Billy Davies is unemployed. He is also odds-on favourite to become the next manager of Rangers. Is this the kind of man to resurrect the Glasgow giants? Judge for yourselves. Bryan Cooney met him in 2008 during another spell of unemployment. Back then, he’d taken Derby into the Premiership, but left them toiling in the relegation zone. He cited lack of investment. This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald.
Davies, reputedly, is eminently capable of being dour. On this occasion, however, he is being liberal with his laughter. I’ve just inquired about his relationship with Pat Nevin. I’m told he dislikes the guy who used to be his player – and chief executive – at Motherwell before he was sacked in 2001. Davies, by his own admission, carries grudges like most people carry credit cards.
A terse “no comment” is anticipated, if not a minor riot of epithets. In the end, you get neither and soon you’re convinced either your information has taken a wrong turning, or else there’s an authentic hope of a place at RADA for the man. The response begins positively enough.
“It was a very difficult, tricky situation (at Fir Park) but, as a young manager, I had to learn. It was difficult for Pat, too. I do like him, though. He’s a good lad. He’s also an intellectual, a clever guy, a university student type, different from the rough and the scruff of Billy Davies, coming up from Pollock.
“ I mean, he wisnae stealing apples in Ralston the way I was. To be fair, him and Brian McClair are a perfect double act because one thinks he’s more intelligent than the other. They’re both a pair of scruffy so and so’s. They carry these bags about with them that you wouldn’t pay two pence for; they’ve got all the super duper books inside and they know the fancy words. It is axiomatic that they two think they’re very clever! “
The relationship I’m sharing with Davies is very much in its infancy and yet, ironically, there’s a sense it would be possible to warm your hands on his generosity of spirit. He is accommodating, amusing and wholly respectful and, in fact, is nothing like what it stipulates on the front of the cigarette packet.
Out-of-work football managers, of course, have an infinite capacity to reinvent themselves.
Back at the table of negatives, the man, according to the curricula vitae given him by some hostile parts of the media, can be curmudgeonly and cryptic. Even those far closer to him suggest that he would not find it difficult to initiate a scuffle in a room devoid of humanity. Here in this quiet quarter at the local golf club, however, Davies is demonstrating that there is a pacific side to his nature.
It’s as if this human incendiary device has flicked a switch and shut himself down, temporarily, anyway. At present, he is separated from the kind of people who tempt him to stick two fingers down his throat: vacillating SFA personnel and intransigent Derby County directors, for instance. At present, however, he is at peace.
At 43, certainly, it may be that a new side to Davies is emerging. It should be welcomed by all in the game. It doesn’t always go charging in with pistols blazing. It has accumulated some maturity from its sojourns at Motherwell, Preston and Derby. Significantly, it didn’t go into orbit when he was told, early in this Premiership season, that there might be a stalking horse after his Pride Park job.
Wait a minute. Play that one again, Sam, and see if we can make sense of it. Didn’t Derby head-hunt Davies from Preston the season before last? Didn’t he take them into the Premiership with a melange of low-cost players who, when it came to heights, suffered from a debilitating condition called acute vertigo? Didn’t he do well? And wasn’t he handed only £10 million to rearrange that melange of mediocrity for its new challenge, when something like £25 million was required?
Answer in the affirmative to all those questions and you won’t go wrong. But the fact is you are wrong. Derby, for some reason, had tired of the Davies brand. This is football, 2007-08 style, demented as though it may seem. But Davies is fully attuned to the endemic dementia.
“Look,” he says, “we were only four or five games into the season when the rumour about Paul Jewell started. I just had this feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but I had to continue to take the kicks in the teeth, going to Liverpool and Manchester City, knowing fine well that it was a lambs to the slaughter job.”
I ask him if he’d heard that Jewell allegedly had been tapped up. “I can’t say, but I know I just had to keep my head down and wait for them (the directors) to make a decision. I certainly wasn’t going to walk out. When the chairman, Peter Gadsby, stepped back, my card was marked.
“We spent the next ten games knowing fine well that our time was up and that changes were afoot, and that venture capitalists were looking at a wonderful investment. Derby’s finances are sorted for the next ten years, I mean. It’s only an estimate but I reckon they’ll be taking in about £100 million in all.
“But 14 games into the season, the board decided it was time for a change. That’s is modern-day football. It’s why I don’t get down about it. I understand. It certainly didn’t shake my confidence. Look, when I walk into a new job, I don’t nail my picture to the wall in my office, and I don’t put my carpets down nice and firm. I always make sure they’re ready to be uplifted!”
Once upon a time, you sense a straightjacket and those nice, but insistent, young men in their clean, white coats would have been needed to keep Davies from directorial throats. Not on this occasion. He kept his head below the radar, played the political game and was duly sacked last November; Jewell duly stepped up to the plate and, not unnaturally, found that due to lack of investment the dinner set was in bits.
A couple of weeks ago, Davies picked up his severance cheque and was at liberty to pursue his new life. Most recently, he made the blue riband short leet of three for the Republic of Ireland job, alongside Giovanni Trapattoni, the man who eventually secured the job, and Terry Venables. He might have been the axed manager of Derby County, but there was still plenty of credibility attached to his name.
To be truthful, Billy Davies seems to enjoy the sound of his name. He speaks forever in the third person. Is it chronic egomania, or has he simply picked up a bad habit from overdosing on Sky Sport?
