Managing at the bottom
About four months after leaving QPR I got a call from Doncaster Rovers asking if I would consider taking over from Maurice Setters. With the club struggling near the foot of Division Four there was every chance they would be forced to apply for re-election and if unsuccessful go out of the Football League, especially as they had finished in the bottom four the previous season.
I didn’t think the job would interest me but I was prepared to listen to what was on offer and met Ben Rayner and Tony Phillips, the chairman and vice-chairman, at the Scotch Corner Hotel on the A1. It was Saturday February 1 1975 and Doncaster had earlier that day played at Gay Meadow, where they had lost 7-4. The defeat left them twenty-third; only Scunthorpe were below them and they had two matches in hand!
After a couple of hours, during which Ben and Tony did their level best to persuade me that things weren’t that bad – there were after all sixteen games in which to pull things round, they pointed out – I agreed to go to Doncaster on the Monday morning and have a look around. I wasn’t that convinced I was doing the right thing but, after a year away in Greece and my time in the unfamiliar territory of London, at least it was work in northern England.
Arriving at Belle Vue, I met the coach, ex-Nottingham Forest player John Quigley, who was just about to take training. The first thing I noticed was how poor the kit was, and I thought it wasn’t perhaps too surprising the team was struggling. The dressing rooms and ground were also a shambles, but when I went out to examine the pitch I was delighted to find it was first class, as good as anything I had ever seen. The groundsman, who I learned was George Foster, clearly cared a great deal about his trade and I hoped that in time I could produce a side to do justice to it.
After more discussions with Ben and Tony I decided to take the job. I knew, however, that to save the club I needed to get off on a good footing with the players straight away and raise their morale. The club had won only one of the previous fifteen league games, nine of which had been lost.
So I began by asking who had supplied the training kit and was told it had come from a director called Hubert Bates who ran a sports shop. I asked that new kit be obtained by the following Monday, if not sooner. Mr Bates wasn’t happy but we eventually got on well enough, and I ended up admiring him after he told me of his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war.
My first match was at home to Torquay United and we played much better than I had dreamed was possible, winning 3-0. We then travelled the short distance to Oakwell and thrilled our small band of travellers by beating Barnsley 1-0.
Mansfield Town were top of the league, yet before a crowd of 7,278 we beat them 4-3 in a cracking game. They had lost only twice in twenty-nine league games and Colin Foster and Terry Eccles had them two up just before half-time. Steve Uzelac got us back in the game by whipping home a loose ball and at half-time I urged the players to double their efforts.
Then Brendan O’Callaghan nodded on a free kick and Peter Kitchen turned and shot at the same time to pull the teams level. Terry Curran made it 3-2 but Eccles grabbed his second and a draw seemed certain. I would have been happy with that but with just two minutes left Peter got his second, pushing the ball past Rod Arnold from close range. It sparked wild scenes among the previously goal-starved Doncaster fans. Three matches, three wins. It then became four, then five in a row. Rotherham put an end to the sequence but two further victories made it seven from eight and from looking certainties to apply for re-election we rocketed up to fifteenth, eventually ending seventeenth on forty points.
Despite the run in which we took twenty-one out of a possible thirty-two points I was under no illusions that the team needed improving if we were to look to compete at the top rather than just staying away from the bottom four. The problem was that there was very little money for transfer fees to bring in better players – £5,000, equivalent to around £50,000 in today’s terms I’d guess, was a lot of money for the club to be spending on one player. That I soon realised would at best buy a player only ten per cent better than what I already had – so it would be a huge gamble.
I decided to concentrate on trying to improve the players already at the club. I hadn’t seen much Fourth Division football. In fact, after I agreed to go to Doncaster I’d taken the opportunity to watch a game with journalist Vince Wilson and been shocked at how poor it was – some of the passing was terrible. I realised quickly that I had to set my sights a little lower with some of the players, most of whom with the right encouragement would give you everything.
When I did buy players I concentrated on getting those I already knew, men such as the ex-Huddersfield and Carlisle United midfield player Chris Balderstone. I felt his experience and ability on the ball would prove useful. In fact, Chris came six months too late, during the summer of 1975 and his lack of pace proved a real handicap.
In addition, he was now more committed to cricket, which had taken a back seat in the 1960s when he concentrated on football. Chris had been the star man at the Benson and Hedges Cup final at Lord’s in 1972, helping Leicester to their first-ever trophy. As his cricketing standards rose, the possibility of his playing for England was being mentioned when he came to Doncaster – something he achieved only months after we mutually agreed not to renew his contract at the end of his first season.
