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The Rodfather autobiography – ‘I’m the new boss,’ I told them, ‘and what I watched there was a f**king joke’

In exclusive extracts from his new autobiography, Roddy Collins reveals how he ended up in Carlisle and how his Irish links helped lift the club off rock bottom


Roddy Collins at Brunton Park after being unveiled as Carlisle United manager in 2001

Roddy Collins at Brunton Park after being unveiled as Carlisle United manager in 2001

Peter Beardsley

Peter Beardsley

‘The Rodfather’ by Roddy Collins, with Paul Howard, is published by Sandycove and is available in shops and online from October 6 (hardback €25)

‘The Rodfather’ by Roddy Collins, with Paul Howard, is published by Sandycove and is available in shops and online from October 6 (hardback €25)


Roddy Collins at Brunton Park after being unveiled as Carlisle United manager in 2001

I knew Michael Knighton. At least, I knew of him. He was the man with the little Ronnie and the pot belly who was going to buy Manchester United back in the late 1980s.

He presented himself to the crowd at Old Trafford in a full United training kit, did a few keepy-uppies, then drilled the ball into the net at the Stretford End. Then it turned out that he didn’t have the money after all and I never heard of him again. That was until I went to work for him.

After failing to get Manchester United, Knighton went off and bought Carlisle United. They were bottom of the Football League. He promised that he’d have them in the Premier League within ten years. Nearly ten years later, after two promotions and two relegations, they were near the bottom of the Football League again. Michael had been barred from acting as a company director, which meant he couldn’t be involved in the day-to-day running of the club.

In the summer of 2001, about a week after I was sacked by Bohs, Tony Hopper rang and asked if I’d be interested in the vacant manager’s job at Carlisle. I didn’t even think about it. I told him, ‘One hundred per cent.’

Tony had recommended me and he told me to ring Knighton’s son, Mark, who was running the club for his father. We arranged an interview in the arrivals hall of Glasgow Airport. I flew over with my best pinstriped suit in a bag and I went into the jacks to throw it on.

Mark was only a young fella – I guessed in his early twenties – and was clearly very well-educated. We talked about football and about Carlisle United for a couple of hours. They were looking for a manager who could keep them in the Football League next season. I told him I was an expert – I’d helped both Bangor and Bohemians to avoid relegation. He told me I was one of a number of managers on their shortlist. I tried to keep a lid on my excitement.

About two weeks later I was invited over to Carlisle for talks. Neville Chamberlain’s sister Delphine was working as an agent and I asked her to represent me. She collected me at Manchester Airport and drove me to Carlisle, where I met the chairman, Andrew Jenkins, a local man who made his fortune in the meat business. He showed me around Brunton Park. It was a proper 17,000-seater stadium. I had butterflies in my stomach.

As the only Football League club in the area, Carlisle had huge potential, but their financial situation was dire. The Professional Footballers Association (PFA) had placed an embargo on them buying new players because of an unpaid loan. Soon the club would be in administration and wouldn’t be allowed to buy tea bags without permission.

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They couldn’t commit to a contract and they could only afford to pay me £200 per week. But they would put me up in the four-star Holiday Inn on the M6 roundabout and all of my meals would be paid for, so long as I ate in Dempsey’s Bar and Restaurant, owned by two brothers, Jed and Norman, who were lifelong Carlisle United fans.

He offered me the job and I said I’d take it. I’d read in the paper that Michael Knighton wanted Peter Beardsley but presumably Beardsley wanted more than two hundred quid per week.

What I didn’t tell them was that they could have got me for cheaper. I’d have done it for one hundred. This was just a stepping stone for me. Manchester United here I come.

* * * * *

On my first day I was collected from the airport by Neil Dalton, the Carlisle United physio, who drove me straight to the training ground. The whole way there I was thinking about how I was going to introduce myself to the players. Third Division dressing-rooms were hard, cynical places, filled with young fellas who thought they should be somewhere better and older fellas for whom the dream was dead but who’d break your legs to make the next mortgage payment.

