An Interview With: John Carver

On Monday evening I caught up with former caretaker manager and assistant, John Carver to talk about his time at Newcastle United. John discussed his time with various managers during his time at the club as well as his stint in the hot seat.

How did you feel when Ruud Gullit promoted you from the youth team, were you expecting it?

I remember it like it was yesterday! I was working with the youth team and Alan Irvine was working with the first team because he had been Kenny's (Dalglish) assistant. Alan wanted to go back down and work with the youth team again, so when Ruud Gullit and Steve Clarke came in, Ruud wanted someone who knew the football club. Steve said, "Why don't you go and get John and let Alan go to the youth team?"

I get the call to go up and see Ruud in his office, I'm sat there thinking...What am I here for? Am I in trouble? Have I done something wrong? Both him (Gullit) and Steve (Clarke) are sitting there, they said that they want me to come and work with the first team. I was shocked, I just looked at Ruud and I thought someone was going to jump out the cupboard a bit like Jeremy Beadle! I was just sat there thinking that it was a wind up because Ruud was known for that. It turns out Ruud was being serious, and there was such a good feeling that the rest of the staff decided to take me out that night! Paul Ferris and Derek Wright, Ray Thompson - The kit man, the masseurs... The whole first team staff wanted to take me out.

We went to an Indian restaurant in Whickham, as it happens and this is a true story! There were headlines on the billboards from The Evening Chronicle which read: "Carver promoted to the first team." Paul Ferris took the thing out and gave it to me, I don't know where it is now! They were all delighted that I had got this position because I had been at the club a long time. That's how I got my opportunity, all because Ruud wanted somebody who knew the club.

What I will say is, when I was given the job... I didn't understand the job. I almost lost the players because I didn't understand that the role was to be a go-between, between the players and the manager. At the start, I just went on the side of the manager. I could see that there was a split. We had the trouble with Alan (Shearer), Rob Lee, Stuart Pearce and all the senior players. I just sat down with them all one day and told them to give me a chance. I told them that I understood that I wasn't supposed to do it that way, I'll do it this way and the rest was history after that.

What was it like during the Gullit and Shearer fall out?

To give you my honest opinion, I think Ruud did it because he'd had enough. If it didn't work he was going to resign. If it worked he probably would've only lasted another one, maybe two games. In my heart of hearts I think he'd had enough, Ruud was always a perfectionist and he'd had a tough time of it.

I'm not so sure of the reasoning behind the decision to bench Alan, however, I do think he did it on purpose. I've told him that too! That was the impression I got, I actually had a conversation with Ruud before the game and I stressed how important the derby is to people here. Ruud's response was "I've played in bigger derbies, the Milan derby" I couldn't really argue with that in the sense of two massive clubs. Unfortunately, Ruud didn't understand how big the Sunderland game was. To leave Alan and big Dunc (Duncan Ferguson) on the bench, it was only going to end one way. It was pouring with rain, half the stand was missing, we had our cagoules on - When the second goal went in, there was only going to be one conclusion from it.

I knew what was coming and I actually walked into the room when Ruud was writing his letter of resignation. I walked back out again...I closed the door and walked away.

Photo Credit: Planet Football

Sir Bobby Robson came in after Ruud, what was that like?

It was really strange for me because when Bobby came in, he saw me as Ruud's man. So when he came in he brought Mick Wadsworth with him. Mick and Bobby basically took over and did everything. Of course, Bobby was a hero in the game but we never really connected at first because he saw me as Ruud's man. Myself and Steve Clarke would just stand around doing nothing, whilst Mick and Bobby did everything!

Steve came to me and told me he had an opportunity to go down to Chelsea and work with the youth team. He said that it could open the door for me here. All of a sudden because Steve had gone... I knew Mick better than I knew Bobby from FA courses, Mick started giving me little bits to do. Eventually, Bobby took me into his inner circle.

Mick had then been offered a job, I think it was the Southampton job. Mick left and Bobby told me he would give me a go for a month and see. Bobby said he'd had hundreds of people applying for the job but he wanted to give me a chance... Two weeks later I signed a new deal! Bobby was delighted with what I had to offer.

Photo Credit: The Chronicle

When you think about it, and I am going off on a tangent a little here. Some younger supporters don't actually know me, they only know me because I took over the team and had that run, staying up on the last day. Most of the supporters know me for being Bobby's assistant. I actually sat down the other day and thought my record as a coach was good. Under Ruud we lost in the FA Cup Final, under Bobby we lost in the Semi-Final of the FA Cup, we lost the Semi-Final in Europe against Marseille, we finished third, fourth and fifth, we got to the second phase of the Champions League. After the 2-2 draw in Milan, which was the best moment of everybody's life, we almost got to the next stage and we should've done because of the offside goal! We finished fifth with Alan Pardew and got to the Quarter-Final of the Europa League against Benfica. So I'm sitting here thinking to myself "That's not a bad little record for an assistant!"

