Birm­ing­ham boss Gary Rowett says John Beck helped shape his destiny

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

SOGGY balls, sanded cor­ners, blast fur­nace heat­ing – Gary Rowett can’t help but laugh when he re­calls John Beck’s Machi­avel­lian tac­tics at Cam­bridge United.

“Some of the stuff that went on was ab­so­lutely mad,” chuck­les the Birm­ing­ham boss, part of the leg­endary U’s side that surged from the foot of Divi­sion Four to the cusp of the Pre­mier League on the back of Beck’s unique ap­proach to man­age­ment.

“I re­mem­ber one sea­son, John got a load of us to paint the vis­i­tors’ dress­ing room pink. And it was my job to soak the warm-up balls in cold wa­ter for the other team to kick about be­fore the match.

“Then I’d get sent in to turn the heat­ing right up in the away dress­ing room, sup­pos­edly to make them feel lethar­gic so that we’d have an ad­van­tage. Crazy – and that was just the half of it.”

At the time, Rowett sim­ply as­sumed his gaffer had a screw loose. Now, though, he has come to re­alise that Beck – whose shame­less devo­tion to brute force and long-ball has gone down in in­famy – was in­still­ing the virtues that al­lowed the likes of Dion Dublin, Steve Claridge and him­self to forge suc­cess­ful ca­reers at the sum­mit of the game.

“I was talk­ing about this with Mark Sale, my first-team coach,” ex­plains Rowett, who left the Abbey to join Ever­ton in 1994 and sub­se­quently played for Derby, Birm­ing­ham and Le­ices­ter.

“He played un­der John at Cam­bridge and Pre­ston. We look back at those times and, as crazy as it was, we’ve both taken a hell of a lot from Becky.

“That team had no money, no real his­tory. Yet we went from a League Two side to a Cham­pi­onship side, to be­ing top af­ter 20 games. We were that close to go­ing straight through ev­ery divi­sion con­sec­u­tively, which no club has ever done. It was an amaz­ing achieve­ment.

“I know what peo­ple say about John’s phi­los­o­phy. And yes, he did like a di­rect game. But it was largely based on statis­tics, which is in­ter­est­ing now, isn’t it?“I saw Lee Philpott the other day, a great winger who is now an agent. We were go­ing through the Cam­bridge team and we re­alised that al­most ev­ery one of us had played in or around the Pre­mier League.

“Of course, you can look at that two ways. One, that John was for­tu­nate to have a very good group who were bet­ter than their level.Two, that his coach­ing max­imised our abil­ity.

“One thing is cer­tain, though. Any­one who was at Cam­bridge will look back and re­spect what he gave us in terms of ethics and stan­dards. John taught us the value of work, of to­geth­er­ness, of be­ing a team. It got us all a long way.”

Those lessons are still be­ing put into prac­tice.Writ­ten off as rel­e­ga­tion fod­der when Rowett ar­rived from Bur­ton a year ago, the Blues re­cov­ered to fin­ish tenth and, pre-week­end, are be­ly­ing their cash-strapped sta­tus by sit­ting fourth in the Cham­pi­onship.

Lis­ten­ing to Rowett ex­plain why, it is im­pos­si­ble not to draw par­al­lels with his for­ma­tive years at the Abbey.


“If we had money to spend, I’d spend it,” he says.“It’s the eas­i­est way to get pro­moted. But we’re not in that po­si­tion so we have to do some­thing else. That means be­ing the fittest, strong­est, most ag­gres­sive team on the day.

“Hav­ing a big squad is great but when re­sults go wrong, it’s very easy to change three or four peo­ple ev­ery game. We haven’t got that op­tion. We’ve got to stick with the play­ers, back them when they make mis­takes.

“That builds be­lief and trust and all play­ers feed off that. If you’re ask­ing me why we are where we are, I’d say that is the most im­por­tant thing.” Rowett, now 41, al­ways wanted to coach. As a young­ster, he would note down ev­ery stunt Beck pulled. “I had to stop, though,” he laughs. “The book was too full!”