I was coming from the League of Ireland. They didn’t take it seriously at all. They called it a pub league. Players in England still tended to judge managers by how many internationals caps they’d won. They’d have loved Peter Beardsley (below). But I had no international caps. The highest-paid player at Carlisle was on £2,500 per week. Most of them would have known that I was doing the job for next to nothing, all of which made it even more important for me to establish my authority. When I arrived, Billy Barr, the caretaker manager, was taking training. There were a few reporters there. I called Billy over. ‘Billy,’ I said, ‘What are you doing?’

‘We’re doing a pressing session,’ he told me. I whistled and told everyone to gather round. ‘I’m the new boss,’ I said. ‘You’ve probably read it in the papers. Billy tells me that’s a pressing session. If that’s a f**king pressing session, then I understand why you’re bottom of the league every year. What I just watched there was a f**king joke.’ It was a roasting hot day and I was sweating in my linen suit. I took the jacket off me, threw it on the touchline and took control of the session. The players put a bit more urgency into it. I worked them hard. When we’d finished, I called them over again.

‘Right, lads,’ I said, ‘this team is going f**king nowhere. Desire, passion, work rate, honesty – if you haven’t got those things to start with, you won’t be f**king here long.’ I copped one of the players smiling at me. ‘The f**k is so funny?’ I asked him. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Mark Winstanley,’ he said.

‘Sorry, who?’ I asked him again – it was an old Billy Young trick.

‘Mark Winstanley,’ he said.

‘You f**king see me after training,’ I told him. It turned out that I’d chosen to make an example of the wrong man. When Mark came to me after the session, I asked him what he was laughing at. ‘Am I a f**king joke to you or something? Paddy the f**king Irishman?’

‘I wasn’t laughing,’ he said. ‘I smiled – because no one has ever spoken to the lads like that. And it needed to be done.’

Mark was a centre-half, pushing on for 34. He’d played more than 400 league games for Bolton Wanderers, Burnley and Shrewsbury Town before coming to Carlisle to finish his career. He was a solid, clean-living pro who trained hard and then went home to his family every day. During my first season at Carlisle, he would be my Dave Hill.

Most of the players put in an effort at training as I tried to get my bearings. We were doing a running session one morning. There was a blond, good-looking giant of a lad who I noticed busting his gut. I pulled him aside and I asked his name.

‘Luke Weaver,’ he said. ‘See you, Luke? You’re exactly what my team needs – a big, strong centre-forward who puts himself about like I did in my day.’

‘Er, thanks, gaffer,’ he said.

‘I want to make you the focal point of our attack,’ I said. ‘I’ll help you to score a lot of goals for us – do you hear me?’

‘I do, gaffer.’ It was only later on, when I looked at a team shot, that I discovered he was our goalkeeper. Either he was too embarrassed to tell me or he thought I was a mad Paddy.

We played our first pre-season friendly against Accrington Stanley and I found out that day who was with me and who was going to be leaving. There were three or four senior players who the others looked up to but who clearly didn’t respect me. The main man among them was Lee Maddison, a left-back with a set of teeth like Robert Mitchum and a permanent smirk on his face.

I persevered through the next three weeks. Our first match of the season was against Luton Town at home. We had a decent crowd. The fans had been through the wringer with the club but they were prepared to give the new man in the dugout the benefit of the doubt.

Luton were managed by Joe Kinnear. The difference between us and them was far more than just the two goals we lost by. They were a solid bunch of pros who were proud to play for Luton and were going to get them promoted that year. Our dressing-room was full of players who were only there because they didn’t make it somewhere else and were disappointed to discover that this was their level.

I had a serious battle on my hands. I knew I couldn’t improve the technical ability of the players I’d inherited. The only thing I could improve was their effort – and against Luton that was almost completely absent. There were three or four players who I thought were deliberately swinging the lead.

