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Stylish central defender who was converted to sweeper for England is taking his first steps in management with Southport

The Brian Viner interview

The Maracana, the Nou Camp, the Bernabeu, the San Siro, Haig Avenue, what hallowed temples they are. Just think of the deities who have illuminated them… Pele, Maradona, Figo, Rivaldo, Ronaldo, Eric Redrobe. Especially Eric Redrobe.

Southport were my first footballing love, rather cuckolded over the years by mighty Everton 17 miles down the A565, and yet one can never turn one’s back completely on one’s first love. Bury v Southport at Gigg Lane, circa 1971. That was a momentous rite of passage, my first away match. Can’t remember the result. Can remember my yellow-and-blue scarf flapping from the car window all the way along the East Lancs Road.

And I can certainly remember the players… Eric Redrobe, Jim Fryatt, Andy Provan, names to conjure with still. When the Brick End chanted “Give us an A, give us an N…” and so on to the end of Andy Provan’s name, I almost fainted with pleasure. Provan was my favourite player, a little inside-forward with fiendish dribbling skills, although not fiendish enough, it strikes me now with a dull thud, to play outside the old Fourth Division.

At the time, I revered him. And the idea that you could be nine years old and lend your unbroken voice to a chant led by men aged maybe 18 or more… oh, what heady stuff that was, more intoxicating even than a Vimto milkshake from Salt’s Embassy Restaurant.

I derived huge delight, too, from oddments of trivia. Hey, did you know that Jim Fryatt, our centre-forward who looked like Lurch, scored the quickest goal ever in league football, barely four seconds after kick-off, though sadly not for Southport? Bizarrely, the golfer Ed Fryatt, who is quite a whizz on the US Tour, is said to be Big Jim’s son. How did that happen? And here’s some more trivia. Tony Field, another darling of the Brick End, later joined New York Cosmos at the same time as Pele. Imagine the dressing-room introductions. “Hi, didn’t you used to play for Brazil?” “Yeah. Weren’t you at Haig Avenue for a while?”

So here I am, back where it all started, this fierce passion of mine, for the first time in more than 20 years. Here to meet Mark Wright, once of Liverpool and England, but far more importantly, manager of Southport for the past 12 months almost to the day. He took over on 15 December 1999, with Southport a miserable 18th place in the Nationwide Conference. Now they stand third, with two games in hand over second-placed Rushden & Diamonds. Admittedly, Yeovil, the leaders, have a handsome lead, but even so, it doesn’t seem too fanciful to envisage Southport back in the league from which they were unceremoniously booted in 1978, and replaced by sodding Wigan.

Moreover, Yeovil and Rushden and five other Conference clubs are proper professional outfits. Southport are still part-timers, so their lofty position makes them officially the best part-time club in the country.

Wright’s shrewd signings include his old Liverpool team-mate Mike Marsh, who came from Jan Molby’s Kidderminster Harriers, and, from Carlisle United, the former Aston Villa defender and Southport native Shaun Teale. Meanwhile, Wright’s progress has been clocked by his first club, struggling Oxford United, who recently asked the Southport chairman, Charlie Clapham, for permission to approach him. Clapham refused. He knows that he’s on to a good thing.

The Good Thing keeps me waiting for half an hour but that’s OK, it gives me time to wander outside, to survey the Brick End and the Blowick End opposite, to gaze at the luscious Haig Avenue turf and think back to the glorious day in April 1973 when our wily, bold, brilliant manager, Jimmy Meadows (sacked a year later), masterminded the 1-1 draw against Hartlepool United which secured promotion to the Third Division. The all-important point came courtesy of a late equaliser from Alex Russell, a spectacular 25-yard free-kick, and after the final whistle I joined a euphoric pitch invasion, and … “excuse me, hello, hello, HELLO! Mark’s ready for you now”.

Disappointingly, Wright doesn’t seem remotely interested in these sparkling reminiscences. No, sorry, he’s never heard of Eric Redrobe or Jim Fryatt or Andy Provan or Alex Russell. He knows that Ronnie Moore was here for a while, though. Inwardly, I am scornful. Ronnie Moore? Who gives a toss about Ronnie Moore. I bet he doesn’t even realise that Peter Withe, later of Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and England, started his career with Southport (who rather myopically gave him a free transfer to Barrow)? “No, I didn’t know that. To be honest, I’m more interested in the future than the past.” Bloody heathen.

Still, as heathens go, he’s not a bad sort. A bit keen on clichés – “at the end of the day it’s pie in the sky,” he says, of my suggestion that his old club Liverpool might already be eyeing him as a future manager – but friendly and very talkative. I ask why he decided to take the plunge into management?

