Steve Tongue: Newcastle director of football Joe Kinnear was one of the boys and a breath of fresh air... 21 years ago
When Wimbledon had a party he'd go along, join in and sing a few Irish songs
When Joe Kinnear became manager of Wimbledon in January 1992 he was a breath of fresh air. None of the foul air with which he greeted the North-east media on arrival there some 17 years later; but someone who got on famously with players, staff, fans and reporters alike. What endeared all those groups to him over the next eight seasons, even more than his hail-fellow-well-met attitude, was the success he brought to a financially struggling club that within a few years of his departure following ill health had effectively ceased to exist.
It is always a help to an incoming manager to replace an unpopular one. Kinnear's predecessor, Peter Withe, may once have been a warrior centre-forward who won the European Cup for Aston Villa, but he was never cut out for even the later, tamer incarnation of the Crazy Gang, whose owner Sam Hammam was as crazy as anyone.
Appointed to the top division of English football from a position as Villa's reserve-team coach, Withe decided that discipline needed tightening up and that club ties, blazers and fines were to be the order of the day. A dressing room full of strong characters such as John Fashanu, Alan Cork, Hans Segers and Robbie Earle did not take kindly to the new regime, results suffered and, after only one win in 17 games, Withe was sacked. Kinnear, already known to the players as youth-team manager, stepped up to the first team and took the leash off.
"He was one of the boys," a long-standing Wimbledon observer recalled. "When they had a party he'd go along, join in and sing a few Irish songs." More importantly, results immediately picked up again and from being 18th in the table, the team comfortably avoided relegation.
How catastrophic it would have been to go down was clear, and became all the more so when it eventually happened. Difficult as it may be for a generation brought up on the Premier League to imagine, the crowd at Kinnear's first home game at the Selhurst Park ground shared with Crystal Palace of 5,534 was by no means the season's lowest. The following month a goalless draw with Everton attracted 3,569.
Even with the best players sold on, Wimbledon's record under Kinnear remained as remarkable as it had been under equally down-to-earth leaders like Dave Bassett and Bobby Gould. In 1994 he took them to sixth, the joint-highest in the club's history; three years later they finished eighth and reached both domestic cup semi-finals.
Once he suffered the first of his health scares, however, in March 1999, decline was swift. Egil Olsen came in from Norway and the Dons were relegated in his first season. By 2004, denied a move to Kinnear's native Dublin, they had been franchised out to Milton Keynes.
Kinnear himself became director of football at Luton and, in a move to concern Newcastle United's Alan Pardew, sacked the manager and took the job himself, leading to relegation and then promotion before Kinnear was sacked. Having later been unsuccessful at Nottingham Forest, and therefore a shock choice in 2008 at Newcastle, he has subsequently felt the need for the occasional exaggeration and has never knowingly undersold himself.
Sharing many of those qualities with his near contemporary Harry Redknapp, he has also felt most at home in the south of England, where he lived from the age of seven and where the media glare shines far less dazzlingly on any one club. Redknapp, offered the chance to join Newcastle, declined and has remained down south. Kinnear took up the challenge and to widespread astonishment has been offered another go, which he has accepted, "single-minded and not worried". All he needs now is to bone up a bit on some of his new players' names.
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