Lawrie McMenemy: The Gentle Giant (Part Two)


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In our first look at the managerial career of Lawrie McMenemy, we considered his rise from a humble playing background through the ranks of coaching and managing in non-league and then lower-league football with Gateshead, Bishops Auckland, Doncaster Rover and Grimsby Town. Success in taking the Fourth Division title with both latter two clubs led to the opportunity to take over as manager of Southampton from the legendary Ted Bates and after a rocky start, the ultimate triumph of FA Cup glory in 1976 was achieved.

This time out we will have a look at the later years of McMenemy’s time in charge at Southampton along with moves he made upon departure from the Dell in 1985.

Following the Saints’ Wembley FA Cup triumph in May 1976, McMenemy was back leading his team out under the Twin Towers three months later for the annual Charity Shield curtain raiser. Walking alongside him as the sides took the field was fellow Bishops Auckland alumni, Bob Paisley, manager of league champions Liverpool. Alas for McMenemy, this time there was to be no fairytale triumph as the Anfield favourites prevailed by a solitary John Toshack goal.

The 1976-77 season saw Southampton fighting on four fronts as they defended their FA Cup and entered Europe in the European Cup Winners’ Cup as well as having a crack at the League Cup. The main item on the agenda, however, was a planned push for promotion. In the end, though, Southampton pretty much fell between all stools and ended up with nothing.

That said, they were more than capable of holding their heads up high with regard to their efforts. The quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup were reached before they were rather unlucky to lose 3-2 on aggregate to holders Anderlecht, and in the FA Cup they reached the fifth round where fate (and warm balls?) saw them drawn against Manchester United in a repeat of the previous season’s final.

A thrilling 2-2 draw at the Dell was followed by Tommy Docherty’s men gaining some small consolation for the previous season when they edged home by the odd goal in three in the replay. Unfortunately for Southampton, all this cup excitement detracted from their main goal of gaining promotion, and a ninth-place league finish was an ultimate disappointment.

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No such woes were suffered the following season though, as second spot in the table and a return to the top flight after six years away were secured. By the time promotion was clinched in May 1978, McMenemy had been considered and interviewed by the FA as a replacement for Don Revie for the England manager’s hot seat.

Anticipating the sack, Revie had walked out of the England job the previous summer and Ron Greenwood had been installed as Caretaker Manager until a permanent appointment could be made. In December 1977, with England’s World Cup hopes officially over, McMenemy had been invited to interview for the job alongside Brian Clough and Bobby Robson. Unsurprisingly, McMenemy was deemed ‘not ready’ for the top job at that stage and besides, he was more than happy at the Dell.

Back in the First Division for 1978-79 and another trip to Wembley reckoned, this time in the League Cup. By now Southampton had a World Cup winner in their ranks in the form of Alan Ball, who McMenemy had signed from Arsenal a couple of years earlier and with his industriousness in midfield supplemented by the youth and running of Steve Williams, Southampton overcame Leeds United in the semi-final of the to set up a final clash with holders, Nottingham Forest.

A David Peach goal after just 16 minutes seemed to set Southampton on their way towards their second major trophy in four seasons, but a second-half fight back from Forest saw three goals conceded and although Nick Holmes pulled one back at the death, it wasn’t enough and so Southampton departed Wembley as losers again.

If the signing of Ball had been inspired, the next major name to come through the door of the Dell was of truly staggering proportions. Once again it was a signing delivered through the sheer magnetism of McMenemy who had the knack of getting players to want to play for him and his supposedly unfashionable south-coast club.

In early 1980, it was no exaggeration to say that captain of England and soon-to-be two-time European Footballer of the Year, Kevin Keegan, could have had his pick of just about any club in Europe. With the likes of Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and a whole host of major English clubs supposedly interested in signing him, Keegan instead allowed himself to be talked into a move to Southampton instead. It was a signing for the ages.

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Keegan stayed for two years at Southampton and playing alongside Ball and Mick Channon, who had returned to the club following a spell at Manchester City, the England captain oversaw a serious title tilt in 1981-82. With Southampton leading the table as spring came around, Keegan urged McMenemy to invest in strengthening the team for the final push, but when McMenemy either couldn’t or wouldn’t, do so, the two men had a falling out and Southampton trailed away to finally finish a slightly disappointing sixth.

