Duck used its summer wisely, catching up with the man who showed us the light – the legend, Lou Macari.
He’s a hero in these parts, but he doesn’t act like it. He will be a guest-speaker at a black-tie dinner at the ground later tonight but for now he spends two hours in tracksuit bottoms and polo t-shirt, munching on a toasted teacake and voicing his absolute love of the game that has defined his life. He even buys my coffee, when really he should never have to buy his own drink in S-O-T (well, Burslem, perhaps). The little man with a big heart.
Not only was he a top player, inspirational manager and a crucial part of the BAFTA-winning ‘Marvellous,’ but Lou Macari is the owner of a great name. A name that lends itself to terrace anthems and ease of adulation.
We gladly reignited the Stretford End’s 1970’s ‘Skip to My Lou’ back in our Boothen End in the 90’s and the simplistically brilliant chants of ‘Macari’s! Red Army!’ thundered around the Victoria Ground, penetrating every nook, (Ian) crannie and eardrum of the old place. And then 2Unlimited received a rare tribute in the form of our cover version… at times under Lou it seemed there really was no limit for Stoke City.
In 1992, we believed again; in 1993, we finally emerged from the shadows; and in 1996 against even longer odds, we very nearly did the job we eventually completed in 2008.
For many, his 1997 departure added to the mixture of gloom and nostalgia around the club as we prepared to move to Trentham Lakes – but in some ways, the timing was fitting. Surely, no other manager’s name could have done the The Vic justice, had it survived any longer.
These days, Lou Macari still lives the football life and he likes to be busy: MUTV regular; Sentinel columnist; popular pundit on national TV and radio shows; speaker on a local journalism course; organiser of a Hanley homeless shelter; guest at functions at ST4 and Old Trafford. For the unenlightened, he was just a bloke who owned a chip shop near a football ground – but then along came the fairy-tale of Nello and his reputation rocketed; many of us will know a none-football fan whose heart was warmed by the bond between the world’s most popular kit-man and the boss who gave him a chance.
Given the standard and length of his career on the pitch and in the dugout, hundreds of questions came to mind but in two hours, a selective focus was a must. Besides, his autobiography ‘Football, My Life’ tells the whole story and there’s a recently-made documentary, ‘My Life on Film,’ which I implore you to unearth: it’s moving, remarkably insightful and thorough – he travels the length and breadth of the UK to reflect on an eventful 67 years of heart-breaking lows and impressive highs.
Lou Macari’s is quite a story.
And for many a Stokie, Lou Macari’s part in our story will remain the best time of our supporting lives.
Your life has revolved around football – what are your earliest memories?
I lived in London as a very young boy. I’d be at Hackney Marshes every weekend with my dad, watching his team. I would stand behind the goal and wait for the next shot to miss (which they did most of the time!) and just chase after it then give it back to the keeper. I loved it. Playing on the streets every night – that’s how kids grew up and most had good ball control because of it. There were no coaches for youngsters then, but it didn’t seem to hold teams back did it? England won the World Cup in 1966, the European Cup was won by Celtic in , and then Man United the following year. Street football culture explained a lot of that.
When Alf Ramsey was England manager , he didn’t coach – he managed, with just one assistant manager and a physio. Nowadays, like in the Euros, there are hundreds of staff milling raound and it doesn’t always seem to be working.
You were part of the famous ‘Quality Street Gang.’ Did you always know you’d ‘make it?’
No way! I wouldn’t have made at it all as a pro at all, unless it was for the manager I had – Jock Stein. I lacked height, strength and power. My weaknesses became obvious to me one night playing for Scotland against England under 18s at Southampton’s old ground, The Dell. Muddy pitch, heavy ball and awful conditions. Mick Mills, Mick Shannon and a few others in their team dominated me – like a boy against men. I had an absolute stinker.
The next day, I went back to Parkhead and admitted to the boss how badly I’d played and he said “right, you need to build up and get working on what you’re not good at”. Kenny Dalglish received the same treatment. Soon, I’d be playing up front on my own, long before this apparently new invention of that formation!
