Gary Megson: Megson masters the art of winning ugly

Hawthorns manager has proved his credentials on limited resources despite the growing scepticism of some supporters
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It is a footballing paradox that the West Bromwich Albion manager, Gary Megson, so resolutely an individual, a man who does things his own sweet way and to hell with any dissenters, can yet be described as a kind of managerial composite, combining the volatility of Alex Ferguson, the quirkiness of Martin O'Neill, the perfectionism of Arsène Wenger, with the silky phrase-making skills of Big Ron Atkinson.

Megson frequently berates his players for playing "mummy-daddy, mummy-daddy" football. Meaning panicky, immature, frantic. And "blousey" football, meaning effeminate. And "tippy-tappy" football, meaning over-elaborate, under-committed.

Moreover, his bollockings are carried out at loud-hailer volume. "Megson," says an Albion-supporting friend, "must have a set of lungs on him like Bryn bloody Terfel."

This comparison with a Welshman should not obscure the fact that for an Englishman, Megson would make a good Scotsman; his fiery red-headedness also puts one in mind of Gordon Strachan. Unsurprisingly, he is a big admirer of Strachan, and cherishes the praise heaped by the Southampton manager on Albion during their season in the Premiership. They were, opined Strachan, the "gutsiest" team in the division.

"Any club going up without a sugar daddy has got to be careful," Megson explains. "Probably the best thing that ever happened to Barnsley in the short term was the worst thing in the long term. Swindon, Bradford, the same. Trying to chase the dream nearly ruined them. I wasn't going to let that happen here but we still had to compete. How? By being the best organised, the fittest, having the most desire. Gérard Houllier shook my hand at Anfield and said he thought we had too much heart to go down. But ultimately we didn't have enough quality."

What Albion do have, however, is enough quality to go up. And if the season were to end right now, they would be going up as champions. But the many remaining challenges start with Reading, the First Division's form team, this afternoon.

"We've been top of the league at least twice this season," says the manager. "But we haven't stayed there. It's a tight division. I don't see any team of about 12 or 14 that's immeasurably better than the rest, including ourselves. But we need to make sure that if anyone's going to pull away, it's us."

We are sitting in his office at the Albion training ground, hard by the busy eastbound A34. Like most departments of the club since Megson succeeded Brian Little in March 2000, with Albion second to bottom in the First Division and confronting relegation, the training ground has been hauled into the 21st century. Pre-season training that first year, he recalls, took place on a rugby pitch generously made available by Aston University.

"Now we have eight or nine good pitches here, a fitness coach, a weights room, a nutritionist ..."

And some fine players too, among them Jason Koumas, man of the match a week ago for Wales in Moscow. "Koumas is the type of player West Brom have to sign," says Megson. "He wasn't the finished article when we signed him [from Tranmere Rovers], and he still isn't, but if he was we couldn't have afforded him. We now have to get him that bit fitter, maybe a bit more defensively minded, but on the ball you won't get any better. Even at Premiership level he has an ability you rarely see."

Even with Koumas, however, Albion have not always played pretty football this season. They have mastered the art of "winning ugly". And some among The Hawthorns faithful do not like it, which is partly why Megson is not quite regarded as the messiah he perhaps should be: as he points out, second-bottom in the Premier League last season was the club's highest finish in 20-odd years.

Is he frustrated, I ask, by this continued ambivalence towards him?

"No, not really. When you join a club as manager it invariably means they're not doing well. You get three cheers if you get a corner. Then you start moving forward, and it creates expectation.

"That was illustrated when we played Norwich [a 1-0 win on 18 October]. It was the third time Norwich had been here since I joined, and the first time we'd beaten them, yet there were boos at the end because some supporters didn't like the way we'd played. But I'm not apologising. Football is a results-driven business."

Indeed it is, and judged by results both on the pitch and off, the club having recorded a profit every year since he joined, Megson is entitled to be considered one of the ablest managers outside the Premiership. Which brings me to another question: why is it that in the speculation over who will become the next Leeds United manager, Megson's name has so far been peripheral? Is it because he has a reputation for being stubborn, sometimes abrasive, and for clashing with chairmen? Hardly what Leeds are after.

A grim smile. "I read in the paper recently that I have a propensity for falling out with chairmen. I don't. I have a propensity for falling out with anybody who's getting in the way of the progress of the football club, be it the chairman, a director, a player, a member of staff or a fan.

"I've had two fallings-out with chairmen, one [with former Albion chairman Paul Thompson] because he wanted to run the scouting system despite having no experience, and I'd love to see the manager who'd go along with that. The other was with the chairman at Stockport because he wanted a lot more say, too.

But Alex Ferguson once said there's no point for a manager to go looking for confrontation because it'll find you, and that's right."Everybody and his dog wants Martin O'Neill right now, but he can fall into those categories [stubborn and sometimes abrasive]. Ferguson's the same, so is Wenger in his own way. You have to run a club as a dictatorship, though making sure to put the club's interests before your own."

This time a broad smile. "And the other reason [why he hasn't yet been wooed elsewhere] might be because I have a massive compensation clause in my contract, although that changes next May."

By then, he hopes, he will have steered Albion back up. That achievement, especially without a benefactor, will make it impossible for bigger clubs to ignore his credentials. But in the meantime he has a job to do.

"West Brom now are at a crossroads," he says. "It's a question of whether we can now do what Birmingham have done, and go from being a good First Division outfit to a really solid Premiership outfit."

