Interview: Gunn slings his hat in the ring at City
BRYAN GUNN is a decisive character, whose instinct rarely lets him down. Even as a young man, he was happy to act on impulse, meeting a girl on holiday, and proposing three days later. "We've been going strong ever since," he says, reflecting on a marriage that is nearly 20 years old. Last Sunday morning, the two of them were wandering along Holkham Beach, a deserted stretch of sand on the Norfolk coast, wondering whether to accept the biggest challenge of his professional career.
Norwich City, the other love of his life, had a managerial vacancy, and everyone – players, fans, even family – wanted him to go for it. He, too, fancied giving it a shot, having failed with an application in 1998. In 22 years of almost unbroken service to the club, on and off the pitch, he had done everything – from playing to coaching their goalkeepers, fulfilling a variety of commercial roles, and most recently, assuming responsibility for player recruitment – but he had never been their manager. "That walk along the beach really cleared my head, really made me focus on what was for the best," he says. "That was when we realised that I had to go for it. I would never have another opportunity like it."
The former Aberdeen goalkeeper, who swapped Pittodrie for Carrow Road in 1986, has long been a legend in Norwich. During 13 years as a player, and nine more behind the scenes, his relationship with the club, its supporters and the community beyond has been one of deep, mutual respect. He gave them 477 appearances, and dizzying memories of a Premiership title challenge. They gave him two player-of-the-year awards, and never-to-be- forgotten support when his family lost their daughter to leukaemia. When it came to the club's hour of need, he wanted to be there for them.
On Monday morning, the 45-year-old Scot called the directors to confirm his interest, underwent an afternoon interview, and by 10.30am the next day, had been appointed manager until the end of the season. Ian Crook and John Deehan, colleagues of his in the club's glory days, were drafted in to the backroom staff, and a "whirlwind week" only slowed down yesterday, when his team were without a fixture. If his first match in charge, at home to Southampton on Tuesday, goes half as well as last weekend's dry run against Barnsley, when he was caretaker, the fans are in for a treat.
Gunn had stepped into the breach after Glenn Roeder's dismissal, and presided over a 4-0 defeat of Barnsley. The fans had given him a euphoric reception, as had the players, whose four second-half goals hauled beleaguered Norwich out of the Championship's relegation zone. In the dressing room afterwards, their midfielder, Darel Russell, dragged the chairman, Roger Munby, into the shower, and demanded that Gunn be appointed permanently. On the internet later, a Facebook group called "Bryan Gunn for manager", created by his 17-year-old daughter, Melissa, gathered nearly 3,000 members. "The reaction against Barnsley really got me thinking," he says. "The atmosphere was great, and it helped the players. Having previously been booed off the pitch, this was a more settled environment, where they were able to relax and be patient. It just shows you the part a crowd can play in football."
If, as some suggest, his appointment is a cheap, populist measure designed to appease the club's disillusioned season-ticket holders, would that be such a bad thing? Gunn says the fans can be a force for good. He realised that in 1992, when his two-year-old daughter, Francesca, lost her battle with leukaemia. Just days later, he played against Queens Park Rangers at Carrow Road, somehow producing an outstanding performance that is remembered to this day in Norwich. That courage has since helped him in a battle with ankylosing spondylitis, a rheumatic spinal condition diagnosed 15 years ago, which he controls with medication.
"I have had some horrible things happen to me in life, but they make you realise how important is to keep going. You have to be positive. The support I had from people during Francesca's illness, and when I returned to football just a few days after the funeral, taught me a lot. The response from the supporters that day helped me through it. If they can find some of that compassion when it is their football club in trouble, maybe we can do something here."
He has never considered managing elsewhere. Admittedly, no opportunities have come his way, but even if they had, he would have been hard pressed to accept them. Most of his playing career was spent in Norwich. Two of his children have grown up there. Francesca is buried in a graveyard not far from the club. The leukaemia appeal he and Susan launched after their daughter's death has raised more than 900,000. A laboratory was established in her name. In 2002, the 10th anniversary of their appeal, he was appointed Sheriff of Norwich by the City Council.
All of which will ensure that Gunn's honeymoon period lasts longer than most, but in the end, like everyone else, his fate will be decided by results. Although Sir Alex Ferguson, Gordon Strachan and Alex McLeish, friends from his days at Aberdeen, encouraged him to go for it, they also reminded him that a 4-0 debut win was as good as it gets. So far, his contribution to the club has been flawless, untainted by failure. Now, Gunn is up there to be shot at, with more to lose than gain. "I was willing to put my neck on the line, and hopefully the players and fans will respond, but this isn't about me," he insists. "All I am thinking about is Norwich City. I love the club, and I'm hurt by where it is. I want to do something about it."
Gunn, owner of six Scotland caps, has come a long way since he was born in Thurso, and brought up in Invergordon, where his mother still lives. He signed for Aberdeen at 14, babysitting for Ferguson, and washing his car, but ultimately failing to displace Jim Leighton from the first team. After 21 appearances, he moved to Norwich in 1986, as a replacement for Chris Woods. In 1993, he helped them to finish third in the Premiership, and the following season featured in a historic defeat of Bayern Munich.
His manager in those days was Mike Walker, who put paid, albeit temporarily, to the theory that goalkeepers do not make good managers. He argued, in fact, that the goalkeeper's solitary position on the pitch had allowed him to enjoy a better view of the game, and therefore a better understanding of it. Gunn, who finished his playing career with a brief spell at Hibs, thinks the shouting he did at defenders will serve him well in the dressing room. He also suspects that his work in the club's commercial department will enable him to accept the club's limited resources. "We have 20,000 season-ticket holders, but we are not able to compete with the big boys any more. The income generated sometimes doesn't cover the wage bill. In '93, we were beating Man Utd, Arsenal, the lot, but that's not realistic now. We have to cut our cloth. That's why the academy is so important. We have had players come through, like Craig Bellamy and Robert Green, who are worth millions of pounds. Hopefully there will be a few more."
Maybe even one by the name of Gunn. His 13-year-old son, Angus, plays for the under-14s. Add to that Melissa's modelling, and it is clearly a talented family. Bryan's wife is an internationally acclaimed abstract artist who won the 2006 Sovereign European Painting Prize. "I was trying to sell some of Susan's work to Alex (Ferguson], who is an art lover, but he has different tastes," says Gunn. Perhaps, in the years ahead, he will be able to interest his old boss in a player or two.
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