LIAM MACKEY: Gould standard in training bust-ups

And so, after the fire and the friendly, the waiting game. Waiting for Deco. Waiting for Roy and Harry. Waiting for Seamus and Robbie and Seani and Shane and James and James.

And, most of all, waiting for October and two games which will reveal if the leaking ship can be turned around or is to be consigned to the bottomless depths.

On which cheery note, it might be timely to bring a little retrospective levity to the concept of the training ground ‘bust-up’. So, cue a fresh retelling of the occasion when then Wales manager Bobby Gould and striker John Hartson went at it in front of the rest of the squad on the eve of a World Cup qualifier against Turkey in Cardiff in 1996. 

This was a month after Gould’s team had been thrashed 7-1 by the Netherlands in Eindhoven, a result which would not have done much to improve the mood in the camp.

I was reacquainted with the infamous yarn courtesy of a copy of the Western Mail which I picked up during our own, not uneventful, trip to Cardiff. Journalist Paul Abbandonato wrote up a recent visit to Gould in his Portishead home overlooking the Bristol Channel, where he found the retired and relaxed 72-year-old more than happy to revisit the scene of the crime — though the ex-gaffer still prefers to refer to it as a bit of ‘rough and tumble’ rather than a bust-up. Or even a dust-up.

Indeed, it had all come about at Gould’s own instigation, his attempt at an unusual clear-the-air gambit which he inherited from his days as the leader of Wimbledon’s ‘Crazy Gang’, but which critics were quick to point out was hardly the kind of thing befitting the position of the manager of the national team of Wales.

In any event, here’s old Gouldy’s version, as told a week ago in the Western Mail.

“We were in Newport, preparing for a game and I walked out onto the training pitch. The only thing I could hear was Hartson this and Hartson that. Chirping away. He didn’t like the fact I’d picked him for one game and left him out of another.

“The press and the cameras were present so I made sure we walked right to the far end of the pitch. I explained to the players what they did at Wimbledon, gave Neville Southall my watch, turned to John and said, ‘Do you want a rough and tumble because the only thing I can hear is your voice?’ 

“‘Yes, I want a piece of you,’ he said.

“‘Right then, these are the rules,’ I told him, and got the players to gather in a circle.

“He’s giving me a right old hiding. I’m down on the floor, John’s on top of me venting his anger and frustration. We’re having a good old rough and tumble. Towards the end, I look up and see Mark Hughes screaming his head off. I’ve never seen him so animated. ‘Come on John,’ he was saying, really getting into it.

“Next thing I look up to my left and see Ryan Giggs jumping up and down. I thought to myself, ‘I bet Fergie wouldn’t be doing this’.

“’Enough’s enough, you’ve got it out of your system,’ I told John.

“He’s a strong old so and so and when I got back to my hotel room and took my top off, I had big red scratch marks left down my back. My wife Marge went mad.‘You’ve been with another woman,’ she screamed.

“I tried to explain the truth. She took some persuading but eventually she saw the funny side of it.” Which is nice. Hartson didn’t, though, or at least certainly hadn’t by the time he gave his version of events in his 2006 autobiography in which, incidentally, he contradicted Gould’s assertion that the media were still present when it all kicked off.

“I didn’t know what to say or where to look,” he recalled of his manager’s indecent proposal. “Here I was being challenged to a fight by a middle-aged bloke, who also happened to be my boss.

“Gary Speed shouted, ‘Go on, John!’. I laughed, but inside I was panicking, thinking, ‘I can’t do it — I can’t fight the gaffer’. But a circle of players had already formed and they were up for it. There was no way out.

“We came together, me and my boss. In truth I just grabbed hold of him for two minutes, didn’t throw a punch or aim a kick. I was getting into a scrap against a man in his fifties, but I could sense he was still strong.

“Maybe he sensed it could have become too heated because he suddenly said, ‘Right, that’s enough’. He wasn’t hurt, although there were some scratches on his face and his hair was all over the place. It was so undignified. It was weird, bizarre.” 

Hartson also described the incident as “disturbing” and “embarrassing” as well as pointing that, if had intended as some sort of counter- intuitive motivational ploy, it didn’t have the desired effect. Wales drew 0-0 with Turkey and ended up above only San Marino in their group.

But, responding to Hartson 12 years ago, Gould was unrepentant.

“I believe this sort of thing can work and I would do it again,” he said at the time.

“If you have a problem, you clear it up as soon as possible.

“The only time I’ve been hurt was when I cracked a rib against Dennis Wise at Wimbledon. And that was only because I landed on his fist!” 

But that, as they say, is another story.


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