Peter Reid: I've always seemed to be fighting fires

He's paying the heating bills and sold his Cup final medal to save Plymouth. But he insists it's worth it, because the people and place are so special. Tim Rich meets Peter Reid
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The Independent Online

Michael Foot's great ambition was that he would one day watch Plymouth Argyle in the Premier League. As the old socialist turned 90 he admitted: "Argyle are cutting it a bit fine." Foot fulfilled many of his dreams but seeing Home Park host Manchester United in the top flight was not among them. Now they are cutting it very, very fine.

At the back of the directors' lounge are strewn shirts, balls and every other conceivable kind of football memorabilia, most notably the loser's medal awarded to Peter Reid at the 1986 FA Cup final, a Merseyside duel between Gary Lineker and Ian Rush won by the man with the moustache.

It is a familiar kind of auction – shirts signed by Geoff Hurst, a ball with Pele's autograph – and it is a familiar kind of setting; a football club deep in a mire mostly of its own making. Lower-league clubs are rather like Third World countries; they only become newsworthy when they are in crisis. But Plymouth's need is more desperate than most. The auction is not to address debts of £13 million that have pushed them into administration; the Jules Rimet Trophy rather than a painting with a rather too apt title of "Sunset over Home Park" would need to be lot one for that.

It is to inject some money into the club so they can stagger on to a summer that will probably see them in the bottom tier of English football. Money is needed to pay the wages of the players and staff at Home Park, who have not seen a salary cheque in several months. Most critically of all, they need it to fulfil the club's final eight fixtures. The medal fetches £2,200.

Just before Reid does his turn – some well-worn but entertaining stories from a very full life in football – a fan comes up and asks for a photo with the Plymouth manager. He had contributed £400 to help the team make an away game at Hartlepool by plane, although on the way to Exeter Airport the bus had broken down. Reid, who had called in a few favours to arrange a pre-match session at Sunderland's training ground before another exhausting, wallet-emptying trip to Carlisle on a Tuesday night, dutifully poses for the snap.

There are many images of Peter Reid and this in its own way might be as heroic as the one on the main staircase at Goodison Park, a scarf wrapped around his hands, shin-pads sticking out of some rolled-down socks, celebrating Everton's 1985 title. Back then there was more glory, more money and no need to pay the club's heating bills, something Reid has done since his arrival in Devon.

"When I came here, Plymouth had just been relegated from the Championship and I knew I had to strip down the wage bill, but I have got to say I had no idea of the true financial situation," he reflected. "I have got to say that. If I had known that in June, would I be here? I am not sure.

"But once you're here, once you are among it, I did want to stay and fight it out because the club gets hold of you. I could have walked away, of course I could, but it just makes you more determined to see it through.

"It's been hard," he said. "But then it's always seemed to be hard; I've always seemed to be fighting fires. At Man City I was grateful to become player-manager at 35 but you can go on all the coaching courses you want but until you are sat in that dug-out for the first time, you have no idea what problems will fall your way," he said.

Kevin Keegan, one of his successors at Maine Road, was phoned by a player to complain that he had ordered the wrong coloured carpet and could Keegan have it changed. Reid's problems are players who have no money to fit carpets or anything else.

"The players have given me everything," said Reid, whose only remaining striker, Rory Fallon, turned down a move to Bristol Rovers that would have seen him get paid. "Everything. Every fan assumes that every player who walks on to a football pitch is fit, happy and has no problems at home for want of a better expression.

"We have had Michael Yardy come back from a Cricket World Cup with depression and people might once have said: 'What's depression?' But there are physical injuries and there are mental injuries and finally people are opening up about the mental ones. But it is amazing when people come together for something; it is that human touch. People have lost their jobs here, dozens of them all round the ground. Life is about people, and the people here are fantastic. The people in this room, it's their club. I don't think the Glazers own Manchester United and I don't believe the Americans own Liverpool, the fans own these clubs and whatever happens, if they don't go through the door, there is no business."

It is language of which Michael Foot would have approved. Reid was once photographed in red boots taking training at Sunderland in 1997 to celebrate Labour's victory in the General Election. Perhaps this was not surprising; his formative football experiences had been under the guidance of the playwright, Alan Bleasdale.

