Gary Bowyer: Clough, Keane and lessons in leadership
Written by Simon Austin — November 1, 2018
DESPITE a premature end, Gary Bowyer looks back on his two years at Blackpool with fondness. After all, they yielded his best memory as a manager.
In May 2017, the Seasiders beat Exeter 2-1 in the League Two play-off final and the 47-year-old tells TGG: “I’d had such fantastic experiences as a kid going to watch my dad at Wembley and it was always a burning ambition to lead my team out there as a manager.
“To have your family with you there and to win at Wembley is just brilliant.”
This is a theme that runs throughout our one-hour chat: the way in which the experiences and values of his father, the Nottingham Forest legend Ian ‘Bomber’ Bowyer, have influenced his own managerial career.
Growing up as the son of one of Forest's key players during the halcyon days of Brian Clough may have overwhelmed some kids, but not Bowyer. He loved every second.
“They were fantastic times, going into school and being really proud of who my dad was, which I still am,” he remembers.
"I used to love going to watch him play. At the end of the games, the children of the players would go and play in the empty concourse after everyone had cleared out.
“And there was this room at the City Ground that was put aside for all the wives and their families afterwards. They were just great times.”
At the centre of it all, of course, was Clough: the most famous - and probably the best - English manager of them all. From almost as far back as he can remember, Clough was a major part of Bowyer’s life - and still is to this day.
“There’s a story my mum likes to tell,” he says. “My dad had scored the winner in the semi-final against Cologne on the Wednesday night and been dropped for the league game on the Saturday.
“We went with all the other families to a club do a few days later. I was about seven years old and, so the story goes, went up to Brian Clough and said, ‘Why did you drop me dad?’ My mum and dad’s faces dropped, but he laughed.”
Lessons from the great man seeped into Bowyer’s subconscious and stayed there.
“Brian Clough was way ahead of his time. In management, there are scenarios and situations in which I think ‘I know where I got that from’. Little things that make a big difference, like sending flowers to the wives of the staff. I always remember my mum receiving a bunch of flowers on her birthday and it was Brian Clough who made sure that happened.”
So this was something Bowyer did too as a manager, at Blackburn Rovers, from May 2013 to November 2015, and at Blackpool, from June 2016 to August 2018.
“I did that with my own staff, just to say thank you at the end of the season. We take a lot of the staff’s time away from their families, so it's a little bit of recognition.
“It’s how you try and treat people. We used to take everyone out, so the girls on reception or in the laundry were mixing with the players in a social environment. The impact on that back at work is massive.
“These were lessons learned from Brian Clough: how he made you feel and what you were prepared to do for him.”
Before management, Bowyer had eight years as a professional player. It wasn’t easy following in the footsteps of such an illustrious father.
They actually played together for a brief spell at Hereford United, when Bowyer was the youngest member of the team and his dad was player-coach.
He can still remember getting the call to make his debut, while he was in the office working for Swinton Insurance.
GARY BOWYER ON... the MSD course at MMU
GB: "I combined my two years at Blackpool with the MSD course, which was tough, but the experiences have been phenomenal. It’s a great course, I’d fully recommend it.
"I was rubbing shoulders with people from rugby union, rugby league, Karen Bardsley from Man City ladies and CEOs from other sports. The course has allowed me to go to different sporting organisations and businesses and see how they operate, from top to bottom.
"It helped me in my role at Blackpool and I have no doubt that it will help me again in the future. The Sporting Director role is here to stay.
"The most important thing is having your manager fresh and full of energy and having someone in that, taking away everything he doesn’t need to be involved in day-to-day, is brilliant."
“He said, ’You’d better ask if you can have Saturday afternoon off, because we’re short’,” Bowyer remembers. “That was my debut and that’s where it took off. We were 3-1 down to Scunthorpe away and I scored the equaliser in the final minute with an overhead kick, my first ever league goal.
