With Luton Town returning to the top table of English football, we thought it would be good to republish this old piece on the last manager to manage them in the old First Division – David Pleat. This piece originally featured on our sister site Tale of Two Halves in December 2018.
If ever one man could kick himself over lost opportunities it is David Pleat. In fact, Pleat perhaps comes second only to Pete Best, the drummer sacked by The Beatles in 1962, in the ‘what-could-have-been’ stakes.
David Pleat would have stood a very good chance of being appointed England manager in 1990 when Bobby Robson moved onto new pastures, and would have at least run Graham Taylor very close in the reckoning, had it not been for revelations regarding his personal life coming to light in 1987 when he was the manager of Tottenham.
Pleat started his managerial career at non-league Nuneaton, but first became well-known and revered for his time in charge at Luton from 1978 to 1986. It was during this period that he took the Hatters to promotion from the second division and gradually turned them into an established top-half top-flight club.
Jigging at Luton
His time at Luton is best epitomised by his famous jig across Manchester City’s Maine Road pitch when relegation was avoided on the last day of the 1982-83 season. Raddy Antic’s late winning goal consigned City to relegation instead of Luton in a thrilling winner-takes-all conclusion to the campaign.
Two years later, he would take Luton to within four minutes of the FA Cup final only to be deprived by a late Everton equalizer in the semi-final and a subsequent extra-time defeat. Given that Everton’s equalizer came from the trusted left foot of Kevin Sheedy who struck home a very dubiously given a free kick, it was a particularly difficult pill for Hatters supporters to swallow.
The following year saw defeat at the quarter-final stage when another lead, this time a two-goal one, was squandered against the same opponents, Everton.
By the summer of 1986, Pleat had been in charge at Luton for eight years and was beginning to get itchy feet. He had turned down overtures from ‘bigger’ clubs previously, stating he was happy at Luton but was now considering his options.
Moving On: White Hart Lane
He had got Luton promoted and become established in the top division, and had laid a good foundation for the club without taking them to the final step to actually win honours. When Tottenham dismissed Peter Shreeves that summer and approached Luton for his services, Pleat considered them seriously.
Pleat was torn, however. Undecided on whether to take the plunge, he took his time to weigh up his options before finally making the ‘heartbreaking’ decision. After a great deal of soul-searching, he ultimately came to the conclusion that he had gone as far as he could at Luton and so moved to White Hart Lane.
Spurs were a team with serious potential and talent but had lost their way the previous season, 1985-86, following a strong push for the title the year before that. There had also been UEFA and FA Cup wins in the early 1980s.
Their well-liked and respected manager, Keith Burkenshaw, had moved on after winning the aforementioned UEFA Cup in 1984, citing dissatisfaction with the commercialisation and business side of the club, and had been replaced by his assistant Peter Shreeves, who had led Spurs’ title charge in 1984-85 when they eventually finished third behind the two Merseyside clubs. Shreeves but had then overseen a poor follow-up season when a mid-table place finish was the best Spurs could manage.
In players such as Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Ray Clemence, Gary Mabbutt, and Graham Roberts, the nucleus of Tottenham’s UEFA Cup winning side was still in place when Pleat took over, and with players of the calibre of Chris Waddle, Clive Allen and also Mitchell Thomas, who followed Pleat from Luton, Spurs soon had a very attractive and promising side.
Pleat pioneered a 4-5-1 format he said he copied from the Belgium national team which reached the semi-final of the 1986 Mexico World Cup, with Clive Allen playing as the lone striker and Glenn Hoddle being given as close to a free role as he ever enjoyed as a player in England.
It was at this time that Chris Waddle, who recently spoke in an interview with Sportingbet about Tottenham and England, really began to shine as a player. Having stood out in a good Newcastle team marshalled by Kevin Keegan, Waddle signed for Spurs in 1985. However, it was under the tactical nous and acumen of David Pleat that he began to flourish and became a regular in the England squad.
The football played by Spurs under Pleat was both highly attractive and highly effective, and for a time Tottenham during the 1986-87 season were in contention for all three domestic trophies. And yet they ended up winning nothing.
In the league they once again finished third behind the two Merseyside clubs; the League Cup saw a semi-final bow out to bitter rivals Arsenal in a three-game classic; while the FA Cup final was an unlikely loss to an inspired Coventry side in another storming game.
Despite the double blow of ending the season empty-handed, and Hoddle finally deciding to take his talents overseas, the future looked bright for both Tottenham Hotspur and David Pleat.
Fall from grace
Then came the revelations about his personal life.