I had a great grounding because of the boss I had. Jock Stein ruled with an iron fist. His way, or you were gone. He had complete control. Just like Shankly, Busby and later, Ferguson. Tough and demanding men who knew exactly what they wanted. You were either on their wavelength or by the wayside.
It must have been tough telling him you wanted to leave the club then!
I’d had 6 great years at Celtic, two years as a first team regular (scoring 58 goals in 110 games) and I was on £50 a week when my contract was up for renewal. They offered an increase of a fiver a week which just wasn’t enough. I told him that I had to look after one parent because I’d lost the other – family circumstances were my priority.
So, it’s 1973 and I’m just 21 years old – no agent and no clue what to do to get a move elsewhere. The next ten days or so went by as normal and then one day after training, Jock called to tell me to be ready the next morning because a car would be there to pick me up and take me to England. That was all he said! The wife asked where I was going and I didn’t have an answer! You just didn’t ask questions – he was the boss and that was that – lots of respect and a bit of fear as well!
The next day, I’m travelling down through these new towns like Gretna and Carlisle before finally ending up in Southport. The cup of tea and sandwich in the Prince of Wales Hotel were nice enough, but I didn’t know which clubs were nearby and I didn’t fancy playing for Southport! The next thing I know, I’m walking through the gates at Anfield and Bill Shankly is there waiting to meet me. He said: ‘I’ve watched you since you joined Celtic and I like the way you play. You’ve got a big heart.’
There was a game on that night – Liverpool were playing Burney in a cup replay. I was told to sit in stand, watch the match, then sign forms afterwards. They were offering £200 a week and players then kept 5% of the fee, which was
£10k – worth half a house to me – massive money and a great opportunity. So, I’m sat in watching the game and the seat next to me was empty for a while until eventually, Paddy Crerrand turned up and sat down – he was a Celtic and Man United legend and assistant manager at Old Trafford by then.
He said ‘What the hell are you doing here? Don’t sign for them! We had no idea you were available – we want you to sign for us!’ Stein and Shankly were mates and probably kept it quiet, away from the papers. I thought bloody hell – that means telling Bill Shankly I’m not signing for him anymore! So, the move to United was a total coincidence.
I wanted to play for them because of the club’s history with the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton. They were in poor form at the time but I knew that was the team for me – I went with my heart not my head and I’ve always been one for following my hunches. I bottled telling Shankly and just said I’d have to think about it. I wanted to get far away from him quickly! Soon after, in the press, Shankly said he only wanted me for Liverpool reserves! That was fair enough, and it made me chuckle!
One of your career highlights was scoring in the FA Cup final against arch-rivals Liverpool but Duts wants to know exactly where that ball would have ended up, if your shot hadn’t hit Jimmy Greenhoff’s arse!
Ha, ha! Wembley Stadium tube station behind the goal probably! It came off his shoulder actually! Jimmy turned away because I shouted for him to leave it, so it worked! Finals are just about winning, not how you do it. We’d lost two other finals around that time – to an off-side goal against Southampton and then the 5 minute cup final against Arsenal.
That’s football, so when a bit of luck comes your way, you take it and enjoy the winning feeling.
You went straight into management after your playing days – Jock Stein must have been a big influence on your approach…
I started my managerial career at Swindon and on day one I’m thinking ‘Where do I begin? What the f*****g hell do I do here then?!’
We were bottom of the old 4th Division, so in my mind I went right back to my beginnings for inspiration. We are talking about a man who won a European Cup with a team a team of local Scots assembled for £30k. So that was surely the secret – follow people like him because the record books don’t lie – if a no nonsense work ethic helped my career, why couldn’t it help any player after me?
Before managing Stoke, what were your memories of the club from your time as a player?
My memories of visiting Stoke as an opposition player were important to my decision to return as a manager 20 odd years later.
In the nicest sense, the Victoria Ground was a horrible, nasty place for visiting clubs. Walking down the tunnel was tough enough – it felt like you had to beat the home crowd as well as the team. It was a much tougher place to visit than most other clubs. In that tunnel, they could get to you – touch you and vocally let you know what they thought of you! It was hostile and unwelcoming – how it should be!
