The Lawnmower and the Teapot
Barry Fry discusses how to motivate players and how the world of management has changed
Barry Fry is one of English football's most recognisable characters. He's excitable and effervescent, controversial, noisy and ever so slightly unhinged. He'd be keen to remind you that he's also a bloody good football manager, having transformed Dunstable and Barnet, rescued Southend United from the drop and enjoyed ups and endured downs with Birmingham City before going on to manage and then own Peterborough United. In 2006, he sold the Posh to the property developer Darragh MacAnthony and has been the club's Director of Football ever since. Under Darren Ferguson, Peterborough are ticking over in the second flight and Fry now concentrates on identifying transfer targets and negotiating deals for incoming and outgoing players.
But what does he think of modern football? How has the game changed and what would he do differently if he had his time again? What are his philosophies? How does he operate? And is there ever a time when kicking a tray of tea out of Jeff Astle's hands is appropriate?
So…football management, Barry. You've been doing this since 1974, haven't you?
Yeah, that's right. I first become a manager at Dunstable in 1974; I actually lasted 31 years after that which is a miracle really. When I began I didn't have an assistant manager, I didn't have a goalkeeper coach, I didn't have a fitness coach or dieticians, you done it all yourself. You done training yourself, you put the nets up yourself, you cut the grass with a pair of scissors by yourself.
Yes… weren't you done by the police for riding your lawnmower across the Barnet pitch in the middle of the night?
Yeah, that was me! We had a game on Boxing Day and it was freezing cold on Christmas night. We had to get that game on because we were playing our local rivals and we always got the best gate of the season, so I was rolling the pitch and singing and then the police turned up and arrested me for being drunk and disorderly. When the ref come the next morning, he said, "Half the pitch is flat and playable and half the pitch is rutted and unplayable." I said, "I know mate, that's when the coppers fucking stopped me!"
Do you think it's easier to be a manager now? With Darren [Ferguson], for example, he's got you dealing with long-term transfer policy, he's got an owner who's engaged with the wider plan for the future. Is it easier just to deal with the coaching?
To be honest, yeah. The chairman, when he come in and bought the club off me, he obviously done due diligence and saw all the deals I'd done on the transfers and saw all the money we're still getting in two or three years on. So the one stipulation was that if he bought the club off me, I stayed as director of football and dealt with all the contracts regarding the players. And obviously every manager who's come in, he's said, not that Barry Fry picks the players, but if I've been to a game and I can recommend a player… I mean our best scout is our chairman, he's absolutely brilliant, he comes up with names that I haven't even heard of. I go watch them, I tell Darren, he sends scouts and we get 'em in like that. We don't fetch anyone into the club that the manager doesn't want to be fetched in. Really, I do what I'm told. The manager identifies the player who he wants and it's down to me and the chairman to get them, whether it's a million pound or a hundred grand. Likewise, when he doesn't want a player, it's my job to get rid of them.
That policy means that Darren meets the players and talks about football and I meet the agents and talk about finances. I used to deal with it all myself, I used to put in the bids, meet the agent, meet the player, and players want this, that and all the other and if I'm the one saying, nah you're not getting that, they can think it's a bit personal. It's not, it's all the budget allows you to do. This way, Darren can just concentrate on getting the team right on the Saturday and he hasn't got to have rows with the players and the agents.
Is he happy with that?
I'm not sure he's happy. I think Darren's the type of guy, he's like his dad, he wants to run the whole caboodle, from the youth all the way up. But it's so difficult just running the first team that the chairman wanted him to concentrate on that.
How much control does a manager have over the team and the players these days? In your era, you'd have almost absolute power, but is it harder to get through to them now?
If I used to threaten to fine a player a couple of weeks' wages, it would hurt him. It was a big deterrent and he'd toe the line. But at some clubs, you can fine players a fortnight's wages and it's a cup of tea to 'em. It's got out of hand that way. In my time, you had a bit of power, they was all on less money and they needed that money for their families, for the HP on their cars, for their rent. Now they're millionaires in their own right. I don't think I'd last five minutes in management now. They'd just tell me to fuck off.
So the mentality has changed that dramatically?
