The other side of the taskmaster

The other side of the taskmaster

Heroes of Gothenburg. Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox celebrate victory over Real Madrid in the 1983 Cup Winners Cup Final © Aberdeen FC

Football is a game of perception, and no-one knows that more than Archie Knox, that grand old man of Scottish football at the age of 71.

As a trusted Assistant Manager of Sir Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith and Craig Brown he’s contributed to some of the great nights of Scottish football at home and in Europe.

And he’s also seen the other side of the game too, in tougher times at the likes of Forfar and Dundee and at Everton, Millwall and Livingston. His is a career that’s taken in roles as an assistant, manager and player with 15 different clubs and with Scotland’s international set-up.

In a 37 year coaching career Knox had a ringside seat as Aberdeen’s heroes of Gothenburg triumphed over Real Madrid to win the 1983 Cup Winners Cup, as Rangers won their famous 9 league titles in a row and the likes of Ryan Giggs, Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne and a teenage Wayne Rooney completed important chapters in their stellar careers.

But how does perception view Archie Knox?

For the fans, Archie Knox is a self-styled hard taskmaster with a formidable will to win forged in The School of Hard Knox, that also provides the title of an endlessly enjoyable autobiography. The stories are legion of Knox’s exacting standards, baseball bats and darkened rooms, laps around the pitches and players kept on track with a regime that mixed fear with kindness, wise counsel and common-sense.

Archie Knox is revered as a training ground innovator and a superb judge of football character and ability. © Arena Sport

But within the game itself, Archie Knox, like his mentor Jim McLean, is revered as one of the great analysts of teams and players, a training ground innovator and a superb judge of football character and ability.

According to those that played for him, such as Scotland, Aberdeen and Man United goalkeeper Jim Leighton, Knox’s tactical and technical contribution undoubtedly defined the style of the great Man United and Aberdeen sides of Sir Alex Ferguson and also Walter Smith’s arguably greatest ever Rangers team.

Jim Leighton says: “It has hard to believe now just how modern Aberdeen and Dundee United were in the 1980s. And of course, Archie played and coached under Jim McLean at Tannadice.

“Everything say, that Liverpool are doing now, how they press the ball to win back possession, their relentless tempo, their commitment to dynamic, attacking football, Aberdeen were doing all that over 35 years ago. And Archie’s work on the training ground, and the information he gave us on opponents, was a massive part of preparing our sides to play the way we did.”

He says: “Regardless of the opposition, we always expected to win, and especially after we’d beaten Bayern Munich. We were so well-prepared, so well drilled, that the idea of defeat never even occurred to us.”

Archie Knox himself has done little to discourage the myth of the training ground sergeant major with a heart of gold. As personas go, it has clearly served its purpose. It allowed him to remain out of the limelight, but stand shoulder to shoulder with managers whose work endured impossible levels of scrutiny and expectation. And for the most part, but not always, it was a strategy that allowed Knox to escape the attentions some of the game’s most demanding fans.

Archie Knox and Walter Smith celebrate winning the league title with Rangers in 1994. The management duo enjoyed great success at Rangers and Everton ©

He says: “After a game at Ibrox my first thought was always to duck out behind Ally McCoist. He’d always be mobbed at the door and I’d get a free run, under cover, to the car and away. But this particular day, after a 7-0 win over Hibs, it didn’t quite work out like that.

“Almost immediately I could hear someone shouting ‘Knox, Knox’. My first thought was to keep my head down but it was clear this guy wasn’t giving it up. So I turned round and there’s a fan, clearly with a bee in his bonnet about something. ‘Your a disgrace Knox’, he says. ‘I can’t believe you let those players take their foot off the gas in the second half. A real Rangers team would have taken 10 or 11 off Hibs today.”

He says: “It is a funny story but it shows the expectation that comes with the territory at big clubs where you are expected to win, and win well every week. And it takes a tough character to thrive in that environment. I’ve seen players with all the ability in the world fall apart after making the step up. It is as if the name of the club is too big a burden for them. We definitely had 2-3 players that happened to at Man United. At the big clubs, quality isn’t the issue as much as the ability to play without fear in front of fans that expect to win.”

But those self-same fans can equally be an asset when the chips are down, in the shape of a noisy crowd that refuse to countenance defeat.

“I’d been to watch Leeds United play Stuttgart before we faced them in The Champions League in 1992. After the game I found myself in the company of Leeds’ directors and they were really of the opinion that as English Champions, Leeds were already past the post. Obviously, that didn’t sit well with me and it definitely inspired us in the tie.

“The Ibrox crowd got right behind the team, even when we conceded the opening goal. When an intimidating atmosphere is driving on a team of proven winners with the strength to respond to any setback then you’ve got a formidable combination.”

