Royle rises from knock-out punches impatient to reclaim rightful place

After a string of promotion near misses, the Ipswich manager sees 'promising signs' this time. Glenn Moore reports
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Each year, when the Suffolk club falls to a play-off knock-out punch, another cluster of players is sold. Bent was one of a quartet summoning the removal men this summer. With Shefki Kuqi, Tommy Miller and Kelvin Davis also leaving, Ipswich lost last season's three leading scorers and their goalkeeper. Now, noted Royle, "every week we have a team playing for other clubs in the Premier Division".

Royle is not by nature a pessimist. So, having scanned the list of the departed, he will pick up the telephone and call Bryan Klug, the head honcho at Ipswich's youth academy, and enquire as to the latest crop being nurtured amid the farmlands of the town's eastern flank. As last year's FA Youth Cup success underlined, the production line continues to roll. The reserve team dressing-room, said Royle, resembles a crèche and the likes of Owen Garvin, Danny Haynes and Aidan Collins are already bolstering the senior team.

Garvin, the third generation of his family to play professionally, is only 17 but he is in good hands. Before Wayne Rooney there was Royle who, despite the advent of both the Boy Wonder and James Vaughan, is still the youngest Evertonian to have started a League game. "It's something I guard jealously," Royle said with a smile when we met in his smart, spacious Portman Road office.

It may be thought that the attention Rooney endures is way beyond anything Royle experienced but that is only partly true. Royle made his debut in place of Alex Young, or "Golden Vision", as he was known to Evertonians. He recalled: "Parkhurst Road, where a car would occasionally come down and interrupt our game of football, had never seen so many cars. It was all lights and go. A 16-year-old replacing 'God' was news even then. It would be like some kid coming out of Newcastle's academy and replacing Alan Shearer.

"What do you know at 16? You are still spending half an hour at night squeezing spots. It is a very delicate age. And there I was being told I would replace someone who was, to many, Everton's greatest ever player. But I had my 90 minutes of fame then faded into obscurity, the reserves. I came back at 18 and became a regular. Rooney made his debut and became a millionaire overnight. I carried on getting two buses to work and cleaning boots and bins. But Rooney is England's greatest since Paul Gascoigne."

Royle is reeling back the years because he has written an absorbing account of his four decades in the game, 40 years in which he also played for Manchester City, Bristol City, Norwich and England, then also managed Oldham, Everton and Manchester City.

Royle is not one to turn people over and with lawyers erasing much of the angry chapter detailing his second departure from City (the club tried to reduce his pay-off and claimed he had presided over a drinking culture) it is short on startling revelations. But there are some telling insights into the way the game, and society, has changed.

If the revelation that he spent the first six years of his life sleeping on a camp bed at the foot of his parents' bed is an eye-opener, so too is the reminder that he was sounded out for the England post before he had managed in the top flight. He turned the approach down, believing that he lacked experience and Graham Taylor had been inked in anyway. That, he was later told, was not so.

Bearing in mind the vilification of Sven Goran Eriksson, would he really want to manage England? "It's still a fantastic honour," said Royle, adding: "Sven seems to handle that side well, though I think he might be fraying at the edges." Royle was at Oldham at the time, presiding over their improbable rise into the Premiership. A factor in their success was a plastic pitch.

"A lot of sides were beaten before they started," he said. "I remember watching Ipswich in the tunnel one night. It was snowing, the corner flags were blowing in different directions. I could see they didn't fancy it. We were 4-0 up in 20 minutes. But we also played some great stuff on grass in the Premiership."

He joined Everton, steering them clear of relegation and to FA Cup success (Royle remains the last English manager to lift the old pot). Then came a bizarre departure, Royle going to a meeting with chairman Peter Johnson and leaving jobless.

"It was surreal. I didn't go in there to resign. He's assured me he hadn't intended to sack me. We just drifted into the decision, thinking it was what each other wanted. We're still good friends. I sold him a load of Koi carp when he had his pond built. He's since said to me since, 'You just wanted me to put my arm round you'. I probably did."

I wondered whether Royle regretted letting his dream job slip away so tamely, whether he should have stood and fought for it. "I don't have any regrets, but I wonder. It was the job I had waited for for so long."

Je ne regrette rien? I remember interviewing Royle at Bellefield, Everton's training ground. He sat proudly behind the same desk Harry Catterick had, the desk Royle had stood in front of 30 years earlier to be told he would be making his debut at 16.

Catterick was a hard taskmaster. Old school. Royle recalled three team-mates arriving late for training one Monday having been delayed en route from their Blackpool homes by a motorway accident. Catterick fined them nevertheless, pointing out they had had since Saturday to get to Bellefield. "Brian Clough was probably the last of that era," Royle added. "He did a similar thing to my mate Asa Hartford. Asa was travelling to Nottingham when the exhaust fell off. He phoned and Clough said, 'No problem, that'll be a £50 fine'. 'But boss ...' '£100 fine'. Asa said, 'I got out at £150'." It is not an approach which would survive now, even with Ipswich's kids. Royle has to be a father figure, not a Godfather.

Regrets? There may be a few but he is more interested in a present in which Ipswich lie mid-table, two points off the play-offs but 13 off automatic promotion. "Given the players we've lost, we've had a decent start," he said, "and I've seen promising signs." Then it was back to work for a football man.

Ipswich players in the Premiership (Asterisk denotes Ipswich youth academy graduate)

*Kieron Dyer (Newcastle) Sold for £6m, summer 1999

*Richard Wright (Everton) £6m (to Arsenal), summer 2001

*Titus Bramble (Newcastle) £5.5m, summer 2002

Hermann Hreidarsson (Charlton) £900,000, summer 2003

Thomas Gaardsoe (West Bromwich) £520,000, summer 2003

Jamie Clapham (Birmingham) £1.3m, summer 2003

Matt Holland (Charlton) £750,000, summer 2003

*Darren Ambrose (Charlton) £1m (to Newcastle), summer 2003

Marcus Bent (Everton) £450,000, summer 2004

Kelvin Davis (Sunderland) £1.25m, summer 2005

Tommy Miller (Sunderland) free, summer, 2005

Shefki Kuqi (Blackburn) free, summer, 2005

*Darren Bent (Charlton) £2.5m, summer 2005

Royle command performances

The best I ever played with...

Alan Ball: "He won it, he passed it, he scored the goals. Everton's decline started when he left. He was the first all-action midfielder, the forerunner of Colin Bell, Bryan Robson and Roy Keane. He was a perfectionist and the worst loser I've ever known. He would throw things, cry and row with everyone."

The best I ever managed...

Andrei Kanchelskis: "My big regret was not trying harder to keep him at Everton. A great pro, a nice man, he scored 17 goals for us when we finished sixth. Goodison Park adored him. He had an ankle injury and I knew Fiorentina were tapping him up. I should have sent him away to clear his head."