Royle the pretender is under no illusions

'I learnt from everybody but I have to be the best possible Joe Royle. I've seen too many fall by the wayside trying to be the second Revie or Clough'
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WITHOUT A word of a lie, I tell Joe Royle that he was my first sporting hero. It was spring 1970. I was an eight-year-old Lancashire kid, unable to choose between Everton, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs. I liked Georgie Best - who didn't? - and Ian St John and Franny Lee. But Everton sauntered to the League title that year, with the help of 23 goals from Big Joe. So Everton it was. Which means that Royle is directly to blame for my subsequent white-knuckle ride on an emotional roller-coaster. Of course, the ride could have been much hairier. I could have chosen City.

WITHOUT A word of a lie, I tell Joe Royle that he was my first sporting hero. It was spring 1970. I was an eight-year-old Lancashire kid, unable to choose between Everton, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs. I liked Georgie Best - who didn't? - and Ian St John and Franny Lee. But Everton sauntered to the League title that year, with the help of 23 goals from Big Joe. So Everton it was. Which means that Royle is directly to blame for my subsequent white-knuckle ride on an emotional roller-coaster. Of course, the ride could have been much hairier. I could have chosen City.

Still, with Royle in charge, aided by the ever-loyal Willie Donachie - "he's not my No 2, he's my No 1" - it is beginning to look as though the good times for Manchester City are once again just around the corner, and no longer around the corner, over the hill and across a busy dual-carriageway. They have led the Nationwide First Division and would be joint-leaders now but for some (according to Royle) dodgy refereeing at Tranmere Rovers on Saturday. They certainly look like staying the distance as promotion contenders. But would promotion in successive seasons necessarily be the best thing? I don't expect Royle to agree, but I tell him that a friend of mine, a Maine Road regular, wouldn't mind seeing City consolidate this year, then charge back to the Premiership fit and ready in 2001.

"Yeah, I've heard that too, but we need to be back in the Premiership as quickly as possible. When we came up to the First after that unbelievable play-off (against Gillingham) at Wembley, they wanted to give us a civic reception. I wouldn't have it. I said, 'Save it for when we go up to the Premiership, then we'll show you how to celebrate.' No, this club's done everything in a hurry. We failed in a hurry and now we need to bounce back in a hurry.

"I've no illusions about the difference in class, but I don't mean the difference in class between the First and the Premiership, which is not massive. There are basically three divisions in the Premiership. There's United, Chelsea, Arsenal, maybe Leeds, who can win things. Then there are the pretenders, the likes of Aston Villa, Tottenham, Liverpool on their good days, who don't look ready to win it but won't go down. The rest of them can finish 12th or bottom. So the gap we will need to bridge is between the third phase and second phase. That's what Middlesbrough are trying to do at the moment."

We are talking in the canteen at City's Platts Lane training ground. Royle no longer much resembles the centre-forward who stole my affections 30 years ago, having since acquired a stone or three, a new hip and two arthritic knees. But he is effervescent company, and for an hour or more, answers my questions with wit and vigour. Does he really, truly, honestly believe that City will go up? "I have seen nobody better, and that's not a battle cry, it's a fact. I said originally that there were 12 clubs who could go up, but actually it's only half a dozen."

Of course, when Royle was appointed manager, he was similarly confident that City would not go down. "That's true. I came with 18 games to go, and we certainly weren't one of the worst three in the division, but things conspired against us in true Manchester City fashion." And does he accept his share of the blame? He smiles. "I might have been captain when we went down, but not when we hit the iceberg."

With Manchester City in free-fall, some serious asset-stripping was required. The most valuable asset was Georgi Kinkladze, the enigmatic Georgian eventually sold to Ajax for £5m. Many fans were incensed. Most now recognise it as good business. "We needed to re-finance and the offer from Ajax was very difficult to refuse," says Royle. "The biggest problem I had with Geo was that I didn't know his position and still don't. Believe me, he had a talent that mere mortals could merely dream of. But at the same time, he couldn't always do the things that mere mortals can. His talent, though, was in the George Best class."

From Royle, there is no higher praise. Of all the players he has seen - including Pele, Eusebio, Cruyff, Maradona, Ronaldo, even Willie Donachie - he considers Best supreme. "Unlike Geo, his talent was productive. At his best he had total two-footedness, fantastic energy, aggression, pace, everything. He could turn at right-angles and I've still never seen anyone else do that. He'd run at full tilt one way and then turn a right-angle at full speed and go off that way. I remember playing against him for Everton. I once saw him beat Colin Harvey, then he went back and beat him again, just for the hell of it. He could do that to anyone."

Much as he enjoys reminiscing, Royle could have done without the jolts to his memory received during last season's Second Division campaign. Chesterfield's ground hadn't changed much since he played there with Lancashire Boys. "And at Blackpool there was some lovely old mildew in the corner of the visiting dressing-room which I remembered from 1966, when I made my Everton debut there."

