STEPHEN TUDOR reminisces about Lawrie McMenemy’s Southampton of the early 1980s – a team that taught him right from wrong.
Whether your team was inherited from a family member or directly influenced by schoolyard peer pressure, you don’t get to choose who you support. Not really. You may think that your lifelong sweetheart introduced itself through a combination of freewill and serendipity but in most cases external forces – namely other people – are to blame, foisting onto you the only thing you consistently cherish from childhood to the grave.
My external forces were my grandad and older brother who, as a highly impressionable child, took me along to Maine Road to enjoy the pre-match burgers, witness the huge expanse of green turf, and delight in the big-city Mancunian swearing. Profanities coated in a Manc accent are fookin’ scary and exciting to a kid from the sticks.
When City scored I would be enveloped in familial celebration, the scary Mancunian sweary guy would offer up a wink, and inevitably, after a very short amount of time, I fell head over heels in love with Manchester City.
I have not regretted that inevitability for a split second since and if ever – on occasions such as now – I trace back the timeline of my infatuation it evokes nothing but gratitude. I got lucky. It could have been that other lot down the road.
If left to my own devices, however, I occasionally suspect destiny had an entirely different course of true love mapped out for me. A different shirt on my chest. A different club-branded alarm clock to wake me each morning.
I was just six years old when Kevin Keegan shook the football world to its very foundations by signing for Southampton so my memory of the event is somewhat sketchy. I knew who Keegan was of course, he of the perm and bleeding forearm from falling off his bike during Superstars and, much more significantly, a brace of European Footballer of the Year awards in his presumably teak trophy cabinet. At the time he was as famous as JR Ewing and Lady Diana Spencer. And I was fully aware that the south coast club was a very surprising destination for such a huge name as he drew a veil on three successful years in Hamburg. That much I could gauge from the BBC newsreader Richard Whitmore announcing it at the top of the six o’clock bulletin, a football transfer taking precedence over Thatcher’s halving of state benefits for striking miners.
I can mistily recall my mum’s shock as we half-ate our cauliflower cheese or whatever else she had served up that Sunday evening. Even my sister briefly broke attention from her Smash Hits to take note. This was humungous.
It was humungous but also very much cast in a bygone age and the endearing naivety of the time shimmers like a disco ball through every detail as the most surprising transfer in living memory played itself out.
Keegan was first enticed to The Dell when Saints boss Lawrie McMenemy got in touch to enquire about German wall-lights. He had seen one in a brochure and liked what he saw. They got to talking, as you do, and the canny Geordie dropped into the conversation the vague possibility of the Liverpool legend choosing his mid-table side should he ever get bored of sauerkraut and massive pints of lager. The permed one acknowledged to himself how the compact ground fizzed and crackled with passion on every occasion he had played there. He thought of his England team-mates Mick Channon and big Dave Watson both happily ensconced at the club alongside a World Cup winner in Alan Ball who was enjoying his twilight years. To a famously singular figure who always and defiantly did things his own way the idea appealed.
Some months later, on February 10th 1980, came the big reveal. It would be unimaginable today but the news was successfully kept under wraps until the official press conference with even the player’s agent left completely in the dark and half of the Southampton board unaware they were about to sign one of sport’s biggest names. Journalists were given instruction to attend the Potters Heron hotel near Romsey for a mysterious announcement and most anticipated new stadium plans to be unveiled so understandably there were audible gasps from the battle-hardened scribes as Keegan emerged smiling onto the makeshift stage.
Once the phalanx of flashbulbs finally calmed, McMenemy used the opportunity to apologise to ‘coppers’ for running through a red light three days earlier as the pressure of the imminent secret deal had begun to take its toll. Everyone in the small room wore grey.
This was Neymar joining Sunderland, Rooney in his pomp swapping Old Trafford for the Britannia Stadium, yet it all had the feel of a council department health and safety seminar. We will never again see the like.
If the transfer was concluded with a certain Crossroads prosaicness, the adventure itself began with more appropriate showbiz fanfare, a packed swaying Dell revelling in an impressive 2-0 victory over Manchester City on the opening day in front of the Match of the Day cameras. Mick Channon grabbed the goals, whirling away both times in windmill celebration, and the Keegan Effect looked to be taking immediate hold as the Saints sprinted from the blocks five games unbeaten. A thumping 7-1 defeat away to second division Watford in the League Cup punctured the euphoria but the mandate was set for an entertaining goal-laden campaign that saw the Saints fall one short of Ipswich as the highest scorers in the top flight but concede a whopping 56 into the bargain.
