A couple of years ago, as I went into a function, someone thrust out a hand and said, “Hello Neil”. I looked up and discovered it belonged to Graham Poll. Graham and I have never got on, but it turned out since he had stopped refereeing he was watching my Championship-winning QPR team with his son and really enjoying it. “Let bygones be bygones,” I thought as I shook hands.
So imagine my surprise yesterday at opening the papers to read him describing me as a “bully”. If only he had had the courage to say that to my face, but I guess he couldn’t resist a cheque and a headline.
In his diatribe Graham mentioned me having a go at him after the 2003 FA Cup semi-final where his terrible positioning meant he blocked one of my players off enabling Arsenal to continue the move that led to the game’s only goal. He then laughed about it. Understandably I was not happy, and told him so. However, in my experience when I went in to see Poll after a game he was usually so far up his own backside it was impossible to have any kind of conversation.
He also mentioned another old chestnut, the allegation that I told a player to break Gary Kelly’s legs during a Leeds-Sheffield United match, for which he sent me off. I was actually complaining that a tackle by Kelly on Craig Short could have broken my player’s leg, but Graham’s hearing is obviously as bad as his ability to count yellow cards.
2. National not Valley for me
Up until Monday night I fully expected to be in the dug-out at The Valley this afternoon, watching my Leeds United take on Charlton Athletic, but instead I will be watching the Grand National for the first time since I asked my Dad to put two-and-six on the 28-1 winner Nicolaus Silver in 1961 because it was a lovely grey horse.
Our Easter games, at Ipswich Town and against Derby County, underlined how fate plays a major part in a football manager’s life. Driving down to Suffolk I had not been as confident for a long time. We had looked really sharp, and when the whistle went at Portman Road I can honestly say I have never had a team that so dominated a game for the first 30 minutes. We had chance after chance, hit the woodwork, had an effort cleared off the line, you name it. I was stood on the touchline thinking to myself, “we have to score soon because something is bound to happen if we don’t”. It must have been a premonition. Within a minute, young centre-half Tom Lees committed a foul completely out of character. I said to Ronnie Jepson beside me, “that’s a red card”. It was.
We went on to lose 3-0 despite having 25 shots and dominating large parts of the match with 10 men. Having played an hour with 10 men we then faced a five-hour journey back. After a few hours’ sleep the lads were in training, doing set-pieces and a warm-down, because Monday afternoon we were playing again against Derby – who had an extra day’s rest as they played Friday. To top it all the clocks went forward, so we lost an hour.
We freshened it up against Derby and I gave a cracking young midfielder, Chris Dawson, his debut. Ross McCormack scored his first goal for a few weeks but the advantage was lost when the officials missed an obvious foul in a passage of play which finished with Derby getting a penalty. Given the lads’ fatigue I wasn’t surprised when Derby scored the late winner.
I’d been told before the game that if the afternoon did not go well for us the owners thought there might be a case for making a change of management. So it was no surprise when I came out of the dressing room to see Salim Patel, their representative, and chief executive, Shaun Harvey, in the tunnel. They said to me that, regretfully, they would like to make a change as it looked extremely unlikely we would get in the play-offs. We all knew I would not be staying on next season if we did not go up, but I had said I would continue to manage the team for them until they had a replacement lined up. They didn’t have one, but with the natives getting restless I could see their point.
Then I had to do the media. I hinted that it was effectively over but wasn’t able to confirm that, as it was not official. I went into the coaches’ room to have a chat with Nigel Clough and his staff, before going back to my office. Both my daughters and my sister, Carole, were there having been at the game. At times like that it is nice to see friendly faces.
When you leave a club you are bound to feel sad. You go into it with such optimism and ambition and the challenge did whet my appetite. I still feel we are not far short and the team is still capable of winning every game between now and the end of the season. I gave it my best shot and obviously feel matters beyond my control did not help.
My assistant Mick Jones drove us home. I watched some TV and played cards with Sharon and William, but it is difficult to be sociable in the circumstances. April Fool’s Day will never be the same for me.
The next day we were scheduled to go to Flamingo Land theme park with the team so the kids were not best pleased that we decided to give it a miss. I did get a phone call from a couple of the lads saying they would like us all to come, but all the attention would have been on me. It was better to let them enjoy the day. It was also Sharon’s birthday so the kids got me up early to sing “Happy Birthday”. I didn’t really feel like smiling and singing but got through it.
Having picked up my gear at the training ground – it had already been put in a black plastic bag – we started packing. We’ve been very fortunate my departure coincided with my son moving house, so we had all these boxes. I don’t know how Sharon and Amy did it, but they packed up the house in 24 hours. I thought how appropriate it was when Sharon pulled away to take a car full of my boxes down to the West Country, and I looked across the garden and the snowman was on his last legs, melting away, just like my time at Leeds.
I did some media and should clarify when I said I hoped Mark Hughes would get the Leeds job so he could “destroy” another one of my teams the word I meant to use was “dismantle”. Sometimes on live radio the right word eludes you, though I guess “destroy” came to mind for a reason.
I said goodbye to the players on Thursday. There are some really good lads in the dressing room and I can’t fault them – apart from chucking away 15 points late on in recent matches, which would have put us up there with Cardiff. But I suppose every team can say that.
Leeds could be a great job for somebody as the club has got huge potential and I’ll be interested in who does take over. I hope they get the right man as I would love to see them back up. I would like to thank everyone that has been supportive in my time there. While there has been some dissenters recently there has been tremendous support for me and I do appreciate that.
As for myself, right now I’m finishing my book (The Gaffer, out in June and already on Amazon) and enjoying fresh boiled eggs from our chickens. I still want to be involved in the game. I have already had some phone calls with interesting propositions and once I have had a break I’ll be looking forward to my next challenge in life.