When researching the life of Lawrie McMenemy, football player, coach and most famously manager, it was evident that the word ‘legend’ often accompanied his name.
So I found myself seated nervously in the lounge of a Hampshire hotel waiting for Mr. McMenemy to arrive. Nerves were completely unnecessary, as it turned out, for over the following two and a half hours I was treated to a fascinating and insightful glimpse into the realities of football from the perspective of both a coach and a manager, peppered with both pathos and humour. And I was made aware for the first time, I’m ashamed to say, of the Special Olympics UK of which Lawrie is the President.
Lawrie McMenemy came to Hampshire from his position as manager at Grimsby, where they had just won the league, to manage Southampton FC in 1973.
“Coming to manage Southampton was a great experience because of people like Ted Bates. I got so much support from the boardroom, the directors were wonderful. Even when Southampton were relegated the board simply said ‘sort it manager!’ They placed a lot of faith in me. Together Ted and I accumulated thirty years at Southampton. Back then Southampton didn’t have the money to spend on players, so we had to look for young talent to bring up alongside long established players – young legs and old heads I called it. I started the successful Saints Academy as a way of scouting and training youngsters through the schools. The board allowed me to open academies in Newcastle, London and Bristol and that produced players like Alan Shearer, Steve Williams and Gareth Bale.”
I wonder how Lawrie thinks football has changed and whether the excesses of money are ruining the beautiful game.
“TV coverage and the money that comes with it has made all the difference. You can’t blame the players; it’s a fantastic, glamorous career for the top players, who often earn millions. They all have agents and good people around them to ensure they get the best moves to other clubs.
I remember when I was manager at Grimsby the coach and I took the players down to the docks. There were the guys in the fish market grafting away in the cold calling the players fairies and the like. We sat around having tea and chatting with them and afterwards I said ‘never forget how lucky you are, those blokes work hard to afford to come and watch you play each week.’ Players need to be reminded to keep their feet on the ground. That team went on to win the league and never gave less than one hundred percent. It was good to see the Southampton players visiting a children’s hospital just last week. Football could do with more of that.
But there are many teams below the Premiership, small clubs with full time players who will earn a good living but by thirty-five realistically their careers could be nearly over. Contracts are usually for a year, not five, these days and often not renewed.
It’s tough for the players and their families, and indeed for managers, the press and television pundits can have a lot of sway. Imagine playing for Hartlepool and getting a new contract for a year in Plymouth for example. There would be some difficult decisions to be made around moving and children’s education etc. It can be very tough for both managers and players alike.
And yes, the TV. I travel around to watch football and meet people from all over the world who are well informed about English football because they can watch on television. Recently I was talking to a young couple from Thailand they knew who exactly who I was and all about Southampton winning the FA Cup. TV has made football global. This has affected the top teams too. Look at any Premiership club and the team will consist largely of foreign players, the game has changed.”
Ironically one of the biggest coups of Lawrie’s career was bringing an English player, Kevin Keegan, back from a German club. Lawrie laughs as he remembers.
”It all started with a new light that my builder wanted to put in my house, the problem was it had to come from Germany. I didn’t know Kevin that well but I thought it was worth a try; he was more than happy to pick one up for me. I have to say it had occurred to me that it would be incredible to bring him to Southampton. I did some research, not least checking with Liverpool FC that Kevin wasn’t contractually tied, but I was assured that he wouldn’t be going back to them. Kevin flew into London to play for England so we negotiated and he totally surprised me by signing a blank contract – he was coming to Southampton!
We managed to keep it a secret; absolutely no-one knew a thing about it. I gathered the press here”, Lawrie points to the adjacent room in the Potters Heron Hotel. ”Alan Ball was there; later he told me he thought it was his ‘This is your Life’! It was amazing. Kevin’s wife with their new baby came through the door followed by Kevin. No-one could believe that Southampton had signed Kevin Keegan! Later he said to me ‘sorry Lawrie I forgot your light!’ “
The other unforgettable moment of Lawrie McMenemys’ career at Southampton was beating Manchester United in the 1976 FA Cup.
“I remember when we qualified for the FA Cup final, I said on radio that if it had been in the North people would have been dancing in the streets if their club had qualified. A lady responded by saying ’Mr. McMenemy, here we don’t dance in the streets – we dance in our kitchens’. That’s the difference between North and South!”
But when we went on to win it was fantastic. The bus tour of the city the following day bringing the FA Cup home to Southampton was meant to take forty-five minutes but ended up taking over four hours! “
Lawrie may have retired from football management – although he does manage an inter-party Parliamentary team – but he is very active in his charity work and in particular as President and Special Ambassador for the Special Olympics UK.
The event was pioneered in 1968 in the USA by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of JK Kennedy, in the belief that the Olympic ideals give confidence to all people with learning disabilities and their carers. In 1978 Chris Maloney MBE founded the Special Olympics UK. The movement has four million athletes in over 170 countries with the UK having 10,000 athletes and 4,000 volunteers in over 140 clubs offering 26 individual and team sports.
“The Special Olympics attract huge crowds all over the world whether in Canada or China. The World Games are held every four years and the UK games in the intervening years. Sadly, little is known about it here, but things are changing and sponsorship and awareness are increasing helped by the fact that Sheffield are hosting the Special Olympics this year between 7 – 12 August. We are expecting 2,600 athletes from across the UK with 800 coaches, 750 volunteers and thousands of families and friends. Not only are the games so very important for people with learning disabilities, but by giving them an enormous sense of achievement it brings families together, forming life-long friendships and mutual support networks; it’s fantastic to see.”
Lawrie McMenemy clearly doesn’t really do retirement, “I don’t want to just sit on the sofa.” He is still very much immersed in football and the Special Olympics UK, and yet has found time to write his autobiography ‘A Lifetimes Obsession.’ As we say goodbye, Lawrie, ever the gentleman, goes off to pay for the coffee. And I’m in no doubt that I’ve spent a happy and interesting time in the company of a true legend.
A Lifetimes Obsession: My Autobiography.
Published by Sports Media
Special Olympics: sheffield2017.org.uk