The QT

Friday 19 July 2024

How injury shaped career of Coach Carver

His whole life has been about football and now former Newcastle United coach John Carver is playing a key role in Euro 2024 for Scotland. Miles Starforth caught up with him ahead of the tournament
John Carver at Scotland’s Euro 2024 training base. Credit: SFA

From Scotswood Road to Scotland’s Euro 2024 base on the edge of the Alps, it’s been quite a journey.

There have been ups, downs and almost everything in between for John Carver.

Only his career in football was almost over before it really began.

John was released by Newcastle United in 1985 as a teenager after suffering a serious injury in a reserve-team fixture, and he knew it was game over after breaking down again playing for Cardiff City at Darlington the following season.

“John Craggs had also got injured in the first half,” said Carver. “We were both sitting in the bath saying ‘I think that’s me done — I won’t recover from this’.

“I was 20, and I was in a dark place. I felt that I had let my parents and family down, because I had been built up and built up, everything was going my way, then I get this huge disappointment.

“I’m told at 20 that my career’s over. I found it really difficult.”

John has a close working relationship with Scotland boss Steve Clarke

Today, John, a key member of Steve Clarke’s Scotland backroom team, has an extraordinary coaching CV.

The 59-year-old put the disappointment behind him by throwing himself into coaching.

John said: “You think ‘OK, what’s the best thing in the world? Being a footballer. I can’t do that now, what’s the next best thing? Being a coach, because you’re back involved’. I just took to it.”

It had all started in Cruddas Park, where John spent his youth playing and watching football.

“My dad used to take me to games,” he said. “We used to walk to the stadium. It’s an ever-lasting memory.”

John excelled at football at a young age.

“I was at Newcastle, and on this upward spiral,” he said. “Everything was progressing really nicely. I was training at Lilleshall when Graham Taylor was England manager. I was going down with Barry Venison, at Sunderland at the time.”

Then came the injury which changed his life.

“The first team was playing Leeds, and Arthur Cox said to me ‘look after yourself, good luck with England — you might have a chance of making your debut on Saturday’,” said John.

“We had a reserve game against Wolves, so, because I’m in the Midlands, I said ‘can I play in the reserve game?’.

“They said ‘yes’, and Ashley Grimes hit me on the shoulder, and the full-back tackled me at the same time and sent my thigh almost over my shoulder. I ripped the thigh muscle, so I went from almost making my debut to that.”

John had a series of injections, but kept breaking down.

“Jack Charlton said ‘we cannot keep waiting for you, John’,” he said.

Former Newcastle United manager Jack Charlton released John from the club following a serious shoulder injury

And, aged 20, John was unemployed after leaving Cardiff.

“I was embarrassed to claim dole money,” he said. “A government programme came out. They wanted coaches to go into schools. That’s how I got into coaching.  

“I’ve got so much gratitude towards a guy called Barney Jones. He shaped my coaching career.”

That career, which has seen John coach around the world, is still going strong.

I made a big mistake when Ruud was manager. I didn’t understand my role, my link between the players and the manager

Since he joined Clarke’s backroom team in late 2020, Scotland have qualified for two major tournaments.

The squad, based at Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the foot of Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, face the host nation in the tournament’s opening game in Munich tomorrow night (Fri June 20).

“There’s real excitement,” said John. “We’ve got that opening game against Germany at the Allianz Arena in front of 85,000. We were there a few weeks ago visiting to look at the facility — it’s amazing.

“It’s a real, proper tournament we’re going into now. All the stadiums are going to be full. We have in excess of 100,000 fans going out, with very few tickets, but they’re going to take in this tournament.

“Hopefully, they’re going to enjoy it.”

Ruud Gullit placed great faith in John’s coaching potential

John’s friendship with Clarke dates back to their days together at Newcastle.

“I was working with the youth team,” he said. “Ruud Guillt was appointed, and Steve was coming up (from Chelsea). It was his first role after finishing as a player.

“I got a phone call saying ‘the manager wants to speak to you’. I’d never come across Ruud. I went into his office and he was sitting there with Steve. It was the first time I’d met them.

“I was thinking ‘what have I done wrong?’. Then, all of a sudden he said ‘I want you to be the first-team coach’.

“I thought it was a wind up! I’m thinking ‘is somebody in the cupboard going to jump out?’. Remember Beadles About? I was in shock.

We got to the stadium, and there was a different feeling around the place. You could sense the difference

“We then developed a relationship working with Ruud, learning the ropes. Then we developed a friendship.”

Sir Bobby Robson succeeded Gullit as manager in late 1999 and Clarke returned to Chelsea.

“Steve one day just said ‘I’m going to go back to Chelsea, because I’ve got a chance of taking the youth team. It might open up for you’,” said John.

“And it did. All of a sudden, Bobby started giving me a bit more (responsibility). Then Mick (Wadsworth) decided to leave to go Southampton, and Bobby went ‘I’m going to give you a month to see if you can do the job’. 

“Within a week, he went ‘nobody else’s coming in — I want you to be my assistant’.”