On Monday morning, I did my match analysis. I didn’t see any sign of remorse out of the mutton-heads, as I called them. These were the ones who were walking around the city with their chests out and collecting the big wages, so I pointed to each one in turn and said, ‘You, you, you and you – I’ll see you here at eight o’clock in the morning. Bring your runners.’

Next morning, when they arrived at the club, I was sitting on a mountain bike in the car park. ‘Right,’ I said to them, ‘we’re going to go for a run around town. Change into your gear, then follow me.’

I set off on the bike, with the four boys running behind me. We covered every single inch of the city centre and I made sure we were seen by as many people as possible. Carlisle is a tight community. If someone sneezes on one side of the city, they’ll know about it on the other side within an hour. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the new manager and how he’d publicly shamed four of his most senior players by making them run up and down the main street.

It might have meant something if I’d gotten a positive reaction from the players. But by the end of October we’d lost seven and drawn four of our first 13 matches; we were bottom of the table.

The fans were already losing faith, so I did what I did at Bangor and at Bohemians. I went to talk to them. The Carlisle United and Cumbria Independent Supporters Trust was a group of disgruntled fans who were boycotting home matches in protest at the way Michael Knighton and his family had run the club.

I asked if I could address a meeting one Saturday lunchtime, two hours before we played Jan Mølby’s Kidderminster Harriers. The meeting took place in the Sands Centre, 1,400-seat theatre in the city where, according to a poster outside, Val Doonican was due to play the next night.

The room was full. They were reasonable, knowledgeable football supporters who’d just come to the end of their tether. They made it clear that they supported me, but they did not support the owners. But I was employed by Carlisle United, which was 93 per cent owned by Michael Knighton. If I publicly criticised him, I knew I’d be sacked.

I reminded them Knighton was serious about walking away and was looking for a buyer. I asked them to end their boycott. ‘You’re choking the club by staying away,’ I said. ‘Bury the hatchet, come back and support the team. That would bring money in and if that money isn’t made available to me, I’m off.’

They said they’d heard it all before. They were promised a new start, yet here they were, the bottom team in the English League again.

‘Have me back here in eight weeks,’ I said, ‘and if we’re still bottom, you can put me in stocks and throw rotten tomatoes at me, I don’t care. ‘But there’s no way the club will be relegated,’ I added, ‘no way we will be in the Conference.’

I was accused of being a mouthpiece for the owners. ‘No one writes my scripts,’ I told them. ‘It’s just I’m not into being part of a lynch mob against Michael Knighton. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a team to manage.’

I don’t know how Val Doonican got on. But I got a standing ovation.

* * * * *

I was in my office one day, a few weeks into the season, when the phone rang and it was Dermot Keely, the Shels manager. ‘Have you any money over there?’ he said with typical bluntness. ‘Yeah, we’ve loads,’ I told him, even though we hadn’t a penny.

Under the terms of the embargo, we had to plead our case to the FA if we wanted to sign a player. But I wasn’t telling Dermot and Ollie Byrne that. Then he got to the point. His striker Richie Foran had been sent off again the night before. It was either the seventh or eighth time in his career and he was still only 21. I played Gaelic football with Richie’s da, Podger Foran, at O’Connell’s GAA club and Richie had worked as a labourer for me. I told Dermot I was interested. Ollie, the Shelbourne CEO, rang me back within the hour.

‘Howiya, Rod?’ he said. ‘I hear you want Richie Foran?’ ‘I didn’t before,’ I told him, ‘but I do now. Dermot said you’re prepared to let him go.’

‘Don’t mind Dermot. You can have him for a hundred grand.’

‘Ollie, leave it with me. Look, just send him over and I’ll see what I can do.’

I rang Mark Knighton. ‘There’s a kid in Dublin,’ I said, ‘who’ll single-handedly keep us up. He’ll score goals. But he’s also one of the best defenders of set-pieces in the game because he’s fearless.’