It has, it really has. We, the clubs, have got ourselves to blame. Everyone blames agents, but they want the best for their clients and if you've got two or three clubs in, you can play them off against each other. I do that when I'm selling and you can get more than the player's worth. Clubs have tried to compete against each other and the game itself has got into serious financial problems. I'm really very fearful that several clubs will go bust and it'll be like a house of cards and it'll be fucking 20 or 25 going under. We've been spending too much. Players' wages have been escalating to ridiculous proportions. Sometimes the wages are 120% of the club turnover, so you're relying on individuals to prop the finances up. While they might have done that in the past, now their businesses have taken a hit in the recession and they haven't got the spare cash to do that. That's why the Football League have brought in guidelines now, protecting League One and Two. I go to all the meetings of the chairmen and all the clubs want the league to make the rule so they can say to players, "I'd love to give you extra money, but the league won't let me." But in previous years, we should have had the bollocks to say, "No, no, no. You can't fucking have it, 'cos you'll bankrupt the club."
Is that the root of the change in player's mentality? They know their own value now?
I get players leaving me, we're in the Championship, we're not big players, but they're leaving us for League Two. I get the chairman of a League Two club saying, "How much are they on?" I tell him and he says, "Well, he's asked for twice that amount." I just can't see where the agents and players are coming from, particularly in this day and age. More and more players are out of work, not getting fixed up.
When you took over at a football club, what was the first thing you did?
Normally when you get a job, it's because the club is struggling. They could be at the bottom of the league, with no money, the players' confidence has gone and you have to deal with that. When I took over at Dunstable, they'd finished bottom of the league eight years on the trot. You have to get some belief around the place. My first gate was 34 people. I got George Best to play for us. I got some attractive pre-season friendlies. With a few months, I'd changed the mentality and people were coming to watch us. That year, we got a good side together, we scored 105 goals and we won the league.
Is that a priority at that level then, more so than, say, tactics? Getting a buzz around the club?
Yeah, buzz, team spirit, togetherness, a will to win together. We're all in the trenches, we're all helping each other. In them days, at Dunstable and then at Barnet, you trained Tuesday and Thursday, the lads come in straight from work, train and then we'd go in the clubhouse and have a beer together. We was a team on and off the field and the unbelievable success we had at Barnet, getting up, getting to the play-offs in our first year up, promotion the next season, it came from that. Nowadays, it's a bit more difficult to do that because you buy someone from Wales or Scotland or from a foreign country and they're all different. It's hard to get them all together. It was a lot easier in my day, you didn't have anything, you just did your best and hopefully if you picked the right players and got the best out of 'em, you'd win. It was wonderful.
But it must have been quite lonely? You walk into a dressing-room, you've got a room full of hairy bastards whom you don't know and you have to impose your will on them.
Yeah, it was frightening in a way, but I'm that sort of guy who's outgoing and loves football. I feel very lucky to be a part of football. I just think I took my enthusiasm into the dressing-room with me, with my players, and if you was good I'd praise you to heaven. I'd say you were amazing and you'd be playing for Man United and Real Madrid. If you was bad, I'd let you know you was bad. The thing was, I never fell out with anyone. I could have a right row with a player in the dressing-room and when he come in the bar afterwards, I was the first one to buy him a drink. I didn't bear grudges. Of all the players I've gone through over the years, I meet 'em now at functions, and I've sold some, I've upset some, but they all say they admired me because I was honest.
There must have been some scary moments though? When you're tearing strips off a six foot four centre-back, didn't you get worried?
Well, there was. I remember at Birmingham, bloody hell, I lost my rag a bit and had a go at Liam Daish. I bought him for fifty grand and sold him for £1.8m to Coventry, Daishy. He was my Captain Marvel. He'd head a Boeing 747 away, he was so strong. At half-time, I was laying into everyone, we weren't playing well, and I called Daishy a coward. Well, he got up and come over to me and I shit myself. He said, "What did you say?" Ha ha! So I ignored him and went on to someone else!
I remember big George Reilly at Barnet, he must have been six foot five and I come in and we had a big table in the middle of the dressing-room with all the tea on. I was so angry, I tipped up the table and this massive pot of hot tea went all over fucking George's foot and he screamed. He's took one stride from one side of the dressing-room to the other and looked at me from a great height and all I could squeak was, "Sorry, George!"
