Bolton Wanderers v Stoke City is perhaps not a fixture to get neutral pulses racing on the first day of a new Premier League season, but the Bolton manager, Gary Megson, knows from experience, having twice guided West Bromwich Albion up from the Championship, that the Stoke pulses will be going like the clappers tomorrow, and that he must prepare his players to withstand a tide of adrenalin.
"Promoted teams don't need any extra motivation on that first day," he says. "The first time with West Brom we went to Old Trafford, and we were only undone by a late Solskjaer goal, right at the end. On Saturday we'll be playing a team full of enthusiasm that finished last season on such a high, and Stoke could have sold their tickets six times over. I know Tony Pulis very, very well, and his team will be 100 per cent fit. They'll be difficult to deal with. In terms of effort, we have to match them."
Effort is rarely found lacking in Megson's teams, of which there have been plenty; since 1996 he has managed Norwich City, Blackpool, Stockport County, Nottingham Forest, Leicester City and indeed Stoke, as well as West Brom and Bolton. But he still winces at memories of the one match last season in which his players seemed to give up the ghost, the 4-0 drubbing by Aston Villa on 6 April. "We'd had the worst result of the season the week before, against Arsenal, when we were 2-0 up at home against 10 men and lost [3-2]. I've never known a result take so much stuffing out of a football club. It was soul-destroying."
Megson is palpably an honest man, but I'm not sure I believe him when he says that on the journey home from Villa Park that day, with Bolton in the drop zone four points adrift, he had not yet resigned himself to relegation.
The media had certainly written Bolton off, and it still sticks in his craw that no apologies were forthcoming when, against all the odds, the club stayed up. "There were a lot of articles saying we were relegated, including one from a well-respected journalist saying, 'Bolton have gone and I'm pleased they have'. I've yet to see a retraction of that. We [football managers] get judged every seven days, but who judges him for getting that wrong?"
I venture a defence of my profession, suggesting that the offending journalist, whoever it might be, probably doesn't receive the kind of salary with which Premier League football managers can console themselves in the face of the slings and arrows. "Oh, I would think he does, considering who he's married to," says Megson, any hint of lingering bitterness overwhelmed by a raucous laugh.
He is sitting behind a vast desk in his office at the Wanderers training ground near Chorley. On the wall behind him is a long sinew-stiffening quote from one of his heroes, the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi. Also on the wall behind him are several flies, one of which, no respecter of status, keeps landing on him. There has recently been an infestation of flies at the training ground, and the pest control people have been called in, but in most other respects pre-season has passed without irritations, and Megson is pleased with the way his summer signings have gelled with their new team-mates.
The most expensive of them, signed from Toulouse for a reported £10m (although Megson, taking another little sideswipe at the media, assures me that it was £8.2m), is the Swedish striker Johan Elmander.
"I first saw him quite a few years ago when he was playing for Brondby and he caught the eye then. There were quite a few after him, certainly another Premiership club, and we'd have gone to £12m. He's not a direct replacement for Nicolas Anelka, he's an entirely different player. There's not that many players like Nic anyway, although I'm sure it's inevitable he'll be compared, which is maybe a little bit unfair. He's not got that lightning pace Nic has. But he's an experienced striker and a great lad. His wife's just had a baby, so it's new club, new country, new baby, which is a lot to deal with, but hopefully he will be what we want him to be."
If not, then Megson is under no illusions as to who will get the blame. Although he has steadied the ship that seemed holed beneath the waterline following the brief but unhappy tenure of Sammy Lee, and despite last season's last-gasp heroics, Bolton fans have not exactly clutched him to the collective bosom. That might change if the Elmander transfer quickly looks like sound business. Even if the fee was less than the sum reported, it is still a hefty chunk of the money received from Chelsea for Anelka, and from Sunderland for El Hadji Diouf.
"But that's the game now," Megson says. "I bought Gary Cahill for £5m [from Villa] with 17 Premiership games under his belt, and it seemed expensive, but now it looks like a really good deal. It's just the way it is. The standard transfer fee seems to change every year. A couple of years ago it was £3m, now you have to start at about £5m."
What, I ask Megson, was the most anyone paid for him in a playing career that took him from Plymouth Argyle to Everton, Sheffield Wednesday (where his father Don played from 1952 to 1970), Nottingham Forest, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Norwich City, Lincoln City and Shrewsbury Town? "In today's market I'd have been about £7m or £8m," he says. Huge laughter all round.
"No, it was about 250 grand, from Plymouth to Everton, and it gradually went downhill from there. Thanks for reminding me of that."