For a while, it looked like he would ride out the storm. He apologised for the distress and embarrassment caused to all, and Tottenham issued a statement supporting him. The new season started and it seemed it was back to business.
However, Spurs didn’t pick up where they had left off and started the season slowly. As autumn hit the island’s shores, David Pleat’s world came crashing down around him. More, almost identical, allegations and revelations became public knowledge and this time it spelt the end for Pleat at Spurs. He was dismissed and replaced by one Terry Venables.
Spurs and England: An opportunity lost?
It could be said that this was an opportunity lost, not only by Pleat himself but also by Tottenham and the English game in general. Had Pleat remained in charge at White Hart Lane until, say, 1990 and Italia ’90, there is a good chance that honours would have arrived at the Lane, perhaps even the title itself, and so the call for him to replace Robson may have proved irresistible.
The powers that be might have been persuaded that Graham Taylor, a man with an impressive number of promotions but no major trophies on his CV, was perhaps not the wisest of choices (although the FA’s refusal to seriously consider Howard Kendall at the time would seemingly dispute this).
Although David Pleat had never managed a club in Europe, or in European competition, he had a tactical awareness that was perhaps more suited to international competition, as could be seen in the manner of Tottenham’s football in that nearly-but-not-quite 1986-87 season.
Even Glenn Hoddle, who famously did not get on with Pleat either at that time or years later when Hoddle was the manager of Spurs and Pleat had returned as Director of Football, conceded that Pleat’s team was a great one to play in due to the tactics deployed.
The early nineties could have been so different for England had Pleat become England coach and his team shown the same flair and panache as that Tottenham team, but would that have happened?
Did England have the players in the Taylor period of 1990-93 to play anything other than the functional direct style preferred by the ex-Watford manager, or would Pleat have got more out of the players or, indeed, selected other players in the first place?
Following the World Cup in Italy in 1990, it is true that Graham Taylor was hampered by the retirements from international football of Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher and the advancing years of Bryan Robson. However, the majority of that squad that perhaps over-achieved by making the semi-final was still capable of playing international football for another few seasons at least.
It is also true Taylor was unlucky, but he didn’t help himself with his bizarre tactics or team selections on occasions, nor with the people he surrounded himself with, most famously, of course, Phil Neal and Lawrie McMemenemy.
Would things have been different had David Pleat been in a position to be appointed England manager in 1990? Would Pleat have preferred Alan Smith, then of Arsenal reserves, to Gary Lineker in 1992, for instance? Would he have steadfastly and stubbornly refused to pick Waddle or Beardsley during this period seemingly simply because the media was pressing for their inclusion, as Taylor appeared to do at times?
Would Pleat have instructed his England team, upon winning the toss for kick off, to play the ball back to midfield so it could then be pumped long and directly out of play as near to the opposition corner flag as possible?
In 1992 England failed dismally at the European Championships held in Sweden and failed to even qualify for the World Cup two years later. By the time Graham Taylor left the England job in the dying months of 1993, of course, David Pleat’s chances of ever becoming involved in the England set-up had long since disappeared.
Following his dismissal by Spurs he had a fairly long and fairly undistinguished spell in charge at Leicester City, then in the old second division, before returning to manage Luton, also back in the second division.
He once again was able to produce a Luton team known for skill and entertainment, and in 1994, while England were failing to qualify for that year’s World Cup, Pleat took them to a Wembley FA Cup semi-final and a meeting with his old sparring partner Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea.
That game was lost and soon Pleat moved on again, this time to Sheffield Wednesday.
Once again a David Pleat side was known for its attractive football, and under Pleat a top eight Premiership finish was secured – how Wednesday would love something similar these days- before Pleat was unceremoniously sacked following a bad start to the season in order to make way for the footballing whirlwind that is Ron Atkinson.
Pleat then returned to Tottenham in a variety of roles. These included consultant, Director of Football, and Caretaker manager on a couple of occasions. The most notable spell as caretaker was for three-quarters of a season after the sacking of his old mate Hoddle.
His last hands-on role in English football came at Nottingham Forest, where he spent close on five years employed as a ‘football consultant’. Tasked with advising a number of Forest managers, including Colin Calderwood and Billy Davies, Pleat seemed to wield a certain degree of responsibility in the identifying and recruiting of players.
Nowadays David Pleat is still in demand as a media pundit. As well as writing regular newspaper columns in which he analyses games tactically, he can still be heard commentating on live matches on television and radio, where his contributions invariably rise above the bland and inane ramblings of most of his contemporaries.
David Pleat has no doubt made a more than satisfactory living from his career in his chosen profession, but he must wonder sometimes how things could have turned out.
A bit like the aforementioned Mr Best, I guess.