That season McMenemy’s men eventually secured the highest finish for the club since 1904, a sixth place that additionally guaranteed a UEFA Cup spot, but while that mattered then, looking back now we’re left with the nostalgia and celebration of the manner in which it was achieved.
Even in the second tier the gaffer with the distinctive Gateshead twang had a flair for attracting seasoned pros above the Saints’ pay-grade. He had impressively lured the ‘King of Stamford Bridge’ Peter Osgood down the M3 aligning his flamboyant talents with the time-served grit of Jim McCalliog, Jim Steele and Peter Rodrigues, and while their FA Cup triumph in 1976 may have stunned English football, in truth McMenemy had forged a team of captains who provided a nurturing environment for the home-grown kids to shine.
Four years on he was repeating the recipe here with Charlie George taking on the Osgood role of the mercurial genius drummed out of the capital in his prime due to ‘lifestyle’ issues while Channon relished his legendary status at the club, tormenting defences with bumpkin glee. Fortifying the attacking escapades were Chris Nicholl and Dave Watson, an ever-dependable centre-back pairing rooted in experience and international know-how and to their left – or in midfield if required - patrolled Nick Holmes, a local lad still only 26 but already with hundreds of top class appearances under his belt. Holmes was the ballast to this enterprising side, the durable calm in the storm and a player McMenemy once aptly referred to as ‘a man for all seasons’.
Then there was Keegan, A-list box-office Keegan, whose opening season may have been disrupted with a persistent hamstring problem – to the extent that he even sought help from a faith healer – but whose presence alone raised the bar for all around him.
Among these luminaries, and encouraged with paternal pride within the hothouse confines of a tight Dell, the latest batch of young talent that Southampton always seems to produce thrived unhindered. Graham Baker bustled with endless industry, the straight-backed Carrick-prototype Steve Williams oozed class beyond his years. In November of that season Keegan limped off at Old Trafford to be replaced by a 16-year-old bursting with raw pace and dynamism. The brief cameo made Danny Wallace Southampton’s youngest ever debutant until 25 years later when Theo Walcott pipped him by a matter of days.
Wallace epitomised the fearless zeal of youth that charged currents of energy and urgency through a side that otherwise may have resembled the Marsh and Best Fulham side from a few years earlier, a Last of the Summer Wine old staging post harking back to showboating and glory days. He was lightning in a bottle whose sole motivation was to thrill and be thrilled. He was exhilaration in motion and such was his playground exuberance he could become lost in pure devilment as illustrated in the Saint’s 5-5 draw with Coventry City the following season. So engrossed was the kid in reorganising his opponent’s main body organs that he had lost count of the score and trudged from the muddy pitch despondent believing his team had lost.
If Wallace was a Molotov cocktail among the Champagne Charlies there was another emerging talent whose currency was goals. Lots and lots of goals. The previous January this pimply poacher supreme had marked his debut by scoring with his very first touch in professional football, a statement of intent he built on with 21 goals in 33 appearances in his breakthrough campaign here surrounded by superstars who relished making chances for him.
There is no denying an element of good fortune for Southampton to witness a handful of brilliant, explosive prodigies come through and compliment the finest side the club had ever assembled but there was legwork and diligence too. The story – apocryphal or otherwise - goes like this. At some point in the late seventies Lawrie McMenemy was watching a school match in the Fareham area. He was impressed by the movement and touch of a centre-forward but couldn’t help noticing that the boy had the scruffiest pair of boots he’d ever seen. At half-time he approached the boy and struck a deal: if he scored a hat-trick in the second half McMenemy would buy him new footwear. The boy promptly obliged and McMenemy was as good as his word but not before first entrusting a club scout to monitor the development of a 14-year-old Steve Moran.
It was Crystal Palace who were supposed to be the team of the eighties, a term that quickly became an albatross around the Eagles’ neck, and in their place rose a traditionally over-looked outfit from the south coast who merged household names luxuriating in a rediscovered freedom with promising home-grown talent ravenous to prove their aptitude. Playing with an exhibition abandon they inevitably became the nation’s ‘second team’.