He said he’d see what money he could get. The next day Richie arrived over with Dermot and Mick Lawlor, who was acting as his advisor. I took Richie out onto the pitch. He was blown away by the ground. ‘Richie,’ I said, ‘whatever way the negotiations go, don’t go back on that flight tomorrow.’

‘I’m going f**king nowhere,’ he said.

Mick talked terms with Mark Knighton and Richie was happy with the deal. Now it was just a matter of persuading Ollie to let him go. Dermot was sitting in my office when he made the call to Ollie, who I could hear on the other end of the phone saying, ‘Have you got the f**king money?’

‘Roddy needs to talk to you,’ Dermot said. ‘He’s only got 15 grand to give today. They’ll pay the rest in instalments.’ Ollie lost it. Dermot had to hold the phone away from his ear. ‘I want the f**king money,’ Ollie roared.

‘Look, you know what Collins is like,’ Dermot told him. ‘He’s a f**king gangster.’ I was thinking, Yeah, I’m still here, Dermot, thanks a bleeding lot.

‘He’s a f**king cowboy,’ Ollie fumed.

I didn’t care. I was getting one of the best strikers in Ireland. Ollie rang me at least once a week for the next year.

I don’t know how much money he got for Richie in the end. But Ollie was right. Richie was worth £100,000. He scored 16 goals that year and helped me keep my promise to the supporters.

* * * * *

One weekend before Christmas, I was driving past Myo’s in Castleknock when I spotted a jeep in the carpark belonging to a builder who owed me five grand. I thought, there’s a few bob for Caroline before I go back to England.

I went in, he gave me a cheque and I had a pint of Guinness with him. And that was the moment when John Courtenay walked into the pub and my life.

Courtenay was a multi-millionaire who’d made his money in the fitted-kitchen business and through his ownership of the Umbro franchise for Ireland. We were on nodding terms, although I’d always thought of him as a bit of a bulls***ter ever since Stephen beat Chris Eubank and he started telling people that he was a cousin of ours. He was a loudmouthed, bombastic sort of character, full of his own importance.

‘How are you doing over in England?’ he asked, joining us uninvited.

‘Yeah, all right,’ I said, because we’d just beaten Scunthorpe 3–0. ‘I think we may have turned a bit of a corner.’

‘Much is that club worth?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know – maybe a million or two,’ I said. ‘All I know is, if it was run properly, it could be an absolute gold mine. We’re getting by on crowds of 4,000 or 5,000, but we could be getting three times that amount. It’s a First Division club that just happens to be trapped in the Third.’

He took a long drag on his cigarette. ‘If I buy that club,’ he said, ‘will you sign a five-year contract?’

‘Are you serious?’ I asked.

‘I’m gen-u-inely serious,’ he said.

Suddenly it didn’t matter to me that Courtenay was full of s**t.

‘Can you set up a meeting between me and Michael Knighton?’ he asked.

I said I would. I arranged it for the first week in January 2002 in Leeds Bradford Airport. I said to Courtenay, ‘When Michael gets here, we’ll do the pleasantries, then you leave me alone with him for a few minutes, will you?’

Courtenay agreed. Michael arrived and I made the introductions, then Courtenay said he needed a slash and excused himself. ‘Michael,’ I said, ‘this man is serious about buying the club. I’m just letting you know now, if you act the bo***cks with him, I’m off.’

Courtenay came back and the two of them talked about money.

When the meeting ended, we both shook hands with Michael and he left. I told Courtenay about the warning I’d given him. ‘I know what you said,’ Courtenay told me. ‘Sure wasn’t I hiding behind that pillar listening to every f**king word.’

There were many warning signs with Courtenay.

‘The Rodfather’ by Roddy Collins, with Paul Howard, is published by Sandycove and is available in shops and online from October 6 (hardback €25)

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