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Brian McDermott On Arsenal, Reading & Leeds And The Reality Of Football Management

Brian McDermott On Arsenal, Reading & Leeds And The Reality Of Football Management

An interview with Brian McDermott, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your playing career at Arsenal as an apprentice in the late 1970s. What was it like for you to be in at Arsenal during that era? 

“I started at QPR and was let go then I was at Millwall on trial and they didn’t take me. I then had a similar trial at Arsenal and managed to scrape in as an apprentice.

“Seven people at the club were tasked with making the decision about signing me or not and four of them wanted me to sign and three didn’t. That is how close it was.

“After that, thankfully I did okay and I signed a professional contract with Arsenal at the age of 17 and made my first team debut at the same age in February 1979, against Bristol City.

“I was based in Slough and I did not want to move into digs because I was happy at home so each day was long with the travelling in and from training each day for me.

“I have to say that Arsenal are a top club with great values. I feel very fortunate and proud to have played for and worked for Arsenal off the field too.”

How do you reflect back on your playing career at Arsenal as a whole?

“I did not break into the team and play regularly like Paul Davis, for example, did. I played around 70 games for Arsenal and scored 13 goals within that time without ever being a first pick.

“I should have left earlier to get more first-team opportunities elsewhere in all honesty.

“I had a few loan spells away from Arsenal during that time too as I was never able to fully crack it at Arsenal by becoming a consistent figure in the team.

“I was a bit-part player over the piece, really, which is nothing to be ashamed of.”

One of the loan spells that you had away from Arsenal was to IFK Norrköping in Swedish football. What was your experience of playing abroad at a young age like? 

“When I went to Sweden I was the main player in the team, and, to be honest, I needed that.

“I flourished during my time with IFK Norrköping and ended up winning Player of the Year, which was nice.

“I scored five goals in 17 games and was playing with confidence. They wanted me to stay and I also had a few offers from other Swedish clubs which I should probably have taken in hindsight.

“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Sweden, however, my priority was to return to England because that is what I knew best.”

Upon returning to England, you went on to represent clubs such as Oxford United, Cardiff City, Exeter and Yeovil before you entered the world of coaching. Was a career in coaching on your mind during your playing career? 

“Not really, it just kind of happened that way. I got my first coaching badge at 28 because I thought I should get one just in case, but it was never part of a masterplan that I had.

“I ended up at Slough Town when I stopped playing and set up their football in the community programme.

“For two years I coached kids, and girl’s football was part of that too which was unique in the 1990s.

“We had a great uptake in that back then so it is wonderful to see how popular women’s football is now across the globe.

“I really enjoyed my role doing that until the opportunity to become the first team manager of Slough Town arose and I decided to take the opportunity.”

You managed Slough Town and Woking in non-League football before joining Reading initially as a scout and youth team coach. How much did you enjoy those roles?

“I really enjoyed working with Alan Pardew at the club before he left for West Ham United.

“Then, Steve Coppell came in and did a fantastic job at the club. He was great for me because he had belief in me and what I could offer.

“On his first day at the club, he brought me into his office and said, ‘I want you to stay with us and I want you to find me players.’

“It was as simple as that and that is what I strived to do. It was my dream job to be working on the recruitment side because I love the challenge of watching and finding players.

“I was also coaching the reserves at that time too. I worked with Nigel Gibbs who did most of the training to allow me to carry out my role as Chief Scout, which took me all over the world, but on a match day, I took the team. That kept my hand in on the coaching and managerial front.

“Steve is a great guy and I worked with Nick Hammond who was previously director of football at Celtic too.

“We won the Championship in 2006 with a record 106 points to reach the Premier League, which is remarkable considering we worked in the black and did not overspend or go into debt.

“The likes of Dave Kitson, Leroy Lita, Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Steve Sidwell and others were brought in who went on to be top players for Reading and also have good careers overall.

“Reading were a great club with fabulous people.”

Brendan Rodgers replaced Steve Coppell and things did not work out which led to you taking caretaker charge. Did you approach the role on a game-by-game basis or were you planning for the longer term?

“Brendan Rodgers is a top coach who has managed some of the biggest clubs in the UK with Liverpool and Celtic.

“However, he left and I was asked to take the team which I did.

“I always approached my managerial career on a game-by-game basis and when I was asked to step in, I was not looking for the job full-time.

“I knew all of the players as I had signed most of them so when I stepped up to manage the team, Nick Hammond continued to work hard on the recruitment side.

“Nigel Gibbs came in as my assistant and because I knew all of the staff at the club, it was a good fit.

“That being said, in my first three games, we drew two and got smashed by Plymouth.