“It’s funny, when you’re a player you never really think you want to do it because they’re on the other side of the fence. I thought I might go into business or media, but the media becomes repetitious. I find you say the same things over and over.” Say the same things over and over? Over and over? I pretend to be offended, but he’s too busy talking. “My wife had made me get my coaching badges, probably because I was a pain in the rear end and she wanted me out of the way. I owe my wife a great debt. She’s been the strength behind my whole career. But also, my friends were saying I should have a go at management because I’d captained teams all my career, and then a friend of mine who scouts for Nigel Clough at Burton told me the Southport job was about to come up. I live on the Wirral so I wouldn’t have to move. And I was interviewed and I got it.”

Might he not have started a little higher up the managerial ladder? “I don’t think so. I think I’ve done it the right way. You need a grounding. It’s like being a lawyer. If you go in as a junior clerk or whatever, and the next day you’re asked to fight a case against a serial killer, you can’t do it. There are some who socialise with directors as a way of getting into a bigger club, but I’m my own man. And I didn’t want to be an assistant somewhere. That’s not what it’s about for me. That way, you’re always thought of as an assistant.”

All the same, Wright is not too proud to sound out some former mentors when he needs help. “I speak to Arthur Cox regularly,” he says. “He was brilliant for me at Derby County. And I go to watch other training sessions. I went to watch Don Howe, who works with the kids at Arsenal. Don’s probably the best coach I’ve ever seen. I loved the way he did it, the way he motivates, how he explains it, his dedication, his passion. But at the end of the day I have to face the problems here myself, and it’s already been an unbelievable learning curve. We only train twice a week, and the players are coming in from other jobs which tire them out. Our centre-forward lays cables. We’ve got building society managers, hospital physios who are on their feet all day. What I really want is to take this club on to a professional footing.

“But I love the problems, all the same. In fact success becomes a problem, because the better you do the more the vultures come and try to take your players. I try to hang on to them, however much money is offered. Because unlike some of the other clubs in this league, we don’t have money to throw around. I managed to bring in five players for just the £10,000 we paid for Mike Marsh. But Rushden recently paid Morecambe £180,000 for a centre-forward. That’s ludicrous in this league. Teams like Doncaster are paying their players up to £1,000 a week. We can’t live with that. I have to look at Third Division reserve sides if I want players. I argue with the chairman because I want more money, but I admire him. You can’t gamble to get out of this league because the gamble can backfire. I have learnt the value of money here.”

Haig Avenue, whatever we romantics might say, is a far, far cry from some of the grounds Wright graced as a composed, ball-playing central defender, not least Wembley. He won 45 England caps, and played a series of blinders during the 1990 World Cup, when Bobby Robson perspicaciously made him sweeper. But no, it does not frustrate him, he insists almost vehemently, to work with players only a fraction as good as he was. “No, no, no, it’s a challenge. I know I can’t improve them 100 per cent, but I can drop little seeds. And as long as they give their all nothing else bothers me. But I do itch to get out there, yes. Sometimes I join in with training and I’m fine running in straight lines. I’m still very fit. But if I throw myself around then I’m in bits the next day.”

Wright is still only 37, but a back injury eventually put paid to a career in which he served, with distinction, Oxford, Southampton, Derby County, Liverpool and, of course, England. He was Graeme Souness’s first and arguably most astute signing at Liverpool, but later fell out with Roy Evans – “no, Roy Evans fell out with me,” he corrects me – when Evans, accusing him of having an “attitude problem”, dropped him from the first-team squad.

There followed a long lay-off with an Achilles problem, and the bleakest period of Wright’s career. That he bounced back was partly down to his good friend Gerry Marsden, of Pacemakers fame. “He told me to stop feeling sorry for myself, pointed out that my sons would be proud to go to Anfield to watch their dad play for the team again.”

Wright forced his way back into the manager’s good books, the Liverpool team, and in 1996 even earned an improbable international recall. Just two years later he was finally forced to quit, yet was not rewarded with a benefit game. This seems to be a source of some vexation.

“One minute you’re with Liverpool, next minute you’re gone. You’re a cog in the wheel. I think I was there for eight or nine years, and other players have had benefit games after seven or eight years. It would have been nice to go back and see the fans one more time instead of being booted out the door. I still have a big affection for the fans, and for the club, too, even though it’s mostly foreigners now. I don’t agree with the number of foreigners playing here. There should only be three or four permitted in a team at any one time, otherwise what’s it about?” What indeed. So who, I wonder, is the most foreignplayer on the Southport books? “Noureddine Maamria. He’s a Tunisian, but we got him from Doncaster.”

According to Haydn Preece, who follows the team for the local paper, the venerable Southport Visiter, Wright “is doing a fantastic job. His assistant is Ted McMinn, who used to play for Rangers and Derby County. And when they leave I’m sure they’ll stay together, like Martin O’Neill and John Robertson have. I really think Wrighty could be as successful as Martin O’Neill.” It certainly seems possible, the way things are going. But never mind that. I have a more important matter to bring up with Preece. Whatever happened to the blessed Andy Provan? “Andy Provan? He’s a psychiatric nurse in Torquay.”