The Ex-Files: John McGreal
Thursday, 8th Nov 2012 17:08
In a new regular series, The Ex-Files, Blair Ferguson meets up with Town stars of the past to talk to them about their time at Portman Road and to see what they’re getting up to now. First up, defensive linchpin of the George Burley side, John McGreal.
Having made the short trip down the A12 to Colchester United’s new training centre in Tiptree, ex-Town defender John McGreal entered the reception area in an unfamiliar Colchester United tracksuit.
Greeting us with a handshake typical of a domineering centre-back he guided us through the corridors and up the stairs to the dining area that overlooks the pitches at the new facility. With two cups of tea in hand he sat down and began to look back at his career at Ipswich and what has followed.
In the summer of 1999 McGreal was a week away from starting the season with Tranmere Rovers when his journey with Ipswich began. The 40-year-old explained the events leading up to him signing for Town with a slight pause before he began that suggested that he hadn’t thought about it in a while.
“It was the summer of 99; I think it was only a week before the season was actually going to start. I was linked with Huddersfield in the summer and John Aldridge, the manager at the time, just came across and said the club has accepted a bid off of Mr David Sheepshanks.
“I didn’t think anything of it, I thought it was Huddersfield and then he said it was Ipswich. I think it was on the Tuesday I got told at training and I travelled down on the Wednesday and I signed Wednesday evening.
“Once I knew Ipswich were in for me there was no question because of what had happened the previous seasons with play-offs and different things. It was a no-brainer really. At that stage of my career it was an ideal opportunity.”
With the team gaining promotion to the Premier League in his first season it was evident that McGreal had joined a strong group of players with an even stronger team spirit that helped drive them forward.
“We had a good team when you think back at some of the players that we had. It was a really good blend of youth and experience. We had a few vocal lads in the changing room as well.
“Not only did George the manager give us a little bit of stick if things weren’t going right but we had players in there that could also point the finger and I think that was a real big factor in what we had and one of our strengths really was that the players in the changing room could sort one or two things out themselves as well. So it was a really strong team spirit that we had at the time.”
When listening to McGreal it’s easy to hear how much confidence the players had in each other and what they could achieve as a team in the Premier League.
“Winning at the likes of Leeds and places like that gives you a mass of confidence. In the early part of the Premier League we drew with Man United and it just gives you a belief and with the players that we had we thought we were one of the best teams in the league at the time and we did prove it in a way.”
“In a way” might have been putting it modestly with a final day draw and results going against Town seeing them finish an admirable fifth, bringing European football back to Portman Road. In an opening season like the one Town had there has to be a time when the mindset changes from avoiding relegation to chasing Champions League football, for Town this was around Christmas.
“You always look for the old 42-point mark and we were close to that around Christmas time and we were playing well. I think we played Tottenham around Christmas and we beat them 3-0 and going into January we were playing someone like Bradford away and we were thinking that this was going to roll and roll and roll.
“Before we knew it we were sitting in fifth or sixth position and thinking we’ve got a really good chance of Champions League football. It was literally ‘Wow, this is unbelievable!’”
The secret behind the success wasn’t master tactics or a star player but something much simpler, winning away games, he says.
“We just kept winning away from home. I think the way our away form went we were going to places and we were either winning or losing. So, if we had two away matches we knew we were coming away with at least three points because we knew we would win one out of the two, and that was a big factor.”
The success of the team came from the head of George Burley, Town’s most successful manager in over a decade, and a manager regarded by McGreal as the best he has played under.
“George was really, really good. He was probably the best manager I’ve played under, but I haven’t had many, I’m very fortunate in that respect, I’ve only had four or five either way.
“But he was very good from the first day I walked in until he left and even when I’ve seen him since he’s still the same as he was the first time of seeing him.”
With a remarkable season in the Premier League and a UEFA Cup run that included a win against Inter Milan it could be assumed that either of these moments would be the highlight of any player in the squad but for McGreal it was the match that made them both possible, the play-off final at Wembley.
“I’d done my ankle at Stockport away and I hadn’t played until the play-off final. George came to me as we had beaten Bolton in the semi-final second leg and said ‘Are you going to be fit?’, and I said I would and he said ‘Good lad, get your head and do your extra bits’, and his number two at the time, Dale Roberts, had me in running consistently every single day. Run, run, run and, true to his word, I was brought back in and I played in the final.”
However, there is another memory for McGreal who grew up a Liverpool supporter - scoring against Everton away in a 3-0 win. A moment he describes with a certain amount of fondness in his voice.
“I think that was one of the best feelings ever, scoring against the rivals of the team I’d supported as a kid and to score at the Gwladys Street where all my mates were, it was a really nice touch.”
Fast forward to the present and McGreal sits in that Colchester United tracksuit as U18s manager, a job that he values. The decision to get into management was a late one and was influenced by then-Town manager, Jim Magilton.
“It was really late, to be honest. I’d come back down from Burnley and I had a few business things going on down here, so I was always moving back down to Ipswich. Luckily enough one of my best mates at the time, Jim Magilton, was the manager.
“I just kept going to watch games and go into his office after games and he was just picking bits and bobs and he said ‘Why don’t you just get your badges? You’ve got the whole facility here at the club, you’ve got all the coaching staff.’”
With the mention of Magilton came the need for clarification about a rumour that suggested McGreal might join his backroom staff. This was met with a definitive answer.
“There wasn’t, to be honest. I think they just put two and two together about us being big mates and I’d just done my B Licence as well at Ipswich and I think they’d seen me up there quite a bit and just put two and two together. It was never mentioned, never mentioned at all.”
After securing that UEFA B Licence it was a right place, right time moment that saw McGreal join Colchester and subsequently make his way up the coaching ladder. Much of his progression is down to Tony Humes and Richard Hall who took John to Colchester after leaving Ipswich. He speaks with gratitude when talking about Humes and Hall.
“It was Tony Humes and Richard Hall who’d set me up doing my B Licence at Ipswich and they’d left Ipswich and Tony had got the job over here at Colchester. Richard Hall was over there with him and I’d seen Richard because he’d signed bits and bobs off my book.
“I just said ‘All the best at Colchester’ and he gave me a phone call and said ‘Come over here, we’re looking for staff, Tony wants to meet up with you and we’d like to get you involved’.”
Having built a new and impressive training facility the argument could be made that Colchester are now becoming more capable of competing with Town for the young talent in the area, something that McGreal hopes they can do.
“The chairman has put a lot of trust and a lot of money into the youth foundation as you can see with the facility and we are trying to attract the better players rather than them jumping all the way along on the train or in the car past Colchester on the A12 to go to Ipswich.
“We’re trying to bring players into here and I think facilities like this will help and there’s a lot of ex-Ipswich players that know how to play the game and want to play the game the right way, the football way.”
Despite it being early on in his coaching career there is a sense that McGreal is ambitious, yet appreciates there’s a lot more experience to be gained. When confronted with the inevitable question of a possible return to Ipswich the response is positive and endearing.
“Ipswich is a fantastic club and if you ask any ex-player if they would love to go back, of course they would. Whether it’s the right circumstances or it isn’t, it’s a fantastic club, a great community club as well.
“Now, with the new manager coming in and with the first win last week, it’s kick-starting them on again, so I would like to say yes. However, at the minute I’m quite happy doing my bit, but as football goes along decisions get made and things happen for different people, so you just don’t know in the future. But it would be an unbelievable opportunity.”
Photos: Action Images/Richard Blaxall/Blax Images
Photo: Action Images
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