Monday 19 March 2018

Cup finals far more important to supporters than league position, insists McMenemy

Nearly 40 years since their last final, the former Saints boss tells Jeremy Wilson that the memories never fade

Lawrie McMenemy, flanked by Kevin Keegan and Alan Ball, at Southampton in 1981. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images
Lawrie McMenemy, flanked by Kevin Keegan and Alan Ball, at Southampton in 1981. Photo: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Jeremy Wilson

"It was over there that it happened," says Lawrie McMenemy, pointing towards a room at the quaint Potters Heron Hotel in Romsey.

He is talking about what is arguably still the most jaw-dropping transfer in British football history. The year was 1980 and Kevin Keegan, then the European Football of the Year, would sign a blank contract and overlook interest from Barcelona and Real Madrid to join McMenemy's Southampton.

It is a reminder not just of how football has changed but also, ahead of Southampton's EFL Cup semi-final second leg with Liverpool tonight, of how his club did once regularly trade blows with the absolute elite.

This might again be something approaching a golden era for the Saints but, as they stand tonight only 90 minutes from a first major Wembley final since McMenemy in 1976 and then 1979, there is also a rare chance to create the sort of memory that may never fade.

"As a manager, you feel your best achievement is being high up at the end of the season in the league," says McMenemy. "We were runners-up to Liverpool but, even now, when I park my car on a match day and walk to the door it is not what people remember. When the adults stop you and want you to sign their kid's programme, they tell them that you were the manager when we won the Cup at Wembley.

"We're 40 years on but that's how important winning a cup or going to Wembley was. It's important even now, but I'm not sure the top coaches from abroad are aware of the feelings that the supporters have towards these cup ties."

McMenemy then cites how he and Mick Channon were struck by a recent article that outlined how Southampton's new manager, Claude Puel, had made 179 changes in his first 31 matches.

"Mick was laughing," says McMenemy. "It would have been unheard of in our day, but we didn't have that many players. If I had left out people like Channon, Keegan, Alan Ball and Peter Osgood, they would be banging on my door."

McMenemy loved the mavericks - he also recruited Charlie George, Frank Worthington, Ivan Golac and Matthew Le Tissier - although stresses that the real skill was aligning them with younger, largely home-grown players.

"We never had them all together," he says. "If we had, we wouldn't have had a ground big enough. We would have the best social life, we would have played the best football - one touch, half a chance - and we would also have got relegated because we would never have won an away game. Ideal teams are made up of violinists and road sweepers. They were all lead violinists. Getting that blend was the fascination for me of management. In the lower divisions, what makes the difference is 90 per cent coaching and 10 per cent management. As you move up, it becomes 10 per cent coaching and 90 per cent management."

McMenemy started in non-League at Bishop Auckland at the age of 28 and, after also managing Doncaster, Grimsby and Sunderland, he would work as the assistant England manager to Graham Taylor.

Like most in football, he is still reeling from the sudden death of his friend. "It was not just sad; it was a shock," he says. "He was such a solid and decent bloke who always had time for the man on the street. He used to joke that I was Gazza's interpreter. We were both from Gateshead. People should remember Graham qualified for the European Championship and, in the two Dutch games, there was an individual mistake and then the Ronald Koeman incident.

"I think there has been an appreciation now of just how good he was. Even I blinked when I was reminded that he got four promotions in five years with Watford. Incredible.

"I bumped into Elton John at the 1984 Cup final. There were tears dropping off his cheeks at the realisation that his little club were at Wembley and people all around the world would be talking about them."

And for McMenemy, four decades on from leading Southampton out against Manchester United and then Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest, the thought of a Wembley return prompts a smile. "The supporters still love the cups," he says. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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