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Big Interview: Peter Davenport (LEP)

Published Date: 27 February 2007
By Tony Dewhurst
There is a genuine quality about Southport’s new manager Peter Davenport.

He is knowledgeable about the game without being self-assertive or boastful.

He is the kind of modern manager the Conference should be employing to promote the many virtues of the game, while at the same time, helping to disprove the growing theory that football is being run by a gang of half-wits.

Davenport, in fact, cannot remember a time when he wanted to be anything other than a footballer, and then a manager.

Indeed, he holds a CV boasting an England cap, a Wembley FA Cup final appearance and a club career that took in spells with Nottingham
Forest, Manchester United, Middlesbrough and Sunderland.

But for now, the 45-year-old is looking no higher than 20th place in the Conference as he bids to salvage a campaign that is collapsing around his team.

That, however, did not deter Davenport when the chance came last month to return to a club where he had played a decade ago. Certainly, avoiding relegation would represent a successful start to Davenport’s reign at Haig Avenue.

He said: “I worked under Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson and had a fantastically enjoyable career, a total privilege really.

“However, keeping Southport in the Conference would top all that.

“I wore the famous red of Nottingham Forest and Manchester United, and I was lucky enough to play for England, but on a personal level it would represent my proudest moment in football if I kept Southport up.

“I’ve got a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, but it is a
fantastic opportunity.

“Southport is the premier team outside the Football League in the North West. It has the pedigree, a track record and a cracking set-up.

“I was fortunate to play for Southport before and I had a good rapport with the supporters then.

“I was sad when I left and I was always envious of the people who managed Southport after that because I knew it was a club with so much potential and it still is.”

Southport decided to turn to Davenport after calling time on Paul Cook’s disastrous six-month spell in charge, which ended four weeks ago with the Sandgrounders at the bottom of the table.

Having taken the decision last summer to go full-time for the first since dropping out of the Football League in 1978, Southport hoped for much better.

“The key to everything is keeping Southport alive in this league because anything else would be a major setback to our ambitions,” he added.

“If we went down, Southport might have to revert back to a part-time status again and that would be a significant step back.”

With four teams going down from the Conference for the first time this season, there is little margin for error.

Southport had won just five times in 29 starts ahead of today’s home fixture against fellow strugglers Altrincham.

“It will be a big task keeping Southport up, but the mindset must be win, win, win.

“I’ve found a really positive environment in the dressing room, but as soon as they go out on the pitch then there is a sense of anxiety.

“I can sense the fragile confidence within the team.

“But I need to get them to believe in themselves. That’s where we will start.

“For example, we were holding Morecambe 0-0 at Christie Park with a few minutes left, and the home crowd were giving us grief because the lads were taking the ball to the corner flag to slow the game up.

“The boys had put so much effort and commitment into that game, and I could sense through their body language that it was ‘Hey we can do this. We are competing again’.

“You need to have that incredible mental strength to survive, and right now I’m trying to instil that into them.”

In Davenport’s playing days for the club, Southport were a top-six side.

Since then then they have been down to Conference North and back and the Conference top-flight has become almost totally professional.

Davenport will also dip into his personal history in his bid to make Southport a successful long-term project, having learned his trade across the management spectrum.

The Conference is a league without limos, though.

He smiles when he recalls his England debut against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley in 1985.

“I was sitting five or six rows back at Wembley and didn’t have a good view of the game at all,” recalled Davenport.

“I was wondering whether I’d get on the field at all.

“Anyway, I eventually started warming up and Mark Hateley got injured.

“Bobby Robson, the England manager, turned to Don Howe and and said, ‘We better send on the boy Devonshire’, who was a midfield player.

“Don said to him, ‘Don’t you mean Davenport?’.

“I’ve got a video of the game and you can clearly lip-read Bobby getting my name wrong!

“Alan Devonshire was not even in the squad.

“But I came on and set up a goal for Gary Lineker, and that was nice.

“I just felt so incredibly proud, like I had reached the pinnacle really.

“My international future looked rosy. I had even been measured for my suit to go on the summer tour to Mexico, a trial run for the 1986 World Cup.

“Then I tore my hamstring at Ipswich the weekend after I played for England.

“I remember sat on the treatment table at the City Ground and Brian Clough walked in. A couple of minutes later, the telephone rang out and it was Bobby Robson.

“Brian said, ‘Now then young Robert, what can I do for you?’ – Cloughie did call everybody young man – ‘Sorry young Robert’, he said, ‘Mr Davenport has ripped his hamstring and he will not be fit for the tour’.

