Nice one, Sirrel

Al Needham remembers Jimmy Sirrel, Nottingham’s second most famous football manager, who died last month

It’s very easy to see Jimmy Sirrel, who died on September 25 at the age of 86, as someone who worked in the shadow of Brian Clough; a decent enough manager who did his best with extremely limited resources, but could only look on while his neighbour on the other side of the Trent took the glory. That is not the case at all. Sirrel was just as important to the ’Pies as Clough was to the Garibaldis.

Notts County had already settled into their role as the stoic, unfashionable club in Nottingham by the time Sirrel arrived in 1969 (and you have to wonder if even someone like Clough could have changed that), and his general demeanour was obviously not going to turn it around. Jimmy was incredibly old-school even for the late Sixties, like a Scottish manager from theTiger who lived in a rumpled tracksuit and constantly gave Nipper Lawrence a hard time for frequenting boutiques and messing about with dolly birds. And it cannot be denied that yes, he looked like Ken Dodd’s dad, and brandished an amazingly ­impenetrable accent, making every Match of the Day or Star Soccer appearance a bewildering and slightly terrifying experience for the younger local viewer.

Because here’s the thing: when Sirrel took over, the idea of Notts being on either programme was a laughable proposition. At the start of his first season, they were rock bottom in Division Four. By the end of his first full season, they were promoted. Two seasons later, they went up again. And by 1981 (after his two-­season hiatus as manager of Sheffield United, where he designed a club badge that still exists today), they were in the top division for the first time in more than half a century and began that season by winning away at reigning champions Aston Villa. Sirrel then kept Notts up for three years before handing over to Howard Wilkinson. You do something like that in any other ­British city and in any other era, and you get people naming their daughters after you.

Sadly, the comfortable easing into retirement at the top didn’t happen for Jimmy. Like Clough, he stayed on for too long. Unlike Clough, it wasn’t of his own choosing; a disastrous transfer of power to a clearly out-of-his-depth Larry Lloyd saw Notts suffer two consecutive relegations. Sirrel stepped down after returning for a further two seasons, to steady the ship while the club were heavily in debt.

Nottingham should really be too small a place to develop two footballing cults of personality simultaneously, but Jimmy Sirrel managed it by being all things to all people. To the players, he was an endlessly enigmatic figure; someone who every­one in the squad could do an impression of and be sometimes appalled by, particularly when he would lick the top of the sauce bottle clean during team dinners. However he was able to push that squad into beating teams they had no right being on the same pitch as – knocking Leeds out of the FA Cup was a highlight, but even that paled besides ­finishing above Forest in Division Two.

To the media, he could be a pain in the arse. When a journalist asked him at a press conference if he was going to fine a player who’d been sent off, Jimmy said: “It’s none of your fuckin’ business.” As Duncan Hamilton pointed out in Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, his standard response to local journos trying to wheedle a quote out of him by pointing out the fans needed to know was “Fuck the fans”. Bit of a strange thing to say, seeing as he obviously loved the club and their supporters as much as they loved him, but it goes a long way towards explaining Sir Alex Ferguson’s fulsome tribute to him after he died.

More importantly, to Notts fans, he was the club, and he never really left. That’s not florid hyperbole – he used to come in from his home village Burton Joyce on a regular basis to use the team bath. Not so long ago, he fell asleep after having a shave, not realising that he had nicked his neck, and a youth-team player saw the ring of blood around his neck and ran into the office screaming: “Oh my God! Jimmy’s dead!”

Alas, he really is now, and the book can finally be closed on the golden age of ­Nottingham football. The Clough statue is about to go up in town, and some Notts fans are demanding that Sirrel deserves the same. And maybe he does.

From WSC 261 November 2008