Yet all of this largely passed me by. I was six and too preoccupied with my plastic Luke Skywalker felling an At-At Walker on the hallway carpet. My awareness of this iconic Saints side was restricted to a vague appreciation of them having the most untucked shirts from any team featuring on The Big Match and their tab being prominent on my weekly updated Shoot League Ladder.
Fast forward three years, however, and I was well and truly through the looking glass. Football to a nine-year-old is a sentient explosion of goals, kits and moments that renders all future obsessions to that of a passing fancy. It is an all-consuming dam-burst of information and nascent opinion that fills every thought and garbled sentence, and as my monochrome life burst into Technicolor, I absorbed it all. My memory of Danny Wallace’s televised overhead belter against Liverpool – that later won the Goal of the Season award – remains as vivid today as my first proper kiss or Marco Tardelli’s World Cup primal scream while I was also now attuned enough to form an instinctive fascination with The Dell, that strange ground that looked unlike all others with its chocolate box stands designed by Archibald Leitch that always brought to mind my mate’s Subbuteo set-up. That fascination though paled to a spellbound submission to the Southampton kit, a now iconic Patrick number that boldly housed the badge pride of place in its centre above a Kabel-fonted promotion of Air Florida.
The strip was sleek and stunning, the style of football on display was an intoxicating combination of swagger and enterprise, and having shed the extremities of 1981, Southampton had now found the tenacity to ground out 1-0s on the bad days while trouncing Coventry 8-2 on the great days. Their newly discovered fortitude came largely from a serious upgrade in defence, the arrivals of yet more brow-raising coups in Peter Shilton and Mick Mills bringing countless England caps and invaluable pedigree to the rear-guard, while centrally, the elegant Mark Wright emerged still eight years away from popularising sweeper defending in English football but even as a raw teen showing all the positional nous and calm authority required for the role.
To his left Reuben Agboola shared full-back duties with a blonde-mulleted lunatic who earned the nickname Psycho around the same time Stuart Pearce was installing wiring systems and dreaming of a trial at Wealdstone. In twelve years as a professional footballer Mark Dennis saw red twelve times and this in an era when GBH usually prompted a tutted ticking off from referees. Yet it was precisely his ill-discipline that afforded McMenemy the luxury of snatching this superb technician of his trade for a pittance with Birmingham desperate to off-load a player as known for his wild partying and off-the-field antics as his untamed tackling. Dennis was a left-back ahead of his time, an overlapping bundle of ferociousness who viewed the entire touchline as his domain. With McMenemy becoming a much needed father figure, he flourished.
By now, Keegan had gone of course. So too Channon, Ball and George. In their place Wallace and Moran filled the vacuum with a dervish peaking of their powers, an unstoppable double-act complimented by the bedraggled rock n roll sauntering of Frank Worthington.
Behind them, around them, and seemingly covering every blade of grass was that season’s player of the year, chipping in with 19 goals from a position he single-handedly redefined.
Even in the early eighties, when most players resembled black sheep uncles, David Armstrong didn’t look like a footballer. With his bald pate and chunky physique he had the presence of a man making up the numbers in his accountancy firm’s 5-a-side competition. Yet, his stylish midfield marauding amounted to a Rolls Royce in a league of Austin Allegros, his influence exceeding that of Keegan’s and propelling the Saints to a previously unchartered and wholly unexpected title challenge.
That year they ultimately finished runners-up, pipped by a hair’s breadth to Liverpool’s relentless juggernaut, and it was a similar tale in the FA Cup with a taut semi-final loss to Everton. So they were nearly men then? Hardly. This represented, and remains, Southampton’s most successful campaign in their proud 130-year history and besides, falling just short of greatness never did Jimmy White, the Buffalo Bills, or Johan Cruyff’s Oranje buccaneers any harm and in such illustrious company they now forever share a throne room reserved for the ‘People’s Champions’.
They were certainly mine. The Southampton sides from 1980 until we all lost our bearings post-Heysel bewitched and informed me. The windmilling Channon, foraging Keegan, and livewire Moran, all resplendent in kits set to swoon and usually chaperoned by an affable Brian Moore, switched on all the lights in a young lad’s head and heart two hundred and fifty miles away.
In my childhood, Liverpool were the domineering authority figure, City were my team, and the Saints my inspiration for what football was, is, and should always be about.
STEPHEN TUDOR - @TheDaisyCutter1
Illustration by Michael Atkinson http://www.michaelatkinson.co.uk/