Interview: Archie Knox on being a legendary second in command

When I arrive at the Newton Mearns trattoria there's no sign of Archie Knox and for a horrible moment I think I've got the time of our rendezvous wrong, that he's already been and grumpily gone. Then I have an even more horrible thought that he'll re-appear, roar at me for about ten minutes, cause a kerfuffle among the ladies who lunch, and order me to run round the nearby shopping centre.

Archie Knox reflected on a career as a perennial and perennially successful No 2 to greats such as Sir Alex Ferguson. Picture: John Devlin
Archie Knox reflected on a career as a perennial and perennially successful No 2 to greats such as Sir Alex Ferguson. Picture: John Devlin

This is how Knox’s memoirs begin. Two Aberdeen players in separate incidents, Steve Cowan and Brian Mitchell, are sentenced to punishment jogs within the first seven pages. Both times they’re forgotten about, in Mitchell’s case for two hours, so they keep on running. I should say that Knox doesn’t impose the penances by himself, that Sir Alex Ferguson was also involved and, indeed, in Cowan’s case the circling of the track was for daring to bowl out Fergie in a pre-season cricket match. But Knox doesn’t sound like he was ever the silent partner in this managerial relationship, or the good cop.

Aha, I say, I bet he didn’t pull that stunt with Paul Ince, who at Manchester United used to address him as “Jock B*****d” or Marco Negri at Rangers who when asked to run the channels and show for the full-backs sighed: “Have you watched me play before? You know I don’t do that.” Of course I say this to myself, and quietly, just before Knox appears, flustered, accepting blame for the mix-up.

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If, as Fergie would put it, you want to be a top, top manager, you send for Knox as back-up. Or you did before he retired. He was football’s pre-eminent No 2: assistant to Fergie at the Dons and Man U, right-hand man to Walter Smith at Rangers and Everton and Tonto for Craig Brown at Scotland and other locations

I’m expecting him to be gruff, abrasive, nothing less than a human blast-furnace. Who can forget how, when Smith didn’t like a question from Chick Young in the Ibrox tunnel, the boss sought a second opinion from Knox with our man concluding that the best way of answering the BBC Scotland interrogator would be to “ram the f****n’ microphone up his arse”.

But Knox is nothing like that today. Indeed he’s as cuddly as his tea-cosy. He’s almost apologetic for having penned his life story. “It’s no’ me,” he says, “just like personalised number-plates are no’ me and big parties are no’ me. My daughters bought me a plate for Christmas as I was coming up to my 70th birthday but I told them I didn’t want it. God almighty, I said, did they not know their father better than that? I think the plate cost 600 quid but I was never one for big motors during my career and a see-me registration would just make me cringe.

“I won that argument but lost out on the party. Susan and Lesley made me have it. And for the book an awful lot of arm-twisting went on.”

It’s a rattlingly good tale: from Station Park, Forfar to Gothenburg glory with Aberdeen to laying the foundations for the Red Devils’ greatest era to nine-in-a-row with Rangers. The last page lists his honours and you may laugh when you see the 1978-79 Forfarshire Cup triumph in same-size type as the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Super Cup but it’s no less important. Without it, the rest wouldn’t have followed.

“Without Sam Smith, the Forfar Athletic chairman, talking me out of quitting as manager – which he did on a number of occasions – then I would have been gone from football. I would have become a surveyor or a joiner and all 
these exciting times wouldn’t have happened.

“I was very lucky to have Sam as my first chairman, and very lucky to have Dick Donald at Aberdeen and Martin Edwards at Manchester United. Even though I was the No 2 I could speak directly to them. The way football is now there are so many other people involved. The way football is now it’s four games and you’re oot [the total the just-sacked Frank de Boer got at Crystal Palace]. I wouldn’t have survived in the modern game with some of the tricks I pulled with young players. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories… ”

More of them shortly but let’s get back to Forfar, Knox’s first managerial posting. The club had been his first as a player, too, when as he says: “We were known as Forfar nil. I was playing when we lost 9-1 at Third Lanark. Luckily I wasn’t when we lost 8-1 at Berwick Rangers on Christmas Day [1965] but the bus journey back up the road was grim.” The Loons were in no better fettle when he became player-boss. “First game at Arbroath we only had nine men and had to borrow some of theirs. I got the phone numbers of the guys who’d gone missing from the secretary and called them up that night. One of them said: “Aye, I read in the local paper you were the new manager but I didn’t think you’d pick me.’

