The sort of thing you miss if you don't buy the mag, this interview first appeared exclusively in RN150

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Lou Macari's autobiography

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If Roy Keane’s autobiography raised the bar in honest assessments of a footballing life affected by ups and downs off the pitch as much as on it, then Lou Macari’s ‘Football, My Life’ (Bantam Press, out now) takes it to another level, an at times brutally honest account of a life that has experienced many highs, but incomparable lows and loss as tragically his son Jonathan committed suicide in 1999.
The book details Lou’s life, and that on its own merit would make it a recommended read, but deep down it is a homage to a lost life, and though it brings back many happy memories of his United career, and a quite remarkable series of events after it (success at Swindon, then arrested and in court over fraud charges, to being treated like shite by Fergus McCann at Celtic), it is the final chapter detailing events in ‘99 that resonates. There is only admiration for Macari deciding to open up like this - and how hard that must have been - for the grief is incomprehensible. He told one paper: “I've got to be seen to be coping. It's tough, isn't it? I just know that I've got a commitment to my family and therefore I've got to continue working. But you're going back to a house where there's one missing.” Having read all the interviews Lou has done for publicity for the book, I really don’t want to pry about this. He has opened up enough, and some of those asking the questions, I feel, have gnawed away without caring about the consequences of their questions.
It is an honour to interview Lou (Skip to my Lou was a hero to me growing up), and it turns into a privilege too as he gives his time and honesty for RN so that I feel humbled. But I feel uneasy about talking about certain obvious issues, as it doesn’t feel right. Lou may realise this as he talks at the start of our conversation about baring his soul in the book and coping: “It's tough, but there you go, you've got to move on haven't you. You've got to try... Without a doubt football is an escape. If I didn't have that to fall back on and to go and do some work at Old Trafford and things like that on the tv I'd go off my head to be honest with you. You'd be thinking more and more about the difficult things that have happened.”
The rest of the book, detailing the footballing highs and lows, is a journey to events that I had either forgotten (my United bias meaning, I suppose quite scandalously, that I didn’t pay as much attention to them as they didn’t directly affect our club); the drama at Swindon for example, or not realised them at all, like the appalling treatment dished out to him when Celtic manager. Make your own minds up anyway, because it’s a book that challenges you, and leaves you thinking as much about life itself as Utd and football, and the incredible strength of spirit that Lou and his family have shown during their adversities.
(He appreciates being part of the United family. “I think because United have made it that way, for ex-players especially. They've certainly appreciated that the ex-players from a few years back weren't as fortunate as the present day players are for example. We played at a time where in terms of the finances in the game you could play for 10-11 years and you were never secure financially. Hence the reason they used to give the players testimonials if they lasted that length of time. I think it's an appreciation for what you did for them and to be honest it's lovely to be appreciated, not everyone who goes through life in a job is appreciated in the way that most of us ex-players are.”
Does that mean he’d have preferred to play in todays era? “There's great things from my era, and there's great things from the present era. Let's be honest that if you actually become a Manchester United player nowadays, you can set your family up for life, set your parents up who have looked after you in growing up, set everyone up and that would be wonderful to be able to do. That's something that the players in my time were never able to do unless you really struck it lucky. You could look after your own immediate family, but in terms of grandchildren and parents, looking after them the way people should look after them if that's possible, (we) never really had that opportunity. That's a massive difference to be able to have that ability at your fingertips to look after those who have helped you get where you have got, icertainly wasn't the case in my time.”
But has there been a cost for todays stars, 4 certainly the fans don’t mix with the players like we used to? “I don't know how that has developed. I can't put my finger on that. When I played there wasn't a great deal of difference in the fact that you were a Manchester United player as they are today. You trained at a certain training ground, different one from today but still the public came in there. After the game you had to go home, or go wherever you were going which is no different to today but what has developed, I don't know how, is this shield round everybody. After the games all my ex-team mates after a Saturday as long as we won would head along the road to a pub near Sale, walked in and all the supporters would be in there, we were never pestered, people came up and asked for autographs but you were left alone, everyone was very polite and you were polite to them and it was no problem. And I just can't understand why it's so different today. Same - human being with human being - but for some reason we've developed this way that no-one gets near anybody.”
