‘The thing was BEEEEP John Barnes BEEEEP and Dennis Wise BEEEEP’
That sound isn’t to cover up Bobby Gould saying something incredibly offensive or unprintable about these players. Instead, the sound is him leaning on the phone dial pad while we talk. At points, it becomes a challenge to understand which topic we’re now talking about- partly because of the beeping, but also because Gould has so many stories about different teams and players, meaning at times it is hard to keep up, not always sure who or when you’re talking about.
Having been in the game for just short of 50 years, it’s fair to say the man from Warwickshire has more than a few stories to tell. Over an engaging conversation, which soon overruns the initial 30 minutes allotted for the interview, ‘the Gouldfather’ as he’s affectionately known speaks openly to The Football Pink about his fascinating time in Football.
A time that almost never happened-despite nearly 450 first team appearances, Gould’s career was very nearly stalled at the first hurdle. His local side Coventry City, managed at the time by Billy Frith, gave him a three month trial, while he was still in school, allowing him to train with the senior players during their pre-season. At the end of that period, Frith delivered the bad news that he wouldn’t be offered a senior contract.
“I was quite stunned… I was 15 and playing against these men, and at the end of it the manager said you’re not going to be good enough. So I had to go down the labour exchange.”
What followed was a period as a trainee plumber, installing pipes and heating ventilation into schools, while still playing in the amateur leagues, where he continued to score goals for fun.
That could have been it, a career over before it began. However, fortune was on Gould’s side, as Frith was soon replaced by Jimmy Hill. Hill had the wisdom to invite all the young players who hadn’t made the grade back to the club, to get a second look at them. Having suitably impressed, scoring a few goals, the young Gould was offered the chance to sign as an apprentice professional.
It is clear that Gould held Hill in the highest regard (at one point referring to him as ‘the bearded wonder’) and will be forever grateful for being given a second chance at making it as a professional. When asked if owed Hill his career, the response was emphatic. “I have no shadow of a doubt, a man who was never special and singleminded.” He was then as shocked as everyone when Hill resigned in 1967, making the decision to move into punditry as he “couldn’t rely on 11 men keeping him in a job every Saturday afternoon.”
He played 80 times for Coventry, scoring a very impressive 40 goals, including 24 in the season when the Sky Blues claimed the Second Division title. However, the step up to the First Divison didn’t go perfectly to plan, as Gould struggled for fitness and a starting position, often finding himself on the bench. With Hill having left the club, a move away from his local side grew ever more tempting.
That opportunity came knocking in the form of Arsenal, who agreed to purchase Gould for £90,000. It was an offer that was never going to be turned down. It wasn’t a universally popular decision, however, as Gould’s wife Marjorie seemed very against the move as they drove down to the capital.
“My wife was pregnant at the time, and as we were driving down towards Highbury she started crying. I asked ‘What are you crying for Marj?’ and she said, ” I like leafy Warwickshire!”
Her reservations turned out to be well founded, as soon it was clear that the system coach Don Howe didn’t suit Gould’s playing style. Howe wanted the Gunners to be pressing high, with the strikers acting as the first line of defence. For someone not suited to that style of football, being more of a ruthless goalscorer than a heavy presser, it meant Gould was often found on the sidelines. He still managed 18 goals in 54 games, but it was a way off the heights he’d hit for Coventry. So it is fair to say he looked back at his time in North London with mixed feelings.
“I enjoyed it, it was a great experience, I grew up, it made me become a man… but we were in a situation where I just couldn’t get out of the reserves, never ventured into the first team.”
Salvation came in the form of Wolverhampton Wanderers, who took Gould back up to the Midlands after paying Arsenal £55,000. Thankfully the tactics were much more to his liking, as manager Bill McGary said “If I ever see you in our half, I’ll kick your arse for you!” This was music to Bobby’s ears.
What is noticeable is when you look through Gould’s list of clubs is that he appeared on both sides of a number of different rivalries; in both the gold of Wolves and the blue and white of West Brom, as well as for both Bristol sides. This seems unusual, even in those days, and you’d have thought it would have lead to receiving abuse from different corners of the ground. You’d have thought wrong, however, as apparently that wasn’t the case at all.
“No, I always gave my all. When I was a kid and sat in the stands, I wanted my favourite players to play well. I was committed to football, because it was my love and passion. I wasn’t going to let anyone point the finger and say you’re not doing a full day’s work.”
Gould played with some great players in his time, like Cyrille Regis and Geoff Astle at West Brom, Pat Rice and George Graham at Arsenal, and Bobby Moore and Trevor Brooking at West Ham. It was at Upton Park which he looks back on his time most fondly, recounting that they played some beautiful football. “They played one touch, the ball never went above head height… and I was just fascinated. The quality of the training, the passing and the balance was tremendous. Ron just wanted beautiful football”
Something that did elude him was the chance to represent his country, and to run out at Wembley proudly displaying the Three Lions on his shirt. Gould believes that had a move to West Ham come about earlier, then he may well have had that opportunity.
“Ron Greenwood said to me I nearly bought you when you went to Arsenal, I was interested in you. I said I wish you had of, because if he had I would’ve played for England. If I had gone there at 21, instead of going to Arsenal, I would’ve had been a better player.”
It is refreshingly honest that Gould admits that, acknowledging that the move to Arsenal, which at the time had so much promise to take his career to the next level, actually ended up having the opposite effect, being a detriment to his progression as a player. Maybe it could serve as a warning to a future generation of players, that instead of going to one of the bigger sides just to sit on the bench, it makes more sense to move to a club that fits your style,
While his playing career might not have quite reached the heights that he hoped, his managerial career certainly contained some incredible achievements, especially that FA Cup final. While some players are in two minds about moving up to management, for Gould ‘there was no doubt about that.’ He had a period of coaching in Norway for Aalesunds to gain some experience, then assisted Geoff Hurst at Chelsea from 1979 to 1981. His first job in sole charge of a club was at Bristol Rovers, where he had played during the 1977/79 season. He was in charge there for two seasons before returning to where it all began, at Highfield Road.