I thought I could use that to work for me when I was manager. Actually, I was dead against moving to the Brit, years later – we had players with a good attitude but the huge advantage was the home ground. Wet Ham might suffer in a similar way this season – that Chicken Run was worth a goal they used to say. Upton Park and The Vic were similar – the crowd dead against you and almost on top of you.
I know Stoke struggled when they first moved up the road – that 7 nil defeat against Birmingham can’t have been nice!!?? Obviously, things have changed and they’re not doing badly now are they?! But it took Tony Pulis and that siege mentality we had at the Vic to do it, after so many other managers had fallen short before he came along.
How did the move to Stoke come about in 1991? Your early impressions?
I was in charge of Birmingham when I got a call from Peter Coates. He’s since told me he’d already agreed to give the job to someone else but for some reason he thought I could do a better job and he had to go back on his word.
Things were not going well. There had to be a reason I was wanted – there normally is when a new man is appointed. Usually, someone else has failed and finding the reason is key. I think that good players were allowed to do what they wanted – that doesn’t work – there needs to be only one boss. The only thing that counts to a new man is the team – nothing else matters – so I looked at what was going wrong. There was too much slack and freedom around the place.
From my time at Celtic and United, I learned that allowing a drinking culture in and around club was a bad idea. People change after too much alcohol and allowing a bit leads to a lot. So I was dead against players getting sloshed anywhere near the football club and ground. Before I arrived, it was common for them to drink a lot on the coach after matches all around the country. It was not my style – I’d never touched a drop in my life but to be fair, what they did in their own homes was their business and they knew that. Most of them did as they were told anyway!
You made some key early signings from bargain basement – what was the secret?
The job was so different then. I had to go out, watch game after game and find good players. Money in the bank was limited: at first there’d just be 20 or 30k available and then a year later, perhaps 80k for the odd buy. A tight budget but I knew what to expect when I took it on. So the key was to work with a good scout and watch lots of football.
I had Bernard and we formed a good relationship, having a laugh and a joke along the way. We’d often meet in London for a chat then go off and watch different games. Peter Coates let me get on with all football matters. I’d also pick players I knew already as well – good characters like Vinny Overson, Nigel Gleghorn and Stevie Foley.
Other times you just get lucky. Mark Stein was a good example. I went to see my pal Ashley Grimes play for Luton at Oxford one night and Steiny happened to be playing for Luton as well. It was a really heavy pitch and he looked overweight and lacking in confidence but I thought there was something there – an eye for goal.
We bought him – got him much fitter quickly and got to know him as a lad. He was a lovely fella who would always listen and was willing to learn. He was not a natural trainer but he responded to what we asked of him. He even lived with me for a bit on Campbell Road – the club owned a house there. I would stay there – much better than a hotel and cheaper for the club. Kevin Russell and Steve Foley were there for a bit as well. Many of the lads dropped in – I keep an eye on them that way! I often cooked their meals!
Steiny had talent – he just needed discipline and belief. He went on to get his rewards with the big move to Chelsea. In those days no Stoke player earned more than £275 a week so a move to a top flight club was life changing. If anyone says money for players wasn’t important, they are so wrong. At that level, money was an important incentive for players to get into the team, win a match and score a goal. A win bonus could add 50% to a player’s weekly wage. It would be a talking point in dressing room after game and their families might need the extra cash.
Were there any players who went the other way – those that you didn’t get through to?
Lee Sandford was a good example – I was tough on him. He liked a beer and I didn’t! I always felt if I could get him to come round to my way of thinking, he’d play for England. I told him that wouldn’t happen – not unless you’re at your peak physically by training as well as you should. He was a challenge. I saw him at a funeral actually, last year. He came up to me and thanked me for what I did for him at Stoke.
The only one that I felt really get away from me was Carl Beeston. I couldn’t get him on the pitch regularly enough. Injuries cursed him and was so frustrating. Whatever the reasons, we missed out on seeing the best of such a talented player there. A real shame.