“I was absolutely buzzing and the lads were buzzing and dad came in and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re laughing about - it was your fault for the first goal.’”
A year later, another memorable phone call.
“'See if you can get the afternoon off, we’re going to Nottingham.’ ‘Oh, right.’ It wasn’t until we were about 40 minutes away that he said, ‘right, we’re going to meet Brian Clough.’ ‘What?!’ So we meet at the Sandiacre Posthouse and have a chat and it was just brilliant.
“I was in awe of the man anyway and for him to say ‘come and join our club’ was just fantastic.”
Bowyer soon moved into a house the club put aside for its young pros, alongside a young Irishman called Roy Keane.
“They were good, happy times and you just look back and feel fortunate for the memories. We were 18, 19 years old, trying to make our way in the game. Roy made his debut as a 19-year-old at Liverpool away and never looked back.
“You have to take your hat off and say what a genius Brian Clough was for being able to identify that someone was capable of doing that. And Roy just went from strength to strength and became a world-class player. I saw something stupid on Twitter the other day, ‘was Roy Keane that good?’
“Anyone watching the game could see he was phenomenal. He was such a competitive person, on and off the pitch, but good fun, with a dry sense of humour and I have nothing but praise for him.
“Roy’s a winner and wants the best. He’s just straight. You want an honest answer, he’ll give you one. I love him, I think he’s brilliant. We still exchange the odd text and when I was sacked by Blackburn, Roy got in touch and we met up and had a coffee.
“He does it for the right reasons, not to get it published in the newspaper. That’s what I see from a lot of people nowadays – the self publicists.”
While Keane was still climbing the heights with Manchester United, Bowyer’s own career was ended prematurely by injury.
“I’d had a lot of trouble with my hamstrings and ended up having an injection into the disc in my back. That got infected and I was on antibiotics for three months.
“I was taking painkillers just to train; it was agony. The doctor said I had to give up for the sake of my long-term health. Back in those days, once you were out of the game, you were out of the game. I was just fortunate to have good family and friends to keep me going, because otherwise you don’t know. It was a horrible feeling to have to give up all you’ve ever known.
“Eventually I got to the point where I said, ‘Right, this is what you’ve been dealt. What are you going to do now?’”
Coaching: the next best thing to playing. After stints working with Nottingham inner city schools and with Derby County’s community and youth teams, another memorable call, this time from Bobby Downes, Blackburn Academy manager.
“We’ve got a position available, Gary. Do you want to come and have a chat?”
For nine years, Bowyer rose up through the ranks, before the chance of the top job came, in May 2013. The club was in turmoil, with the fans in revolt against the widely reviled owners, the Venky’s.
Five managers had been in place during the season (including a caretaker stint for Bowyer) and the club had avoided relegation by just four points. When he took over, Bowyer had three main objectives:
One: “To come out of the limelight and control the controllables – the training and the football.”
Two: “For everyone, the staff and the players, to enjoy coming into work.”
Three: “To recruit good young hungry players who want to improve and reach the highest level they can. Not the ones who want to come and retire at your club and have become cynical about the game.”
On Bowyer's watch, Blackburn Rovers managed to regain some much-needed dignity and stability.
“In the first year we missed out on the play-offs by two points,” he remembers, "in the second, we got to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and took Liverpool to a replay.
“Looking back, that had an impact on our season but we still managed to finish ninth.”
Bowyer doesn’t criticise the Venky’s and says he had an excellent relationship with chairwoman Anuradha Desai, “lovely woman”, but he still went through things a manager shouldn’t have to.
Stars players, including striker Rudi Gestede, were sold, and a transfer embargo was in place for almost the entire final year of his tenure. Towards the end, there was also continual speculation about his job, including one premature story about his demise.
“We’d played Brighton at the beginning of 2015/16,” he says, “ we were under embargo, we'd lost 1-0 and were just touching down at Manchester Airport.