And the worry is that when the last of the class of ‘92 goes, that affinity may be lost for good... “I think there's a lot to worry about when you do lose Giggs, Scholes and Neville because they are probably the last from the age of where football was probably what it should have been - I'm talking off the pitch now - where it was a case where you did mix with those players, get close to them, and they signed autographs. Picture it yourself; Scholes, Giggs and Neville gone, I have always said it's going to be a big loss to everybody in terms of their playing ability but also they really do represent Manchester United and I like that.”
Lou was honest about his feelings about the Ronaldo saga during the summer on mutv, so now is it a case, somewhat, of forgive and forget? “I hope so. I think the lad is made of strong stuff because when he came back from the World Cup I thought then he's not going to ride this storm but he did and he came back and was fantastic. He's got another little storm to ride now - I hope it is only a little storm. But you know what it's like, if he comes back and starts playing well, I would say the large majority of the support will let him get on with his job because they know that job is helping Manchester United”
I say my gut feeling is he’ll go next summer. “When you've got a player like him, and when you see way the game is nowadays, that gut feeling you may have, you may be right. But when you look around and see that Lampard was considering moving on, and he's a player playing for the big 4 as they call us, and Adebayor was thinking of moving on, and Drogba too, it was a bizarre summer with these new problems coming around the corner very quickly. Even players at the top clubs, it's always been a problem for the smaller clubs, when one of their top players wants to move to United, but it was never a problem for any of the big 4 that their players wanted to move on. But it just hit us right between the eyeballs, this summer especially. We had a bit of a taste of it when Gerrard was considering going to Chelsea and Liverpool supporters found that quite unbelievable. That was the first indication that there was going to be another change in the game where the top players at the top clubs were even considering moving on somewhere else - that most fans would find quite unbelievable.”
One of my highlights of last year, of any year in fact, was to see Macari outfox that Chelsea legend (sic), Jason Cundy on Sky before the climax as Cundy gave it the big one about them pipping us, and Lou just told him United would win, and if they didn’t, he’d just kiss Cundy’s feet in Moscow. It was a great put-down. “Laughs... I've never seen him since! I will see him, don't worry, I will see him! But I won't be gloating too much because let's be honest that John Terry misfortune in particular was our good fortune. I was sitting in that stadium in Moscow thinking ‘this is it, the European Cup ain't going back to Old Trafford’. Then as you need in football, we got a break and that break was enough to win us the competition.”
Lou nearly joined Liverpool, not United, and it was only because he was sat next to Paddy Crerand at Anfield before signing for the Mickeys that Utd made their move by pure chance. Has he ever wondered what if that seat had remained empty? “No. I don't think in football you can ever plan a course that you think may have happened because football is football, you go where fate takes you. I was only going to Liverpool because Jock Stein's best pal was Bill Shankly and they kept it quiet between the two of them that I was moving, and that's why I was smuggled down. I was supposed to go to Anfield that night and just sign a piece of paper. As a young lad, no agents in those days, you don't know if anyone else is interested in you because you don't get any phone calls from other agents, nor phone calls from managers phoning your house, you just think that when you are on the way, that’s the only place for you to go, and that's where you're going. It was an amazing 90 minutes for me that night. I started watching the game, Paddy was sitting next to me and he was only sitting next to me because there wasn't another spare seat in the Directors Box alongside Tommy Doc. Had there been another seat in there for him he would have been sitting there. Being an ex-Celtic player Paddy knew me, asked me what I was doing there, I told him, and he just said ‘Don't do it, I'm going to speak to Tommy Doc’. Spoke to Doc at half-time, ‘look, we're going to sign you’. When somebody says they are going to sign you it's not as guaranteed as being in Bill Shankly's office before the game with the forms there and him ready to get you to put pen to paper. I took a bit of a gamble there because one was a yes, contract there for Liverpool. And the other was Paddy with a bit of a promise!