It was humiliating to visit footballing backwaters on a regular basis, yet City did not want for passionate support. "I've said many times that it defied logic," Royle says. "I can't think of any other team that would go down to the Second Division and increase the gate. And everywhere we went they would welcome us and our fans with open arms, and open tills, then set about us in no uncertain fashion. We had some shocks early on, at Wycombe, at Lincoln..."

Still, it all came right in the end. The very, very end. In the play-off against Gillingham, City trailed 2-0 with a few minutes to go and wound up winning on penalties. "I'll never agree with the play-off system," Royle says. "You play 46 League games and then it comes down to penalties? It's obviously wrong and at Oldham [in 1987] we were the first side to suffer from it. We finished third, eight points clear of Leeds, and then lost on away goals in the play-offs. It's just about money. But I have to say that the Gillingham match was the most amazing match I've ever been involved in. My first game in charge at Everton, when Liverpool were four-to-one on to win at Goodison Park and we won 2-0, was special. But the Gillingham thing was amazing. It was almost as if someone decided, 'they've had enough, this lot.' We were four minutes away from playing Scunthorpe and Colchester again."

Not to mention Blackpool, and another nostalgic look at the dressing-room mildew. Royle was only 16 that day in 1966, fresh out of Quarrybank school - also the alma mater , incidentally, of John Lennon and Steve Coppell. "I was a starstruck kid, and I sat in that corner with my programme asking the rest of the team for their autographs." Everton lost 2-0 on a frozen pitch, and Blackpool's hero was one Alan Ball, who by the end of the year had a World Cup winner's medal and a contract with Everton. "I think [the Everton manager] Harry Catterick decided there and then that he wanted Ball," Royle says.

In 1969-70, with Ball, Harvey and Howard Kendall making up a dynamic midfield trio, Royle up front, and an impressionable eight-year-old following their progress, Everton won their seventh League championship. Unfortunately, the team broke up prematurely - "I think 'the Cat' lost his nerve" - and Everton did not taste glory again until Kendall arrived as manager a decade later, followed by another period of under-achievement until Royle took over, and masterminded a famous FA Cup final victory over Manchester United.

As a player, Royle stayed at Everton until Christmas Eve 1974. "Bob Latchford had arrived from Birmingham City and [Everton's then-manager] Billy Bingham said he didn't consider us a pair. He gave Birmingham an option on me, which I resented deeply, because after 10 years and over 100 goals I thought I should have the final say in where I was going. Birmingham offered everything for me apart from air miles and Green Shield stamps, but I joined Man City instead and had three great years here. We came second to Liverpool in the League by one point, we won the League Cup, and I got back into the England squad."

Royle's first appearance in the England No 9 shirt, freshly vacated by his childhood hero, Bobby Charlton, was in 1971, against Malta. In October 1972, he scored at Wembley in a 1-1 draw against Yugoslavia. Then he had to wait until 1976, when he played in the 3-2 victory over Italy. Indeed, he was undefeated as an England player, and years later was shortlisted as manager. Which was some compliment, considering that he was then managing unfashionable Oldham Athletic, albeit with considerable success.

"I was on a shortlist of three with Graham Taylor and Howard Kendall, and I was asked again at Everton whether I was interested, but I declined. It has to be the greatest poisoned chalice in football." Is Kevin Keegan the right man for the job? "Dead right. There was nobody else even remotely right for it. I've seen England lose, but I've rarely seen them humiliated, as they were by France after the World Cup. I thought, 'God, we're light years behind.'

"What we needed was a morale job as much as a coaching job, and having sat next to Kevin on an England coach, I knew he was the man for that. Of course, we all have different ideas as managers. I'm a great believer in wide men and wingers if they're good, but wingers can be a liability if they're not top-class." To whom, I wonder, is Royle referring? Steve McManaman? Steve Guppy? He's not saying. "We've got to support Kevin. Given time, he'll do what he did at Newcastle. But he hasn't lost a game yet and the wolves are already circling."

As a charismatic and opinionated manager himself, Royle acknowledges the influence of the men he served as a player. "Catterick was a strict disciplinarian. Ken Brown at Norwich had a marvellous way with older players - he'd buy Asa Hartford, Martin O'Neill, Mike Channon, and give them little cameos. Alan Dicks on a budget at Bristol City. I learnt from everybody, but I have to be the best possible Joe Royle. I've seen too many fall by the wayside trying to be the second Don Revie, or the second Brian Clough."

Clough, he adds, was the manager he admired most. "I admired Bob Paisley's selection of players, and what Alex [Ferguson] has done in Scotland and here is fantastic. But you have to say that to win the European Cup twice with a team from, with all due respect, a second-string city, a team of free transfers and underrated players, was an incredible feat. You hear the stories about him. Handing out bottles of beer going to Anfield, so that all his players arrived at Anfield with a bottle of beer each, those strange mental games. But to win the European Cup twice, with Larry Lloyd, cast aside by Liverpool and Coventry. With Kenny Burns, the bad boy of soccer. Frank Clark, a free transfer in his thirties. John McGovern, with a pedigree from Hartlepool or somewhere. A lot of Nottingham people thought McGovern shouldn't be in the side." Royle grins. "So Cloughie made him captain."

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