More disrespectfully, I also remind him of what his manager at Forest once said about him, that he couldn't trap a bag of cement. "Yeah, I found that really strange, given that he'd just signed me a month before. That might say something about Brian Clough as a scout, I don't know. I was a bag of nerves after that. But when I became Forest manager, Carole Washington, who was my secretary and had also been Brian's secretary, gave me a message from Brian's widow. What it said has to stay private, but it was about my abilities as a manager and I can tell you it meant the world to me. Apparently he'd been going to give me a ring, but then he passed away." A wry chuckle. "It was typical of the man that he slaughters me to the whole world, and then I get a private message from beyond the grave."
Whether he could or couldn't trap a bag of cement, Megson, a defensive midfielder, certainly played for some charismatic managers, including Jack Charlton, Malcolm Allison and Howard Kendall. But Clough was a man apart. "Talking about how football's changed, he took us to Majorca once, and the players went to a bar about 50 yards from the hotel. We've had too much to drink, so instead of going back the 50 yards, we've walked three miles around the other way, because the senior pros said that Brian would be between the hotel and the bar, waiting for us. We eventually get back about three in the morning, it's pitch black... and we just hear, 'G'night lads'." Megson has Clough's nasally whine pitch-perfect. "He knew what we'd do, because he knew people. He didn't treat me particularly well. I was suicidal sometimes at Forest. But when I left he was terrific."
Megson admits to cherry-picking from the techniques of those who managed him, but he would never undermine a player's confidence as Clough did his. On the other hand, the 49-year-old's reputation is as a tough taskmaster, who demonstrates his own commitment by leaving his home in Sheffield in time to be be at his desk at 7.15 every morning, and expects similar dedication from those around him. It is a managerial style fashioned in the alleys of the Football League, not on the avenues of the Premier League.
"I took West Brom from second bottom [of the Championship] to the Premiership in 90-odd games, and I didn't spend any money, so you've got to find a way of doing it," he says. "You need drive and desire, and I don't have a great deal of time for people who don't have that.
"I have fallen out with people at all different levels, but they've all been the same type, people who were cheating the club that I was working for. Whether they're players, chairmen, directors or supporters, it doesn't matter. If they get in the way, I have to sort it out."
This message could almost be delivered in a dead-fish, mafioso style. Instead it is delivered with a broad smile, which I risk obliterating by asking Megson whether it annoys him that the vulnerability of football managers is treated so lightly by the bookmaking profession, and the media. One newspaper last Sunday gave each Premiership manager a "chop rating", with axes out of five next to their names. I inform Megson that his had three axes alongside.
"Well, that's the world in which we live," he says. "Football management is second only to kamikaze pilots in terms of precarious professions. But you never know how anything is going to work out. We're playing Stoke on Saturday and Tony Pulis was slaughtered when he took that job again; he's walking on water now. There are a lot of managers who aren't particularly glossy, but I consider them proper managers. They don't have £150m to go out and spend on a team that was already good."
Sam Allardyce was just such a proper manager, his splendid record at Bolton compounded by the club's subsequent struggles, and I ask Megson whether Big Sam's presence is still somehow in the ether.
"It always will be." He gestures across the corridor to the IT room. "A lot of this is down to Sam's innovations. But this place has changed a great deal over the summer. If it didn't move it's been painted, and all the artwork's changed. We have photographs on the walls of the current players now. There is a place for history, but we need to move on now. I want this to be a club where, if we have a good season we're scraping into Europe, but if we don't, we're not half an hour from relegation."
It might not be quite the rallying call which the Bolton faithful want to hear, or one that Lombardi would ever have delivered to the Green Bay Packers, but it is full of characteristic good sense. That said, it is exactly a year since I interviewed Sammy Lee about his new job, and he talked sense too.
Born: 2 May 1959, Manchester
1977–1979 Plymouth Argyle
1981–1984 Sheffield Wednesday
1984 Nottingham Forest
1984–1985 Newcastle United
1985–1989 Sheffield Wednesday
1989–1992 Manchester City
1992–1995 Norwich City
1995 Lincoln City
1995 Shrewsbury Town
Career total: 499 games, 41 goals
Norwich City (assistant to John Deehan January '94-April '95; caretaker April-May '95
Norwich City: Dec '95-July '96
27 games, 5 wins, 13 draws, 9 defeats, 18.51 win percentage
Blackpool: July '96-July '97
P52 W21 D16 L15, 40.38
Stockport County: July '97-June '99
P102 W35 D40 L27, 34.31
Stoke City: July '99-November '99 P22 W9 D6 L7, 40.90
West Bromwich Albion: March '00-October '04
P221 W94 D77 L50, 42.53
Nottingham Forest: January '05-February '06
P59 W17 D24 L18, 28.81
Leicester City: September '07-October '07
P9 W3 L2 D4, 33.33
Bolton Wanderers: 25 October 2007 to present
P37 W10 D15 L12, 27.02
Career total: P529 W194 D193 L142, 36.67Reuse content