But I believed Paddy, when he said the words Man Utd, I then only had the problem of telling Shankly which wasn't easy! Didn't really have the balls to do it to be honest, I went downstairs and told him I wanted time to think over the move. I didn't really need any time I just wanted to get out of his office - telling him over the phone would be a lot easier I felt. A bit like Stein, he was a hard task master, one of the great managers at the time and I didn't really have the nerve to go in there and say I'm off to Manchester United. I thought I'd better tell him that from a bit of a distance! There's so much that goes on nowadays. My move was into a car and taken down to England not knowing where I was going. That wouldn't happen now.
Now at certain times when this transfer window is open, motorways are full of agents and players going up and down, not too bothered where they are going, not picking and choosing, just quite happy to move on for some bizarre reason. I was very fortunate that right at the last minute Paddy came in, and as a Celtic supporter and player that was enough for me to say ‘Right, if I've got that opportunity, I'm heading to Old Trafford’. Even though in terms of winning, there was certainly nothing happening at Old Trafford at the time, it was a losing team...”
Are there regrets in terms of what his United sides achieved, an FA Cup, but 2 or 3 players short of anything more? “There are times in every clubs history when you look back and say that was a bit of a roller coaster few years for the club. You could say the same about Liverpool just now. Never looked like winning the title for years. Not to say they are not going to win it in future years but I think we were the same at the time. Before I came the team that Frank O'Farrell had, hadn’t done very well, and one or two players were getting a little bit older, and there was a great change round in personnel, new players coming in with the Doc nearly every day of the week. Most of the time that doesn't work, especially at a club like United, you just can't go and replace people like George, Bobby and Denis and expect any of the incoming personnel to be anything like them. And that was the pressure that everyone was under, a pressure we were never going to get the better of. It took a few years. We went down, we came back. And when we came back we were definitely a lot closer to whoever was going to win the title, we were nowhere near them before that. We got closer, and again circumstances... the Doc went, Dave Sexton came in, and it was start again time.”
So how did he find the Doc, as he details a peculiar incident at Mossley and suggests there was a little bit of Jekyll by Hyde in the maverick manager in the book? “Oh No. The great thing about the Doc was no matter what his relationship was with any of the players, he was the type of fella that he could walk up, kick you in the balls and the next day you'd be saying ‘Hi boss, how's it going’, because he was that happy go lucky fella and he's very, very funny and very witty and I liked that. There was never a4 dull moment with him. I just pointed out in the book that there was a Jekyll and Hyde side to him but whether it was me or anybody else, you overcame that, you wanted to overcome that because you wanted to be in is company, he'd be great company. He still is. Fond memories. The odd occasion you see him at OT, he's still got a spring in his step.”
And the nicknames the Doc had for people - Drop Down Dead for Ted MacDougall, Big Chop Suey for Louis Edwards... “Laughs. He told Ted at the team picture at the beginning of the season to get right to the very end of the row, of the picture, so when he got rid of him, with a pair of scissors he'd just chop him off the picture. He said it to his face at the team picture! Typical of the Doc. Quite funny and even Ted had to chuckle at it. Those two nicknames stood out. To us all he was Mr Edwards and a great Chairman. And again he was great company, and without a doubt he found the Doc ideal for him; good company and great to be with, and the Chairman-manager relationship was a good one for both parties.”
Defending Dave Sexton in the book, does he feel he got a bad rep from United fans, after all didn’t Tommy Cavanagh suggest the same when Sexton was in charge: “He is naturally shy man but is also very sincere and generous. I would like to get that point across to the Stretford End”. Lou says: “I'm not saying United fans from what they saw got it wrong. Because you form an impression from a bit of a distance. Dave was great. You speak to any of the players that played under him, he was a great man, generous. And I think he would admit himself he was football through and through and he wasn't into the pr side of it, didn't want press meetings, didn't thrive on sitting down talking about the up and coming game or the games that had just gone by. And there's nothing wrong with that, that was the type of manager he was. In terms of everything else, a good man, a tough man as well.”
He describes his picky room-mate Martin Buchan asking to switch rooms on 3 occasions on the same trip due to different complaints, how did so many different characters gel together? “Well you realised back in those days you had to gel, if you wanted to be successful. Success for the team meant success for everyone of the players. You were so dependent on appearance money and so dependent on bonuses it was a case of in that dressing room you were ready to kill to be honest with you. To win that game meant so much to you, and your family, and of course it meant so much to the supporters and you realised that. All the players were fully aware of all the spin-offs from winning a game of football. You just geled together, a natural thing that happens.”