And when a cat­a­strophic knee in­jury ef­fec­tively ended his ca­reer shortly af­ter a move to Charl­ton in 2002, the de­fender re­alised it was time to con­tem­plate a life away from the pitch.

“I’d al­ways had an in­ter­est in the tac­ti­cal side of foot­ball,” says Rowett, who re­tired from the pro game aged just 30 and sub­se­quently played part-time for Bur­ton.

“In the way teams work, in the dy­nam­ics of a dress­ing room. I’d al­ways ques­tion things. What crys­talised it was be­ing in­jured for the best part of two years.

“Hav­ing an op­er­a­tion, sit­ting around, spend­ing a lot of time think­ing. I ended up talk­ing to a lot of staff.

In­jury forces you to think ‘What am I go­ing to do next? What if I don’t re­cover?’”

One op­tion swiftly ruled out was the pri­son ser­vice, em­ployer of his dad, brother and un­cle.

“No chance,” he in­sists. “My dad and my brother have got a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity to me. They’re maybe made of tougher stuff, which you need to be be­cause it’s not an easy job.

“For me, it was al­ways sport. If I hadn’t been a foot­baller, I’d have been some­thing else in sport or ath­let­ics. I knew I wanted to stay in the game.”

It is, though, a very dif­fer­ent game to the one he grew up in. Gone are the boozy nights out, boot boys and shady tac­tics. Gone too, the days when a man­ager was a tyrant backed up by his dress­ing room lieu­tenants. “That was the way it worked then,” he ad­mits. “The older pros man­aged the younger ones.You kind of got bul­lied into mak­ing sure you did things prop­erly. That was the stan­dard, in foot­ball and so­ci­ety – you grew up fast or you didn’t sur­vive.

“I re­mem­ber at Cam­bridge, you’d go and speak to the man­ager maybe

twice a year. It was a pretty ex­cep­tional thing. Nowa­days, play­ers com­plain if you don’t speak to them twice a week – they’ll think they’ve done some­thing wrong!


“It is very dif­fer­ent. Once you just told play­ers what to do. Now, you have to un­der­stand what they need. It’s al­most a hu­man sci­ence.”

But one player who doesn’t need much nur­tur­ing is winger De­marai Gray, the 19-year-old star­let who turned down a host of of­fers to sign a three-year deal at St An­drews in the sum­mer.

“De­marai’s a re­ally hum­ble lad,” says Rowett. “He wants to learn, he wants to work. He chose to stay at our club – at least in the short-term – be­cause he recog­nises he needs games to be­come a bet­ter player. Straight­away, that tells you he’s got his head screwed on.

“Sec­ondary to that, he’s got out­stand­ing tal­ent and great phys­i­cal at­tributes.

“He’s a re­ally ex­cit­ing prospect and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll play in the Pre­mier League one day. I’d like to think that will be with us.”

So can Birm­ing­ham re­ally turn a fairy­tale – and thor­oughly un­ex­pected – start into a gen­uine push for pro­mo­tion? Can Rowett suc­ceed where Beck failed?

“I’m not ar­ro­gant enough to sit here and say ‘We can fin­ish top four’. But, at the same time, I don’t see the point in your goal be­ing mid-ta­ble. That’s a lack of am­bi­tion.

“The fact is, if you take our 32 games from last sea­son and ex­trap­o­late our points over a 46-game sea­son, we’d have been in or around the play-offs.

“So that was the aim re­ally – to go out and hit that level again. So far, we have.”

DARK ARTS: Former Cam­bridge United boss John Beck

PIC­TURES: Ac­tion Images

MAK­ING HIS POINT: Blues boss Gary Rowett is­sues in­struc­tions and, in­set top, in ac­tion for Birm­ing­ham. In­set bot­tom, Ta­lented winger De­marai Gray

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