We did well in your first season but at the end we experienced contrasting fortunes…
That’s football. We lost to Stockport in the Play Off semi final, but I didn’t read too much into that. I knew we had a good team so little sleep was lost. We had a sending off and things just didn’t go our way. We had some good battles with Stockport. There was that trouble between Stein and Jim Gannon of course, some time after. They were a solid, difficult team and Edgeley Park was a tough place to go.
We had some good battles. It’s crazy where that club are at now. So the Autoglass Final at Wembley was like round 2… here we go! It was good getting there, but in a final – you have to win. I fancied us – on that big pitch with our stamina, I just thought we’d need a touch of luck to do it. Having won it the year before with Birmingham (John Gayle scored two goals that day he’d never score again!), I knew the impact it would have: belief, tickets, merchandise sales……the whole place was buzzing.
At Swindon years earlier, we had good cup wins against bigger teams and that kind of thing sparks a club – it was the same at Stoke after Steiny’s winner. That season summed football up, really. The same team lost at Telford in the cup and then went to Anfield and got a draw. You can’t over-analyse everything. You just keep doing the right things and see where it takes you. The Wembley win felt like mission accomplished. It would then hopefully lead to a winning habit the following year.
The 1992/ 93 season – were you confident we’d seal promotion?
You never know what will happen and you’re not daft enough to sit in your office, thinking we are definitely gonna do it. Only after, can you look back and explain what it takes. The main ingredient in our success was that the team gave their all every week, even in defeat. Look at Leicester City last season – what got them there? Desire and Commitment. Those qualities were mentioned last year for the first time in a while. That’s what we had and like Leicester, a sprinkling of good players.
Players liking me as their manager is irrelevant – l was never bothered what they thought of me. Some will like you, others will think you’re too tough on them. My job is to get best out of them and guide them to best of my ability – and them not sitting in a pub, getting p****d every night any more was a part of it!
Those games against West Brom were always fun…
They were the opposite to us in many ways – apparently talented individuals who other players relied on. We were more of a team and – the record says it all – we loved playing against them. We never took the fixture for granted, but we always felt comfortable coming up against them.
You were on record as never enjoying the Vale games – but those 5 Potteries derbies were important to the fans…
They were always fiercely contested – don’t think for one minute it’s not as competitive as the Manchester or Glasgow derbies. The Pride of the Potteries means just as much. The crowd are desperate to get one over their rivals. We all knew what it meant to win for the fans. Unlike these days, Vale were a good team. Rudgey always did his homework – what they achieved in results and selling players was brilliant – bygone days never to happen again. Like us, they did well to get in real bargains. The clubs are miles apart in terms of status now, of course. They’ve stumbled from disaster to disaster and can’t deem to make any progress. In those days, you wouldn’t have seen the gap between the clubs ever being so wide again.
That night against Plymouth, when we clinched the title…a nervy finish?
Nights like that are so special to so many people. You reflect on it all after we’d won the league. When I joined the club I never thought we would make such progress so quickly. It was great to have complete control of the football side of things. The players knew where they stood with me and they got their rewards that night. Some managers these days are like puppets on a string.
But in the squad, we had leaders too. Real men with opinions. There was no tactics board in the dressing room, believe me. I kept it simple, because if you fill their heads with too much rubbish, they’d forget it anyway. When that whistle blows, you are in a different zone. The players would argue and I would listen, stepping in when I had to remind them who the boss was. At times, I’d be sat in the office hearing them ball and shout at one another and I’d see that as a really good sign.
Was the win over Man United the following season your best night at the club?
Absolutely, what a night. A cup tie against my old club. The Vic was heaving. Both clubs had just won league titles and were on highs. The best football manger in the world was sat in the next dugout to me. When I saw the teamsheet, I doubted our chances. Schmeical the great Dane in goals, Bruce and Pallister at the back, Ince in midfield, Hughes up front……a tough team, and I knew it would be a battle but we did it and the place was rocking.
I remember it got to about 88 minutes and we were 2-1 up, nearly there. I was thinking we are gonna do this now, just blow the bloody whistle ref, please! But at the same time, I was mindful about Nello in the dugout behind me. As the world now knows, Neil Baldwin loves introducing himself to a celebrity and Fergie was a big one, so I was concerned that after the final whistle, he would jump all over Fergie, who would not be in the mood for it after a defeat – that man hated losing.