So, while he is sitting comfortably, it’s time to take liberties. What about this aggressive trait of his? Isn’t he a bit Cagney-esque? “What‘s that?” he inquires. You explain. “The gritting your teeth bit, and the ‘I don’t care how big you are’ syndrome.”
Davies is mainlining on good humour now. He smiles again. “Yeah, I would agree with that. That’s how I feel, but I’m not an aggressive person by nature. I‘m highly driven and motivated. I wouldn’t say I suffer from aggression. If I feel something’s not right, I’ll tell you. As a football manager responsible for all football decisions, if somebody steps over the line, then I think it’s my right to go and show my discontent.
“I like to work with a bit of integrity – that’s how my parents brought me up. I try to respect everybody. But I’ve got my pride and my own way of thinking. I’m not a ’yes’ man and won’t change that for anybody. Okay, I’ve made a lot of enemies. You can’t go into football without having enemies. You’re always upsetting somebody. But I like genuine people…those with one face. Loyalty is what you get from me and loyalty is what I expect from others.”
Davies admits to a host of imperfections. Greed is not one of them. “I’m not driven financially. At Charlton, I turned down a wonderful offer in favour of Derby. They were in the Premiership and the wages were treble what it was at Derby. The bonuses were treble. But I decided on Derby.
“I mean, the club was a shambles, an absolute shambles, with only 17 players and one recognised striker. But it had infrastructure…a great stadium and great training facilities. It was like an American film set…from the outside it was beautiful, from the inside there was nothing. But there was this gut instinct.”
For a moment, Davies looks forlorn. He’s making the tacit admission that gut instincts can kick you in the stomach if you’re not careful. This particular one certainly did.
Gut instincts, of course, also entered the equation and told Davies to withdraw his candidacy from the Scotland job when it became apparent to him that the national manager’s job perhaps didn’t carry the omnipotence he reckoned it should have. His departure precipitated a host of unsavoury words, whereby the SFA initially declared he was not even on their shortlist.
“Hey, I was asked very early on if I’d be interested in the Scotland job. My reply was this: ‘Having looked at what happened and without criticising Alex (McLeish) and Walter (Smith), I feel the next manager has to have golden handcuffs put on him.’ In other words, the commitment from him to the SFA and from them to him had to be such that he’d want to stay for five years.
“That is unless, of course, something beyond the realms of expectation happened, like a Real Madrid coming in. Therefore, the SFA could turn round and say: ‘A club take only take you for £10 million.’ I was happy to accept that.
“ But I also wanted to be responsible for a host of other things, not interfering in other people’s jobs but being a godfather and keeping an eye of what was going on and having an input with things taking place. More important, having a relationship with the people below. The trouble is that a lot of people are frightened to let go the turf; they’re protecting their box.
”I wouldn‘t turn my back on club management to walk into a national job where they tell you you’re gonna play one game every two or three months and do nothing else. But my decision to pull out was when they appointed the Under 21 manager. Nothing against Billy Stark, but his appointment before that of the national manager was wrong. It beggared belief that this should be the case.”
Davies decided to remove himself from the running. His decision came after an off-the-record briefing with a journalist. Sky News were rampant with it the next morning. “ Once again this horrible animal Billy Davies, this aggressive Davies, starts to upset one or two people…just because he came out and said what he felt about the long-term plan and the interview process.
“ But when they came out and said that I had never been in the four (candidates) and all that stuff, it became a little bit petty for me. It was pathetic, in fact.
“ Listen, I thought the appointment of the Under 21 coach was morally wrong. In my opinion, irrespective of whether it was Billy Davies or not, he should be going in there with a long-term commitment and strategy to improve and support every level.
“Yes, we knew that his main job is the national team, but in between times there should be a responsibility for him to turn up at schools, taking 14-year-olds in a training session, going down to Largs on a coaching course and showing his face, sitting there answering questions.”
For the moment, Davies is resting, but he is a restless spirit. Last Saturday he returned from a three-week holiday in America. Football may have sent him on an enforced sabbatical, but there is no pause for a man such as this. “Listen, before I went to the States, I spent my time down at Bellahouston Park with my two boys, Mark (15) and William (17). A few cousins and six or seven other pals came along.
“The pitch wasn’t flat. In fact it was all muddy, but I set up little drills and games. We played for about an hour and a half, and gave them a bit of exercise. I was doing that two or three times a week. Of course, I want to manage at the highest level, but I’m just as happy to take a group of first-teamers or a group of six-year-olds.
“I hope to be in this game for an awful long time. Football never changes, neither do clubs. I know there will be spies in the camp, I know there will be people watching you and reporting back to the board of directors. They can have as many spies as they like…I don’t care, I’ve got nothing to hide.
“I’ll go in, do the best I can every single day, and I’ll make decisions for the reasons I think are right. I will stick to my principles. There are not many managers who moan and groan like me but, remember, I can accept a kicking when my team plays badly. I’ve learned, really learned over these last few years. And do you know something else? I know exactly where I’m going.
“I have never approached people for jobs, neither Scotland, the FAI, Derby County or Preston. I don‘t work that way. What you‘re finding now is that third parties contact you on their behalf and that‘s how the ball starts rolling.
”I’ve got to tell you that I was desperate to contribute to Scottish football. I wanted to be a part of the commitment that’s second to none. But what has taken place in the last couple of months, well, I’m completely bemused by it. But I’ll be back and that’s a fact.”
Billy Davies may be bemused, but he has delivered an unequivocal gospel. He returns to his rare Saturday afternoon of unexpected unemployment. He’d better enjoy these days. It won’t be long before they’re over.