Despite all that, a lot of people forget about it and remember me for those twenty games. I have to be honest, I find it hard to take. I look at it now and I see what's happening with Jürgen Klopp... He's won the Champions League and the Premier League, now he's got vulnerabilities with injuries and he's having a bad run, and people are questioning him. I've never made excuses but the first game I was in charge, I lost Steven Taylor with a snapped Achilles. After that, Tim Krul dislocated his shoulder, Siem De Jong had a collapsed lung - I can't do anything about that! Cheick Tiote and Papiss Cisse came back from The Africa Cup of Nations and both needed knee operations! All of that has nothing to do with what we did on the training ground.

I remember we went to Liverpool and I had to play Vurnon Anita at left-back, Daryl Janmaat and Mike Williamson in the middle and Ryan Taylor at right-back, that was the back four. Moussa Sissoko then gets sent off after sixty-odd minutes and we lose the game 2-0, this is what I had to put up with as manager of the club. The frustrating thing is, people forget about all the other stuff I've done, even the things I did in the academy - Keeping Andy Carroll and making £35M for the football club. I developed a few young players who then got into the first team, it hurts me a little when people are going to magazines and newspapers, etc. and having a pop at me. I find it unfair because it's still the football club I love, you never hear me criticising them and I never will. I still watch every game I can because I love the club, and I thank god that we stayed up on that last day!

You're getting an exclusive here, Graeme. I've never actually discussed this, I discussed the injury problems live on Sky with Keith Downie. I only told him about the injuries we had. I had to play young Adam Armstrong and Ayoze Perez who'd just come to England and Emmanuel Riviere. That is who I had to pick from in terms of strikers because of the injuries we had. So this is quite an exclusive, what I'm talking about when I tell you about the other things I've done for the club. I haven't just been given a job because I'm from the west end of Newcastle. A lot of people say that too, I've just been given the job because I'm from here and people call me 'Geordie John'. What bothers me is, people forget what's gone on in the past. People just focus on that short period where I was in the right place at the wrong time and dealing with a lot of unfortunate circumstances that went against us. It's very sad to be remembered for that little bit.

The year we finished fifth with Alan Pardew, we finished above Chelsea and that's incredible! The only reason we didn't kick on is because we didn't invest that summer. We panicked after that and then invested in the winter window. We were playing an extra thirteen or fourteen games in Europe the following season and didn't have the squad to cope. Every team that has gone into Europe and played Thursday night, Sunday night has struggled. Look at the Manchester United performance against us the other night, that wasn't the same team that played against Southampton or dominated Sociedad. What I'm saying is, that was a successful time for this football club, to finish fifth and get into Europe.

You get a lot of stick for the best manager in the league quote, how do you feel about that?

What they don't show you guys is what happened thirty minutes before. I talked about Vurnon Anita and when he's coming up against Juan Mata, he needs to believe he's the best player in that position, playing against his opposite number - Which is why I have to think I'm the best manager in the league when I'm coming up against José Mourinho! If I don't think that way, there's no point in turning up.

The crazy thing is, when I spoke to the media they all knew what I meant because they were all sitting in the room. They had to report it because it was a headline or a sound bite, that's something I've learned from. I was quite open with the media, you can tell by the way I'm talking to you. I might surprise you, you might have thought that I'm a different type of person to what you thought I was before you started talking to me. I am an open person and I brought all the media in and gave them dinner, showed them what we were doing and our preparations. It was open access!

People I went to school with wrote those headlines, can you believe that? I went to school with Ian Murtagh, Craig Hope and Shaun Custis - All big writers for national newspapers. I got battered, they apologised to me and said they had to do the story. I was really disappointed after being so open with them all, it did hurt. You learn by your mistakes though I suppose.

Going back to Bobby, how did you feel when he got sacked?

It was completely bizarre. I remember, it was a Monday morning we had just played Aston Villa. I got a phone call telling me that Bobby had been sacked and I'd be in charge, it was the International break so we had ten days to prepare. They said they would appoint a new manager but didn't tell me who it was. I was absolutely devastated but I had to go and take training! I had to inform everyone about what was happening and when we came in from training we found out it was Graeme Souness.

