Monday, February 20, 2017

The Don Givens Interview

Another 70's star is tracked down for our latest interview. Don Givens talks about that great side of thirty years ago, how exciting it was to play in, the agony of missing out on the league title and much more.

QPRnet.com: You moved over from Limerick to sign for Manchester United when you were 17 that must have been like a dream come true for a kid for Ireland?

DG: It was, I was a United supporter as a kid and it was fabulous for me to be mixing with the great players they had at the time like George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law.

I actually made my international debut for Ireland at nineteen having never played a first team game for United. We went on a close season tour of Ireland and there was a few first team players missing so I played a few games and scored some goals. There was an international coming up and it pushed my name forward a bit and I got selected. It was a great boost for me at the time.

QPRnet.com: You made 8 appearances for Man Utd, moved onto Luton for a couple of seasons before Rangers came calling in 1972. At the time both sides were in Division Two, what made you sign for us?

DG: The first season I was at Luton we didn’t make a good attempt at promotion and that summer they sold Malcolm MacDonald to Newcastle so it was clear that they were settling to stay in the division. QPR meanwhile had just missed out on going up and looked like they were more willing to give it a go in the coming season so I just thought QPR had more ambition at the time and that seemed to be a better move for me.

QPRnet.com: You made your debut in the first match of the season at Swindon and scored your first in the next game against Sheff Weds. What do you remember from those early days?

DG: I enjoyed it greatly, I settled in nicely. We were almost playing with three front players with John O’Rourke, Mickey Leach and myself. As we got into that season we bought Stan Bowles and Dave Thomas and with myself that very quickly became the new front three. The very fact they splashed out on two players like showed me the ambition they had and proved we had a chance of doing something.

QPRnet.com: You returned to Luton with Rangers in December and scored both goals in a two all draw, how were you received at Kenilworth Road?

DG: I never really had any problem, it was nice to go back and do well. Back then, and even now I suppose, they were a team of limited ambition because of the size of their support so they never really held anything against people who did well and moved on. I had two seasons there and did all right for them so I was quite well treated.

QPRnet.com: Rangers and Burnley dominated the league that year and we were promoted, just a point behind them as champions. Was there any disappointment in not finishing first or was it all about promotion?

DG: At the time I thought we were a better side than Burnley but I guess the league table doesn’t lie. At the start of the season the aim was to go up, which we did, we’d have liked to won the league of course but the main objective was achieved.

QPRnet.com: After a season or so back in the big time Gordon Jago left and was replaced by Dave Sexton. How did they compare in management style?

DG: Gordon was a lovely man but I thought Dave had a lot more football knowledge. Gordon would rely on Bobby Campbell and Terry Venables to do the coaching and he would concentrate on being a manager whereas as Dave wanted to be on the training pitch.

Dave was ahead of his time, we’d play on a Saturday and he’d fly out to Holland and Germany and watch games there on a Sunday to see what he could learn and use to help us. He had a good relationship with the coach of Borussia Monchengladbach and he was heavily influenced by the great Ajax team of the time so he’d be coming back with ideas for us to work on in training the following week. I’m not even sure managers would do that today.

He was a great coach for forwards, it’s harder to coach strikers than defenders because it’s easier to destroy rather than create. As a forward myself it was marvellous to work with him because he was always coming up with new ideas and new tactics that he could bring into our style of play.

QPRnet.com: Rangers had a couple of average league finishes and then in our third season nearly won the league. Could you see the signs of progression or did it take you by surprise?

DG: It was perhaps a little surprising but we were progressing as a team, We were playing some very, very good football and we had a great bunch of characters in the side but they still gave everything for the team.

We had someone in Frank McLintock who was a marvellous influence on the team, he’d come from Arsenal where things were done at a different level and he tried to introduce those things to QPR and help make it better for us. He didn’t always succeed on the club side of things but he did help the team. He was probably the most influential player I’ve ever lined up with.

