Canavan Years: McMahon as manager took no prisoners

Former Blackpool FC manager Steve McMahon.
Former Blackpool FC manager Steve McMahon.
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Steve Canavan celebrated 10 years as The Gazette’s Blackpool FC writer earlier this year, to celebrate he share his memories of his favourite moments.

In the first of a five-part feature, Steve concentrates on the Steve McMahon era and reminisces about two LDV successes... oh and getting the infamous hairdryer treatment by a less than impressed manager.

MATCH of the Day, January 7, 2002. The first time I watched Blackpool with anything other than a passing interest.

I was at home in Bury, as Gary Lineker and co picked over the Seasiders brave 2-1 FA Cup defeat at Charlton, then flying high in the Premier League, the glory days under Alan Curbishley.

Two things caught my eye. The tangerine kit. Very bright. And a lad called John Hills. I’d never heard of him before but he scored a belter at the Valley that day, chipping a beauty into the top corner.

Two late Charlton goals (the first courtesy of an unbelievably harsh penalty, the second converted by Jason Euell, ironically enough) left Blackpool on their knees.

Normally this wouldn’t have grabbed my attention, but I’d just landed the job as the Gazette’s football writer and I started work on the Monday.

“I’ll stay for a couple of years, then move on to another paper,” I thought. Didn’t quite turn out like that.

I’d been at the Bolton Evening News prior to heading to the Fylde.

My only real experience of Blackpool had been a night out with my parents as a youngster, scared to death when a fight kicked off outside a pub on the promenade, and beer bottles and noses went flying in all directions.

Still, I was looking forward to it.

After all what more could a grown man desire than a tower, illuminations and a giant Morrisons?

I was also excited about working with Steve McMahon. The guy was a footballing legend, a true hero of the game. He’d be a decent fella right?

The illusion was shattered within days of taking the job.

At one of my first matches, I sat alongside a scout.

‘Who you watching?’ I casually enquired, accidentally failing to add that I was a journalist. “John Hills,” he replied. “I’ve been sent here by Derby County”.

Exciting stuff. Derby were Premier League at the time. I ran the story on the back page later that week.

The next match was at Reading. The Seasiders were terrible, well beaten, with Brian Reid and keeper Phil Barnes involved a shocking mix-up for one of the goals.

Needless to say McMahon wasn’t in a good mood. After he’d done his interview with the media, he turned to me and said: “You got a minute?”

Still naively unconcerned, I trudged up the tunnel after him. He turned left into a little room. I followed, like a lamb to the slaughter.

What happened next would have made lesser men crumble.

McMahon launched into a tirade about the Hills’ story – to downplay this as merely getting the ‘hairdryer treatment’ would be doing the moment an utter disservice.

Looking back now that turned out to be the high point of our relationship.

The next season, when Blackpool had started well before slipping down the division as the year wore on – as tended to happen under Macca – he called me into his office.

He was sat in his chair, my double page match report of Saturday’s game on his desk. His face was bright red. It didn’t bode well.

“I’ve highlighted the bits of your report that I think are utter crap,” he spat.

I looked down at the report. It was entirely covered in highlighter pen.

Thinking back I didn’t really help myself.

I’ve always been one to try and make my articles entertaining, to keep things light-hearted. I’m not of the Bill Shankly school, I don’t believe football is a matter of life and death and never will do.

In the report McMahon was fuming about, the game had been a deathly dull 0-0 and my third paragraph read: “This match was so boring, the only moment the crowd showed any vague enthusiasm was when the Red Arrows flew overhead just before half time. When that excitement passed, they nodded off again.”

McMahon, a man whose job and livelihood depended on performances and results, was never going to see the funny side and I don’t blame him for getting riled.

That said, I wasn’t going to change and write what he wanted me to.

In fairness, McMahon got the team playing some fine football during his time in charge and he deserves credit for moving the club in the right direction.

He just didn’t like me, and a relationship which was always difficult became downright impossible the day of the infamous ‘I quit ... erm, hang on a minute, I’ve changed my mind’ press conference.

It was a surreal period.

We’d discovered McMahon had gone for the Oldham job. He said he didn’t, and publicly accused the Gazette of fabrication. We weren’t for backing down and printed a back page headline saying just that.

Then a press conference was called. Chairman Karl Oyston announced McMahon had quit. Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door, McMahon popped his head in and asked for a word with the chairman. Moments later the pair of them walked back into the room and announced that McMahon hadn’t quit at all.

The dozen or so assembled members of the press, including the Sky and the BBC, looked on in astonishment. My heart sank so low it almost appeared in my shoe.

Throughout that press conference McMahon stared at me like a snake eyeing its prey.

And for the next four months, from January 2004 until McMahon finally did go in the April, the realtionship hardly improved shall we say.

It wasn’t pleasant. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was the worst period in my entire journalistic career, stretching back to the mid-1990s. If he hadn’t left at the end of that season, I’m not sure I’d have carried on.

With the team’s league form worsening (though not before, bizarrely, lifting the LDV Vans Trophy at the Millennium Stadium), McMahon parted company with the club the day after a surreal Player of the Year night when the atmosphere was downright poisonous.

Bizarre times, but on the upside never a dull moment I suppose.

Other memories of the Macca years? The opening of the north and west stands in February 2002. I had only been in the job a few weeks and it was great to see Bloomfield Road, a venue I’d been to several times in the late 1990s when following Bury looking so glorious.

And thankfully those stands did open. Before that, us hacks had to watch the action from a temporary press box at the back corner of the old south stand. When the ball was down the other end of the pitch you couldn’t see a thing. Several journalists used to turn up with binoculars.

Favourite players from that period were Richie Wellens, a midfielder who played the game the way I liked – unselfish and full of clever passes; Martin Bullock, a gloriously tricky and pacy winger who could wreak havoc against any lower league defence; and Scott Taylor, a man not as brave as John Murphy but who just seemed to score big goals at important times.

McMahon’s presence meant I never got as close to the lads in that dressing room as I did under subsequent managers but there were some great characters in there, like Hills, Tommy Jaszczun, Phil Barnes.

It was a great learning curve for me as a young sports reporter but would I repeat the experience? Not a chance.

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