I mention events at Swindon, and how from reading it afresh it seems unbelievable that it went so far (against him), and how badly he was treated. “People were pushing it a little bit further and further. People trying to take over the club at Swindon were heavily involved it. They would go to any lengths to get in there and get the present Chairman out who was there at the time. Those lengths they went to caused all the problems, and there's not a lot anyone can do after it was up and running, difficult just to put a lid on it and make it go away. It didn't go away and it was quite a dramatic time. Funnily enough I was at Swindon last night and everyone I spoke to there was talking about it and asking me about it, obviously they were very disappointed with the way things developed after I left. Had I stayed there probably none of it would have come to the surface, because people wouldn't have taken advantage of the fact that I'd gone and the Chairman was there on his own, a bit vulnerable, and started blaming the Chairman for me moving on. I'd done well at Swindon so they were lining him up for the chop and he didn't get the chop so they went down another road to stir the pot and it all ended up a bit unfortunate. We got over that then - we were on the march again.”
His management record remains good overall, does he feel that a series of unfortunate circumstances got in the way: “That does happen. I was never really going to consider management after I lost John, I thought I can't do what I've got to do as a manager. What you've got to do as a manager is cajole the players along, listen to their demands and requests which is what you've got to do but when you've lost somebody and you feel that life has been a bit tough on you and you are getting whinging players coming in and sitting in front of you for various reasons coming up with all these pathetic excuses about different things I just thought: ‘No, I wouldn't be able to keep my cool’ which I'd always done because it pays you to listen and it pays you to try and help them in some way. I thought ‘no, I'll just blow my top’, somebody telling me how hard done by they were, that they are only getting £700-800 a week or whatever the figures would be. So I just thought that's going to be difficult.
And I worked with Steve Bruce at Huddersfield and I was quite content to be in the background. Then Steve got the bullet and left me in the position where I was still in the background but people said to me there ‘would you consider the job’, and my first thoughts were ‘no’, they said ‘well if you don't consider the job and somebody comes in, you'll be out of the door’. And out of the door of course means you're not in employment and you've got family to feed, you've got people to look after so it left me with very little option and I had to end up saying ‘alright, I'll take the job’. I bought Joe Jordan in with me and that was a good partnership. Bought Ashley Grimes, another ex-United player in and between the three of us we had to get rid of a load of players and at the end of the season got in the play-offs and everyone on the Board was delighted and Joe was given a new 3 year contract, which he didn't persue (then) because Joe's a bit of a perfectionist and he wants to do things right and he said ‘I’ll wait until the end of the season when the football season is over, then I'll start discussing the new 3 year contract with you’ and the end of the season came and we went on holiday and when we came back Joe was going to sit down and discuss the new contract. I was still under contract and while we were away - Joe was in Italy, I was in America - we both got a text message to say we'd been sacked! Joe ended up going to a Tribunal for unfair dismissal, won that case, and I think was awarded £40,000, I was at that tribunal, I was delighted for him, I was due the same, I was due a six figure sum and they then went into administration. So both of us got nothing. Bit of a nightmare Huddersfield was for the two of us (laughs).”
So there and at Celtic, you saw the money men interfere? “Oh yes, I would say that was the first signs of people coming into the game. I think I was a bit unfortunate that Fergus McCann was so out of touch, he had no idea at all about football. That was quite frightening, and he was a one-off. But when I look back he didn't just treat me the way he did, but future managers who he actually employed he treated the same, so it was just in his make-up. So I've slightly forgiven him for that but it was tough at the time. I was taking the team on a pre-season tour and arranged to go to Malaysia because the club was struggling for money and they were going to get a couple of hundred thousand pounds. The next thing on a Monday morning he's rampaging through my office door saying ‘What are you doing taking the team on a pre-season tour to Malaysia?’. ‘Well, I'm the manager, Fergus’ I said, ‘that doesn't matter, they are my property, I own them. They go where I say!’ he told me back. That was the first indication that, no, certainly this relationship between me and him wasn't going to work because I do believe that when I'm put in charge of a football club that the players are my property to look after and get the best out of. There's young players to look after and it's my responsibility to their parents or whoever it may be to make sure that they don't step out of line, that I look after them and they don't go wayward. I don't think Fergus understood that.”
