The Deptford brothers – part 3

Following on from part 1 and part 2 of these unique footballing brothers’ story.

While John Deptford’s career was coming to an end, Bill was still a key player at Upton Park, and was named in the provisional squad for the 1970 World Cup, but was surprisingly omitted from the final 22. He vowed never to play for England again, but deep down he probably knew it wouldn’t be his choice. The following season his form declined, his heart just didn’t seem to be in it, and he was released at the end of the campaign, having made just 20 appearances. He spent a couple of seasons in South Africa with Durban City, before embarking on a brief tour with cameos at Orient, Drogheda, Wealdstone, Workington, Swansea, back at West Ham, South China and Stranraer. Management seemed to be the obvious next step, and he was recommended for the vacant job at Aldershot by former Hammers trainer Sid Denham.

John was going into the world of coaching too. He had proved a popular and forthright pundit during ITV’s coverage of England’s Euro 72 qualifiers, but found himself missing the day-to-day involvement with players. The solution came in the retirement of Liverpool’s reserve manager Tom Barnehurst. Barnehurst had been managing Liverpool’s second string for years, going back to when John was playing for them, and both he and Bill Shankly agreed that he was worth a try.

Despite a lack of experience and qualifications, he took to the job immediately, his natural authority winning over the players. Mark Crofton, a reserve striker at the time, reflects on John’s style. “We all loved him. Don’t get me wrong, none of us understood him – he could be your best mate one day, cold as ice the next, or he could bollock you and you never understood why. But when he did praise you you felt ten feet tall. Training was fun too, just 11-a-sides and a bit of running. You might say we weren’t properly coached, but we won the Central League twice, so who’s to argue?”. Such was the impression John made in those two seasons that he was promoted to be Bob Paisley’s assistant after Shankly retired. This could have placed him next in one of football’s great successions, but the two weren’t compatible. John had no time for Bob’s loquacious, detailed team talks, and left in March 1975 to manage second division Sheffield United. 

Bill took over as Aldershot player/manager that same month, and made a decent start, turning the team’s form around enough to escape the re-election places. However, his success was largely based on two factors, the players’ enormous respect for him, and his ability to influence events from the pitch. While the latter ended abruptly with an injury in November, the former waned gradually. Never a great communicator, Bill struggled to relate to his players, and his lack of faith in their ability led him to employ increasingly negative tactics. With striker Roger Hythe isolated and struggling for goals, the Shots slid down the table in 1975/76, finishing dead last.

Aldershot survived re-election, and perhaps recognising Bill’s influence on their successful bid, the board gave him another chance. For the 1976/77 season he brought in a few ex-West Ham youth players in an attempt to impose his style on the team, but their lack of experience showed and Bill was relieved of his duties after failing to win any of the first six matches. His first – and only – management job had ended in ignominious failure.

John, on the other hand, was having a better time of it. He’d been unable to keep Sheffield United up, but the board had seen enough to decide he was capable of rebuilding the team. He took to the task with relish, and set about clearing out the dead wood: of last season’s first team only defender Tony Moore, midfielder Tony Wagstaff, winger Tony Currie and striker Tony Field remained. He went back to Liverpool, signing their second keeper Tony Mottingham, and adding his former reserve team protégés, full back Tony Lee and midfielder Tony Brockley. The signings of winger Tony Morley and midfielder Tony Towner gave the team creativity, while young players such as Tony Kenworthy, Tony Ford, Tony Cunningham and Tony Norman would be given their chance over the next few years. Experience was added in the form of striker Tony Hateley, who had succeeded John at Liverpool, and former QPR defender Tony Hazell.

The team took some time to gel, but gradually proved itself to be a potent attacking force, and earned promotion in third place. This momentum continued as they won the Second Division in 1976/77, and followed this up with a remarkable 6th place finish in the top flight. John was linked with a number of top clubs, and it was expected that he’d leave Bramall Lane. He did, but not to the job anyone would have predicted.

Fresh from the disappointment of the 1978 World Cup, the Dutch FA were looking for a new coach. John Deptford was a left field choice, but was respected as a player and a manager, and judging by his TV interviews, had some sort of Dutch background. They acted quickly, and before he knew it, John was meeting his new players. His introduction was one none would forget.

“Lads. I’ve watched the last two World Cup finals and as far as I’m concerned you’re all a bunch of f***ing chancers. F*** knows how so many of you kept winning the European Cup, you must have had a good f***ing ‘keeper. Total football? Where I come from we call that lack of f***ing discipline. Where the f*** would I be if every time I crossed to the number nine he was playing at f***ing right-back? You can’t have your centre-back thinking he’s a f***ing winger, you’ll get f***ing destroyed!

