John Richards’ latest Q & A interview has taken on a slightly difference appearance – due partly to the special challenges presented by phone conversations across the world.
Wolves Heroes’ co-owner engaged Skype to renew acquaintances with Neil Emblen, a man he knew well from his time on the Molineux board in the mid-1990s.
And such was his fascination with Neil’s success and current situation Down Under that he decided to present his article as part feature and part interview.
Interest was high, of course, in the summer Olympics, at which JR’s latest subject was lucky enough to play a part through his management of the New Zealand football team.
Our apologies, therefore, to those readers whose questions have not been directly posed and answered. Normal business will be resumed on that front next time.
Q: So, Neil kick us off, if you would, with an update of where your career is at now (From JR)
Q: And please tell us what the whole Olympics experience was like (From Mutchy)
A: I’ve been in New Zealand seven years and am now helping as assistant coach with the national team, which is unbelievable really. We’ve just had World Cup games against Tahiti, home and away, and we’re only three games away from getting through to the 2014 finals. To be part of that is brilliant and, obviously, I was the Olympic coach this year. That was a fantastic experience taking the team over to the UK.
But my club situation has been funny and it’s a bit tough now as I’m out of work. I was playing and working as assistant coach for two years, then took over the main job for the last three years – and we won the league in each of those seasons. But the club got a bit funny about me working with the national team and then the Olympic team. They said they thought it was affecting me, so they appointed a new coach in the off season.
There is one guy on the board who has put in quite a bit of money and he was expecting to be the logistics manager for the Olympics but I wasn’t in a position to pick the staff. I had to work with whoever New Zealand Football wanted me to work with. I think this guy was expecting me to get him the job. So, they have appointed a new coach who hasn’t won anything – it’s quite strange.
Another guy who basically founded the club has walked away because he can’t believe the decision they have taken. How can you not want the Olympic team coach to be the manager of your club?
When I came over here, it was to play for the only professional club in New Zealand, Auckland Knights. That team have moved to Wellington now and they’ve offered me a job as the head of youth development but my family are settled here in Auckland and it’s a nine-hour drive to Wellington or a 45-minute flight. And that would be for a job which doesn’t pay very well anyhow. It’s difficult to justify making the move. So, since I came back from the Olympics, I haven’t done anything. My garden looks magnificent!
Obviously, because of the current situation, it’s very limiting for me. The national team coach is Ricki Herbert, who you may remember from Wolves. He was my manager at the Knights and I did a good job for him. I was 37 when the club moved to Wellington and Ricki told me he couldn’t take me with him as an import. But, because we’d worked well together, he got me involved with the national team, and that’s been really good. Actually, Ricki has now got the best two jobs in the country – national team coach and coach of Wellington Phoenix, who are in the A League (the one based in Australia).
The problem I have is that the coaching qualifications over here are very specific to Oceania. Basically, I have got these jobs without any qualifications. I’ve done well locally and come from a decent playing background. For me to go to places like Australia, though, I need to get licences.
Although Australia comes under Asia, the advice I’ve had is to go to England and get the badge because if I ever want to work in England or Europe, they’re not going to accept an Oceania or Asian badge. So, what’s the point of me spending time and money on getting an Asian badge when I was already doing two of the best jobs in the country without the qualifications. Consequently, I’m not skilled or qualified enough to go anywhere else. And now I’m reading that former colleagues of mine like Dougie Freedman and Malky Mackay are earning small fortunes in managerial jobs in the UK. Dougie, in particular, has only won a handful of games at Crystal Palace and then gets the Bolton job. It makes me wonder.
What we earn over here is chicken feed in comparison. My fee for taking the Olympics team to the UK was around £3,500. However, I got a lot of satisfaction from doing the job. How many Englishmen can say they have taken a national team to the Olympics? There’s only me and Stuart Pearce who have done it. In the Olympics, we played against Brazil and we had to try to come up with tactics to stop Namar – you just can’t buy that sort of experience.