Keegan pretty much threw his toys out of the pram after that setback and a personally disappointing 1982 World Cup, and left the club despite McMenemy’s protestations that he was on the verge of making the kind of signings Keegan had implored him to make a few months earlier. So, while Keegan was being hailed as the new Messiah on Tyneside, Southampton and McMenemy were getting along without him at the other end of the country.

1983-84 is a season that has gone down as being one of Southampton’s finest ever with the league and FA Cup double an outside possibility at one point. With Ball and Channon both finally moving on to pastures new, McMenemy had managed to continue the trend of signing established stars in the shape of Peter Shilton, Joe Jordon and Mick Mills, and Southampton reached the FA Cup semi-final where they outplayed Everton at Highbury for large portions of the game before losing to a goal three minutes from the end of extra-time.

A late charge in the league pulled the Saints up to the runners-up spot, just three points behind champions Liverpool. Had Keegan not thrown a wobbly and had trusted McMenemy when he said new signings were imminent, it is highly possible that silverware would have been collected that season.

The future looked rosy for Southampton and McMenemy, but within a year he had left the club and what had looked to be a job for life.

The summer of 1985 saw Mcmenemy unsettled at Southampton and restless. He had had chances to move on before and not taken them – most notably in 1981 when he was Manchester United’s first-choice to replace the outgoing Dave Sexton – but now four years later he felt the time was right to move on. Times were changing at Southampton, and with these changes came new faces on the board of directors and new power struggles – McMenemy was tired and he wanted a new challenge.

Perhaps he fancied another crack at being considered for the England manager’s position when it became available again, and so maybe he felt he needed to get out of his comfort zone and give things a go somewhere else. Whatever his reasoning, after taking Southampton into Europe four times in his spell there his move to Roker Park to be the manager of Sunderland was both a shock and an unmitigated disaster.

On paper, it looked like a good move. Sunderland were a ‘sleeping giant’ that had just been relegated to the Second Division, and it was thought that with the right guidance and the support of a generous board, instant promotion could be achieved. McMenemy followed the blueprint he had developed at the Dell in as much as he signed some experienced players in Eric Gates and Alan Kennedy, but this time the moves did not work out and rather than push for promotion, relegation to the Third Division was only avoided right at the end of the season.

When the following season, 1986-87, yielded no better results or performances, McMenemy had to concede the project had failed and he left the club in March 1987 with Sunderland on their way down to the third flight for the first time in history.

This ill-fated sojourn was actually McMenemy’s last managerial appointment in club football and it was a sad way for things to end in that respect. However, it was not the last the footballing world had seen of Lawrie McMenemy – not by a long chalk.

Following Southampton’s 1976 FA Cup success, McMenemy had been in constant demand as a television personality and football summariser. He was a familiar face on TV panels and shows and had maintained a high profile throughout his career since then. He spent the next three years mainly appearing as a co-commentator or studio guest for live football matches, thus keeping his name in the public domain, and in 1990 there was another change of England manager.

Although that particular ship had long since sailed for Mcmenemy himself, he did find himself being offered the opportunity to become part of Graham Taylor’s backroom team when the former Watford and Aston Villa manager took over the reins after Bobby Robson’s summer 1990 departure.

In shades of David Brent, McMenemey was given the title ‘Assistant to the England Manager’ rather than ‘Assistant Manager’ but nevertheless was proud and honoured to be part of set-up.

The Graham Taylor – Lawrie McMenemy England years deserve to be told not just over a few paragraphs, or even a single article, but via a four-volume anthology series and needless to say, the experiment was not a success.

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Following his departure from the England set-up, McMenemy returned to Southampton for a short spell as Director of Football where he worked with Graeme Souness and Alan Ball as managers of the team.

McMenemy then had another shot at international football when he was appointed manager of the Northern Ireland national side. Despite some decent results initially with three wins in his opening five matches, only one further success in the next fourteen games followed and McMenemy declined to sign the new contract rather surprisingly offered to him.

Now 86 years of age, McMenemy lives quietly in retirement.