However, Archie Knox says that while the crowds at Pittodrie, Ibrox and Old Trafford played their part in eras of success, he will always reserve a special place in his heart for Everton’s crowd during four years of transition for the Goodison club.

“We avoided relegation which was our goal when we arrived, got to four cup quarter finals in difficult circumstances and left the club on a steady footing with Wayne Rooney progressing towards the first team. At every point I really felt the fans appreciated what we were doing, the constraints we were under. They were realistic and always supportive of the players, befitting a great club.”

But of course it isn’t always quite as straightforward for fans asked to evaluate events on the field and especially so when expectations require tempering with reason, or when a team are playing better (or worse) than results imply they should be doing.

He says that you can tell so much about your team and their quality by the way the players carry out the simple tasks, passing the ball, taking it in, supporting a teammate in possession, and especially so when they’re up against it, struggling for form or confidence.

1986-87 – Sir Alex Ferguson arrives at Old Trafford with his assistant Archie Knox © Dael Gornall

“At Man United there was no question of the wide players in a 4-4-2 not tracking back to confront an opponent in possession and help out their full back. Whether it was Giggs, Sharpe, Kanchelskis or whoever they’d be back there in position as a basic duty and we drummed it into them that they needed to defend as a team and make sure no-one could play a pass in behind them.”

Archie says that when you start to recognise these signs of a team doing the basics well, especially in adversity, then you can see through individual results and performances.

Bad teams and players can raise their levels temporarily but sooner rather than later they slip back to their basic standard. Consistency under pressure is what separates the average from the good and the good from the great players.

And absent consistency also explains why teams and players ‘underachieve’. More likely, the reality is that the gulf that exists between a good and bad performance is simply too wide to sustain long-term positive results. They are just not good enough often enough. But that doesn’t mean they really are underachievers.

“Football’, says Knox, “Is a game of repetitions. It is all about doing things quicker, under pressure. Seeing a pass quicker. Heading it clear. Using the ball better. And the training has to promote that, using game-specific ideas to reinforce the technical skills that the players have.”

And this is something that the great players understand and reinforce through their own practice.

Knox says: “I was a guest at Parma and I was mesmerised watching Lillian Thuram. He was a French international, yet there he was staying behind after training to practice with a coach alone for 45 minutes. The coach would feed him the ball and then make a run for Thuram to bring the ball under control and pick him out with a pass. Just simple, effective reinforcement of skills he’d perform thousands of times every season.

Alessandro Del Piero at Juventus, Knox says, was equally dedicated.

“I’d been to a game at Verona on the Juventus team bus and I came into their training complex the following day. Monday was a rest day, but Del Piero was out there standing in the D of the 18 yard box, taking in, turning and hitting balls at goal fired into him at all angles by a coach. Even with a keeper in the goals he was able to score 18 out of 18 times.”

Knox says that he tried to simulate that self-reliance on technique with simple, popular ‘baw and a waw’ sessions where his players used a wall to play against and build up their touch and technique bringing the rebound under control and passing it back at various heights and paces.

At its best, Knox believes that his simple game of repetition can be summarised as getting the ball under control, moving it quickly, putting pressure on the opponents’ goal and defending with aggression and organisation to win it back.

He says: “When you play with those principles you will give yourself a great chance.”

And it was this combination of being both confident in their own thinking and being open to the best their European rivals were doing that made the Sir Alex Ferguson and Archie Knox partnership such a potent combination.

He says: “Even in the 1980s and 90s it was a very international game with coaches keen to learn from each other just as they do now. I would have been at every major club – Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter, Juve – at one time or another. When we went to Il Ciocco in Tuscany with Rangers every summer Arrigo Sacchi sent his right hand man along to observe our training – every day, without fail.”

He says: “You would wonder maybe why AC Milan would be watching Rangers’ training but it just goes to show the level we were working at and it was a similar story as Aberdeen’s reputation grew in Europe.”

But while, Ferguson and Knox enjoyed the luxury of long term empire building with their ‘own’ players at Aberdeen, current realities dictate that the modern manager rarely gets the time required to build a dynasty, and must stand or fall by their track record signing players.

The instinct of course is to try to bring in players that are foremost in recruiters’ thoughts, either as recent opponents or as players at the top of their game.

However, the unreliability of short-term form also helps explain why players that come to your club on the back of a purple patch run, good performances against your side, or after a positive showing in a World Cup or Euros tournament, will also consistently flop.

