A while ago I arranged to meet up with former Norwich goalkeeper and, for a short period, manager, Bryan Gunn.
When we met on a hot spring day in Norwich Bryan was already in the throes of his new career with the Triple S Sports & Entertainment Group Ltd. He had relocated himself and family from their long time Norfolk home to Cheshire so that Bryan could not only be near to his work but his son, Angus – a promising young goalkeeper who is currently with Manchester City – would also be within easy travelling distance of Eastlands.
Bryan had long left Norwich and Norfolk, yet, as the interview showed, whilst he may have left Norwich, the Fine City has never quite left the man.
I opened by asking him about his current role, the first he had taken in the game with no real connection or role at a professional club since he’d joined Aberdeen at the age of 14 back in 1977. How did he feel about working in the game in a more general and wide ranging role rather than one associated with just the one senior club?
“Football has always been in my blood. I had been on the outside of it for a while, just as a parent, watching games, standing on the touchline. Other parents were coming up to me at games and asking for advice with regard to their children’s future in the game – what do you think of this agent, that agent?
“And, like it or not, agents are very much part of the game now and they will remain a big part of the game as it grows and grows – so will their roles. When parents ask me those questions, I always say to them that some good ones (points to mobile) are on this phone. If they’re not on here, well, all I can say is that I don’t know anything about them.
“Of course, I could find out about them if they really wanted to know more. But, on the whole, if I’ve heard of them, if they’ve got a good reputation I can confirm, they’re happy with that – in some cases, Norwich City have probably worked with some of them in the past. The agency that I now work with is up there with the best of them all and I am really enjoying all the work that I am doing with them.
“I have been, as you can probably guess, been watching a lot of games and a lot of players, and will continue to do so. And at all levels. I’m part of it, from youth level right up to the Under-21 internationals. As young players develop, we will be going with them, at their side, right up to the time they begin their full professional careers. We’re not going to adopt the approach that some do, and that’s just sweeping up a huge bunch and ‘seeing what happens’.
“We’re going to be focusing on the very best and it may even be position specific at times, ones that play a certain position that we can concentrate on, give them plenty of time and work with them properly.”
I told Bryan he had confirmed what I had seen as long being the case in the game at that formative stage; that some agents/agencies sign up as many players as they can and ‘dump’ those that don’t look as if they are going to make it right to the top and right away – hardly a good thing for an young, aspiring footballer?
“Yes, that’s the scattergun approach some use – throw them all up in the air and sort the wheat from the chaff. That way they’ll always have some players who go onto have good careers, even if it’s further down the leagues – and quite a way down them. When we signed Cody McDonald from Dartford (Cody is now with Gillingham, having already played for Coventry City – presumably with the help of more agents!) he had an agent.”
I couldn’t help but interrupt at this stage. Cody McDonald, then just 22 years old and a ‘veteran’ of 15 league appearances for Dartford, who were then in the Isthmian League Premier Division – English football’s seventh tier, had an agent when Norwich signed him back in 2009?
“He did. And his agent might not have been making very much money out of him, but, as I’ve said, he may have chosen to start with him and work with him, all the way into the game and, hopefully, up the ladder, through his career.
“So yes, for an agent, you do start with them young, you do stick with them, help them through their development. People don’t know agents but they know who I am, that helps them. They’ll often come up to me at games and say, ‘oh, you’re Angus’s Dad?’ Of course, as time goes on now, it isn’t so much that, it’s ‘Angus Gunn is your son?’ And I’m more than happy with that, it’s not a problem!”
How is Angus coming along? Manchester City clearly rate him very highly, having awarded him his first professional contract a little over as year ago.
“He’s doing very well. He’s played for the Under-16’s and Under-18’s and in the FA Youth Cup. He’s played for England as well, so he’s well thought of at that level. He’s got talent; hopefully it’ll all continue to develop for him. Norwich offered him a scholarship at around the time we were relocating but, with my getting the new role, he moved on with us. Norwich got compensation for the training and development that they put in with him, and rightly so.”
Talking about young keepers, you were only in your early twenties when you signed for Norwich from Aberdeen, but you almost ended up joining Rangers instead didn’t you?
“Yes. I had a very good relationship with Walter Smith who was the Rangers caretaker-manager at that time, that and the Scotland Under-21 Manager, so I saw quite a lot of him; particularly as I was probably playing more for the Scotland Under-21 side than I was at Aberdeen.
“I knew Walter Smith liked me. Add to that the fact that I’d had a conversation with Fergie (now Sir Alex Ferguson) who’d agreed to help get me a move providing I stayed at Aberdeen for another year. Which I did. I didn’t look or ask for the move, I stayed there for the 1985/86 season and played in quite a few games, I was also in the team for the games leading up to the 1986 Scottish Cup final, so I thought I had a good chance of playing in that.
“However, as well as I had been doing, Alex Ferguson told me shortly before that game that he was putting Jim Leighton back in the side. Jim was his first choice and he was sticking with him – he added that he also had Scotland’s 1986 World Cup finals campaign to think of, that wasn’t far off, and Jim was the number one pick for the national side as well.
