Fry bears the scars of football's rocky road

Peterborough manager has needed all his character to work - and make money for - some of the game's more unusual owners

Wednesday 30 August 2000 00:00 BST

For a poxy Second Division football manager ("poxy" is his adjective, not mine) Barry Fry enjoys considerable renown, so much so that HarperCollins have just published his autobiography, with a foreword by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. It is a boisterously entertaining book, peppered with asterisks. In 40 years in football, Fry has met only one person capable of matching him for salty expletives, and that is the Birmingham City managing director Karren Brady, of whom more later.

For a poxy Second Division football manager ("poxy" is his adjective, not mine) Barry Fry enjoys considerable renown, so much so that HarperCollins have just published his autobiography, with a foreword by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson. It is a boisterously entertaining book, peppered with asterisks. In 40 years in football, Fry has met only one person capable of matching him for salty expletives, and that is the Birmingham City managing director Karren Brady, of whom more later.

The subject that really gets Fry effing and blinding is the proposal to abolish transfer fees, hardly surprising from a man who made one of his clubs, Southend United, over £4m from the sale of Stan Collymore alone. With the rude bits excised, this is what he has to say: "At Peterborough I've just sold two boys, Etherington and Davies, to Tottenham for £1.24m. That cancelled our deficit. But without transfer fees, lower league clubs would be dead and buried. And once one or two fold, 10 or 15 will follow. Which is terrible, because if you're a Barnet or Rochdale fan, you're not going to turn to Arsenal or Man United. You are what you are."

Fry is fulminating in his hotel room just off the A1 at Borehamwood. He has come to watch Arsenal reserves, who have a defender he covets for Peterborough United. He is now the manager, having previously been the club's owner, taking the reins in a blaze of publicity and optimism shortly after being sacked as manager of Birmingham City.

"I really fancied it. I'd been at Barnet and made [owner] Stan Flashman £3m, I'd been at Southend and made Vic Jobson £6m, I'd made them £11m at Birmingham. So the prospect of backing my own judgement was very appealing. But I was way out of my depth. I was told the club had debts of £650,000, but it turned out that was just the overdraft. The actual debts were £3.1m. I had to get a loan from Allied Dunbar just to pay the wage bill, and I guaranteed it with my house, my pension, everything. I had to sell everybody, and then we got relegated.

"I had sleepless nights worrying about the figures. Because you get your gate receipts, but then you take off VAT, take off the police bill, the stewards, the expenses, and the little you have left has to last a fortnight. It really makes you respect club chairmen. They put up with almighty abuse but these clubs wouldn't survive without them."

Fry was eventually bailed out by local benefactor Peter Boizot, the founder of Pizza Express. But the full story goes back much further, in fact the rise and fall of Barry Fry, football club owner, really begins with the rise and fall of Barry Fry, footballer. As a teenager he was an inside-forward good enough to play six times for England Schoolboys, for whom he sparkled alongside the likes of David Pleat and Ron Harris in the 5-3 defeat - before 93,000 fans at Wembley - of a Scotland side featuring George Graham.

In the same year - 1960 - Fry signed apprentice terms with Manchester United. He soon impressed Matt Busby with his performances for the reserves, indeed the United manager declared him the north's answer to Jimmy Greaves and offered him full professional terms.

"That's when things started to go wrong. Before that, I'd spent my mornings sweeping the terracing, then training in the afternoons. But suddenly I found myself training from 10.30 to 12, then the rest of the day was my own. So I'd go with Nobby Stiles and Johnny Giles to the races at York or Chester or Haydock. And I'd go on to the dogs, then come out of there and go on to a night-club."

His football suffered and a disappointed Busby let him go to Bolton Wanderers. "People say that he should have protected me, because I was a kid from Bedford not used to life in a big city. But he warned me. He told me to exercise moderation in drink, gambling and women, and I took no notice. I tell my lads now that it's worth sacrificing things like that, and I know, because by the time I finished, I doubt whether I had played 20 league games. At United I was 12th man twice, at Ipswich and Sheffield United, and that was it." The happiest legacy of his time at United was an enduring friendship with another youngster who out-dazzled even the bright lights of the big city.

"I'd been there a year when Bestie came, and he soon leap-frogged me. He was obviously a genius. The lads used to moan in training because he'd beat six men, then go back and beat them again, but Matt Busby and [his assistant] Jimmy Murphy said 'leave him alone, he'll learn to pass' - which of course he did." When Fry started in management, with humble Dunstable Town in the Southern League, he invited George Best to make a guest appearance. "George was still with United, but he'd fallen out with Tommy Docherty and was refusing to play. When I told Tommy Doc that he had agreed to play for Dunstable, he said 'right, I'll bring a team down and you can play against us'."