In the summer of 1975 Leicestershire were competing at the top of the County Championship, hoping to win it for the first time. It had been agreed when Chris signed that football would take priority but he was naturally desperate to play in the last game. This was against Derbyshire at Chesterfield, but the problem was we had a game with Brentford on the evening of September 15.
I arranged to go with Phil Day, an employee of the chairman, and collect him at close of play. When I arrived Chris was batting, and continued to do so right up until stumps, finishing on 51 not out in a game that helped his side win the championship.
As soon as play ended we packed him, still in his whites, into the car. It is about thirty miles from Chesterfield to Doncaster and we were making good time until we approached the ground and the traffic was so congested it seemed we would miss the kick-off. Ordering Chris to take off his clothes I told Phil to drive down the outside lane, shouting out of the window that Chris Balderstone was in the car and needed to get through. Thankfully the policeman directing the traffic saw the funny side of things and waved us through, helping us to arrive in the nick of time.
When Chris ran out to play in the 1-1 draw he became the only man to have played first-class cricket and League football on the same day. He was back batting the following morning and made 116 before taking three for 28 as Derbyshire were bowled out for 140 with just five minutes remaining.
I also bought Joe Laidlaw, ex-’Boro and Carlisle, who did a competent job when I was hoping for a bit more. Mickey French came from QPR, scored a few goals at the start but soon faded and I had to let him go.
It was a matter of constantly looking for bargain buys, and that meant watching two, if not three, games a week. On a Monday it might be Mansfield, Tuesday Barnsley and Friday Stockport. Then our own game and Monday back to Chesterfield. I am sure some months during the football season I hardly slept more than four or five hours a night. By the time I’d got home, watched a bit of television or chatted with Marjorie, if she was still up, it was usually well after midnight when I went to bed.
Even then I often didn’t sleep, particularly after a bad performance. I’d find myself going over formations, thinking how to motivate certain players and generally being unable to switch off. When the team were doing better the pressure was different – supporters would get excited, such as at Middlesbrough when we were third or fourth at Easter. Then I’d lie awake working out how to win the vital games to snatch promotion.
No matter how well or badly I slept I was almost always back in for training at 9.00am the following morning. Training at Doncaster then was held on municipal pitches not far from Belle Vue because the club didn’t have its own training ground. You’d get cars going past with fans, even some of our own, winding down the window to have a go at certain players.
We lost Terry Curran before the start of the following season. He was an attacking midfielder who also played on the wing. My old mate Brian Clough had rung to say he fancied one of my players and I wasn’t surprised when he said it was Terry – along with our combined strike force of Brendan O’Callaghan and Peter Kitchen he was the best of the bunch I inherited. The offer was £65,000 and, as you always did in those situations, I said I didn’t think it was enough but I would put the offer in front of the board and get back to him.
Quite naturally the board was keen to sell, and it was a good move for him. However, as I was keen to bring in a couple of players I got them to agree to me negotiating with Brian about taking Dennis Peacock, a ’keeper, and Ian Miller, a right winger and natural replacement for Terry, as part of the deal. I wanted to do the negotiating but in the event it was agreed that the chairman Ben Rayner would accompany me to the Baseball Ground and sort out the deal.
When we arrived Brian was all charm. I had it in my mind that we wanted £40,000 plus the two players, valued at £10,000 and £15,000 respectively – a total of £65,000. Brian, however, was playing hardball and suggested that the two players were worth £35,000, which I wasn’t having, and he knew it. Next thing he suggested he would pay £70,000 for Terry but that we then pay £35,000 for the two players.
I was just about to start laughing at his audacity as that meant Doncaster would get only £35,000 rather than the £40,000 cash I knew he would have paid for Terry alone when Ben jumped in and said it was a deal. It was only afterwards when I told him what he’d done he realised he’d just lost the club £5,000. There was, at least, some consolation in that Miller was later sold to Blackburn for £200,000 and Dennis Peacock subsequently joined me at Bolton for £60,000. I couldn’t help but think of Len Shackleton’s views on directors as we drove away from Derby!
We began the 1975–76 season in decent form and in the second round of the League Cup we entertained Crystal Palace, then managed by Malcolm Allison. After we beat them Malcolm said he was sick of the sight of me, recalling no doubt that when he’d been manager of Manchester City I’d helped Middlesbrough knock them out of the FA Cup in January 1972, winning 2-1 at Ayresome Park after the first match finished 1-1.
