I was football mad. I played for my school and then represented the City of Stoke-on-Trent team along with Bill Bentley, and we won the National Schools Final at the Victoria Ground in 1963. Quite a few lads from that team made it, but I wasn’t taken on straight away by Stoke. I was offered terms by Spurs and Portsmouth, but I was a Stoke lad and didn’t want to leave the city.
Alan Bloor grew up a few streets away from me, but I didn’t know him too well as he was a few years older than me. ‘Bluto’ and me had a great partnership. I attaked every ball in the air and if they got past me then Bluto would sort them out! We got on really well, and talked a lot during games. Indeed, we often talked centre forwards out of the game!
I was eventually taken on when I was 18 years old at Stoke. My first wage was just £12 a week!
Who were your big mates at Stoke?
I wasn’t really a drinker, and didn’t socialise too much. I always thought I work with and see you lot all week anyway, so if I did go out I went out with mates who weren’t at the club.
For away trips I tended to room with Jackie Marsh, and then for some reason always seemed to room with goalkeepers, such as Roger Jones and Shilts.
The biggest day of your career – the League Cup Final?
Definitely. Many say that Wembley passes you by, but not me. I remembered everything, especially the sea of red and white as we came out of the tunnel.
Most folk had us down as underdogs that day, but not us. Indeed, we fully expected to win. We were a really good team , playing well and we played reasonably well on the day. I wasn’t nervous: the big games suited me and the only nerves I had were during Mike Bernard’s back pass! The one surprise was that we didn’t go back to Wembley more often with such a cracking side.
A great story from the final was Jackie Marsh losing his contact lense, which he did regularly. Chelsea had a corner, and I heard Jackie shout, “Oi, Den”. I replied, “What Jackie, I have my man, mark yer own”. He replied, “But Den, I conna bloody see a thing as I’ve lost a contact lense”.
So there he was: the middle of a League Cup final, on his hands and knees in the penalty box, looking for a contact lense!
So Europe, and the mighty Ajax. They wanted to sign you, didn’t they?
Yeah, we drew the first leg at Stoke 1-1. I scored from three yards and Rudi Krol from about thirty three yards. We played brilliantly in Amsterdam: I got a nasty gash on my shin but carried on playing and we should have scored in the last minute. We deserved to win.
Apparently, Ajax wanted to sign me, and so did Manchester United and Leeds United around that time, too, but I loved it at Stoke. That night the players went out on the town in Amsterdam with Brian Clough, but I was feeling so low that I didn’t bother.
When you look around at football in 2014 does it make you wish you played in this era, with all the riches around?
No, not at all. You can’t pick and choose when you play and you simply have to enjoy the period when you are fortunate enough to make a living playing football. I wasn’t badly paid, and if I had gone Ajax I would have made a lot more, but I loved my playing career and it’s not abput making money, it’s about playing football. I was simply delighted to play for the club I loved.
….so I bet you’d love to see a local lad in this current Stoke team? Well, we have Wilko and Shotts in the squad, so that isn’t bad. There’s nothing better than seeing a Stoke lad playing for Stoke, but football has changed and it is a huge step up from youth football to the first team.
You always champion the city of Stoke-on-Trent. How would you improve it? Well, I would make the town of Stoke the city centre. We have the football club, train station and civic centre there. How difficult is it to explain to people from outside the area that Stoke actually isn’t the city centre, but Hanley is? It drives me mad!
There are some beautiful areas in the city, plus some lovely places just outside it. We are very fortunate in that Stoke is so central and is in such a great position in the country. Shouldn’t more be made of that? I have sons living in Oxford and York, and I can get to them in a few hours, have lunch with them, and get back the same day.
Talking of your kids, did you want them to go into football? My two lads have played semi-pro to a good standard. Like I said before, one lives in York and one in Oxford, plus my daughter is down in Cornwall. All are happy, and that’s all that matters to me.
Right, let’s talk injuries. The plethora of broken bones, operations and stitches that you suffered as a player – do they affect you now?
Ha, ha. Yes, I suffer from metal fatigue as I have plates all over my body, from my neck down to my ankles! It’s part of being a professional footballer. I think I had 24 or 25 broken bones and over 200 stitches in my face – they didn’t improve it though! I remember one period, I fractured my ankle and it was put in plaster. I had the plaster on all week until the next game and then it was taken off so that I could play. I’d have an injection, play, and then back on went the plaster.
Once, I had done my back in and we were due to play a huge cup game against Man United. I wasn’t playing, but the missus drove me to the ground to watch. As she dropped me off, I got out of the car and the back clicked back into place! I told Waddo that I was a bit better, did a couple of step ups, played, and scored!
Geoff Hurst famously said that he signed for us as he was fed up of being kicked up in the air by you!
Ha, ha. It’s funny that I was attacked at Upton Park once. I had treated Geoff like a crash barrier all game to be honest, and as I was coming off at the end some woman started whacking me on the head with an umbrella!
Disappointed that you never played for England?
At the time, Roy Mcfarland was a great centre half. He was a good footballer, but I was a lot better on the ball than many people made out.I was just a bit unlucky as I got in squads and got injured. I did my knee in 1975 and was never as quick again. There’s a lot of luck involved in sport.
Many folk will have forgotten the longevity of your managerial career too….almost 1200 games?
Yeah, I really enjoyed it. Had some great times, especially at York and Sunderland. The Sunderland people were great; very similar types of people to us Stokies. Very loyal, passionate, and always wanted to talk football. I think they saw that I was the same. I had great times there, but you always will when you are successful and have a great affinity with the fans.
What were your best attributes as a manager?
I’m an honest and straightforward person. There’s never been any hidden agendas with me, and the players always knew where they stood. This might have put off a number of chairman I suppose, but that’s just the way I am.
Some players make good coaches and some make good managers. I think I can spot which will do well and which won’t. I did fall out of love a bit with coaching to be honest, and quickly knew I’d be a manager. I didn’t agree with some of the coaching methods being used at the time: as Waddo used to say, “If you can’t pass and control it, you can’t play”.
Management is a lonely place at times, as many folk think they know better than you do. The best advice I ever had was from Waddo: “Just make sure you sign good players”.
You signed Andy Cole, and he credits you with really kickstarting his career…
Yes, I signed him from Arsenal. It was seen as a gamble, but when I spoke to him he told me that he thought he deserved a chance in the Arsenal first team. Well, if he felt he was good enough to play in the Arsenal team then I felt it wouldn’t be too big a gamble to take him to Bristol City.
Cole wanted to come short and link play, but I told him to simply play on the shoulder of the last man and score goals. He certainly did that, didn’t he?
Who is the best player you have ever worked with? It must be Banksy. He was the best in the world in his position. Outfield players must include Huddy, an amazing player. He was very one-footed but could do nore with one foot than most others could with two. Considering the way he lived he was an incredible athlete.
Best player you’ve played against? George Best. He could go inside or outside you, was strong and quick, and had amazing skill. I just aimed at his chest and hoped for the best, ha, ha.
And the toughest?
Big Joe Royle was always a handful. Also, Frank Worthington was a brave lad, too. I would clatter him, but he’d the try to show you up later. Mick Jones at Leeds was a hard player. They liked a tackle, Leeds. The likes of Bremner, Charlton and Hunter were hard but fair.
Any regrets on your football career?
No, none at all
Not managing Stoke?
No. It was an unbelievably hard decision, but I listened to my wife. She was right. Kate didn’t want it to go wrong as that would hurt me more than anything.