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Waterfront Festival

Interview: Dave McVay Author of Steak Diana Ross

1 August 05 interview: Jared Wilson
photos: Kevin Lake

"People are born and bred as Notts supporters. There's a certain animosity towards Forest, but not like in certain cities where it’s life or death"

Dave McVay was a midfielder for Notts County in the seventies, who trained all week, went for a pint after work and helped a tea-mate on his egg round in his spare time. After which, he embarked on a career as a reporter for the Post, before going national as Midlands correspondent for The Times. Five years ago, he was going through some old diaries and sent them to a publisher. The result was Steak... Diana Ross, the story of a ‘football nobody’. As a document of a bygone era, the book wees on 99% of other football biographies from a great height...

When did you start writing the book?
It was about five years ago when I was working at the Evening Post. Football had just become trendy again, and I’d done these contemporaneous diaries while I was playing. I got them out and I thought they reflected an era that was gone and would never be seen again. It felt like something of a social document of the time. I had also just written a book with another journalist on Tommy Lawton, so I was quite keen to get books published and this just seemed another way of doing that.

What was the book on Tommy Lawton?
It was called The Complete Centre Forward. A guy called Andy Smith - who worked for the BBC and for Radio Trent in the 1970’s - had got to know Tommy back then. I used to ghostwrite a column for Tommy in the Post. Without going into a laborious story Tommy was going nowhere, but our old editor bought him out of retirement and gave him a new lease of life. As some Notts fans will know, Tommy went from a very bitter and slightly twisted guy who had a lot of debt and problems, into a happy guy who had a new lease of life before he died in 1996.

You mention Tommy quite a bit in Steak... Diana Ross, sat in a bar with his crowd of sycophants…
The first time I met him was in the Lion on Clumber Street. In those days after training we went and had a shandy. I’m not saying we were on the booze all afternoon, but sometimes we were. Tommy was always there holding court with a pint and whisky chaser. That was when he was going through his troubled times. Shortly after that the bailiffs came, and he went to court and had a lot of money problems.

I was particularly glad to see him in his latter years. He got over his troubled times and came to accept what he was, which was a fantastic natural athlete and footballer, but someone born at the wrong time in terms of financial rewards.

Do you feel you were born at the wrong time as well?
From a financial point of view definitely. When I see people like Robbie Savage running around and earning a vast amount of money I think there must be players of my generation thinking that given a decade or two they would have earned a lot more money out of the game. But I suppose that all of us are rich in terms of the memories we have…

There is still a great part of me that thinks there doesn’t seem to be the characters these days. The players don’t seem to have the fun and the involvement mixing with the community that we had. My diaries are fairly colourful and laced with characters from both sides of the pitch because you had experience of going out and meeting the people who paid your wages. Some liked you and some didn’t. I think the lower leagues these days are getting back to that level but, in terms of the Premiership and even the Championship, the players are put on pedestals.

It seemed to give you the impetus to find a proper job after football…
Definitely. Like with most ex-footballers there were a few years when it was touch and go for me and there are plenty of stories of those who go out of the game and turn to booze. In those days you really only aspired to run a pub or a newsagents after you retired. You had to be a family man to go into that sort of thing though, so if you were a younger lad that was leaving and single like me it was a bit strange.

Times have changed. When I personally retired, the bills were piling up and I was eventually injected with a dose of reality. I was then fortunate to get a job with the Nottingham Evening Post and started writing, which was the only other thing I had been able to do at school reasonably well. We saw recently when Gary Birtles, who in my era was a far better player than me, had to sell his European Cup Winners medal to pay the bills. He’s alright now, but he’s had his hard times too.

We hear there might be a screen version of Steak... Diana Ross…
Funnily enough, I talked to Billy Ivory (who did the intro to the book) at the recent Cloughie play at the Nottingham Playhouse. He’s been asked about it by Toby McDonald, an up and coming director. He walked into a bookstore on Canning Circus, saw the book, loved it and asked the agents who work for him to buy the film rights. I’m not living in Barbados, so they haven’t come through just yet, but it’s an ongoing project.

Who do you want playing you?
Haha! It’s got to be Brad Pitt. For my own part I just want to do an Alfred Hitchcock thing and get a walk-on part. Maybe I can be the bloke at the back of the bus saying “McVay, you’re bloody rubbish!”

Who do you think should play Jimmy Sirrell?
I think we’d have to get John Hurt in to reprise his role as the Elephant Man.