When Sir Alex goes, the fear is his replacement won’t have that control: “There is only one man that would be able to maintain that control, and that is Sir Alex. The control of players, getting the best out of them is a skill in itself, there's a knack involved with it and he's got that knack but somebody else new will come in, will they be able to do that? That's the first thing, let alone get results, keep a steady ship at Old Trafford, I'm not so sure. Funnily enough I was reading in the paper yesterday ‘3 Celtic players in a club in Glasgow’ got involved in a bit of a brawl - when was the last time we have seen that with a United player? You don't, because the manager demands that that doesn't happen. Alright we see the odd clipping in the papers of one or two of the players out enjoying themselves at certain times like Xmas and things like that which all footballers do but during a football season when they've not been given that license to go out by the manager, we very seldom have any problems like that. I think that's all credit to the manager.”
I’ve heard the odd older Red compare Lou to Tevez, can he see it? “Never really thought of that, to be honest with you. I think it's well known I've got my favourite player. My favourite player is Scholes. I think he's a managers dream, he's what you want in a player, he's everything that you want. Alright, as time moves on, all players start to lose bits and pieces of their game and then the day comes when that's when they finish but let's think of Scholes at his very best; energetic, brave, fully committed, no problems to the manager, can score goals, from midfield, a match winner from time to time, he has got everything that you'd want so he's always been my favourite player for no other reason than I like what I see. I like what I see in Tevez, in Wayne Rooney too, and I'm waiting and hoping that this is Waynes big season. I'm really waiting for him to explode because apart from Rooney, England - not that I'm that bothered about England! - doesn't have a centre forward who is a natural goalscorer. Wayne's gone off the boil a little bit in terms of scoring goals and I'd put that down to maybe he's had a bit of an interrupted last couple of years with injuries here and there, which hasn't helped, so I’m hoping, thinking and preying that this is going to be a big season for him. He's a top player, he's a good finisher and I don't think we have seen the best of him yet.”
Because a few years ago Ronaldo and Rooney were on a par to some extent... “That was the case, everyone was comparing the two of them and Ronaldo then went onto two seasons of brilliance and 80 odd goals, now Wayne went on to two interrupted seasons really, picking up an injury here and there and after a month out, came back again. Never ideal, it's not what you want as a player and sometimes you never really get back on track, back to where you were before. But I think this is a big season where he can do that, obviously the beneficiaries first and foremost would be United, but England without Rooney, I just don't think they've got a player up front who is a match winner. Wayne's got that class, he just needs to step up and I’m sure that he can do that. None of the Home Nations qualified for the Euros and it was a poor summer. I always knew it was going to be a poor summer but it got worse with the Cristiano situation so it was an absolute nightmare summer for everybody and I'm glad the season's back and up and running!”
Pardon my ignorance but I didn’t realise Lou Macari’s chippie... was actually owned by... Lou Macari! “Oh yeah. 1978 I bought it. I intended to bring my Mother down, as you see in the book my Mother died. So that was me left with a bloody fish and chip shop. I wasn't considering it, I just thought ‘get her down here, living close to me again’, because I'd left her up in Scotland for too many years and I just got a feeling that that wasn't right and I was going to bring her closer to me and give her a shop and all that and unfortunately it never materialised and I never got her in there. It's one of the reasons why I'd never get rid of it, because it was for family and it will stay family. I rent it out to people now because it's hard work, hard graft on a matchday and I can't be rushing from mutv up to the chip shop, cooking fish and chips then back to mutv, it's just asking too much, no human being can do that can they?!”
