingham Road, the players should line up in front of the cameras each with a letter on his shirt. It spelled out: ‘Elect Yeovil’. I got to hear of this and we gathered every football we could find in the ground, piled them up in the tunnel and, when Yeovil lined up for their photo-call, we shot them as hard and as straight at them as we could.

Arthur Turner had left Oxford by then but I employed him as a scout and to use his knowledge of the game. In 1972 we signed Roy Clayton from Oxford for £8,000 – which would be more than £100,000 today. Roy had just played against Manchester United in the League Cup and now here he was at Rockingham Road, where he became a catalyst for a lot of our success.

I’d also identified a kid at Northampton called Phil Neal. I agreed a fee of £6,000 for him. Northampton used to play on a Friday night and I went over to see their manager, Billy Baxter, because I wanted to play Phil against Weymouth on the Saturday.

He said Neal had to play the Friday game and in the days afterwards Northampton kept messing me about until I got a call from John Nash saying, ‘Don’t bother, we don’t deal with people like that.’ Whenever I see Phil, who signed for someone called Bob Paisley and became the most decorated footballer in Liverpool’s history, I always remind him what he missed out on.

I was phoned up by John Nash, who asked me if I could buy a player from Chelmsford, Eddie Dilsworth, a big, black winger. We would pay £34,000 for him and Chelmsford would buy him back a year later for £30,000. When I went to Essex with Nash’s cheque in my briefcase, it was all designed to reduce Kettering’s profits so we paid less corporation tax. It was a problem few non-league clubs have to wrestle with today.

The problems Eddie brought to Kettering were not the sort any kind of manager should have to deal with. An hour and a half before kick-off, I got a call from him saying he couldn’t play because he’d been arrested for fraud. He was acquitted, but he didn’t make kick-off.

Whether it was exchanging a player for a lawnmower because, frankly, that was the best thing Stevenage had to sell, or wondering how one of your best players might escape the attentions of Essex Police, non-league football was an education, the kind that fewer and fewer top-flight managers are likely ever to experience.

One of the people I talk to most often about football is Garry Pendrey, who played for and managed Birmingham. He said to me, ‘You wouldn’t have got the Manchester United job now because you wouldn’t have got the West Brom job. A Premier League club now would not dare to appoint someone from League One.’

And yet when I was at Old Trafford two of the great English clubs, Manchester United and Tottenham, were run by former non-league managers – me and David Pleat.

I was responsible for David’s last game as a non-league manager with Nuneaton Borough. We beat them 4–0 and I was playing sweeper and, frankly, I could have played in a dicky bow.

After the match, one of our directors came up to me and said, ‘Could you go and look after their manager. There has been a bit of a hoo-ha in their dressing room and I think the manager’s been finished.’

I took David across to the bowling centre we had at Kettering and he started to go through the game with me, convinced Nuneaton had been unlucky to lose. I have a theory that, if you’ve lost 1–0, you might have an excuse. To explain away a 2–0 defeat, it would have to be something extraordinary. But he had lost by four. After he had explained at length about how Nuneaton could have drawn 4–4, I said, rather cruelly given the circumstances, ‘David, if that’s what you think, you’re entitled to the sack.’