You have to think ahead as a manger, so I was planning to keep my eye on him. But the whistle went and we were all celebrating, hugging. I went to shake Fergie’s hand and forgot about Nello. A minute later, to my horror, I saw him all over Fergie! Later on, I invited him into my office for a cup of tea and a sandwich. He burst in and asked ‘Who the f*****g hell was that big fella giving me grief on the track out there?’ Apparently Nello had grabbed him and shouted ‘Welcome to Stoke, Alex!’. I explained Neil’s story and he begged me not to tell the press or word would get out that a circus clown had defeated him!
He thought the whole thing was ridiculous, but he was laughing he even more when I told him that Nello had given the team talk before the game! He told me to “f*** off”, with a smile on his face! It was true – Nello said to the lads ‘Just go out there and win.’ And it worked. Fergie was dreading the headlines, had it all got out!
A while back I bumped into Sir Alex in the States. We were watching a United friendly. He saw me at one end of the restaurant I was in. He was heading for me at a good pace – and normally when Fergie targets you like that it means you are in big trouble, hide or get ready for the hairdryer! He ran over and just said “Bloody brilliant, Lou! My wife made me watch it and I did – I’ve never seen a better football film in my life!” I soon told Nello what he’d said and it was the best compliment he’d ever received.
You left for Celtic, but 11 months later, you returned from Parkhead……had things changed at Stoke?
I’ve spoken to Joe Jordan about it since. He said that when he took over, he couldn’t believe how fit the squad was. Joe is a good pal, but we have different styles. I’m off the cuff, more explosive and unpredictable, wheras Joe is super organised and much more serious.
Money was still really tight but we worked hard at getting good lads in to the club. We bought two players out of the army for 500 quid that season! One was a chef, and I don’t know what the other one did! Justin Whittle and Gary Holt. They came into a squad that was already fit and worked hard, but those two soldiers blew them away on training ground. We signed Larus Sigurdsson from a team in Iceland for next to nothing and he was the same – a beast in training. After his first day, some of the coaches told me that he was shockingly bad but that Iceland win over in the England in the Euros was no shock to me – I found them to be polite, professional, honest and fit lads – their attitude was better, too.
Anyway, I was in the office after Larus’ first session and some of my coaches said that he didn’t understand the game and that his positioning was poor. The next day I was out there watching and I asked them: ‘Do you not think there’s something there already without your coaching? He’s as strong as an ox, has electric pace and he will recover from his mistakes, no bother.’
Getting into the playoffs the season after was just as good an achievement as winning the league in 1993 – maybe better. The Leicester games though – oh my God! In some ways, the first leg draw was more heartbreaking because we played well in that early kick-off at Filbert Street. Graham Potter misses that chance, which would have put us in the driving street, but it still was a good result and we had a good chance to do the business at home. Things went wrong for us on the night. We conceded a good goal at a bad time, but Martin O’Neil’s team were no mugs – they had good players. There had to be a loser and it unfortunately was us.
The SAS of Sturridge and Sheron did the business that year – how were you able to turn water into wine again?
I remembered Sheron from his time as a young lad at Man City. He was at Norwich and I knew for starters he was miles away from his North West home, which might give us a sniff. We went to watch another player there one night but I saw his name on the teamsheet and remembered how prolific he was at Maine Road as a kid. I wondered if he was just fed up living so far away.
He didn’t score that night but he took up good positions and hit some strikes. I told Bernard we’ll get him. Like Steiny, he was out of condition, but if we could get him fit and feeling good about himself, he’d be worth a punt.
The season after, 1996/97 was all about saying goodbyes to the Victoria Ground for the fans……what do you remember?
Andy Griffin was a bonus. He was in the youth team – I’d always go and see them to keep an eye on the young lads. Griff was a warrior – no nonsense, willing to steam into people and was hard but fair. His enthusiasm boosted the team – he was a mature young man trying to make his way in the game.