“The turnout at training sometimes wasn’t much better. On another of my ring-rounds this young lad told me: ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it, I was at the Buzzcocks.’ ‘The whit?’ I said. I’d no idea they were a pop group. Then there was this promising youngster I tried to sign from the Fife Juniors. I was telling him the deal, training Tuesdays and Thursdays, but he said: ‘Ach, that’s a shame. Tuesday is my social night, darts and dominoes down the pub –sorry!’

“I couldn’t believe stuff like that. The chance to play football, turn professional, maybe end up playing for a big club – wasn’t that every boy’s dream? It was times like these when I wanted to jack in management, but Sam aye calmed me right down.”

Soon Forfar were no longer playing like bridies and they gave Rangers a fright in the 1977-78 League Cup semi-final. Knox was getting noticed, although in that Forfarshire Cup final the following season the club could have paid for their over-excitement.

“We were beating Dundee 2-1 with ten minutes left when the secretary announced over the loudspeaker: “The cup will be presented to Forfar after the final whistle’. Thankfully we held on.”

At Man U the un-bridie-like personnel included Ince, Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce. At Rangers: Paul Gascoigne, Brian Laudrup, Mark Hateley, Alexei Mikhailichenko. Big players often come with big egos but, after haring round Angus looking for anyone who fancied a game, Knox says they were easy. “Maybe once, at United, there was the potential for a wee problem. I’d begun training in the morning but everyone was rubbish so I told them to go away, have a think about their attitude and come back in the afternoon, when of course footballers like to be doing their own thing. Bryan Robson went to Alex and said: ‘Archie’s spat out the dummy and the lads are not happy.’ Alex said: ‘What time does he want you back?’ ‘Two o’clock.’ ‘Then make sure you are.’ So the boss backed me. If it had gone the other way I would have been beat.”

Coping with superstars was certainly child’s play next to the working life of Knox’s late wife Janis. “She was a schoolteacher having to look after big classrooms. In Dundee the number got up to 45. She’d come home in tears.

“That put any problems I had right in the shade. Funny moments would happen now and again. I mean, this isn’t particularly funny, but one Monday morning she asked the kids what their weekend had been like and this lad piped up: ‘My daddy ran off with Winnie the Clippie.’”

Janis died of pancreatic cancer in 2006. “You never get over something like that. Good friends in football were very supportive. Gazza came to see her in hospital. Janis passed away on Christmas Eve so Lesley, who now lives in Spain, and Susan and I always make sure we’re at her graveside that day. My big regret in life is that my career caused so much upheaval to the family. Do you know that I’ve lived in 28 houses? Football consumed me. It does that to us, I’m afraid, and I feel guilty about that. It was only after Janis died and I was helping out “Bomber” [John] Brown when he was in charge at Dundee, leaving for England at the crack of dawn, watching as many as three games and not getting back until 2am, that I said to myself: ‘What the hell am I daein?’

“Moving around so often can be tough on kids, but the girls have turned out great and Janis never once complained. The girls aren’t shy of work and that’s down to their mother because I couldn’t be around that much when they were growing up. Janis was an amazing woman and I was No 2 behind her as well, no doubt about that.”

So what makes a good No 2? “I think you have to recognise your position,” says Knox. “You’re the assistant and you can have your viewpoint. The pair of you can have your differences of opinion and that was true with Walter and certainly with Alex, but the boss would have the final say.”

Now he’s laughing, having just remembered a Pittodrie confab in Teddy’s Room – named after semi-legendary physio Teddy Scott – when he and Ferguson settled on team selection only for the latter to make three alterations when he read out the line-up to the players. “Back in Teddy’s Room I said: ‘Whit the hell happened there?’ Alex didn’t really like that tone and came back at me quite sharp. ‘You had Drew Jarvie up front and now he’s not even on the bench,’ I said. He said: ‘Ach, go back and tell one of the young boys he’s not playing.’

Early on he wasn’t sure the partnership was going to work. Fergie was doing all the training at Aberdeen and Knox was left feeling like a spare part. “I said to him: ‘Why am I even here?’ He didn’t understand but then he thought it would be a good idea if I took the 
sessions.” He rates Fergie as the greatest ever. “It all comes from his background, Govan lad, having to fight all the way, that absolute determination to succeed. And he used you guys in the press brilliantly: ‘Everyone’s against us, we’ll never get a decision’ and so on. Plus, while he and Jim McLean couldn’t be separated on tactical 
brilliance, Alex was the better man-manager.” Okay, that’s enough praise for the man: Knox also likes to tell 
stories sending him up.

