I was delighted to speak to former Everton assistant manager Archie Knox about his 4 years at Goodison Park alongside Walter Smith.
Archie Knox built a career as one of the most admired and respected coaches in Scottish Football, trusted by some of the most esteemed managers in the British game. As a player, manager, assistant, coach and now as a retired fan, Archie has seen all sides of the game. Over a 38-year career in coaching, he has assisted Sir Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen and Manchester Utd, Walter Smith at Rangers and Everton, Craig Brown at Scotland, amongst many others. Messrs Ferguson and Smith make no secret of the impact Archie had on some of their most famous achievements in the game, such as the heroic Aberdeen success over Real Madrid to win the 1983 European Cup Winners Cup, and Rangers famous 9 league titles in a row.
I arrange to speak to Archie on the day Rangers look set to all but secure the SPL title for the first time in a decade. Aged 73 now, football is still very much the priority for Archie as he tells me “Make sure you call me before the football”. Right you are, Mr Knox…
I have to admit; I was quite nervous making the call to Archie. You hear tales of baseball bats, dark rooms and the famous hairdryer treatment, but I was assured by the person who put me in touch with Archie, that he was an absolute gentleman, and he certainly was to me.
Who can forget the infamous Walter Smith interview in the Ibrox tunnel, Walter Smith did not take too kindly to a question from a BBC Reporter, when along came Archie who suggested if it was him he would “ram the f****ing microphone right up his arse.”
When I first made the call, I was worried he might suggest doing something similar with my phone!
True to his word, he is expecting my call and is generous with his time and patient with my questions.
Archie doesn’t suffer fools gladly, as an amateur writer, I almost feel the need to justify my call, but Archie just laughs “Nae bother at all, son.”
Just as he followed Sir Alex to Manchester Utd from Aberdeen, Archie travelled south to join Everton alongside Walter Smith, in 1998. Walter had won every trophy going north of the border, but after another narrow escape from relegation in the previous season, the size of the task ahead of Walter Smith was huge.
“Me and Walter knew each other from way way back, from our playing career, when we played together for Dundee Utd. Then once we had our badges and that, we used to go to the SFA coaching courses together. The SFA had us away doing coaching in the likes of Inverness, or up in the highlands, and even beyond. So I had known Walter for a hell of a long time.
In terms of our working relationship, we worked great together, we trusted each other and it just worked. I’d say Walter was certainly calmer than me though…” he chuckles.
Walter and Archie would go on to spend 4 years at Goodison Park, during some turbulent times, and while times on the pitch were not particularly memorable, Archie retains huge fondness for Everton and particularly the people at the heart of the club.
“Everton is a terrific club, an absolutely great club, with great people, and it’s the people who make the club what it is. You have still got staff there that were there before we went there and are still there now. People like Jimmy Martin, Jimmy Comer, fantastic people who were just brilliant to work with and be around. We were surrounded by people who were great Evertonians.
At that particular time, we were going through some tough times financially, as you know, so that didn’t help. There was a huge turnover in players, I think in the 4 years we were there, we turned over about 50 players, you know. I used to keep a note of all in incomings and outgoings, and it was a huge turnover, so that was difficult, there is no doubt about that.
In terms of the club itself, and the staff and support from the fans, they were absolutely fantastic people, and we enjoyed our time at Everton immensely.”
As we talk about player turnover, we touch on some of those early signings of the Walter Smith era, players like Olivier Dacourt, John Collins, Marco Materazzi and even Ibrahima Bakayoko. They were all ambitious signings at the time, was confidence high that they could bring success to Goodison Park?
“You mean ‘Back of The Echo’? “ Archie chuckles
“John Collins was a terrific player, of course, that didn’t work out and he went to Fulham when we really would have liked to have kept him. Materazzi and Dacourt, I mean, look at the careers those two went on to have. In Materazzi you're talking about a World Cup winner, Olivier Dacourt went on to win league titles in Italy, but we ended up having to sell these players. The turnover of players was unbelievable.”