When we beat Newport County in mid-November we were only a point outside the top four promotion spots. We had also fought our way through to the League Cup quarter-finals, in which we were to meet Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.
The last time I’d been involved with a cup match at the Lane it had been with Sunderland and we’d lost by five goals. History was about to repeat itself. Backed by a decent following we started really well, taking the lead on nine minutes when Brendan O’Callaghan outjumped Willie Young and nodded the ball forward for Alan Murray to score with a diving header. We then had further chances to stretch the lead before goals from John Pratt and John Duncan put Spurs in front at half-time.
I said to the players during the interval that they had played well enough to be at least level, which is exactly what we were after fifty-one minutes when Pat Jennings pushed away Brendan’s header and Peter Kitchen, following up, made it 2-2.
Not long after this match Peter was invited to train with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich but sadly Bobby decided Peter wasn’t for him. He lacked a yard of pace but later moved on to Orient, where he did pretty well, especially during 1977–78 when he scored seven FA Cup goals as the O’s made it to the semi-final where they lost to Arsenal.
Spurs restored their lead with a poor goal, Les Chappell knocking the ball into his own net. Things went from bad to worse as Duncan hit a hat-trick to make it 7-2. I had again lost by five at Spurs, but the score flattered the home side.
The heavy defeat took the stuffing out of the team and we won only two and lost six of the next eight to lie eleventh after twenty-six matches. We ended up tenth with forty-nine points, nine behind Tranmere Rovers in the fourth promotion spot. Considering the previous two seasons it was a fine achievement but I knew it would still need a big improvement if we were to win promotion.
Sorting out the retained list is always one of the most unpleasant parts of a manager’s job. It’s never the easiest thing to tell a player, especially in the lower leagues, that you’re letting them go on a free transfer. You call them in, tell them your decision and then they get an official letter. You hope to get a fee for some so they are in the awkward situation of not knowing where they’ll be moving.
One of the most difficult situations I ever faced was having to tell Stan Brookes I wasn’t renewing his contract at Doncaster. He’d done well for me, was only in his mid-twenties and was totally dedicated to the club. He also had a good rapport with the fans. But I felt he needed to go somewhere else as he’d only ever played in a struggling team and this had affected his confidence and self-belief. I hoped he’d find a club where he’d do better. He was deeply upset.
I also gave Steve Uzelac a free transfer because he, too, deserved to better himself.
Those two brought me problems with the directors. After talking to them I established that, although they had each been at Belle Vue for more than five years they had not received the £750 they were due. I told the board they were duty bound to pay it and they had to part with £1,500. To a struggling club that was a significant amount.
In 1976–77 Doncaster finished eighth with fifty-one points, eight behind fourth-placed Bradford City. We’d been fairly successful in parts, enjoying a fabulous unbeaten run in January and February, when he won eight games out of ten, including six in a row. We’d lost Peter Kitchen to Orient but I had managed to hang on to Brendan O’Callaghan, who eventually went to Stoke in March 1978 after knocking home sixty-five goals in 184 starts, a good record. He left behind a club that finished twelfth in the Fourth Division at the end of the 1977–78 season, eleven points off a promotion place.
I had said when I joined that I intended staying only two years, but by the end of May 1978 I’d been there for three-and-a-half seasons. I wasn’t convinced, with the resources at my disposal, that I could get Doncaster promoted. Neither did I feel we would be required to apply for re-election. I wasn’t sure what my future might hold that summer.
I was frustrated. The side started poorly the following season and in November 1978 we fell into the bottom four after losing 2-1 to York City. I hadn’t managed to sign the players I’d wanted and the loss of O’Callaghan was starting to show up the gaps in attack. I was convinced we could get out of trouble and had no thoughts of quitting at such a difficult time. But without warning Ian Greaves, the Bolton manager, rang to ask me to join him at Burnden Park as his assistant. The post had become vacant after my ex-Sunderland colleague George Mulhall had moved to Bradford City to replace John Napier as manager.
Bolton had been promoted to the First Division the previous season but were struggling near the bottom. It meant we would have to leave Doncaster, so Marjorie had to agree. Fortunately she did because I was really keen to get back to the top level.
After almost four years in charge I left Doncaster Rovers having played 174 games, winning sixty-seven, drawing forty-seven and losing sixty – not a bad record considering the lack of financial backing.
I eventually moved back to Doncaster and still live there and I’m thrilled they are now in the division I knew as the second in my playing days.