“We were still on the plane and the lads are switching their phones onand all you can hear is the beep beep beep of text messages. I’m at the front, with managing director Derek Shaw behind, thinking ‘bloody hell, we’ve just got beat and they’re planning a night out.’
“I finally switched my phone on and my daughter rang, ‘Have you been sacked?’”
The Sun journalist Ken Lawrence had written the story.
“I turned round to Derek behind me. ‘Is this true? We’d better have a chat on the runway.’ He said, ‘listen, not at all’. So we're on the bus to take us back to the terminal and all the players are looking at me, wondering what the hell is going on.
“You don’t know what people’s agendas are. Was it to push it along or speed it up? It’s something you accept that’s part of the industry, whether it’s right or wrong, but you have to remember that managers have families and friends and these things affect them too.”
It was almost three months before the guillotine fell. At the time, Blackburn were 16th in the Championship. The new incumbent, Paul Lambert, led them to a finish of 15th before himself departing. The following season Blackburn had two more managers and were relegated to League One.
GARY BOWYER ON... pundits
GB: “Everybody understands it – the pundits have an agenda. If they’re not controversial, they’re not going to be on that programme or have a column in the newspaper, I get that.
“But a lot of managers will tell you they have a lot more respect for the pundits who have been managers, because they understand it, they’ve been there and seen it.
“As a player, you're responsible for yourself. As a manager, you’re responsible for 24, 25 players, and staff, and media, and supporters, and until you do it you don’t really get it."
"A lot of people say it’s a weakness of mine – 'you don’t put yourself forwards enough’. But it’s not about how many times you’ve been on Sky Sports News or whether you played for this or that club, it’s about how well you can do the job."
“A lot of owners underestimate the challenge and quality of the Championship,” Bowyer says. “It’s a tough, tough league. It always amazes me when I hear owners and CEOs talk about their expectations of the season.
“Realistically, how many can get promoted? While they all strive for promotion, realistically, what is a successful season? For some clubs, 12th will be, and it’s about how it’s communicated from the board to the manager and vice versa and then out to the fans.
“I see a massive turnover of managers and a lot of it is down to unrealistic expectations, in terms of budget, resources, everything.”
At Blackpool he again overachieved by gaining promotion in his first season, despite dispute off the pitch between the club’s owners, the Oyston, and the fans.
This meant that when Blackpool won the League Two play-off final, only 5,000 fans were there to see them do it.
“We knew we could have filled our 30,000 allocation quite easily and Exeter had 12,500,” Bowyer admits. “That overshadowed the achievement a little bit and I felt sorry for the players and the staff. The amount of work that had gone into it, they deserved the headlines.
"I never had a grudge with any of the fans, but it meant we were ultimately doing it for ourselves.
"There was a special bond between the players and the staff and you have to concentrate on what you can control.”
One of the delights of the job for him was helping players develop. Sean Longstaff, who had only played 10 games in the SPL before joining, scored nine goals and has now made his debut for Newcastle United. Kyle Vassell, who left for Rotherham, has just been called up by Northern Ireland.
“League Two to international football in two seasons, not bad,” says Bowyer, with a smile. “You look and think, 'we helped in that' and it gives an enormous amount of satisfaction.”
After the first game of this season, a drab 0-0 draw away at Wycombe Wanderers, he stepped down for personal reasons.
Since then, he’s been visiting different clubs - including a day with Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United - and has completed the second year of his Master of Sporting Directorship course at Manchester Metropolitan University.
As part of the course, he’s writing a dissertation on the experiences of Sporting Directors in recruiting head coaches and, if it’s approved, he will graduate next summer.
Management is still the thing he craves though, in the immediate future at least.
“I want to go and carry on managing for a bit longer,” he says. “Not necessarily just in this country, either. I’d go abroad to experience a different culture.”
After what he achieved at Blackburn and Blackpool, under testing circumstances, it would take a harsh man to say he doesn’t deserve another chance.