I thought 'Hang on a minute, this is a guy who's taken Blackburn to the bottom of the league and he's going to replace Bobby?' It wasn't right. That afternoon I had to go up to Bruce Shepherd's house and meet Graeme Souness. I went to see Freddy Shepherd first and he told me that whatever happens I had a job for life here. As soon as Freddy told me that I knew there was something not quite right.

They told me Graeme couldn't take the game because he was coming from Blackburn. It was International break so we only had about seven or eight players because everyone was away. We win the game comfortably against Blackburn, 3-0 I think it was. I remember telling Freddy Shepherd, in 18 months time this football club will be in the same position (bottom) under this guy if he comes in. It was almost 18 months to the day when he got sacked funnily enough!

It had disaster written all over it. I was on a massive high, we'd just won 3-0. I come in the following day and in comes Graeme with his staff, just walking around. They all came in and sat around the table and Graeme started telling stories about when he stuck the flag in the middle of the pitch when he was in Turkey. I'm looking at him as if to say 'Cut the bullshit' then Graeme told me that we'd better have a chat. He said "You know how football is? I'm bringing my mates in." That's exactly what he said to me. Graeme then let me know that Freddy Shepherd wanted me to be academy director. I told him that I'd have to take a weeks holiday to think about it.

Photo Credit: The Chronicle

I came back from holiday and I was the only one with a pro license for European football so they needed me. They said they would keep me on the same salary as I was on as assistant manager. We got to the end of the season, my pro license wasn't needed anymore and they told me that I needed to go on the academy director's salary. I said no and that's why I left.

This is the way I look at it, if I wasn't qualified or hadn't done the work to get into the position I was in, then I don't deserve to be at the football club. The thing is, I've done the hard work. I've gone on the school pitches and cleared the shit up, I've gone and got my qualifications. I got my A license and at the time I was the second youngest behind Terry Venables to get it at 26. I've done the hard work, I've not just been given things because I'm a Geordie.

The other thing people don't get is, I only ever worked for one manager that I actually knew. At the time that was Kevin Keegan, it's two now with Steve Clarke and Scotland. So I've never been given a job because I'm someone's mate, I got given jobs because I was qualified for them. I didn't know Bobby or Alan Pardew, so it gets my back up a little bit when people say that.

You were at Newcastle for a long time, your period here sums up the club in a way. From Champions League nights to staving off relegation, how did you deal with the difference between the two?

I'm not sure how I would've dealt with it if we got relegated. It taught me a lot of things about management, sometimes you need to be a lucky manager more than a good manager. You need a lot of things to go your way, it taught me to never give up. Like the situation we're in now, never give up because as long as it's in your own hands then you can influence the situation. It's when you start relying on other teams, then you're in trouble and you can't do much about it.

It is quite strange that we're in the same situation now, I think and I pray that we'll be ok. The experience I had, especially that last week leading up to the West Ham game was pretty intense. In the build up to the game, I made sure the players didn't read newspapers and stayed off social media. We took the team to the hotel the night before on the Quayside. Normally if we stayed in that hotel we walked away from the city, along the riverside. On the day of the game I decided we would walk into the city, along the riverside where the fans were. We were walking along and the fans were coming out of the bars and cafe's to encourage us, it was amazing!

We get to the stadium and there's a completely different atmosphere. We had no idea that Mike (Ashley) had spoken to the media. It took him all that time to come out and say something and I just thought, 'Why now and not six or eight weeks ago?' But there was a feeling around the place and I said to the kit man, I could put my mortgage on us winning today. The experience of that week has stood me in good stead for the rest of my career.

I try and take things less seriously now in terms of taking things to heart. I think before I say things now. I like to tell the truth though and to tell it like it is. I think Newcastle fans like that. What I said to the fans about Mike Williamson I said to his face. A bit like Thomas Tuchel now with Callum Hudson-Odoi and not counter-pressing. I did the same with Mike Williamson but I did tell him to his face as well. Me and Mike have had a good chat since and I've learned from that now. Would I do it now? No. It's not worth the hassle. I was being honest with the thousands of fans that had travelled all that way.

If you look at any of the press conferences I've done, I've never made an excuse for the injuries we had at the time. I might say it now because it's over and done with but sometimes when I think about what I had to deal with... It's incredible. I had to play young Jak Alnwick in goal, I had a choice between him or a 17-year-old Freddie Woodman! Jak conceded so many goals, it was hard for him. I just thought if I played Woodman away at Leicester in the cup and he concedes four or five, what am I doing to his career? All of these things went through my head. It was the same with Adam Armstrong, I didn't want to kill his career at such a young age. I didn't want to dent his confidence by throwing him in at the deep end. Freddie Woodman's Dad, Andy, thanks me for the decision I made.