Fry's first match as manager had been played in front of 34 spectators. For the next match, 43 turned up. But when George Best played against a Manchester United XI (helping, incidentally, to inspire a famous 3-2 home victory), Dunstable's gate exceeded 10,000. "That put us on the map. Then we signed Jeff Astle, and having been bottom of the league for nine years on the trot, we scored 105 goals and won promotion. George has been a real good friend to me. He guested for us again at Dunstable, against Luton, when we couldn't pay the wages because the chairman had gone to jail. And in a similar situation at Barnet he played for us against Tottenham. Again, the lads got their money. That's George all over. When he's off the booze he's a wonderful guy. He'll do anything for you."

Not so the late Stan Flashman, notorious king of the ticket touts, whom Fry served in his second spell of management at Barnet. "Actually, Stan could be the most generous man in the world one minute, but he was pure evil the next. He'd threaten to have you encased in a motorway bridge, things like that." Fry chuckles. "I had nine amazing years with Stan, on the field and off. Together, we got Barnet into the Football League and it was an adventure from day one. Our first game against Crewe ended 7-4... and we got the four. Then we played Brentford and it ended 5-5.

"But Stan was a real bad loser. He'd threaten to break players' legs if he didn't think they'd played well. We had one lad, Harry Willis, and Stan came into the dressing-room once and said 'Willis, you were hopeless today, you'll never play for Barnet again.' I said 'yes he will, Stan, he's playing against Watford in the Herts Senior Cup on Friday.' And Stan said, 'if you turn up on Friday, Willis, I'll break your legs with a cricket bat.'

"Harry was a black man and he turned white. I told him that Stan was just trying to frighten him, and he said 'well, he's bloody succeeded.' But we smuggled him in on the Friday and he scored a hat-trick. We beat Watford 5-2. And afterwards the secretary came in and said 'Stan's on the phone. He wants to speak to you, Harry.' Harry looked at me and I said 'well he can't bloody hurt you on the phone, can he?' Anyway he came back a few minutes later, beaming. Stan had praised him and said 'Barry Fry can't motivate nobody! What about that for motivation?' Motivation? He was going to break his legs and saw him in half!"

It is a wonderful story, clearly honed by a thousand tellings, and I laugh on cue. I ask whether Fry ever benefited from Flashman's connections as a tout? "Oh yeah, Johnny Mathis, Michael Jackson, he gave me tickets for all the top shows, just gave me them. And one day he said 'Sinatra's coming over.' I asked him how much the tickets were and he said £1,500 a pair. I said there was no way I could afford them. And that was that. But on the day of the concert he phoned me and said he had a pair of tickets waiting for me. My wife Kirstene and I shot down the motorway and the show was fantastic. Anyway, that Friday I went round to Stan's house, as usual, to pick up the players' wages. And he said 'there are no wages for three weeks, you owe me £1,500 for them Sinatra tickets.' I said 'Stan, I thought they were free!' He said, 'no, you pay your way round here, mate.'"

Still, Fry at least got to hear My Way, a song with lyrics close to his heart, for he is an idiosyncratic operator. In 1992 he took his inimitable management style to Southend United, where his best player was one Stan Collymore.

"Stan did brilliant for me. He was on £525 a week and not even the best-paid player at the club, but he played with a smile on his face and went into the community warning kids about drugs and that. The Stan Collymore I read about now ain't the Stan Collymore I know. He's a deep thinker about the game and he cares, he really does. Even after I sold him to Notts Forest he came back to play in the groundsman's testimonial, and signed hundreds of autographs afterwards in the pouring rain."

Despite losing the prolific Collymore, Southend prospered under Fry, whereupon the Sunday Sport proprietor David Sullivan and his protégé Karren Brady enticed him to struggling Birmingham City. "I'd seen David and Karen from afar and thought of them as a porn king and his bimbo girlfriend. But when you meet them you can't help but be impressed by them."

Fry's appointment came too late to stop relegation, but they bounced straight back and settled into the First Division's top 10. "I made them fortunes, too. I bought Liam Daish for 50 grand and sold him to Coventry for £1.6m. I bought Jose Dominguez for 80 grand from Benfica and sold him to Sporting Lisbon for £1.4m." Yet still he was sacked. "I'd always said that David Sullivan, and his partners David and Ralph Gold, would not have the bollocks to sack me. The only one with the bollocks to do it was Karren, and even she didn't do it."

Instead the dirty deed was left to venerable board member Jack Wiseman, and the incident still rankles. "They said I'd taken them as far as I could but really it was about Trevor Francis, who was a hero in Birmingham, becoming available. I didn't like the way it was done. But I went to see Karren the next day and she was brilliant. She said 'here's what we owe you, keep the car for three months, the house for another month.' It takes some managers years to get what's owed to them. So I've a lot of respect for her. She's turned that club round, and it's not easy being a woman in football."

Or a man either, especially if you're a manager in the lower reaches of the Football League. I ask Fry whether he has designs on the Premiership? "Oh yeah. I would love to pit my wits against Arsÿne Wenger at Highbury, George Graham at White Hart Lane, even Smithy at Derby. That would be lovely. But nobody's going to give me a job. For me, the only way into the Premiership is to win promotion, and after 25 years I ain't lost my ambition."

Big Fry is published by HarperCollins, £16.99

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