BECK TO THE FUTURE
Birmingham boss Gary Rowett says John Beck helped shape his destiny
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
MAKING HIS POINT: Blues boss Gary Rowett issues instructions and, inset top, in action for Birmingham. Inset bottom, Talented winger Demarai Gray