You know what your problem is? You’ve been thinking too much. Forget all that b*******, forget Cruyff – he’s not coming back by the way – and remember that football is a f***ing simple game. The full backs get the ball to the wingers. The wingers turn the defenders and put crosses in. The number nine gets on the end and his mate picks up the scraps. Midfielders win the ball, play it out wide, and if it’s on, one of you follows in for the second ball. Central defenders… f***ing defend. If you get the ball and can play it to a fullback then do so, but if not, you belt it up the f***ing pitch. And don’t tell me I need to tell you what a f***ing goalkeeper does. Now get the f*** out there, you might learn something – you might f***ing win something!”

The players sat in stunned silence. Midfielder Gerrie Angersteen later suggested that John’s view of total football was a misunderstanding based on the Netherlands’ alphabetical numbering system. Either way, John’s methods didn’t work. The Oranje lost 2-0 at home to Norway then 6-0 in Italy, and John was relieved of his duties after just 45 days, in all likelihood a record for a top level coach.

Eager to get back in the saddle, John surprised many by taking a job with Al Wasl in the UAE. He was well paid, and took to life in the Emirates, but grew restless for a return to British football, which came in November 1979 when he took over at struggling Aston Villa. He kept them up, and saw enough potential in the squad that there was no need for the rebuild he’d initiated at Bramall Lane. He was unable to prise Tony Currie away from the Blades, but strengthened the attack with the arrivals of Peter Withe and Tony Morley, while new goalkeeper Jimmy Rimmer was described as “irreplaceable”. With Liverpool and Forest falling away, Villa’s strong start to the 1980/81 season put them in an unfamiliar looking title race with Ipswich Town. The race went to the last day, where Ipswich’s defeat at Middlesbrough handed the title to Villa despite them losing at Arsenal. Celebrating at the home of his former club, he was left – unusually – speechless by the scale of the achievement.

As well as his growing reputation as a manager, John was becoming known for his memorable quotes, such as “I may not be the best manager in the world, but based on performance relative to expectations, I’d hope to be in the running for any end of season awards” and “they say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but we’re putting together a football team, not the centre of an empire that rules half the world”. Consequently, when he stated with confidence that Villa would win the European Cup, this was dismissed as bluster. There was a determination behind it too: he had blamed himself for Liverpool’s exit from the competition in 1965, and hadn’t realised at the time that he would not get another chance to play in it. Perhaps, too, it played on his mind that Bill’s Cup Winners’ Cup win the same year represented the only European success between the two brothers. Whatever it was, a largely unchanged squad went for it, somewhat to the detriment of their league form. Never seriously fancied for the competition, they got past Valur of Reykjavik with ease in the first round, but snuck past Dynamo Berlin on away goals, losing 1-0 at home in the second leg. “It was like they knew everything about us”, mused John. Dinamo Kiev and Anderlecht were dismissed without a goal conceded, which meant a final matchup against Bayern Munich. Perhaps it was an attempt to reassure his players, but John was dismissive of his opponents: “these clowns went 3-0 down against a team from Bulgaria – if any team of mine did that I’d quit on the spot. Both their goalkeepers are shit and have you seen the lad Hoeness up front? He’s 90 years old if he’s a day. If he causes you any trouble just kick away his walking stick”. His players proved him right. Despite needing to call on young goalkeeper Nigel Spink early on, Peter Withe’s second half goal was decisive. Villa were European Champions.

This enormous success indirectly led to a rift between the two brothers. Ron Greenwood was due to be replaced as England manager, a job John saw as his ultimate aim. Coming off his greatest achievement, he felt that now would be his best chance, he couldn’t hide his disappointment when he was overlooked in favour of Bobby Robson. John lashed out at the FA, at the Dutch, and most significantly at Bill, who he felt had not put in a sufficiently good word with his former mentor Greenwood. Bill quite reasonably pointed out that neither he nor Ron had much influence in the matter, but the row escalated and the two wouldn’t speak for years. Bill, for his part, had drifted away from the game since leaving Aldershot. He had a brief spell scouting for Chelsea, then went back to South Africa to set up a chain of soccer schools with former Durban teammate Louis Hamm. When these fell apart, he returned to England, but could only find odd jobs – public appearances, serving on the pools panel, occasional media work – which were not enough to sustain him. In 1981 he began work with BAC Windows, selling double glazing.

After reaching the summit with Villa, there was only one possible direction, and the 1982/83 season proved to be quite the hangover. They beat Barcelona to win the Super Cup, but their European Cup defence ended with a 3-0 defeat in Sofia. Having maintained a stable squad, John began to take a scattergun approach to transfers. Veterans Allan Clarke and Rodney Marsh came in for brief, unsuccessful spells, while big money was spent on Scottish striker Ian Elverson and England under 23 international Steve Bexley, both of whom flopped. Another mid-table finish followed.