How do you think it would transfer into a film?
Billy was asked to get involved because he’s a great local writer. He’s been asked to look at the visual side. He's been looking at videos of Slapshot - the Paul Newman ice hockey film - to see how on-screen bonding of blokes in the dressing room can be portrayed. When football goes to film it usually comes out pants. The worst part is when they try and put action into it, it all looks so staged. Billy was saying that part of the beauty of Steak ... Diana Ross is that a lot of the characters and off the field activities are the main part, so you never really need to show much of the actual action. We could recreate the Meadow Lane of old by finishing an old decrepit ground… maybe Field Mill. I think a lot of it would translate, but not necessarily in terms of too much action.

It came across in your book that you almost felt uncomfortable at times being a footballer. Do you think you feel more comfortable in your life now as a journo?
That’s probably a fair point. I do feel more comfortable as a journalist in terms of the environment and what I’m doing. I joined football late - after I did my A-Levels - and was going to go to university. Like most eighteen year-old blokes, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do at that age. The only difference was that I’d already signed a contract in my final year at school to become professional footballer with Notts County for two years on £25 a week.

I enjoyed playing football, but the transition from playing park and schoolboy games to being a pro was something I found difficult. There were great times, don’t get me wrong, but I’d say that initially I didn’t fit in at Notts because most of the young lads there had been through apprenticeships.  I went on trial with Everton the previous year and spent three nights there, with three or four Scousers having a chat between themselves, and it was the most miserable night of my life. I think that came out in the way I played, and the then-manager Joe Mercer wasn’t impressed. Notts was a great club, though.

Do you think that if you hadn’t played for a local club you wouldn’t have bothered with professional football?
Possibly. I think I took the easy option at the time. My last year at school was phenomenal. I was a fairly average footballer beforehand, but everything just slotted into place. I started playing for Ilkeston Town in the old Southern League against the likes of former Manchester United forward Alex Dawson and it was a great experience for me - a big leap forward. Suddenly all these clubs - Manchester City, Coventry City, Wolves and Leeds - all asked me to go for trials. There were three or four trials with Leeds that I bottled and didn’t go to.

I enjoyed the Nottingham social scene and was comfortable here. There were players like Willie Carling in the reserves then. It was great playing in front of 500-600, I did quite well, and they eventually offered me a contract. It was an easy option. If I hadn’t done that I don’t know what would have happened. If I’d gone elsewhere it might have lasted only a year, or I might equally have gone onto greater things. Who knows?

What kind of pubs did you drink in around Nottingham at the time?
Uriah Heap had just started up the first wine bar in the city, which attracted a lot of footballers, but being brought up in Clifton I was more used to rougher pubs. I always enjoyed a pint of bitter and the local brews. We used to meet in the Flying Horse, then walk around and dip into whatever pubs we came across. We spent a lot of time in the Newmarket, which was run by a copper and was one of the few pubs that would let you drink all night. In those days you used to go straight out of there and into the Palais. It was also CAMRA HQ, and so I got to know quite a lot of students there, which suited me as they had similar lifestyles, drinking habits and time off in the summer.

Eventually I ended up drinking at The Loggerheads, which became something of a second home for me. The landlord used to let me sleep there. I used to ring up from the Arriba Nightclub at 2am and ask if he was still open. When I got there, there would be twenty or more people taking part in a lock-in. Of course that was in the days wheen pubs shut at 10.30 and it was all very strict.

There was a pub called the Spread Eagle at the top of where the Theatre Royal is which used to have a guy called Pete Quiltern, the singing landlord. At 10.30pm it would be absolutely empty, but by 11pm it would be packed out with footballers going to Isabella’s (now the Rescue Rooms). Everyone came in because they wanted a decent pint of bitter and you knew that once you got into the nightclub all you could look forward to was stale ale for twice the price. So we’d hit the top shelf in the club.

How easy was it to pull as a County player in the seventies?
Extremely easy, if you were in the right clubs and the right company. There was a 99 Club at Trent Bridge, which was the big pulling palace really. There’s plenty in the book about those half an hour - or half a minute, depending on your stamina - sessions under Trent Bridge with a lady you would never meet again. There were some ground rules, though; as it got towards 2am and the witching hour approached there was a pincer movement from the women. They were a reliable bunch, and invariably by 2am people ended up together. I can’t say too much more - there were married lads and women involved and also the daughters of some people who became quite famous later. It was just a ritual, really. Some nights you were up for it and some nights you were so drunk that you couldn’t be bothered.