“I was headhunted behind the scenes, and they said we’d like you to come back to Coventry… it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”
It wasn’t a simple job awaiting him, as several players were out of contract. He was very busy in the transfer market, signing no less than 25 players during his time in charge. Unfortunately, the team didn’t gel under his stewardship, and after a poor run of results saw them languishing in 21st place by Christmas, Gould was sacked from Coventry. Just three years after he left, a side mainly comprised of players he’d brought to the club made it to the FA Cup final, where against the odds they beat Tottenham 3-2 after injury time. Lesser men would’ve felt bitter or resentful to a former team succeeding with so many of his players, but not Gould, who would make his own appearance at Wembley the following season, when his Wimbledon side took on the might of Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool.
Before it was knocked down and rebuilt, the managers used to lead their teams out from one end of the stadium, making a long walk to the middle of the pitch before lining up side by side. Gould remembers this vividly. “As you walk down the tunnel, both managers walk out together. Kenny was walking quickly, so I said to him slow down. He said what do you mean Goudly? I said you’re a great manager with a great club and team. You can come back, I’m never going to come back!”
His Wimbledon side were heavy underdogs, as they had only been in the First Division for two seasons. They were coming up against the all concurring Liverpool, who had just been crowned league champions for the seventh time in ten years. Despite all the odds, they managed to grab a 1-0 victory. Lawrie Sanchez scored the only goal of the game, while Dave Beasant became the first man to stop a penalty in an FA Cup final, keeping John Alrdige’s effort out. In his typical humble way, Gould credit’s his number two for helping them win on the day; Don Howe, the man who he knew from his playing days at Arsenal
“We’d done our homework, Don Howe had done his homework. On the Friday he came to me and said we’ve got to change it… John Barnes is playing out of his skin. We’ve got to have Dennis Wise on him, who was here there and everywhere to nullify him, made sure he never got the ball.” This change in tactic paid dividends, as Gould and the Crazy Gang caused one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history. He would stay at Wimbledon until 1990, which was followed by brief periods in charge at West Brom, then back at Coventry.
It was his time in charge of the Welsh national team that has received a lot of attention over the years due to a number of unconventional methods (such as leading a training session in a prison, where ‘the conditions were far, far better’ to where they usually trained) and some quite appalling results (most notably a 7-1 hiding against the Dutch in Eindhoven). There was also a rumour that he held a ballot to decide who would be appointed captain, then ignored the result and picked Vinnie Jones anyway (which he denies, saying Jones won it fair and square) and of course the infamous wrestle with John Harston.
“That is true… John was really aggressive against me…so I said to him you fancy a bit, and want to have a go at me? He said yeah…So Neville had my watch, and we had a wrestle, no punching. I look over and Hughes and Giggs were jumping up and down… and I’m thinking I wonder if Fergie would do anything like this?!” An entertaining story, but one that doesn’t necessarily scream squad harmony.
The evening after the wrestle Marj accused Bobby of being with another woman, due to all the scratches on his back he’d received. She eventually believed that it was in fact the big striker from Swansea who had caused them. Thankfully the issue with Harston soon passed, as the two of them exchange friendly messages every now and then.
When reflecting on his time in charge of Wales, Gould feels his struggles came down to never having experienced international football himself as a player.
“Looking back over my history of management, I’d always done my homework and was very thorough… but I never played at international level, so I never appreciated or understood how the players transformed from club football to international football. Looking back now, that was a lack of knowledge on my behalf.” This he believes is what let him down while in charge of Wales, and feels it wasn’t the correct decision to take the job in the first place. “Looking back… I should have said no.”
There were some brief periods back in charge at various clubs such as Cardiff, Cheltenham and Weymouth, but he would never stay long enough to implement his ideas and achieve any success. After one final short spell at non-league Wanderers, Gould time on his career, 49 years after it began.
During his time in charge of Coventry, he went along to watch local semi-pro team Wealdstone United with his wife Marj, when a young, tenacious left-back caught his eye. After just 5 minutes Gould was ready to leave. Marj felt it was rude to leave before half time, but he had clearly seen enough. The left-back made a challenge that really stood out – ‘I’d never seen a tackle so hard or aggressive, leaving the winger virtually in my lap. The next day I went to Wealdstone and I said I’ll give you £22,500 for Stuart Pearce, and the rest is history.’
Gould understood Pearce’s struggles, as he too had been released from QPR as a teenager, and was working as an electrician to make ends meet. “I still have that empathy now because when I got released and went to the labour officer, it was one of the worst feelings in my life.” He shielded Pearce from the first team for a month, making sure he was ready to take the step up in the professional game, then set him loose against QPR and Terry Venables, the man who had let him go. Letting settle him, then unleashing him at the correct moment evidently worked, as “I’d never seen a debut from a non-league player like it.”
The overriding sense you get from speaking to Bobby is a sense of being incredibly thankful for his career, and fortunate to those who helped him get there, such as Jimmy Hill, his parents, and of course his wife Marjorie. “I’m a lucky person, and I am where I am… I’ve always been comfortable with life.”
What is also striking when talking to Gould is his incredible memory for his career, remembering the number of appearances and goals for each of the teams he represented. The 74 year old puts this down to keeping copies of newspapers in his loft, and his passion for the game, that still burns brightly to this day.
“I wanted to be a footballer. No-one was going to take that away from me.”