The difference being, I venture, that Birmingham City have had the help of those sugar-daddies he was talking about. "Yes, they've been able to sign full internationals like [David] Dunn and even a World Cup winner [in Christophe Dugarry]. But in whatever manner, they've done it, and that's what we must try to do here."

It helps, on arrival at an unfamiliar crossroads, to have someone assertive at the wheel. But is Megson perhaps over-assertive? Certainly his treatment of players seems to smack more of the barrack room than the massage room, and one, Lee Marshall, appears to be in solitary confinement. But behind closed doors, Megson insists, he can be a pussycat.

"If I have a player who responds to a sweetie and an arm round the shoulders, that's what he gets. And at home I'm probably the quietest in our house. But it's different at work. I remember speaking to George Graham when he went to Tottenham. He was regarded as a disciplinarian, but he's not. The players are professionals, they are expected to do certain things, and sometimes you have to remind them.

"The other thing is that I keep reading that this or that player plays for his manager. If they're playing for the manager they're getting it wrong. They play for the supporters, and ultimately, for their wives and kids.

"That's why, when we played Crystal Palace in the last game of the season we went up, I had all the wives and kids troop into the dressing-room at a quarter to three. I said, 'you're not playing for me out there, this is who you're playing for.' One or two of the lads struggled emotionally to see their kids come in." A chuckle. "It would have been even better if we hadn't had lots of effing and blinding written up on the board behind them..."

Whatever, it was clever management, of which, as a young footballer, Megson could perhaps have done with more himself. The son of Don Megson, who had played for Sheffield Wednesday against Everton in the 1966 FA Cup final, he cut his teeth with Plymouth Argyle before moving, coincidentally, to Goodison Park.

"I loved it at Everton, but I let myself down," he says. "I thought I'd cracked it just by getting there, but I stopped doing the things that had got me there. I lost the plot a bit. I wasn't professional enough."

After just 25 games he was sold - another coincidence - to Sheffield Wednesday. It was the club he had followed as a boy, and even now he yearns to see Wednesday restored to the big league, although he has surely moved beyond the point where he might take on that onerous challenge himself.

He realised relatively early in his playing career that he wanted to manage, and says he learnt from all the managers he played under, even Brian Clough, who signed him for Nottingham Forest and rapidly let him go, apparently complaining that "he couldn't trap a bag of cement".

But his chief mentor was Howard Wilkinson. "He was doing things 18 years ago that people are just starting to do now. I remember that we played Liverpool and they played with a different type of ball. So a week before we played them, six of their balls arrived for us to practise with. He even knew the measurement from the near post to the corner flag on the pitches we played on."

Does he prepare his players as diligently as that?

"No." He roars with laughter. "I haven't anyone as accurate as I was at knocking corners in ... but we use ProZone, which is fantastic if you know how. All the players are given a sheet telling them what their perfect game should be: how far they should be sprinting, how many headers, how many blocks, interceptions, goals. And the day after the game they get the sheet telling them what they've actually done, which they compare with their perfect game."

The sheet telling Megson himself what he should aspire to is, I suppose, the Premiership fixture list. And my Albion-supporting friend thinks that Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea probably will be visiting The Hawthorns next season, not least because Megson also has an all-important lucky streak.

"What was it Napoleon asked about a general?" my friend says. "Never mind if he's good, is he lucky? I think Megson is lucky as well as good. We were 0-0 with Bradford in the second-to-last game of the promotion season, desperately needing the points, and we got an 89th-minute penalty. We were 3-0 down after 20 minutes against West Ham this season, and a lot of supporters thought it was a massacre that had been waiting to happen. We won 4-3. With Megson, there's somehow a sense of being in the grip of a greater being."

I pass these comments on to Megson. Does Megson think he is lucky?

"Sometimes. But you can't plan for luck. And you might use that quote from Napoleon, but I could give you one from Gary Player, that the more you practise, the luckier you get."

He smiles and folds his arms. The interview is over. Another job well done.

Gary Megson the life and times

Born: 2 May 1969, Manchester.

10 May 1995: Megson makes his reputation in English football as a battling midfield player, and has stints with numerous clubs including Everton, Nottingham Forest, Newcastle, and Sheffield Wednesday before joining Norwich.

19 October 1993: He scores against Bayern Munich in the Olympia Stadion, helping the Canaries to a 2-1 win in the Uefa Cup, making them the first English club to win against Bayern in Germany.

21 November 1995: Appointed as full-time manager of Norwich after Martin O'Neill's brief spell in charge, and has subsequent spells at Blackpool, Stockport and Stoke before arriving at West Bromwich Albion.

9 March 2000: Appointed manager of WBA, and takes the East Midlands club into the playoffs in his inaugural season, though they are defeated 5-2 on aggregate in the first stage by Bolton.

21 April 2002: WBA win seven of their last eight games to pip local rivals Wolves to promotion.

22 November 2003: Despite being relegated from the Premiership, Megson rallies his team into contention for a Premiership return, taking them to first place in the First Division

They say: "We wanted a good coach with motivational and leadership skills, but also somebody who really wanted to be manager of West Bromwich Albion... We think we've found the right man." West Bromwich chairman, Paul Thompson

He says: "We do everything on effort, organisation, a great deal of honesty, a lot a desire and unbelievable work-rate from the players... It's not about a great start, middle or finish, you've got to have a really good season."