What was the relationship between the players and the local media at the time?
Pretty good. We had a lad called Terry Bowles, who always tells me that he joined the Post the day I joined Notts. Being the local reporter, he would always try and be kind - even if you had as stinker, he would build you up if he could. Today if a Premiership footballer goes to the toilet, it’s on Ceefax ten minutes later. It never ceases to amaze me, the amount of drivel that is on Sky Sports News. The only people that watch it are journalists like me looking for a lazy story.

In our day it was different. If I go back to the story at the end of the book about the day we beat Leeds United, it got about five paragraphs in the national press. If that happened now, Sky would be at the ground the following day. With Jimmy Sirrell at the helm, Notts never really sought publicity. He said very little and when he did it rarely made sense - like his training tactics - and with Jack Dunnet at the helm, who was in London most of the year, it wasn’t exactly an attractive club in terms of publicity.

I do remember having a particularly good game where we went top of the league. We’d beaten Forest in a local derby with a last-minute goal, and then we beat Luton 2-0. Some guy from the World Service came and interviewed me. It was the first time I’d ever been approached by a journalist. Funnily enough, years later I applied for a job with the Sunday Telegraph and he was the Sports Editor and interviewed me again.

The only time I remember us getting any bad press at all was when Rachid Hardouk and a couple of others were in a local club and splashed a soda siphon all over. It got into the media and became a bit of a story because Notts were struggling. I was surprised by it, because that sort of thing used to happen to us all the time. Fortunately I was in the clear as I was on loan to Torquay at the time. The following week Ronnie Fenton got the sack and Jimmy returned from Sheffield. That was the only time I can remember that sort of publicity coming out. I suppose because County were never really a ‘sexy’ club.

Do you think they ever have been?
Unfortunately not. With Jimmy and Jack Dunnet there, it could never have been sexy. Howard Wilkinson wasn’t exactly Mr Charisma, but he did a great job. When Neil Warnock was there, he hyped it all up a bit and tried to broaden the image, but since I was a kid the club has always been in the shadow of Forest in terms of publicity. I think Forest winning the FA Cup in the late 1950’s swung the city from supporting County to Forest, and then the Cloughie era cemented that. Notts’ generation of fans went with the demolition of the Meadows, and I don’t think they've ever really recovered.

We seem to be the only city with two football clubs that are not divided by either geography or sectarianism. What do you think it is that makes a Notts fan a Notts fan?
I think people are born and bred as Notts supporters. There's a certain animosity towards Forest, but not like in certain cities where it’s life or death. I’ve always thought that there is a certain amount of apathy here in terms of sporting achievement. Even when Notts were top of the old second division we struggled to get 15,000. I know they would gladly accept that these days, but even then we rarely got a packed ground.

I think your question is a little like asking what makes a Labour voter. People are born into it. After their European Cup win Forest got in with the more affluent West Bridgford set and they’ve stayed with it. Clough and Forest getting so good hurt the club because no matter what County do now they’ll never realistically be able to do that. It would be great to see them get promoted and the teams on even terms again though.

How much rewriting was there with Steak... Diana Ross from your original diaries?
A little bit here and there. Quite a lot of touching up, but there was no real need to embellish stuff. Some of the things I did write about sparked a lot of memories. Some of the diaries were full of teenage angst and the kind of crap that I didn’t want included. I was eighteen and writing about self-indulgent issues such as my love life that I just had to leave out and move on from. Billy Ivory said he wanted to read more about my thoughts when my grandfather died, which I also thought was self indulgent, but he loved it. He said if it did make a film he would want more of that, as he sees it as a kind of rite of passage.

As the East Midlands correspondent on a national paper, are you sick of writing about administration and financial worries?
The Midlands in general are going through desperate times in football at the moment. Apart from West Brom - who will be living off their great escape story for years to come -it’s going through complete and utter doldrums. The polarity now is the wealth of London, where Chelsea have completely changed the football landscape forever, and the Northern strongholds of Manchester, Liverpool and the North East. They’ll always stay big because of their supporters.