We also had Dave Webb who came to us and got a new lease of life. He had moved from Chelsea and people may have thought he’d come to take it easy in the later stages of his career but he really got into the atmosphere and the spirit of the team. We had quality players and we were allowed to play in ways that suited us. We had great attacking players in Gerry Francis, Stan, Dave Thomas and myself and we were given the freedom to play. We all blossomed at the right time.

QPRnet.com: It was a great attacking side what was it like to play in?

DG: It was a fantastic time, especially as a forward. We knew we could score goals and create things and that’s what we were geared towards. We still had the work ethic when we lost the ball but people were allowed to try things and play a little bit off the cuff. I still talk to people now who go on about that side. For example Ron Atkinson was manager of Cambridge at the time and he tells me he would never miss QPR play if he didn’t have a game himself because he just loved the way we played. There are an awful lot of people within the game who appreciate the quality of that side.

QPRnet.com: We were champions with 15 minutes to go of the last game, it must have been devastating to see the title slip away in the way it did?

DG: It was difficult to see it happen. Liverpool at the time were an exceptional team and you would never have bet against them, they seemed to be able to pull things out even if there was five minutes to go. Deep down I always had the feeling that because they did it year in, year out that they would do it again that day. We were downhearted but they had such a good side it didn’t surprise me that they went to Wolves and won.

I was up in Manchester for a United game that was being played at the same time, the score came through at half time as one nil to Wolves which was all very nice but I had a feeling inside that you couldn’t rule them out and unfortunately they proved me right. It was a shame because I think it would have been good for the game if a team playing the kind of football we were at QPR had won the championship.

QPRnet.com: Rangers spent a few more years in the top flight but struggled to make any impact, what had changed?

DG: Rangers had a good team at the time but we didn’t have a good club. I know that sounds critical but it wasn’t structured properly. I felt Jim Gregory wasn’t always interested in doing the best thing for the club. The progression of the team wasn’t always his number one priority. We had a very good manager and a very good team but we were in the wrong place at the right time. That team should have been built on a little bit and we could have been in contention for a few more years. It didn’t happen and within a year to eighteen months that team broke up.

QPRnet.com: You left for Birmingham in the summer of 1978 and we were relegated the following season. What made you move and considering Birmingham were also relegated, do you wish you’d stayed at QPR?

DG: About a year earlier I had the chance to go to Bordeaux and the chairman knocked it on the head. They’d offered two hundred thousand and QPR had only paid Luton thirty five thousand for me. I’d had five seasons at the club and scored around twenty goals a season so I felt there should have been some gratitude coming my way. Then the season after that I was sold to Birmingham for fifty grand less.

When you decide to go you make what you think is the best move at the time. Football wise it didn’t work out for me but I moved to an area where I still live now, made an awful lot of friends, my girls have grown up here and we’re very happy. Sometimes things can go wrong in one way but right in others. I regretted it when we went down and I can honestly say that after QPR I never produced my best stuff again.

QPRnet.com: After a spell with Sheffield United you moved onto Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax, what brought about that move, which must have been seen as an unusual one at the time?

DG: It was unusual, I’d moved to Sheffield United on deadline day until the end of the season. There was a man at the club called Harry Haslam who was the scout who’d recommended me to Luton all those years back. He asked me what I was going to do at the end of the season and I told him I was thinking about going abroad as I’d had an approach from a couple of Dutch clubs. A bit nearer the time he called me and suggested Neuchatel in Switzerland. I went out to watch them play their last game of the season and they won it and qualified for the UEFA cup so that was a bonus as well. I signed for them and had six wonderful seasons, we played in Europe four out of the six years and in the last season I was made captain and we won the league for the first time in the clubs history.

QPRnet.com: How did the Swiss football culture differ to the English?

DG: It differed greatly at the start, I was the only full time player when I first joined. All the boys worked until the afternoon and we trained from half four. I found the players had a really refreshing attitude though. Because they were part time they were so enthusiastic towards training it was amazing, if they coach told them to do forty laps they’d do it and enjoy it. You wouldn’t have got that response from an English pro.