I wondered, was it clear from those early days in his career just how big a career Marco Materazzi would go on to have in the game or was Archie surprised to see all that he achieved?
“No, I must admit, I was surprised. I mean he was a tremendous passer of the ball Materazzi, but for a big lad he wasn’t great in the air back then, and for the English Premier League at that particular time, that was a big thing, your centre half being good in the air, you know. I have to say though, he has a reputation, but he was never any problem around the place, none of those lads you just mentioned were, to tell you the truth, it just didn’t work out and we had to move them on.”
I laughed as we talked of some of the other players Archie and Walter had to manage, all manner of weird and wonderful characters, they must have certainly had their hands full with the likes of Thomas Gravesen, Paul Gascoigne, David Ginola and Alex Nyarko all at the same time…
“Jesus, you're telling me!” he laughs, “Thomas Gravesen, he was a strange boy, when he signed for Real Madrid I still had his number so I phoned him up. I said ‘is that Thomas Gravesen of Real Madrid?’ And he goes ‘Archie… I can’t f***ing believe it either!’
Thomas was a great player; the problem was that he just wanted to play in everybody’s position! He wanted to be all over the pitch, getting him to stick to one position was difficult.
But you see the likes of Ginola and Gazza, they were right at the end of their careers but they were the type of player we were able to bring in that particular time. We were desperate for something that would give the club a bit of a lift, you know. Obviously, their best days were past them, there’s no doubt about that, but you see that game against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup, that was the kind of spark and performance we were hoping for more often, but it wasn’t to be.”
That game Archie mentions is the obvious standout performance from Gazza at Everton, he rolled back the years with a man of the match performance, setting up 3 goals in what Walter Smith described as ‘vintage Gazza’.
“What a phenomenal player. Obviously, we had him at Rangers, so we knew all about him, obviously, he was well past his best by the time he came to Everton, but the guys absolutely loved him around the place. He was so friendly with everybody around the club, all the staff loved him, he fitted in so well. He would be up to all kinds of daft tricks and joking around, as you can imagine!
When we signed him for Rangers, Walter had gone over to Rome to see him and try to persuade him to come to Rangers, he literally door stepped him, you know. When Walter gets there, he was on a quad bike chasing his mate Jimmy ‘five bellies’ trying to run him over!”
Now, the mention of Alex Nyarko will bring back some terrible memories for Evertonians; it’s a baffling tale of a talented and exciting signing who failed miserably to deliver the kind of performances that the fans had hoped for after his £4.5m move from Lens.
‘The new Vieira’ he had been dubbed, but the only real link between the two was the fact that they shared the same pitch on that infamous afternoon at Highbury, where Nyarko famously demanded he be brought off, after a fan ran on to the pitch and offered to swap shirts with the midfielder, obviously feeling he would offer more to the cause than the Ghanaian. It was a shocking scene, and after the game, Nyarko came out and announced his ‘retirement’ from football, aged 27…
“Oh, that was horrendous that, that was absolutely horrendous. He was a good player Alex Nyarko, that was the frustration, he could certainly play all right. That incident at Arsenal was just absolutely outrageous. He had no chance after that, certainly not with the fans either, you could never be a success at a football club like Everton after doing something like that, absolutely no chance. As I say, a very good player, but he just didn’t fit in.
It wasn’t just him, there were a few difficult characters – Mikael Madar, Slaven Billic, Abel Xavier. They were all getting paid a hell of a lot of money as well. I had many a set-to with players over the years, you have standards and there are just some things you can’t stand for."
Sir Alex Ferguson described Archie as ‘not only a superb judge of ability, but also a superb judge of character’, and it’s having that right ‘character’ that Archie tells me is essential if you are to be a success at a club like Everton.
“Talking about character, I can tell you Alex Ferguson and I had problems at Manchester Utd when we got there, there was a hell of a lot of effort went in there with turning that place around. Walter and I were confident enough that we could turn it around at Everton, the problem you have with big clubs is that they demand success right away, and success at Everton wasn’t being in the bottom half of the league, the Evertonians would never accept that as a success.