In the middle there is a vacuum at the moment, and the journalists in this area are scratching their heads trying to get a positive slant on a story. I do feel that another difference in my day was that most chairman had a lot of their money in the club. These days its Sky money, and these people pontificating about the game as chairman are often now the ones who are sending clubs bankrupt. Football is awash with slush money that is being taken out by players and agents - and chairmen who pay themselves huge dividends at the end of the year for saying they are running the club. They’re just like bank managers, really. The results are immaterial to how much they pay themselves and inevitably it’s the supporters who lose out.

What do you reckon to the idea of Forest and Notts merging?
I would be very much against it. I don’t think any local football supporter would want to see that, even if there were only 300 people at Meadow Lane. I think the problem in football today is that the funding has changed dramatically and the rich get richer. The Premier League is an organisation founded on greed, and for clubs on the hinterlands of football like Forest and County, dragging themselves back up with the big boys is a nigh-on impossible task. If they are to make progress, they’ve just got to get people in there that can control players - perhaps by the odd free transfer - and get them back up to Championship level. They won’t do it by finances though, because there is none in the game at that level anyway.

What advice would you give these days to young footballers in Nottingham?
Don’t go too far. There's always been a drinking culture in the game, but I’d suggest that players like Jermaine Pennant, who has gone off the rails badly, should choose their company well and try to keep their feet on the ground - not in the pub.

Any thoughts on new Notts manager Gudjon Thordasson?
He’s got a good track record. He had a good spell at Stoke and was unlucky to get the boot from Barnsley. The dealings that I have had with him have only been very brief, but he seems like a very straightforward, hard-working guy. I just hope he brings in a few players who can get them promotion and help them succeed. I think Gary Mills had the right idea by coming in and trying to weed out a lot of dead wood, but from what I understand he went about it the wrong way and alienated the dressing room. We just need some hungry young players with a point to prove, like Keith Alexander is doing at Lincoln. If the club can get to the play-offs it will be a tremendous achievement.

In five years time, who will be the dominant club in Nottinghamshire?
Mansfield Town, obviously... no, I’d have to say Forest have more potential because of their crowd-base. In my days, County were the dominant club; we'd regularly beat Forest and finished above them. As a player, that was a great feeling. We were at Oxford on the final day of the season in 74/75, and Kevin Randall scored two and we beat them to finish above them in the league - and Jimmy was absolutely delighted. If Notts got promotion and we got a Nottingham derby again it would be great for local football.

Do you think we don’t make enough of the fact that Nottingham as a city is arguably the home of professional football?
I remember when Albert Scardino pitched up with his Pulitzer Prize (which he ironically won for exposing financial corruption) and it was a great shot in the arm for the club - we got quite a lot of mileage in the press. Scardino was misguided in many ways, but he did plan to exploit the fact that we have the oldest football league club in the world. The problem is, that you can only sell that line so often before it loses its meaning. I think the problem locally is that everybody knows that already, and familiarity breeds contempt. It will always attract publicity to the club, but not better players or managers.

How did Don Masson react to his portrayal in Steak... Diana Ross?
I have to say he's a changed character now. That’s the way he was then, and it’s a realistic portrayal of the time. I did go round to his hotel and told him the book was coming out and didn’t reflect him particularly well. He accepts, however, that he was a Jekyll and Hyde character at the time.

How did you feel when you saw him miss a penalty for Scotland against Peru in 1978?
Haha! I think there was a collective waving of arms and champagne cocking all over Nottinghamshire! It’s a terrible thing to say, but that’s just the way it was. Something inside me was smiling that night. In fairness though, I’ve always had a soft spot for Scotland. Land of my fathers and all that.

There’s all this talk at the moment of a statue for Brian Clough. Do you think there should be one of Jimmy Sirrell as well?
I think he is one of the great unsung heroes of local football. You could never match Jimmy against Cloughie, he didn’t have the wit or wisdom, but he did have a garbled accent. Cloughie deserves what he gets. Should Jimmy get a statue? Well he’s got a stand named after him at Meadow Lane. If they were to do a small statuette of him somewhere in the ground it would be quite fitting, but I’d have to say it should be covered over during the daytime, and anyone of a nervous disposition should be warned beforehand.

How did it feel the first time you saw him lick the top of the ketchup bottle?
That was a real ritual at the games. In those days we used to travel away and stop off at the Crown Inn in Bawtry and get a steak. One or two of the lads would nudge each other on the elbows and then he’d turn round and say “Lassie, have you got the red sauce?" and the players would fall silent each time. They all knew we were looking and waiting for it. He’d pour the sauce on his plate and lick the top clean!

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