The last game at the Vic against West Brom – of course it meant a lot. I’d spent nearly 7 years as boss at Swindon and it was 5 or 6 years (with a break) at Stoke – it became my place. We had some special nights at other grounds like Anfield and Old Trafford, but home is home. I was also saying goodbye to our fans for good too, as well as the ground. The support was always brilliant. Unlike at some modern grounds, where you can hear a pin drop. At the Vic, even with a small crowd, you could hear the crowd noise and it made a real difference.
Jez Moxey joined as Chief Exec……
I had no problem with it. It would be his job to run the club and my job to run the team. So, I met Jez Moxey – and let’s just say he wasn’t really for me. That’s the best way of putting it! I was massively against moving grounds, but, time moves on and in that documentary I did recently, I went to the Brit before a match against Liverpool and it’s clear to see now that it was the right decision for the club, long term. It just felt wrong to me at the time.
You played for your country a fair few times and you had a good team but Scottish football isn’t what it was – why?
The difference between now and then is amazing. In 1978, I played in the game at Anfield against Wales, which we won – the famous Joe Jordan hand ball goal got us to the World Cup that night – but I wasn’t even sure I’d be in the final squad. Ally McLeod was manager then – believe it or not, he selected 80 players in the original squad! Imagine that now! The midfield names were quality – Willie Carson, Willie Johnson, Grahame Souness, Bruce Rioch, Asa Hartfort and others so I was unsure of my place on the plane. He then narrowed down to 40 and it was a relief to still be in it. D-day came and when the final 24-man squad was announced to go to Argentina, I was in. It was a real achievement. There were 300 Scottish players playing in top leagues then.
Things have changed so much now. The carrots I got at Celtic just aren’t there and it doesn’t seem to mean as much: I played for Celtic vs. Rangers in a reserve cup match and before the game, we were told that if we won, we’d each receive £10!!! We nearly collapsed – that would mean doubling our weekly wage! We went out like men possessed and we won. Not having to graft is the biggest disservice to the younger generation. No players are ground staff now – they’re not even allowed to clean boots before earning their trade.
You’ve had a wonderful career in football but ‘Marvellous’ and the BAFTAS…you couldn’t have seen that coming?!
It has changed my life in some ways – all my career achievements as a manger and player, are out of the window, now. When I’m with Neil Baldwin, I am number 2 to him! I got a call from him last year one night. I was working late at Old Trafford. He asked ‘When are you home and are you passing my house?’ I wasn’t planning to but it’s hard to say no to Nello. Then he asked “Can you please bring me cod and chips and a can of diet coke please?!’ I’m not the boss anymore – the boot is on the other foot now!
Do you miss managing?
In some ways, but I’d be foolish to think in the modern game my methods would work as well.
Too much talk and nonsense around these days. I used to joke with the Stoke players in training on a Monday after a defeat – shall we watch the tape back to see how crap we were on Saturday or shall we go out and train? They all wanted a rest and to watch the tape and I’d say no chance, we all know where we’re going – get out there! No point sitting there, feet up, doing no work.
Things are over complicated nowadays. I saw Jock Stein once take a player off for doing things they were not capable of doing. If you’re a runner, get about the pitch. Tricky winger? Beat your man……a simple recipe. Look at England struggling in the Euros. I was at Trentham with Gordon Banks, Jimmy Greenhoff and Denis Smith the other day – we were talking about England and I asked Gordon, a World Cup winner: “Has anyone ever rang you and asked how you won it?’”.The answer was no. They even asked Stuart Lancaster, a rugby man but they haven’t rung Gordon Banks!
But I blame the game overall, not just the players. Contracts with release clauses for example – who invented that one?! If I had said to Tommy Docherty at United I want a £300k clause in my deal in case someone else wanted me, he’d have said “off you go pal, you can go now – there’s no point in you staying here!” Football is a simple game – choose the right manger and let him have full control.
And finally……..How’s the chip shop going well and what’s your favourite meal?
I still own it and originally bought it for my mum. The plan was for her to move from Glasgow to Manchester and run it. I rent it out to a firm now and it’s going welI, I think! Chicken and chips is my choice – but it has to be the breast. Salt and vinegar. and a buttered bap!