If I’d had the qualifications, the Olympics would have been the best time for me to put out a few feelers in the UK. Winning the three titles over here is great but it’s only Conference standard football. However, it might have tempted some clubs, given my involvment with the national team as well. But I don’t have the badge. Also, there are retiring players in the UK who have earned sufficient money to be able to offer their services for nothing just to get a chance of coaching with a club. So it’s difficult for me.
I’m not complaining about my situation because, since we moved here, it has been like an extended holiday. We’ve had a wonderful time. It’s such a beautiful place….you want to do everything. We’ve been to Fiji three times, the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney. We’ve done it all. When you are in this sort of location, it’s too good an opportunity too miss. You’ve got to do it. Our daughters are now 13 and nine, and were six and two when we left England, so they only really know here. This place is so amazing and I’ve had brilliant opportunities already. Trouble is that I’ve probably got as far as I can get – and I’ve only been coaching properly for three years.
Q: I know you are a southern lad…..who was your team growing up and who do you watch for these days? (From Reanswolf)
A: Brighton & Hove Albion were the first professional club I was taken to see because my uncle lived in Brighton. I went to the FA Cup final against Manchester United when I was about ten. They got beaten in the replay but should have won the first game at Wembley. We were sitting in the United end and were lucky when Gordon Smith went through that he didn’t score. It was a long time after, about 25 years, before my dad actually told me this story. He reckons we wouldn’t have made it out of the stadium alive if Smith had scored! I have to admit, though, that Glenn Hoddle was my idol as I was growing up in the 1980s, so I got a soft spot for Spurs. They had some great players, like Ossie Ardiles and Hoddle. They were very good in that era.
Q: Many thanks for your total commitment at Wolves, it was a pleasure watching you play. After signing from Sittingbourne, you played for Millwall just 12 times in a year. But you must have shown your potential, as Wolves snapped you up for £600,000, a sizeable fee in 1994. Were you recommended to Graham Taylor by one of his contacts? How did your move to Molineux come about? (From Berlin Wolf)
A: I had a whirlwind seven months. I signed professionally for Millwall in October, 1993, when I was 22. Tom Whalley was the youth coach. Although I wasn’t in the youth team, it was Tom who recommended me to Graham Taylor. They had worked together at Watford. I only played a dozen or so games for Millwall. They paid £175,000 for me and, at the end of the season, I was on my way to Wolves for £600,000. In the space of seven months, I went from playing in front of 200 people to 28,000 in my first Wolves game against Reading. In some respects, I was a late developer. I got turned down at 16 by Watford for being too small. I grew late and actually took a wage cut to go to Millwall. At Sittingbourne, I was paid and I’d got a full-time job in a leisure centre. I was aware that professional club scouts were watching me but Millwall put money on the table for me. Even though it was late, from an age point of view, I always knew I would get a chance with a professional club. I always felt it was going to happen for me.
Q: You played in almost every position bar goalkeeper during your time at Wolves. Is there any reason why you were never considered for between the sticks. Don’t you like wearing gloves or something? (From O.W.E.I.)
Q: Although you were regarded as a utility player during your time at the club, what did you feel was your natural or favourite position? (From RJs Tankard)
A: I actually did get the full set. I have played in goal as a professional. It was when I was at Walsall. Jimmy Walker was sent off and we’d already used three substitutes. Ironically, we were playing at Millwall. I knew I’d played in every position for Wolves and just needed to play in goal to get the full set, so I literally grabbed the goalkeeper’s shirt with five minutes to go at the New Den. I think my versatility was largely down to the fact my dad used to make me practise with my left foot. He made me take my right boot off and kick with my left; the old school way of learning!