“Then, the next game was Liverpool in the FA Cup which after two points from a possible nine was a daunting prospect.

“However, we drew 1-1 with Liverpool at home and then beat them in the replay at Anfield.

“I was offered the job after that but it was not officially announced until a few weeks later.

“Thankfully, we went on a good run in the league after a shaky start that saw me take two points from fifteen, albeit with FA Cup wins over Liverpool and Burnley, who were both Premier League sides, in between.

“We also reached the quarter-final of the cup that season which was a good achievement given where we were in the Championship at the time.”

You led Reading to the Play-Off final at Wembley in 2011 where the club lost out to Swansea and former manager Brendan Rodgers. Despite that disappointment, you rallied the players to go on and win the Championship title in 2012. Looking back, what was the key to that turnaround?  

“Funnily enough, I do a presentation on that season for the LMA now called: Losing, Winning, Mental Health and Finding Balance.

“It took great resilience to bounce back after losing a game as high profile as the Play-Off final.

“It was a poignant time for me as the manager of Reading because I honestly thought that we had blown our chance of returning to the Premier League.

“I could not let anyone else know that I was thinking that way or that I was struggling personally.

“So, we went through a kind of mourning period at the start of the next season by losing 5 of the first 7 games.

“In this current era, you would be sacked for that sort of form at the start of a season but I think patience was shown because I had taken the team to the final only a matter of months previously.

“We turned it around and the rest is history because we became a Premier League team again.

“It was a momentous journey that took a lot out of everyone at the club.”

What did it feel like to manage in the Premier League having started your managerial career in non-League football?

“It was surreal but the journey is possible. It happened for me and sometimes you need luck to be on your side.

“I was in the right place at the right time and with great staff and players around me, we had success at Reading.

“It is never easy to put that together but we did and we were a Premier League team again.

“The ownership of the club then changed during that time when Anton Zingarevich bought the club.

“Unfortunately, we did not have the finances that we thought we would have and I went from winning Premier League Manager of the Month in January 2013 to being sacked six weeks later in March 2013.

“That sums up the madness of football and what can sometimes can happen.

“Looking back, I am proud to have had the privilege of managing in the Premier League as not many people have the opportunity to do that in their careers.”

Brian McDermott Tony Pulis

West Bromwich Albion’s Welsh head coach Tony Pulis (L) and Reading’s manager Brian McDermott share a joke before the FA cup fifth round football match between Reading and West Bromwich Albion at Madejski Stadium in Reading on February 20, 2016. / AFP / BEN STANSALL

Your next job after Reading was Leeds United. Were you nervous about taking the job given the rate of managerial change that Leeds had at that time?

“It was not that, but I wanted to take over when the season had ended but due to the club’s form, I was asked to take over early in April to help the club avoid relegation.

“We won the first two games which secured our Championship status which was nice.

“I knew the history of Leeds when I went there. It is a juggernaut of a club.

“The fans are incredible and the atmosphere at Elland Road was always unbelievably strong.

“We started my first full season in charge by beating Brighton and at Christmas, we were in amongst the playoff teams.

“Then a change of ownership happened and the next three months were carnage at the club.

“I was sacked on the 31st of January on transfer deadline day, before reinstating me two days later. I could write a book on that time.

“Then, at the end of May, I went for good but I knew it was only a matter of time after the madness of late January.

“Despite that, I still have a lot of time for Leeds United and the fans. They gave me and the team their backing home and away.

“What [Marcelo] Bielsa did to take them back to the Premier League was incredible, and good luck to them.”

You returned to Arsenal after your time in charge at Leeds to work with Arsene Wenger. How did it feel to return to the club where you started your career?

“It was amazing. I worked under Steve Rowley who was the chief scout at the time and also Francis Cagiago who is now working at the Chilean FA.

“I had a wonderful time there, albeit a short time, as Reading came calling again, but it is a wonderful club.”

Finally, Brian, you left your second spell as Reading manager in 2017. Do you see yourself returning to management again or has that ship sailed as far as you are concerned?

“I went back to Reading for a second spell then returned to Arsenal again after that.

“During Covid, I left Arsenal due to staffing cuts and now I am doing my presentation to corporate clients and football clubs too.

“I believe that is important to highlight the mental health side of football and that is something that I am looking to do by speaking openly in my presentation about the reality of top-level management.

“I am also working on a mentoring programme with the LMA.

“I am doing plenty of stuff and I enjoy working. I want to do the best that I possibly can and I love football.

“I want to be around football but whether that leads to me returning to coaching or management, I am not sure. I would never say never, but I am enjoying what I am doing at this moment in time.”