Sky Sports Soccer Saturday’s JOHNNY PHILLIPS caught up with a Manchester City record transfer buy for whom the burden of expectation proved too much. This article first appeared in Issue 3 of The Football Pink
For anyone under the age of thirty the name of Steve Daley is unlikely to ring any bells. But there was a time when he was the most talked about footballer in the country. With another transfer window on the horizon in the summer, and Russian oligarchs and Emirati Sheikhs now regularly signing off deals of £30million and more, it’s worth recounting the tale of a big money Manchester City signing that went very badly wrong.
In September 1979, Daley was playing for Wolverhampton Wanderers. A goal-scoring midfielder, he’d played 244 games in eight years for the Midlanders, most of them in the top flight, scoring an impressive 43 goals. Earlier that year, in February, Trevor Francis had become the first million pound footballer with his move from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest. His unveiling was slightly different to today’s photo calls. Forest manager Brian Clough stood over Francis wearing a tracksuit and brandishing a squash racquet, as the deal had delayed Clough on his way to a game. Seven months later, Daley had little idea that his own fee would consign Francis’s record move to the history books.
“I remember I was lying in bed at two in the morning and the phone went,” Daley recalled. “It was someone from the club saying I needed to be ready at 9am to go up and speak to City. I met Malcolm Allison [the Manchester City manager] and when the fee was discussed I just thought it was astronomical money. One million, four hundred and thirty-seven thousand, five hundred pounds – not that it sticks in my mind or anything!”
To put the figure in some context, the British transfer record was broken again only twice in the following six years; when Wolves immediately reinvested their profits from the Daley transfer in acquiring Andy Gray from Aston Villa, and then in 1981 when Bryan Robson moved from West Bromwich Albion to Manchester United for £1.5million.
Whereas Francis took the opportunity to repay some of his huge fee early on in his Forest career, with the winning goal in the European Cup Final in May 1979 against Malmo in Munich, Daley was afforded no such stage on which to parade his talents. Instead, he arrived at a club going through a major upheaval.
“The day I signed, the club sold four players; Gary Owen, Asa Hartford, Peter Barnes and Mick Channon,” he explained. “They sold four internationals and replaced them with me. Everyone was thinking I’d be able to replace those and make the side tick. It was a transitional time for the club with some really young players coming in like Tommy Caton, Steve MacKenzie and Nicky Reid. It was going to take time to gel together and become a team and unfortunately it didn’t work.”
City were rebuilding and Allison’s spending, which included the untried Mackenzie and Michael Robinson, just didn’t work out. Daley’s form suffered and he became emblematic of the side’s failings. Of that record transfer, Allison would later blame his chairman Peter Swales for going above his head and dealing direct with the Wolves board, which got the deal done quicker but at an inflated cost. The nadir was probably an FA Cup 3rd round defeat in 1980 to Fourth Division Halifax Town at The Shay.
"First Division against Fourth Division in the cup and we’re losing 1-0 with 15 minutes to go,” remembers Daley. “I looked around our team out on the pitch and it cost about £8.5million to assemble. NASA only spent £10million getting a man to the moon and we couldn’t get past Halifax.”
It’s a nice line. Daley is incredibly self-deprecating about his career. He was a good player, but he now makes a living telling everyone how bad he was. I caught up with him for our interview at The Gary Marshall Golf Day in Bawtry, Doncaster. It’s an annual event that attracts some of the very best former footballers, turned after-dinner speakers. Marshall is a comedian who has helped Daley articulate his talents as a very amusing speaker.
“I’m a success now at talking about being a failure. I sat down with Steve Kindon [his former Wolves team-mate of the 1970s] who is a great pal of mine and an accomplished after-dinner speaker and Gary, and we put some stories together.”
Later that evening, with a crowded room in raptures, those stories roll off Daley’s tongue with ease. He’s a natural and he doesn’t hold back talking about a time in his career that would have destroyed lesser men. So what happened next? Twenty months after his arrival at Maine Road, and with Allison’s second spell at the club also over, Daley took his leave. He didn’t just leave the club, but also the country and, in fact, the entire continent.
“When it didn’t work at Manchester City it was a low time in my career and I thought the best thing to do was get as far away as I could and start again,” Daley added. “An offer came in from Seattle Sounders. I was fortunate, although I didn’t realise it at the time, because a lot of other teams in the North American Soccer League had brought other foreign players in from Yugoslavia, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico but Seattle was basically an English team, coached by Alan Hinton. We had big Joe Corrigan in goal, Bruce Rioch, David Nish, Alan Hudson, Rodger Davies, Kenny Hibbitt and Tommy Hutchison. We had a top side and it was a great two years in my career and I really enjoyed it.”
In 1983 Daley returned to England, joining Burnley, before heading back to the United States a year later to sign for the San Diego Sockers. His professional career eventually ended at Walsall in 1986. It was a career to be proud of. Despite being an unused substitute for Wolves in both legs of the 1972 UEFA Cup Final, Daley played a key role in the cup run with the winning goal in the semi-final against Ferencvaros of Hungary. He was also capped six times at England ‘B’ level, in an era when full caps were not handed out willy nilly. But it’s the move to City for which he is remembered. And listening to him on stage, it was a move that you could say has eventually turned out alright.
“I remember the first time we played at Old Trafford. I was desperate to get out there and sample the Manchester derby atmosphere. I ran out of the tunnel, and the first thing that struck me was…well, what struck me was....a meat pie. Smack in the face.”
JOHNNY PHILLIPS - @SkyJohnnyP