We played on Saturday nights which took some getting used to and if you had an away game you didn’t get home till one o’clock in the morning and then we trained on Sunday mornings as well. Of course in England you have Sunday off. After a while I realised that it was better to do it the Swiss way because you got rid of all your stiffness. We’d come in and do half an hour of jogging and stretching and you felt better for it.

The whole environment was great for me. We got to the quarter finals of the UEFA cup one year and it was great being in a small town, everyone was getting more and more carried away with every round we got through so it was a lovely atmosphere to be involved in.

I went back there as coach and did all my coaching badges out there. I enjoyed the playing side more than the coaching actually because the directors interfere more out there than they do here so that caused one or two arguments!

QPRnet.com: Now you’re coaching the Irish Under 21’s, you’ve had some involvement with QPR’s Martin Rowlands. How do you see him progressing as an international?

DG: Yes, Martin was in the under 21’s when I first took the job. I still think Martin is a little bit too impetuous for me. He is a good player with a lot of qualities but every time I’ve seen him play he could have had a red card, even when he made his full international debut this summer. That’s the area I think he needs to improve on because he certainly has some ability.

QPRnet.com: You were Ireland caretaker manager after Mick McCarthy’s departure; having been an accomplished international yourself did you have any ambitions to take the job full time?

DG: No I was quite happy to stay on the development side. I’ve been doing it for four years now and I’ve seen plenty of players come through and get full caps, it’s a very rewarding feeling. When they make their debut I end up being more nervous than the kid though! I work with them for eighteen months and when they get on with the full side I’m kicking every ball with them!

I’m happy doing what I’m doing at the moment but you never know what’s round the corner. An offer could come up in the future but you never know. Right now it’s very satisfying helping players come through and improve. Once a player gets to under 21 status with us he already has the ability, after that it’s all down to what’s between their ears, so sometimes it’s not just about coaching the technical side of the game. You can spend half an hour just talking through things with a player and making sure the attitude is right, that’s just as important as the football coaching. 

QPRnet.com: As someone who played in the golden era of football and is coaching today, how has the game changed, are the players better in any way now?

DG: I think things have changed for the better in many ways, I don’t think players are better technically but the players have much better facilities to work with. If you go back and look at old photos of Loftus Road from when I was playing it was like a beach once you got past September there was so much sand on it. So for us to have played the stuff we did on that surface proved we were a pretty good side. These days Highbury is like a billiard table every single match and the players train on a billiard table every single day so things have improved in those areas.

Also the nutrition, recovery and the stretching have improved so much. In the seventies we barely did a warm up, you’d come out three minutes before the game, do a couple of stretches have a shot or two and away you’d go. At the time I knew no better but I know now that it isn’t the best way to do things. So I think all the scientific knowledge that has come into the game has made the world of difference.

On the flip side though is the pressure to get results has increased so much now. Managers don’t have the time to develop a style of play or let players have any freedom because a few bad results and they’re out of the door. So they go for the type of player that will get them results not necessarily the type of player that will play good attacking football.

I’m convinced this is why England struggles to find good wide players because they can be a bit of luxury and not the best workers and with a managers job on the line they will pick the workers every time. That’s a great pity because it stems from the Premiership all the way down the leagues.

Most of the football I watch is down the divisions and sometimes I can go four or five weeks and never see four passes put together. It’s all about squeezing up and getting it in over the top of your opponents and good players are never going to develop under that style of play. That’s the bad side of modern day football.

QPRnet.com: How do you look back on your time at Rangers?

DG: From my playing point of view it was my best time in football and if I meet anybody today then the club they associate me with is QPR. I still see a lot of the boys from that team, I’m in touch with Frank McLintock, Phil Parkes, Dave Thomas and Don Masson. It was just a special time and it’s nice that the team we were in is still remembered thirty years later because of the quality of football we played.

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