There was the time in Munich, on the eve of the Bayern tie en route to Aberdeen’s Euro triumph, when Fergie decided to take the training, with the players suspecting this was because Bayern legends were watching. This left Knox in the huff, but in the drills balls were bouncing off heads and everywhere they shouldn’t – “shambolic” was Mark McGhee’s verdict. Then there was the 1987 Man U friendly in Bermuda where a player shortage forced Knox, then 40, to play right-back, a debut which turned out better than expected when he was set up by Brian McClair for a blistering goal. Fergie decided to join the action from the bench only for the players to collude in not passing him the ball. “He was absolutely raging,” laughs Knox.

There are times in his story when he sounded absolutely relentless. “That’s because I was,” he smiles. Hard work never hurt anybody. He learned that growing up in the Angus village of Tealing where his father was a farm labourer, even if beheading thistles the entire six weeks of the summer holidays and only being paid half a crown seemed to young Archie to be “worse than slavery”. But if he was a scary sergeant-major to his charges – the superstars and the protégés like Ryan Giggs who he courted tirelessly – then to a man they praise his coaching and were grateful for his sense of humour. You could have fun with Knox: chuck him in a pool, as Gordon Strachan did, unaware he couldn’t swim; or stick his tracksuit underneath a blown-down tree, as Dave Watson did, to suggest to Everton players he’d perished in the gales. Such are the privileges of being the No 2.

Knox left the Dons to become No 1 at Dundee and is honest enough to admit that ego was behind his decision to accept Fergie’s invitation to go back. “I’d got used to winning trophies. I had a no’ bad side at Dens, but it was breaking up. I’d have ended up fighting relegation, maybe sacked. You should aye move before you’re found out!” He’s similarly candid about his reasons for leaving Man U when they were on the brink of greatness: “Sure, I wanted to work with Walter, but Rangers were going to pay me more money.”

At Ibrox he was a father-figure to Gazza. “What a player. I can still see him, before the [1996] Scottish Cup final, in my old suit – three sizes too big. He’d turned up without any gear and needed my old shoes as well. Walking around the Hampden pitch beforehand he got playing keepy-uppy with the ballboys. Jock Brown on TV mentioned ‘these £400 Gucci loafers’. If only he’d known they were scabby 30 bobbers from Burrell’s! Gazza would have been OK if he could have played football 24/7 – that or fished. It’s a tragedy what’s happened to him. He was changing his phone number every fortnight and I haven’t spoken to him for a while. You hope for the best, but I think he’s used up nine lives already.”

As a waiter scoots past our table with a giant pepper mill I’m reminded of something: the baseball bat. It gets fleeting mentions in the book, but I’m unsure how it was used. Rather sheepishly, Knox explains: “At Aberdeen I’d get the apprentices in a room, turn off the lights and start swinging it. I never hit anyone, mind.” Character-forming, I suppose, and what about the balaclava, an equally sinister tool of the trade? “Alan Lyons was a young lad who turned up one day with a ridiculous perm. Alex hated it, fetched the balaclava and told him that until he sorted out his hair he’d have to wear it at all times. And he did. I’d see him walking to training and pulling it over his head just as he got to the ground. In the canteen eating was a problem because there wasn’t a hole for the mouth.”

Neither balaclava nor baseball bat seemed to make the journey to Manchester. Initially at United there was scepticism, a feeling in the city that the job would be too big for two men from football’s frozen north. “We 
definitely felt that, aye,” says Knox. “Scottish football just wasn’t rated. And the players would be watching the results coming in on the TV only to switch over just as the Scottish ones were starting. We stopped that right away.”

Footballers, we’re always told, are uncomplicated animals who’ll respond to the hair-dryer and maybe even the flame-thrower but that at certain times a gentler approach will be required. Did Archie Knox ever knowingly put a comforting arm round a player’s shoulder? “If I ever did,” he laughs, “then I almost certainly didnae mean it!”

l The School of Hard Knox – Archie Knox with Roger Hannah (Arena Sport, £16.99)