A small number of games in a small period of time can often give a false impression of a player and it is easy to get carried away. In a World Cup say, you get players that simply play better for their country than their club, others who hit the form of their careers. It is a difficult picture because fresh under-exposed players are coming up against ‘tired’ stars who’ve been chasing trophies on multiple fronts all-season long. And there’s another factor too.

Your new signing, if he is a World Cup star, will probably turn up exhausted and you might not see the best of them until their second season at your club. By which point they’ll face an uphill battle to win fans over.

“I was told by a Croatian journalist that the Croatia side that got to the World Cup semis at France 98 basically ran themselves into the ground. In the following six months not one player in the whole squad managed more than 10 games for their club side. They’d never have got away with it in Scotland or England, and maybe it reflects a different mentality, but it shows just how much a summer tournament takes out of players.”

By the same token, good pitches, sunshine and the bounce factor provided by an enthusiastic new manager, good preseason results or a recent promotion can also create a notoriously unsustainable impression.

“There’s a lot to be said for playing with confidence, without pressure and freshness and a newly promoted team carry an element of surprise that is gone by the second and third quarter when the injuries and suspensions also kick in.”

Greg Gordon meets Archie Knox © Nutmeg

Knox says that while the big clubs can engineer out inconsistency through fierce competition for places within squads packed with international stars, the circus that surrounds big clubs also brings unwelcome pressures that break the natural chain of command between the players, coaches and manager.

“At every level players have a shelf life. That’s dictated by their performances, their attitude and also who else is available to replace them. And everywhere, rival clubs will be looking at your best players. You have to make a judgement for the good of the team when you’re better shot of them.

“At the lower levels that can work to your advantage – as it did in my case with Cammy Fraser and Iain Ferguson when I was managing Dundee. Good players’ ambition drives them to perform to attract suitors. At the big clubs though, unsettled players are bad for morale.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the arch-proponent of ‘Scottish’ attacking football says that the current vogue for over-thought, scientific football leaves him cold.

“I can’t get excited about 12-15 passes to progress the ball out of your own half. It is manufactured football.

“Graeme Souness tells his story that at Liverpool under Bob Paisley, they were told to move the ball no more than 4-5 times before a vital pass, probably to Ian Rush, or a shot on goal. If you do that in my team, and you lose it, and press the opponents hard to win it back, high up the pitch, then I am happy with that.”

He says: “Really there’s nothing new under the sun in football. There’s just new ways to talk about established ideas. Everything, around the game changes, the clubs, the money, the players’ fitness, but the game itself is basically the same.”

From a coach’s point of view there remains a series of eternal questions: ‘What is my team capable of?’, ‘How and when should we impose our football on the opponents?’ and ‘What are the opponents doing in order to beat us?’

Knox says: “The danger is that you overthink it and yes, you have all this additional information now but you really have to wonder if you are any better informed. If you know your players and if you’ve got experience you can see them matching an opponent’s run or making one of their own, or getting out wide to make a tackle. You can see if your players are fit without the need for stats to tell you.

“I have a friend at Liverpool and he tells me that they take 27 non-playing staff to every away game but what can they be adding, really? In every dug-out there are really only three men that can influence a result. The manager, his assistant and the physio giving a recommendation on an injury.”

He says: “When I was at Bolton, I phoned Sir Alex and asked him if he had all these boys working for him. He said: “I think so, but I don’t have anything to do with them.”

But one thing Knox says, that has definitely changed within his lifetime in football is the extent to which both Old Firm teams have pulled ahead of the chasing pack in Scotland.

It is incredible now to think that Jim McLean’s Dundee United Dundee United reached the European Cup semi-finals in 1984 and the UEFA Cup final in 1987, regularly beating sides of the calibre of Barcelona home and away, AS Monaco, Borussia Mönchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and Werder Bremen. Under McLean United qualified for Europe in an incredible 14 consecutive seasons.

At Aberdeen Ferguson and Knox won the Cup Winners Cup in 1983, beating Real Madrid and Bayern Munich en route. Aberdeen won nine domestic trophies, including three league titles under Ferguson as well as a European Super Cup against European Cup holders Hamburg.

He says: “There’s no doubt we’ve had the players and the environment to succeed in Europe but where our clubs have struggled has been due to the lack of a diverse, hard challenge of the kind other big clubs get in their domestic competition, even if they still win their title year on year. A strong league with a good depth of quality would really help Scottish football when it comes to playing in Europe.”

This feature appeared in Issue 9 of Nutmeg, the Scottish football periodical.

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There is a Nutmeg podcast discussing this feature in detail, and other content in Issue 9 here:Nutmeg Issue 9 Podcast

The School of Hard Knox: The Autobiography of Archie Knox, written with Roger Hannah is published by Arena Sport.