You had your differences with Harry Gregg when he was your Assistant at Swindon, which you detail, have you made-up? “I think it was circumstances. I took him in, he was out of work, he came to see me and I said ‘yeah’, I think I should have realised that he was far more mature than me, far more experienced and that maturity and experience leads people to want to do the Number 1 job. I think it's just normal and looking back on it, a lot of people in his position would have felt that they were better equipped and available to do a job as manager of a football club, than me. When I left United as a player, I'd never been in management, so thinking back now I can understand that, it's just at the time it probably wasn't on the cards because I was trying to get myself established, I was trying to make a name for myself as a manager, not knowing anything about the job, not knowing how difficult it was going to be, not knowing how to go about it, I just needed time to get my feet under the table and get a feel for the job, but at the same time I could fully understand now how somebody who had been in jobs like that for probably the previous 10-15 years in football in this country in a few jobs, would feel that he was better equipped to do the job but unfortunately that's not why I took him there, to be the manager, but to come there to be my Assistant, so it just never worked out like that.”
You work with Paul Parker on mutv, and he told RN that it pisses him off to see one comment from a long show picked up on and twisted to make a headline in the tabloids, how do you feel? “I hope it changes because I was getting a bit fed up ringing Carrington on a Monday morning trying to justify what I'd said on mutv and obviously volunteering to send a tape of the show and all that and I was getting a bit annoyed about it (the press twisting of quotes). Because I know what I said and I know how I've said it. I don't intend to give the manager the hump but I'm fully aware that there's no pundit who can go through a time on tv without annoying somebody or without annoying a lot of people. I'm really only interested in Manchester United, and if I say something about them and I've said it, I'll stand by that but when things are twisted around and it's a big headline put on it, I don't like that. I don't think it's right. And I don't think it's right either that I've got to start backtracking and try and justify myself to the manager - he's got enough on his plate without worrying about me and everybody else. It's been a bit embarrassing from time to time, because both Paul, myself, or whoever else may have been on there, we maybe touched on things but then it's had big headlines put on. If the team hasn't done very well and you say 'well, we didn't do very well today to be honest with you', it's all twisted around.
There's not a lot we can do about that. Apart from come Monday morning ringing up and just calling it that it wasn't the way it is in that paper this morning. And I'd like to think most of the time, if not all the times that I've had to do that, that the manager saw the difference between what I'd actually said - and he could see it for himself on a tape - and the way I'd said it, than the way the paper has put it. One of the problems Paul, myself or anybody on mutv has got, is that access to the players (for the media) is not what it used to be, they've all got to fill their newspapers. Back in my time when we used to go to the pub along the road, all the press lads used to follow and all sit in the pub with us, we'd chat openly there and I've got to say, I can't ever remember on a Monday morning picking up the paper and seeing something in big headlines about what I'd said in that pub to those press lads. It would have been out of order. It was always accepted, the co-operation that we were given, and we were friendly with a lot of them, so we weren't going to get a slap in the face. But their access to players after a game now is nothing so sometimes, and I can understand this from a press point of view as well, they've got to rely on the has-beens! (laughs). The people from the past. That's a fact, sometimes that's what they've got to do, we're yesterdays men, it's all about todays players but unfortunately todays players don't come into contact with those journalists.”
So Lou, it’s been a real pleasure, and if you had to pick one memory from all of them at United? “I can pick out good and bad. The good was actually signing. I thought ‘bloomin' hell, I've cracked it here, I'm at the biggest club, certainly I thought in Europe, arguably the world' and I thought 'I've done it’. I'd played for Celtic, as a Celtic supporter which I was, travelled to games watching them, and I never thought I'd join them but I played for them and now I was at Manchester United. So that was the highlight for me; it was better than picking out any game or any moment because 11 years at Old Trafford - all the moments were magic. It was a great place to work, it was a fun place to work and even now, but certainly back then, there's very few dull moments. As a player if you're involved in a club that's all action, that's all go, then that's great. Of course my saddest moment is when you finish. Because you've spent 11 years, getting in your car, travelling along Chester Road, heading towards the Cliff and you can no longer do that. All of a sudden it hits you like a thunderbolt. That's it. Big Ron called me in. I didn't need to be told what I was coming in for because I knew my days were over because I couldn't do what I'd done before and that was the biggest downer. There were obviously downers in-between with results and all that but they are never as big as that final one when you're not going to be part of the club anymore.”
We’ll carry a few more thoughts of Lou on all things United in future issues. Interview, Barney. © RN 2008

The sort of thing you miss if you don't buy the mag, this interview first appeared exclusively in RN150

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Lou Macari's autobiography

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