“Jim’s injury was an interesting one; he’d been cleaning the blades of his lawnmower. Whilst he was doing this, his daughter inadvertently switched the mower on. Most people would have lost their fingers, Jim, however, had lighting reflexes and pulled his away in time. Even so, he did lose the tip of one finger, hence my getting those run of games.
“So I was disappointed – we won the Cup, but I didn’t really feel part of it. I did have my move to Rangers to look forward to though. So I looked forward, not back. The season was over, so I went off on holiday – paid for with my bonus money. I’d celebrated the cup win with the lads; however, I’d fully expected to be on the pitch celebrating with them as well, as part of the team.
“I was hoping that the next time I would be celebrating, it would be on the pitch, I’d be with Rangers – and it might even have been after playing, and beating, Aberdeen. Anyway, off I go on holiday, some drunken nights follow, and, one morning, I’m sat looking through the Scottish Daily Record, there’s a big story running in it, ‘Peter Shilton a target for Rangers’. That put me in a state of shock.
“Another drunken night follows. Woke up the next morning, another headline in the Record, ‘Chris Woods has signed for Rangers’ – he was, of course, the Norwich keeper at the time. So, Rangers had gone from being linked with a vastly experienced international goalkeeper to signing one with a lot less experience, an up and coming one – but one that wasn’t me. It spoilt my holiday a little bit!
“Obviously, at that time, there were no mobile phones or anything like that, so I just waited until I’d finished my holiday. When I did, I went straight over to Pittodrie and off to see the boss. He just looked at me and said, ‘sorry, I didn’t see that coming… but, Ken Brown is very interested in you, and they’ll look to take you at Norwich on my recommendation.’
“Well, this sounded good. Norwich had just been promoted; I’d seen them on TV a few times, so yes, I was up for that. So I trained really hard for the rest of pre-season with the move in mind, and then, just as the new season was getting going – Jim Leighton got injured again. So, again, I had to play and it delayed the move. However, it did give Norwich the chance to see me play a game and see what Fergie had been recommending. Mel Machin came up to check me out; it was a League Cup game against Alloa.
“Before the game, we were having our pre-match meal. I noted Mel sitting next to Alex Ferguson. He (Ferguson) introduced me to Mel; ‘…this is Mel Machin, the assistant manager of Norwich’. I’m thinking, ‘OK Bryan, you need to play well tonight’. I then had another thought though, we were playing Alloa, and at home, so maybe I wasn’t going to have much to do? I decided I’d better have a good warm up.
“We’re out for the warm up then, I noted Mel was down by the tunnel watching me, so I had the best possible warm up I could, it was like an audition. And I think it did the trick, it rubberstamped the move for me. I had one save to make late on in the game, but I think Mel had left by then.
“Anyway, things moved on from there, by October I’d signed for Norwich. I travelled down and met Ken at the airport, and it all went from there. And I was ambitious. I was an Under-21 international, I was also stepping up the pecking order for selection for the full Scotland side – Campbell Money was my main rival at Under-21 level at the time. So yes, I saw the move as a big opportunity. Even before I left, Fergie took me to one side and said, ‘…you’re a top six keeper, and, with all due respect to Norwich, you can eventually achieve more.’
“Archie Knox, Fergie’s assistant, spoke to me as well; he said that Norfolk was a place where people went to die! No, by that, he meant that it was perceived as a place that was a graveyard of ambition, where people went to retire – but it didn’t stop me.”
“Fergie had said I was a top 6 keeper and I was. In my first season at Norwich we finished fifth in Division One, then, two seasons on from that, we finished fourth under Dave Stringer and then, of course, first season under Mike we ended up finishing third! So, a fifth, a fourth, a third – Fergie was right, I was a top six keeper, but I was able to prove that and achieve it with Norwich.
“There were rumours at one time that Tottenham were interested in me as a potential replacement for Ray Clemence. I was aware of all the press speculation regarding that but nothing came of it and they eventually signed Erik Thorstvedt. I ended up signing a new contract with Norwich that took me up to the 1990 World Cup finals. I was then offered another new deal with improved terms which was a good opportunity for me to improve the financial side of things. What was just as important though, was that I was at a club where I was happy and enjoying my football.”
This was, I pointed out, a common factor amongst many of the Norwich players at that time who I had spoken to – you, indeed, so many of them, all loved living in the area and playing for Norwich?
“That’s very true. As far as the money side of things was concerned, our basic wage was nothing like what the top clubs were paying at the time – nowhere near. As and when our players moved on and we found out what they were earning at their new clubs – well! No, our basics were very modest in comparison to many clubs but our incentive schemes, the bonuses, were far superior to those of other clubs.
“You have to give credit to Robert Chase for that. There were no two schemes alike, but, the more games we won, the more money we made – and when we finished third we got a bonus for finishing so high and for qualifying for Europe. So there was little reason to move on, or even want to move on really. And Alex Ferguson was right. I was playing for a top six club; we’d finished there on three occasions, so I did end up being that top level keeper, just as he said I would.”
Tomorrow Gunny tells Ed of the ill-fated spell in the Canary hotseat