“By the time I got back other players like Peter Beardsley were emerging and that was my only opportunity.”

Not surprisingly, Brian Clough had a huge influence on Davenport, who made his Nottingham Forest debut in 1981, a year after Clough had guided the East Midlands club to a second European Cup
success against Hamburg.

Davenport was spotted by Forest scouts while playing for West Cheshire Boys, who were offered a new football kit in exchange for the teenager’s signature.

“Brian Clough was like a father-figure to me, and we’ll never see the like again will we?

“He took me under his wing and guided me. I always felt his influence throughout my career.

“In fact, you believed that anything was possible under Cloughie.

“He was a compelling and fascinating man, who was sometimes a complete contradiction.

“That was part of his magic, though, because he did have a special intuition, and he did command a deep respect.

“He would say something, and you’d think, ‘What’s all that about’ and then every word would come true a couple of weeks later.

“He won two European Cups and that managerial feat is unparalleled in the the last 50 years, I think.

“Nottingham Forest, a small club compared to Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, but Brian made them the kings of Europe.

“He was so passionate and desperately wanted you to do well, and subsequently you wanted to bust a gut for him.

“He kept it simple, though.

He never complicated football. We never had a tactical team-talk in the five years I played with Forest.

“It was 4-4-2 and everybody knew their jobs.

“I often think what he might have achieved at Manchester United, with their resources.

“It’s funny, when I was at Old Trafford, Martin Edwards, the chairman, was truly fascinated by Cloughie.

“He would always be quizzing me about him. How did he operate? What was he like to deal with?

“I’m sure it was at the back of his mind to go for Brian as Manchester United’s manager.

“But, like a lot of chairman, it was probably whether he could have handled Brian Clough in the boardroom.

“Even now, I try to think what Brian Clough would do in certain situations, but put it across in my own way, because there is no chance of copying Clough or Ferguson directly.

“My philosophy is to make sure that whatever you say improves a player’s outlook.

“That usually means being constructive rather than shouting for the sake of it.”

I ask him about Alex Ferguson. He had arrived from Aberdeen, where he had successfully broken the Old Firm’s stranglehold in Scotland.

“Ron Atkinson signed me but he was sacked after a few months and Alex Ferguson came in and I had two years under him.

“United finished second in the league in 1987/88 but still got slated because of what was happening 40 miles down the East Lancashire Road, with Liverpool and Everton winning everything in sight.

“Ferguson lost his first game in charge to Oxford, and he quickly realised teams were capable of matching and beating United.

“The national press were very anti-Manchester United and the team was vilified, which was mentally draining for a player.

“It took him seven seasons to win the championship and it doesn’t surprise me that he is still there, as hungry as ever.

“He always had that incredible drive, and an astonishing will to succeed.

“Alex Ferguson rebuilt the Manchester United dynasty, though.

“For me, I always found Clough the better manager.

“Clough was the original hairdryer, by the way. When Ferguson arrived, he needed a bigger hairdrier because of all the big hairdos about!

It is a busy afternoon for Davenport.

Martin Buchan – from the Professional Footballers’
association – calls, while the Southport manager receives more messages than a breakdown service as he bids to recruit extra staff ahead of the January transfer window.

“I was talking to Martin yesterday about the modern game, and we had an interesting conversation.

“I think a lot of what’s wrong with top-flight football could be changed for the better if players took more responsibility for their own careers.

“Nowadays a player gets dropped and he wants a transfer. I don’t understand it.

“It’s as if they have a divine right to play. They just walk away from the problem. It’s too easy.

“But, on the flip-side, if somebody is offering you £60,000 a week to play, you are not going to say, ‘No thanks’ are you? There are players in the Conference earning more money than my weekly wage at Manchester United 20 years ago.

“I think we are fast approaching the stage when we’ll have to look at a wage cap, and commercially it is another world.”

A third of Conference clubs have sacked their managers this term, with seven casualties coming in the bottom half of the table.

“Like modern life, though, football has adopted a quick-fix mentality. They want managers to be miracle workers and the huge turnover of managers reflects that.

“It is just synonymous with the way football is at the moment.

“But whatever happens, I will stick to the strong principles I learned under Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson.

“For me, there will be times when you have to give the players a bit, but sometimes you can go ranting on for so long that people just switch off.

“You can send out a strong, aggressive, firm message without shouting.”