Close-up: Lawrie McMenemy;:Morality play of a Saint

Southampton are plotting a Cup upset to stir memories of 20 years ago. Simon O'Hagan spoke to their elder statesman
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The Independent Online
FOR a whole week after Lawrie McMenemy led Southampton to victory in the 1976 FA Cup final, he did nothing but celebrate. There were parties every night. He and his family were feted wherever they went. They even got home to find decorations strewn all over the outside of their house.

Towards the end of that week, McMenemy and his wife Anne went to a press ball - an invitation they had accepted long before they knew Southampton were going to be in the Cup final. But of course it turned into yet another post- Wembley knees-up. "We walked in and immediately we were just mobbed," McMenemy recalled last week. "As the evening went on Anne and I got pushed further and further apart. Finally, I thought, we've got to get away from all this."

McMenemy's choice of sanctuary was the Wales v England home international match at Ninian Park in Cardiff. It got him and his wife out of Southampton and was a big treat for their three children. "So off we went, toddling up the M4, having a sing-song. When we got there we had to walk along the front of the stand to get to our seats and people were clapping and cheering.

"I looked round because I thought the teams must have come on to the pitch, but it was us they were cheering. That's when it really hit me, the realisation that we couldn't go anywhere without being recognised. Winning the Cup changed our lives. It changed a lot of people's lives."

Southampton's 1-0 win over Manchester United may not have had quite the impact of Sunderland's over Leeds United three years previously, but it is still a Cup upset to rank with the biggest of them, one of only three instances of the old Second Division beating the old First Division in the final.

Twenty years on, the two teams are in FA Cup opposition again, and when Southampton take on United in the sixth round at Old Trafford tomorrow night, McMenemy, now 59, will be there as the club's director of football, as popular a figure now as he has ever been in an association - not unbroken - that goes back to 1973. In many respects, nothing much has changed. Certainly if Southampton won, it would be as much of a surprise as it was when Bobby Stokes swept a left-foot shot beyond the diving Alex Stepney to bring the club their one and only FA Cup victory.

The presence of McMenemy, albeit in an elevated capacity, is a reminder, too, that in an age when football is fast losing touch with its traditional roots there is still a place for big characters who know about life beyond the corner flags and try to instil a sense of perspective in young players. Directors of football have sprung up partly through the need to ease the burden on managers and leave someone else to worry about matters such as transfers and contracts. But in McMenemy's case there is clearly a moral dimension to the job as well.

"All clubs are an integral part of society," he said. "I was struck by the aerial shots of St James' Park on television the other night, surrounded by streets. Now it's not as if the stadium was just plonked down in the middle of them. It arrived with the houses. The football ground was the cathedral where you came to pay homage. It was a place where people came to get away from the drudgery of daily life. That's always been the message I've tried to hammer home to players, that they're privileged to be able to do what they do."

When McMenemy was manager of Grimsby Town in the early 1970s he took the team to the docks one morning to give them a taste of the trawlermen's lives. At Southampton, the players are on a rota for visits to local organisations and charities, and McMenemy is heavily involved in such causes. "I'm a great believer that if you've been in a town a long time and you're invited to do something for the community then you should do it. It's not a question of being a do-gooder. But if someone thinks it would help their cause to stick my name on it then who am I to say no?"

Few football people have such a strong link with a place they did not hail from as McMenemy. Born and brought up in Gateshead, he went into football after working in local government and doing National Service in the Guards, experiences from which his natural authority derives. He played for Gateshead until injury cut short his career at 22, and he reached the South coast via various coaching jobs in the north of England.

The 12 years in which he managed Southampton put both him and the club on the map. As well as the Cup win, they were runners-up in the League Cup in 1979 and the First Division in 1983-84. He pulled off a huge coup in persuading Kevin Keegan, then England captain, to join Southampton in 1980 after two years in the Bundesliga. But according to Mick Channon, a member of the team then, there was no secret to McMenemy's success. "He was great with the big names. He could recognise good players and he allowed them to perform at their best."

It didn't work, however, at Sunderland, where McMenemy spent 21 unhappy months after disaffection with Southampton led to his departure in 1985. It was "open warfare" in the Roker boardroom, and McMenemy's failure there put him out of football for three years.

It was Graham Taylor who brought him back when he needed someone to help him as England manager, and McMenemy's light touch with the media and rapport with the senior players, notably Paul Gascoigne, were important. "I'll always be grateful to Graham," McMenemy said. "But after a while he brought in a psychologist and a PR man and I effectively moved back. He ended up alienating the press. You can be a bit too polished."

Since being invited back to Southampton in 1993, McMenemy's powers as a communicator have never been in such demand. One of his first tasks was to win over the supporters campaigning for the sacking of manager Ian Branfoot. He has been the voice of the club in the Bruce Grobbelaar affair. And he has been a leading figure in negotiations with the local authority over the move to a new stadium which is essential if Southampton, one of the Premiership's poorest relations and again struggling to avoid relegation, are to have a prosperous future.

McMenemy, though, is a realist. "I was talking to an agent about a player and one of his demands was that should the team finish in the bottom six the player would be entitled to a transfer at no more than a particular sum. I said, 'Well I don't know about that, but one thing I can tell you is if we finish fourth from bottom we'll be having a party.' " McMenemy knows all about those.

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