After winning League One you would think that Mike Newell would be over the moon. As Neil Rose finds out, the Luton manager is still his old, dour self
It feels strange to come over all protective about your team’s manager, but that is how I feel about Mike Newell. Here is a decent and honest man who has found himself at the centre of a bewildering furore. Publicly he’s bullish and holding up well enough, but I would still like to give him a hug and tell him everything will be all right.
Newell does not necessarily look a passionate man. During the epic FA Cup match against Liverpool in January, Lineker, Hansen and Wright giggled away at replays of the besuited Luton boss in characteristic pose, leaning impassively against the dugout, left eyebrow slightly arched, as his side went 3-1 up. He has been described as looking like 007 waiting for a bus. But passionate Newell most certainly is. He is passionate about referees – for turning football into a “non-contact sport” – he is passionate about agents, but more than anything, he is simply passionate about football and that is why he spoke out.
Few of his comments were news to Luton fans, except his revelation about being offered bungs, and that apparently only came out because he was asked a straight question at the launch of Coca-Cola’s “Win a player” competition. Being the man he is, he provided a straight answer, never expecting the headlines.
It may also be that a proper question came as something of a shock; his usual dour interviewer on local BBC radio prefers to make a statement – “And then Steve Howard scored” – and expects Newell to come back with more than “Yes, he did”. You can tell it drives the poor guy bonkers.
Agents are even more frustrating. He never had one during a career that spanned 14 teams and now, as manager of a club with minimal resources, the complication and cost they bring to the transfer process can be the difference between a signing and one that got away. Just don’t get him started on the role of agents in simply renegotiating contracts.
The criticism thrown his way is patently unfair, not least the idea that he has made all this up. Newell has nothing to gain and much to lose, not least if the preposterous suggestion of a disrepute charge comes to fruition (and which of us would put that past the FA?). He must provide documented evidence, demand holier-than-thou agents, safe in the knowledge that it is not exactly common practice to offer illegal payments in writing or carry around a tape recorder on the off-chance.
Newell is an interesting character. A Liverpool nut who was released after spending his schoolboy years at Anfield (and was in Istanbul last May), he models his managerial style closely on that of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. And a manager is what he is, leaving the coaching to the coaches on the basis that there’s not much point having them otherwise. He only speaks to the squad as a whole on match days to ensure they do not get bored of listening to him, and believes that players switch off if they are being constantly bellowed at from the touchline.
To him, a lifetime in the game is qualification enough for his job. There he was on the prestigious applied football management course at Warwick University when they began studying an imaginary club in administration – at the time, Luton were in real administration. Another thing that annoys him is the “promising young manager” tag. Now 41, he has been in the game for more than 25 years.
What he has achieved in less than three years at Luton must not be underestimated, especially given the desperately unpromising beginnings of the ludicrous “manager idol” poll that got him the job at a time when everyone wanted Joe Kinnear back. He seems to treat his players as adults and that partly explains why a team of no stars has achieved so much more than the sum of its parts – last season’s League One title was just the fourth in the club’s 120-year history. At their best, which pleasingly the nation got to see against Liverpool, Luton play a high-tempo passing game that overwhelms many teams.
There is an upside to the past few weeks. Newell has been linked with any number of jobs – it does not help that he has so many former clubs, or that his family live in Southport – and Luton fans have every reason to fear that when this ambitious man moves on, the club’s fortunes will wane. His uncompromising stance over agents may put off a few potential employers and, if it extends his time at Kenilworth Road, that will do very nicely.
From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month