Sir Bobby Robson appointed John as his assistant coach

The rest is history. John was by Sir Bobby’s side for one of the most memorable periods of the club’s modern history.

“That season we finished fourth, it was amazing,” he said. “That’s what happens when you get momentum, it just carries you. We had massive characters and leaders in the dressing room, Bobby’s ‘blue-chip’ boys.”

John had learnt a valuable lesson during Gullit’s time in charge.

“I made a big mistake when Ruud was manager,” he said. “I didn’t understand my role, my link between the players and the manager.

“Because I went with the manager, and nearly lost the players, I had to sit down with them, and own up to my mistakes. I said ‘just give me another chance’, and they did, thankfully.

“So when Bobby came in I said ‘you’re not getting a yes man — I’m not going to agree with everything you say like I did with Ruud’. He said ‘that’s what I want to hear, John’.”

I felt that I had let my parents and family down, because I had been built up and built up, everything was going my way, then I get this huge disappointment

The pair forged a close relationship on and off the pitch.

“I had to earn my stripes,” said John. “He didn’t suffer fools, and he liked to do a lot of coaching himself.

“We were really, really close. I made sure I looked after him. I was in Canada (with Toronto FC) when he got the Freedom of the City, and I was determined to come back for it.

“I remember going to his house in Durham, and the first thing he said to me wasn’t ‘how are you, John?’. He just went ‘do us a favour, son, go into the garage and get some logs to put on the fire’. 

“All of a sudden we got talking about Canada, and he said, jokingly, ‘I didn’t pay for your flight to come back, did I?’. I said ‘no, no, I paid myself!’.

“When he became poorly, it was a really tough time. I went to hospital, and he said ‘the nurses are going to allow me out for the day — will you take me to the Copthorne?’. He loved the Copthorne, that’s where we used to stay.

“So he put some clothes on and we drove to the Copthorne. He had a glass of champagne and the fishcakes. It was a really nice moment.”

Being appointed as caretaker manager of Newcastle United was one of John’s proudest moments

Sir Bobby — who launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation as he faced cancer for a fifth and final time — passed away five days after attending a star-studded charity game staged in his honour.

“Obviously, he deteriorated, and it was really tough,” said John. “That game at St James’. I’ll never forget it. That tipped me over the edge, it brought a tear.

“From a professional point of view, he had a big part in my life and my career, but more so he shaped me as a person. I got how he conducted himself and handled himself, and dealt with people.”

What John learnt under Sir Bobby would prove invaluable when he was asked to step up as caretaker head coach after Alan Pardew left for Crystal Palace in December 2014.

Carver, hampered by an injury crisis, was under ‘immense’ pressure.

“I tried not to make it an excuse at the time, but in my first game I lost Steven Taylor,” said Carver. “Then it was a sequence. I remember sitting with Steve Stone in the office, and the team of injuries was quite incredible.

“The hardest part was finding time to sleep — I was averaging three or four hours. You’re always thinking about the team, what you’re going to do the next day.

“You talk about extreme stress, and I definitely had extreme stress. I said a few things at the time that went public. I got perceived in the wrong way when I talked about the head coach thing. I probably wouldn’t have even touched on it if I wasn’t in the mindset I was in.”

Newcastle went into the final weekend of the season needing a win to be certain of their top-flight status, and Jonas Gutierrez, diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013, memorably scored one goal and set up another in a 2-0 home win over West Ham United.

Gutierrez had only returned to Tyneside midway through the season after a spell of chemotherapy after the cancer was found to have returned.

John is counting down to Scotland’s Euro 2024 opener against hosts Germany

“I remember the build-up,” said John. “I said to everybody ‘listen, stay away from the media, stay focused’.

“We decided to take them away and go to the Malmaison the night before. Normally, we’d walk away from the city, but I said ‘no, we’re walking in the city, because I want you to see the fans and what it means’.

“So we walked along the Quayside, and the fans were incredible. It was a lovely day, and Mike Ashley made a statement (that the club would not be sold until it won a major trophy or qualified for the Champions League).

“We got to the stadium, and there was a different feeling around the place. You could sense the difference.”

John had had an idea that Gutierrez, known as ‘Spider-Man’ for donning a mask to celebrate his goals, would again be the club’s super hero.

I’m thinking ‘is somebody in the cupboard going to jump out?’. Remember Beadles About? I was in shock

“I remember saying to Jonas on the Monday ‘you could be the hero here — I’m going to play you. What a fitting reward after what you’ve been through’,” said Carver. “It was quite incredible how it worked out. His mum thanked me, and gave me a big hug, after the game.

“I was delighted for Jonas. To go through it, and recover the way he did, was fantastic.

“I did the press, which was a good feeling. I’m not sure what I would’ve done if we’d got relegated. I’m not sure how I would have coped with it mentally. It’s a sliding doors moment.

“I went home and had a cup of tea. I was in bed early. I slept 24 hours.

“The pressure was immense. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, but, in a weird way, it all made up for it on that last day when we did it the way we did it.”

John added: “If you asked if I would do it again, I would say ‘yes’ – that’s my personality.”

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