What is Mike Ashley like to deal with?

You know what? I have to be honest, he never interfered with one thing. There's rumours going around now with Steve Bruce playing Joelinton because Mike is telling him to do it, I'm telling you that's not the case.

Mike never asked me any questions about football. He never asked what the team was going to be. He'd ring me up on a Friday night and see how things were going, then he would ask if I'd like him to attend the game. I told him 'You're the owner of the football club.' The reason he asked is because he didn't want all the attention on him inside the stadium. I would tell him the team for the weekend and he wouldn't comment on it at all. He never interfered and that was the same with Lee Charnley. Both of them, they were only supportive, especially Lee. Obviously me and Lee had been at the club for a long time, if I ever needed anything, Lee would help. When I was in charge, there wasn't long left in the window so we couldn't really bring anyone in. When people ask me what they were both like to deal with, they were fine because they never gave me any issues. I guess I wasn't in the position long enough to get to know Mike that well. Though, when I was working with Alan Pardew, Mike would come along and sit with us all and have dinner. Some fans will find it hard to believe but they were supportive and never interfered.

Who was the best/worst player to coach?

The same player was the best and worst to coach and that was Craig Bellamy! He was so difficult because he was so demanding, everything had to be for him and there's nothing wrong with that. If we were doing a session looking at the oppositions defence, I had to make a point of making sure Craig was involved and to be the focal point of it because that's how he liked it. He was always at you and questioning decisions, an absolute nightmare! But you know what? I wouldn't have him any other way. He was an absolute gem of a player and he complimented Shearer up top, ever so well.

I still say it to this day, if Craig didn't get injured after the Sunderland game, we would've had a chance, a real chance. We'd just gone top of the league after beating Arsenal. When Craig was out we had a bad spell, if he stayed fit I do often wonder what would've happened.

Listen, there's obviously Gary Speed and Alan Shearer, great professionals and amazing players but it was Craig for me. Everybody talks about Hatem Ben Arfa, he was a different sort of player, he had great ability but he could be vicious and not in a good way. Craig could be nasty but had a sympathetic side to him, he had a heart. As it happens, I was one of the few people along with Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble who got invited to Craig's wedding.

What a great player and professional Craig was though, we remained friends even after our little dust up! You talk about in first and out last and all that... I think it was a Welsh thing with him and Gary Speed!

Photo Credit: Football365

Do you have any regrets over the Jonas Gutierrez and Ryan Taylor incident?

No. I didn't even know what my position was with the club, my future was so uncertain and I was mopping things up for the new manager. If you speak to Ryan and I think he's come out and said it already but I'm led to believe he already had his furniture packed up before the West Ham game. I was actually in New York on holiday and I was trying to get hold of both of them, I tried multiple times but got no answer. I eventually got through to Ryan who told me he was on a coaching course in Ireland and Jonas was with him. So that's how that came about and I explained the situation to Ryan, I then asked him to pass the phone over to Jonas.

The next day I got the very same conversation from Lee Charnley, telling me that I wasn't being kept on. So it was no different to what I had done the day before. I was asked to do it because I was the manager, so I let Jonas and Ryan know that there time at the club was over and thanked them both for everything. They were both brilliant for me. I got the same bombshell the next day! I don't think Jonas or Ryan expected a new contract, I didn't think I would get one either.

If you think about it, I was the one who got Jonas back in the team. In fact, Jonas' mum came over after the game, I think it was Manchester United... She came over, gave me a cuddle and thanked me for getting him back in the team. I had to go to the tribunal and all that which wasn't nice at all, I just told the truth... I just made football decisions and nothing else. I didn't make the decision to let Ryan and Jonas leave because the club knew I wasn't going to be there either!

What is your favourite memory during your time at Newcastle United?

One of the best times ever was those three defeats in the Champions League and then coming back to win the next three. Getting that winning goal in Feyenoord, as a Newcastle United coach that was one of the best feelings ever and I wish I could bottle that up. The feeling after the game was phenomenal. I had the same feeling when we (Scotland) qualified for the Euro's. Also, the win on the last day against West Ham, the emotion and energy I had put into everything and how empty and drained I felt, it was special. I do wonder what I would've done if we went down, personally I'm not sure, I'm just glad I did it and we managed to stay up in the end!

If you were offered the chance to return, would you take it?

I wouldn't even think twice about it, Graeme! It's funny how we started the conversation with what I've done at the club as a coach, they will stay with me for life. The good things outweigh the bad so I wouldn't think twice about it.


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