When asked to describe his proudest experience recently, Bleasdale nominated not Boys from the Blackstuff but coaching Huyton Boys to win the English Schoolboys Trophy. One national newspaper called them "the finest school team that ever lived". Reid was part of it.

"I still speak to him. Back then he was a schoolteacher, a wonderful character who coached me along with a lad called Eddie Kilshaw, who went from Bury to Sheffield Wednesday for an awful lot of money in the 1940s," said Reid. "Huyton Boys were a bloody good side. We beat Stoke in the final, played at Goodison and the old Victoria Ground, and the semi was at Anfield.

"You've got to remember what an opportunity it was to play on those grounds. As a young boy you're impressionable and it made you want to kick on. Alan and Eddie's philosophy was to go out there and enjoy it. Revel in it. To win a trophy like that for a little town like Huyton was a fantastic achievement.

"I saw his last film [The Sinking of the Laconia]. Brilliant writer." It was Bleasdale's first release for years, having somehow been frozen out. "Yeah, but talent always comes through."

There was a time when Reid seemed frozen out of football management. Until 2003, the success was largely unbroken. He was the last Manchester City manager to finish above United; he had taken Sunderland to their highest top-flight finish since 1955 and staved off relegation at Leeds. But he remained at Elland Road too long and was swept away in the avalanche.

A spell at Coventry was brief and bitter and in September 2008 he found himself in Bangkok, coaching Thailand. "I had a smashing time. It took me right back to basic coaching. I didn't know anything about the players, not their names, not their backgrounds. I just had to watch them, coach them, get the most out of them.

"In Asia, face is a big thing. If you think you can go in there and hand out a rollicking, you can't," said the man who in Premier Passions, a documentary about Sunderland's final season at Roker Park, broke the record for the number of expletives used in a single minute of film.

"You have to do it differently; take people aside and talk to them privately. What you can't do is shout at them in front of their team-mates. That's hard on a football pitch or a training ground but it adds to your skills and back [here] there are times when you think: 'I can handle that differently.'

"I've always adapted. I left school at 15 on the Friday and joined Bolton Wanderers on the Monday and before you know it you find yourself looking up at Roger Hunt, who played for your team, Liverpool, and who won the World Cup.

"And you get used to the travelling. Honestly, sometimes getting back from Plymouth has been harder than getting back from Bangkok."

Life and times

Playing Career (1974-1995)

Bolton Wanderers 225 games, 23 goals

Everton 159 games, 8 goals

Queens Park Rangers 29 games, 1 goal

Manchester City 103 games, 1 goal

Southampton 7 games, 0 goals

Notts County 5 games, 0 goals

Bury 1 game, 0 goals

Total 529 games, 33 goals

England 13 caps, 0 goals

Honours Second Division title 1977-78; First Division 1984-85, 1986-87; FA Cup 1984; European Cup-Winners Cup 1985; Charity Shield 1984, '85, '86, '87.

Management (1990-current)

Manchester City (player-manager): 131 games; won 56, lost 44, drawn 31

Sunderland 353 games; won 159, lost 99, drawn 95

Leeds United 22 games; won 6, lost 12, drawn 4

Coventry City 31 games; won 10, lost 13, drawn 8

Thailand: 17 games; won 9, lost 4, drawn 4

Plymouth Argyle 42 games; won 13, lost 22, drawn 7

Fascinating Facts Named PFA Players' Player of the Year in 1985, when he finished fourth in World Footballer of the Year behind Michel Platini, Preben Elkjaer and Diego Maradona. Named the Managers' Manager of the Year in 1996 having taken Sunderland from bottom of the First Division to champions. That year, a group of Sunderland fans had a top-40 hit with 'Cheer up Peter Reid', sung to the tune of The Monkees' classic 'Daydream Believer'. Infamously one of several England players whom Maradona passed on his way to scoring the "goal of the century" in the World Cup quarter-final at Mexico 1986. When he became Thailand's manager in 2008, he admitted not knowing a lot about Thai football and called players by squad numbers rather than names.

Gary Hird