Q: I really enjoyed your ‘powerhouse’ midfield performances, for example when you and Geoff Thomas were both fit and we beat Albion at Molineux. Thanks for those great memories, Neil. What do you feel was your most ‘effective’ (as opposed to being your favourite) position? (From reanswolf)
A: I always felt comfortable at centre-back. The Wolves factor was quite interesting. I was always very energetic at Wolves and loved playing in midfield, just because I could expend all that energy. When you’re 6ft-plus and charging into the penalty area to get on the end of crosses, you always had a chance of scoring. There was a spell at Wolves when we had two or three 1-0 wins very close together and I scored the goals; the press coverage was good because, no matter what else you do, score a goal and everyone remembers it. If you asked me to choose between centre midfield and centre-back, I’d have to say either. I was happy in both positions.
Q: Your Wolves career overlapped with a fair few recent greats (Bull, Keane, Lescott, Murray, Richards, Curle). Which player/players did you most enjoy playing with? (From those were the days)
A: It gives me a great buzz when watching Premier League games on the television to see the likes of Joleon Lescott doing so well. I noticed on Wolves Heroes that me and him had played the same number of games for Wolves – 235. You always knew with Joleon that he was going to be a top player; a very humble lad and respectful of all the players he was with then. He had the right mentality and attitude. He just looks the same now as when he was at Wolves. When I do talks and I’m asked who is the best player I played with, it has to be Robbie Keane. He was only 17 when he made his debut. He was a natural and played with such freedom at that age, and has continued playing like that throughout his career. He’s still scoring goals in LA and he’s such a lovely lad. You always want those types to do well, and Robbie and Joleon have done just that. We had some good players in the team then but it was a strange league. You’d never win the pools because it was impossible to work out who was going to win. Even now, it’s difficult to work out in the current Championship. You can look at 60 per cent of the games and not be able to pick out a winner. There’s nothing between them. It has always been that sort of league. If you put a run together, like Reading did last season, you are going to go up. Usually, it’s a case of win two, lose one. It’s unusual to get a run together like Reading did. This year, nobody is running away with it and, come next Easter, a lot of them will be in with a chance of going up.
Q: What went wrong at the end of the Graham Taylor regime? (From those were the days)
Q: When you were sold to Palace, did you really want to go? And how did you feel when they sold you back to us? (From Surrey Wolf)
A: If I’m being honest, I don’t think Graham was given enough time at Wolves. We finished in the play-offs in his only full season when we looked like we might go up automatically but ended up losing to Bolton after a wonder goal from Jason McAteer. We also had a lot of injuries that season. Then, we didn’t start off so well the next season, everybody gets impatient and it’s time for a change. I think Graham was still scarred by the England situation and it was still fresh in the memory of some people – he’s failed with England and he’s failing with wolves, so let’s get him out. I think it was too early because, when I look back on my career and consider who got the most out of me, I certainly say Graham was up there. In the first season after he’d signed me, he turned me into a midfielder and gave me unbelievable confidence. At one stage, he was telling me I could be just like David Platt and I got seven goals in 26 starts, which was a decent return for a midfielder. He didn’t have to say anything to you. You could tell by the way he looked at you how you’d played. At the end of the game, you didn’t want that look which said you’d let him down. It hurt more than him saying anything.
I didn’t want to leave Wolves. I’d still got a year left on my contract and I’d built up a great rapport with the supporters. I didn’t seek the move but Palace were offering an unbelievable amount of money for someone with just a year left on their contract. When I think about it, I was probably one of the few players Wolves have made money on. At the time, they were buying players for a million pounds and giving them frees at the end of their contracts. I think that situation made Mark McGhee sell me; it was a chance to get some money back and get a couple of new players in during the close season. Mark told me he didn’t want me to go but it was too good an offer to turn down. And, for me, it was an opportunity to play in the Premier League. Palace were a local club, about 45 minutes from where I was born, but I knew from the minute I arrived that it wasn’t right for me. The fee to Wolves was in stage-payments, so they decided to have me back for a cut-price fee. That was fine by me and I think Wolves made a profit on the deal of about £900,000 over a six-month period. So, when I work it out over the seven years I was there, I probably didn’t cost the club anything.