Newell learns from greats in drive to be Luton's special one

Premiership winner draws on 34 years experience to develop a management style which is paying off at Kenilworth Road, writes Jason Burt
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Under the bridge, across the ramshackle car park, where the "Main Reception" sign lies upside down, propped against a wire fence, and through a warren of corridors lies Mike Newell's office. There the manager of Luton Town recalls what he told the players, the day he took over 30 months ago.

"The first thing I said," Newell explains, "is that I was just an average player - I believe that's all I was - but I managed to play at the highest level because I was a good professional. Nobody trained harder. Nobody. There were better players, but I knew what was required. And that's all I asked of them. Not to be the best player, but to be the best professional and give everything. I can accept failings and not being able to do certain things. But don't leave anything behind. Come and give everything."

It is a speech, delivered with Newell's quiet intensity, that is both self-effacing, given his impressive achievements as a striker for Blackburn Rovers, Everton and - of course - Luton - and studiously inspiring. It was also made in the "strangest" of situations with the new man taking over, following the sacking of Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford, through a bizarre phone poll organised by the then chairman, John Gurney, and just weeks after he had been dismissed by Hartlepool. "They didn't know me from Adam," Newell, 40, adds.

Soon Luton were in administration. "And that probably took the pressure off me," the manager admits. "It was basically, 'Get on with what you have got'. People's expectations were, 'Oh Christ, if we stay in the League we've done well'. All of a sudden we're in the top six and people are thinking, 'This is brilliant, we're working under restrictions and there's something good here'."

Newell, limited to just 20 players and with two teenage goalkeepers, also detected it in the "strong characters" within his team.

"We've got players for whom the club means a lot," he says. "They want to re-sign here. I've played for some big clubs. At Blackburn, for five years, we were on the crest of a wave, but the team spirit here is as good."

Not that Newell mentions his time at Blackburn - where he was the club's first million-pound player, partnered Alan Shearer, won the Premiership under Kenny Dalglish and scored what is still the fastest hat-trick in Champions' League history - often. "You can't force yourself on people," says Newell.

Indeed, the dressing-room at Luton, he says, runs itself. "I let them have a free hand," Newell explains. "They make up the rules. They keep on top of each other." Neither is there some kind of laissez-faire attitude. Newell talks with a passion about his schooling in the game, his roots at Liverpool, the years he spent watching, from 12 to 18, and learning at the club's training ground, Melwood. Of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and the boot-room mentality.

The FA Cup draw, hosting the European champions, could not have been more perfect for Newell, who also, 18 years ago, scored in Luton's 3-0 win over Liverpool at the same stage of the competition on Kenilworth Road's infamous plastic pitch.

"I used to go training on a Tuesday and Thursday night," he recalls of his time at Liverpool. "They'd let us go out and warm up ourselves, boot balls about and the rest of it on the floodlit pitch. And you'd think that no one was interested. But I spotted them one day looking through the mesh that used to cover the windows. They'd be watching every single player."

It is what Newell does also. He likens the skill to training racehorses. "They know when to run them, in which race, and when they are at their fittest, when they have a problem. And that's what I do," he says. He watches, observes - but does not supervise training and talks to the players as a group only on match days. More often, he feels, and he would "lose the effect".

Newell is, he states emphatically, a "manager". "I don't know if it came from Europe or whatever. But I'm a manager, not a coach or a head coach," he says. "I manage. And you only start being a manager when there are problems." Newell has dealt with those, arresting a slide of four League defeats and maintaining Luton's fifth place in the Championship.

As he speaks there is a black-and-white photograph of Shankly and Paisley, in ill-fitting Gola tracksuits, to his left. Newell has his own beliefs, but much is grounded in those two men. "The most impressive thing about Liverpool is that they'd win the League, win the European Cup. And then they put them in a cupboard and start again," Newell says. "They'd force the players to believe they'd done nothing. Enjoy it and come back and start again. Here it's on a different scale. It's nice for the club winning League One, but coming back pre-season and, for me, it's forgotten. It's nothing. Go and win the Championship now."

That will not happen this season. However, Newell, although believing Reading may be out of sight, adds: "This might sound silly, but I haven't ruled out automatic promotion. I don't know why anyone in our position would." He will test the resolve of the club's directors. "How ambitious do they want to be? I'm going to ask - what have we got? I don't want millions because I don't believe it will take that."

After finishing 10th in League One, while in administration, then running away with the division by 12 points last season, Newell is being talked about. Tomorrow Luton face Southampton, a club he has been linked to. But with his family - his wife and five children - still in Southport it may be that, with 17 months left on his Luton contract, if he leaves it will be to go back north.

Newell states there has been "scepticism" about him "because I'm not advocating that I'm a great coach. All we do is what I believe in. I can't be swayed by someone telling me I need a Pro-Licence, I need an A-Licence [coaching badges]. No one will sway me. You can't get on a six-week course the experience I have had over 34 years watching football. All my life I've been in it."

It is why he dropped the prestigious applied management course at Warwick University. The final straw was studying about an imaginary club in administration - while handling Luton's problems. "And I just thought, 'What's the point? I'm dealing with it in the job'," Newell says.

He has a voracious appetite for the game, an almost photographic memory for matches and listens intently to managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, who both sent him letters of congratulations for last season's achievements.

Not that he is overawed. "Why shouldn't I be able to compete with them?" Newell says. "I know he [Mourinho] calls himself the 'Special One', but I don't think he believes that. He comes across as a top bloke. And I bet he's great fun. He's got an edge, but I believe I've got that as well."

It is no secret that Newell wants to manage in the Premiership. Indeed, he implies that he may be a better manager than he was a player. However, there is a mix of modesty and steeliness about his playing days.

"I was never full of myself," says Newell, who has never had an agent and does not like them. "I played with players who had so much belief in their own ability and that got them through. Sometimes I think I didn't give myself enough credit. If I had I might have been a better player. I'd do things in training and people would go 'bloody hell' but I didn't try them in a match. I was happy to be a team player."

Maybe, Newell says, he was one of those "unsung heroes" every side needs - even if he contends he would have won a "couple of England caps" had Blackburn been a London, not a northern, club.

But there is a final, illuminating anecdote. "Players will accept losing their place if they lose it to a better player," Newell states. "I lost my place [at Blackburn] to Chris Sutton and I took it as a compliment that they went out and broke the British transfer record [£5m] to replace me. That season I hardly played. But I played 30 games the next season. It wasn't like I was accepting it. I still believed I could play." And he did.