There was another time, again at Barnet, we was 3-0 down at half-time. I gave them a right bollocking and they went out second half and won 4-3. Magnificent performance. I was on the pitch at the end saying, "Well done, Ian, well done, Tom, well done, Dick, fucking marvellous. You, Codner, fucking empty shirt." And this is Robert Codner. He come up to me, face to face, he said, "What did you say?" I said, "You fucking empty shirt." And he went to headbutt me. But you know when someone draws their head back? I sort of jerked back myself and of course I fucking fell arse over tit in the mud. I got up, continued to say well done to the lads and then I went back in the dressing-room. I saw Robert, I said, "Robert?" He said, "What?" And I fucking give him a right-hander.
But we sat in the bath after and we had a right laugh about it. And then Stan come in, big Stan Flashman [Barnet's then-owner], and he said, "Barry, I want to see you." So I jumped out of the bath. "The FA are here, they was going to pick Robert for the England non-league squad, but I've seen what he done to you and I want him kicked out of the club." I said, "Fuck off, Stan. He didn't do nothing. I was abusing him, it was slippery and I fell over." He said, "It looked like he headbutted you." I said, "Look at my face! You'd know if he'd headbutted me."
I went to the FA afterward, I set them straight and they picked him. About six months later, we sold him to Brighton for £115,000. It just shows you how you can deal with things. If I'd made a fuss about that, we wouldn't have got that money, and that was a fucking lot of money in those days.
Do you still get that sort of thing now?
I never go in the dressing-room now, not since I was made director of football. I don't think Darren wants me hanging around, looking at his tactics.
Did you know instinctively when to shout at people and when to praise them?
Sometimes, you'd give people a bollocking and they'd vanish, they'd hide. You'd know for next time, that kind of player needs praise. Others you give a bollocking to, like Jeff Astle, and it works. Fuck me, I give Jeff Astle a bollocking once, he come in at half-time with the tea and we were 3-0 down. I kicked it out of his hands, told him to fuck off back out there. I told him he didn't deserve a fucking cup of tea. And we won that game 5-3, he scored a hat-trick. When he scored that third goal, he come running over to me, and gives me the v-sign and all that. He said afterwards, "Sorry, gaffer." I said, "No problem, I just wanted a reaction! But before we start next week's game, I'm going to kick you in the fucking bollocks!"
In your experience, was that kind of man-management more important than tactical dossiers and drilling the players?
I used to think so, yeah. We couldn't be that professional at the level I was at. When I started off, I was by myself, I only had the players to deal with. Although I had to be a bit aloof with them as I was the manager, I was their mate as well. But management is entirely different now.
Well, press-wise, in my later years I was dealing with three TV stations, four or five radio stations, the whole written press, the weekly papers, the nationals and it was every day you were having interviews. The press become a big, big thing. It took half your day, every day.
Did the mentality of journalists change?
When I first started, journalists used to come on the team coach with us. If anything happened, it was kept quiet. You treated 'em like one of yours, you give 'em all the facilities, all the interviews and they respected that if there was a fight on the bus, they didn't report it. Now, you've only got to spit, fart or fucking giggle and it's on the front pages. Times have changed. But I've loved my time in football, I've spent my life in there. I'm 68 this year, I'm fat and happy and I'm still here. There ain't many of us left!
Are you… erm… quite surprised that you are still here? I mean, you've had two heart attacks.
I've had two heart attacks, two hip replacements, two knee replacements and my dick's fell off, but apart from that I'm happy as Larry. I must admit, my heart attacks were when I was still young, so I didn't expect to still be here at this age. People told me, people who weren't involved in football, that I had to be careful of the stress, but you keep going. They told me I should get out of it. But I decided early on that it was something I enjoyed and that I loved and if they carried me out in a box, well, that's the way I'd want to go anyway.
Did you have to manage your stress levels differently?
Nah, I was told to, but I've been on four tablets a day for 20-odd years now. I take them, I have check-ups regularly and I'm fine.
You sound like you're more machine than man.
Yeah! But I feel so lucky that I'm still in a job that I love. Football's been good to me. I almost lost everything trying to keep Peterborough afloat. That was a mistake. Well, it wasn't a mistake. I got out of jail in the end. But I jeopardised my family's future. I've got a lovely wife, how the hell she's put up with me for 35 years, I don't know. To put them in jeopardy for football was a bit wrong.
Would you do it all again?
Without a doubt. I might do it a bit differently. I used to have a go at all my chairmen when they wouldn't back me, when I needed extra players. Since I become an owner, I've phoned up all of my old owners and apologised for my behaviour. I, like them, have asked my managers, "Where do you think the fucking money comes from?" There's only so many second mortgages I can take out. But no, I wouldn't change a thing.