When you turn over the number of players that we did, it was always going to take time for them to blend. We saw that with Ronald Koeman and the huge influx of players that were brought in at once, it’s just not as simple as that, far from it.”
It wasn’t all new signings though, Archie speaks fondly of the youth system Everton had in place and the talented players that were able to break through at the time.
“The phenomenal job that Colin Harvey did with the youth team was just terrific, the club brought through some fantastic young players. We were there the year that they won the Youth Cup, players like Cadamarteri, Richard Dunne, Franny Jeffers, Michael Ball. Absolutely terrific young talent to be able to bring through and challenge your first team.
You know, later on, we tried to bring Wayne Rooney into the first team squad when he was 15. He was a well-developed young lad even at that time. He wouldn’t have been a starter at that age, but he’d have definitely made the bench. The school at the time were against it and the English Schools FA didn’t allow it.
You have to give huge credit to Colin Harvey, he had such a big influence on Wayne Rooney, in my opinion, Wayne would probably admit that if it wasn’t for Colin Harvey, he may not have become the player he did.
He kept him on the straight and narrow, and all that. He did a terrific job with Wayne."
As our conversation turns to the current Everton side, Archie mentions the recent derby win, which I am obviously more than happy to discuss with him...
“Thank god that runs over, I can’t believe Kevin Campbell’s goal back in 1999 had been the last time we won there. I remember that day our defensive partnership was Richard Gough and Dave Watson, up against Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler, they could have been their fathers!”
“Who would have thought that you would ever see them go 5 games in a row getting beat at Anfield, it’s quite incredible isn’t it” At the time of writing, it is now 6…
It’s important when discussing Walter Smith’s tenure at Everton to remember the difficult circumstances that he was working in, particularly the way the club was being run above him. The sale of Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle without his knowledge, being a case in point.
“That was terrible that the way they went behind our backs like that. I know it broke the fans' hearts too…”
I wondered if Walter had considered his position, in the midst of that situation. Not many would have blamed him for walking?
“No. Walter was never a quitter. He just had to get on with it and try to find the best solution to the problems that were being thrown at him. But he would never have quit, no way.”
I was intrigued to know Archie’s opinion on Duncan Ferguson’s stint as Everton manager last season, was he at all surprised, knowing Duncan as he does?
“Well, that was fantastic, wasn’t it? He just lifted the whole place! It was great seeing him running along the sidelines like a lunatic, jumping up and down grabbing the ball boys and all that, standing in the freezing cold with no jacket, in just his shirt, that’s just Big Dunc all over. He’s got the same passion now as he did when he played, believe me. He is just Everton through and through!
He'll certainly not stand for any nonsense; I remember him taking Moise Kean off after not long bringing him on – which is fair enough if you ask me? It doesn’t happen very often, but if he thought that was going to help the team then that’s all there is to it.
I have to laugh when I see him now, jumping all over Carlo Ancelotti when they score, Carlo is stood cool as you like, never flustered, and you have Duncan jumping all over the place like a lunatic.
Duncan is an example to all of those players on the pitch, he’ll be saying ‘this is what it bloody means to play for Everton’. Duncan knows what the club is all about, and what the Evertonians expect because he is one himself.
I spent some time with Carlo Ancelotti over in Italy when I was at Rangers, I used to go quite often to see how different managers worked, and I went over and spent a few days with him, we went for lunch and went to a game. He was exactly as you see him at Everton, calm as you like, never flustered.”
It’s always great to hear people speak fondly of our club, and Archie is an honest man, his affection for the club is absolutely genuine.
“I loved my time at Everton, and Walter did too, it’s just a pity that we never got longer there to turn things around. I still watch the games now; Everton is always one of the first results I look for.
It’s a magnificent club, I’ll never have a bad word said against Everton, I can assure you."
I don't doubt him for a minute...
I cannot thank Archie enough for giving me his time and for being so approachable.
I would also like to thank Matthew Lindsay, who went above and beyond to help me out.
Thank you, Matthew!