John openly courted the Liverpool job when Paisley retired, which began to turn the Villa fans against him, and was the first clue to his waning interest in the club. His drinking became more noticeable – even to the players – and he’d clearly lost his spark, both in terms of enthusiasm and ideas. When the Anfield job came up again after just two years, he wasn’t even in the conversation. With Chairman Doug Ellis restricting his spending, John was forced to be creative, with mixed results. Midfielders Darko Grenic and Zlatko Vulic were brought in from Hajduk Split, but both were let go without making an appearance, reportedly because John didn’t like the way they tied their boots.

John’s behaviour got ever more erratic. Gordon Cowans was repeatedly harangued about shaving off his sideburns, while John insisted on wearing Steve Hodge’s Argentina shirt in training. “I won the World Cup without cheating” was his justification. No-one minds this when results are good, but a poor start to the 86/87 season put Villa in danger of relegation, and in January 1987, John was sacked. The whole experience left him disillusioned, upset by the way the fans had turned against him and he felt that he could have kept Villa up (his successor Billy McNeill was unable to save them from the drop to the second division). He decided to take a break from football, concentrating on media work and golf. 

This break lasted a year, before he was offered the chance to manage the UAE national team. John would frequently talk down the significance of tactics and coaching, and was known more for building squads than improving them, but in a job where transfers aren’t an option he achieved one of the most impressive feats of his career: taking the UAE to their first (and to date only) World Cup in 1990. He would not lead the team in Italy, however, leaving the job two months before the tournament after a falling out with the federation over bonuses. He said afterwards, with more than a hint of self-justification, that he could never manage anyone other than England in the World Cup, and there was perhaps a trace of bitterness in his comments during punditry that he would have “won the group easily” and that his successor would “go down as the worst manager in World Cup history”. Under Carlos Alberto Parreira, the UAE performed creditably in a group containing Colombia, Yugoslavia, and eventual winners West Germany.

Bill was also working at the World Cup, summarising for BBC Radio, and the proximity of the brothers brought about a long overdue reconciliation. Bill had excelled in the world of commerce, rising to the role of director at BAC by the end of the 80s. His connection to West Ham was restored when BAC took over their shirt sponsorship in 1989, and he was invited to join the club’s board. He helped guide the club into the Premier League era, and encouraged Harry Redknapp’s use of imported players in the mid 90s. In 1999 he joined the FA’s board, and was a central figure in England’s bids to host the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups, before retiring in 2012.

John’s success with the UAE made a name for him on the international scene, and he was offered jobs with Bahrain, Canada and Finland among others. He wanted to return to British football, though, but found it harder to find jobs than he’d expected. Hoping to return to Villa, he railed against the eventual appointee Jo Venglos: “I’ve seen these foreign coaches, they come in, criticise our way of playing without understanding it, and try to impose their own style whether it fits or not. It will not work.” He turned down lower level jobs, resenting the feeling that he was starting his career from scratch, and focused instead on media work, as a regular on ITV’s The Big Match. One year out of the game became two, when in summer 1992 he got a surprise call.

Liverpool had begun life under Graeme Souness somewhat erratically, and it was felt that he could benefit from John’s experience. Unfortunately, Graeme doesn’t share this view, and consequently John’s second spell as assistant manager went about as well as the first. He felt sidelined, Souness felt undermined, and results failed to improve. After Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup by third-tier Bolton, John was made a scapegoat and was relieved of his duties. He’d re-acquired the taste for coaching though, and on the recommendation of his former teammate Gordon Milne, applied for the vacant job at Fenerbahce. He did reasonably well at the club, finishing second in his first season, but was sacked in January 1995, having fallen out with the board over their reluctance to sign British players. Towards the end of the 94/95 season, he took over at Notts County, who were struggling in the second tier. He was busy in the transfer market, signing Michael Johnson, Steve Thompson, Kevin Wilson, Neil Tolson, Nigel Jemson and Kenny Sansom, but he was unable to keep County up and was let go.

John’s last job in football was as assistant to Alan Ball at Man City in 1995/96, but after they were relegated, both were let go, and John spent the next seven years working as a pundit for ITV. He left the channel after a legal battle – he had tried to copyright the phrase ‘for me Clive” – turned the relationship sour. He continued to make regular media appearances and worked the after dinner circuit, before retiring in 2014.

So different and yet in many ways so similar, John and Bill Deptford’s careers took in almost every aspect of football in the latter half of the 20th century, From the bottom of the league to the top, from witnessing English football’s lowest points and sharing its greatest moment, from almost all corners of the World. They began just as modern football as we understand it was beginning to emerge, and ended in the world of the Premier League and Champions League. Between them, they filled the roles of lower league hopeful, Next Big Thing, England international, injury casualty, fading journeyman, coach, manager, scout and director. One thing is certain: their story is unique in the history of the game.

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