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The Big Interview: McNaught - Everton loss heralded Villa adventure
Ken McNaught chats to Paul Brown.
25th Oct 2013
The Big Interview: McNaught - Everton loss heralded Villa adventure


Brown

He may have been on the losing Everton side in the 1977 League Cup final but, ironically, Ken McNaught's performances over the epic three game series sped through his move to Villa, where he was to achieve monumental success.

Strapping defender McNaught was a hugely promising centre-half and a fan favourite seemingly with a talent fit to help etch his name in Goodison Park folklore.

But his career took an unexpected turn when his displays at Wembley, Hillsborough and Old Trafford finally persuaded Ron Saunders, already a fan, that the amicable ace was someone he wanted as he set about shaping his Villa vision for the future.

"My highlight at Everton was that final against Villa," said Ken. "I was pleased with the first game, although I don't think there were many observers who shared that sentiment.

"Most would say it was a total waste of time. It wasn't the most exciting game by any stretch of the imagination but I was pleased personally with my own performance.

"Villa's front three at the time were quality - Andy Gray, John Deehan and Brian Little. They were scoring goals for fun. To keep them quiet was good.

"The replay at Hillsborough and then the match at Old Trafford more than made up for the disappointment of the Wembley game.

"The final result was frustrating but it was a great experience because it my first taste of a cup final in England. I was only a young lad at the time.

"I felt Everton were a bit unfortunate with the rub of the green too on the night at Old Trafford. But it was definitely entertaining and I enjoyed all three games.

"Looking back, it was all good for me. It may have ended in defeat but it was a big moment in my career.

"The gaffer must have liked what he saw because he came in for me. I turned him down the first time but then when he kept up the pursuit I thought there must be something in it. The reason I wasn't keen initially was I had just got married in 1975 and had bought a new property.

"We had just started out as a couple, trying to make a home for ourselves but I suppose I eventually found out as a footballer it's a bit of a nomadic existence."

McNaught

There's no question 22-year-old McNaught initially saw his future at Everton, having signed as an apprentice under Harry Catterick six years previous and come through the youth ranks.

He was totally engrained in life as a Toffee, having joined the club the season after their championship win, with a side featuring the famous triumvirate of Howard Kendall, Alan Ball and Colin Harvey and boasting the brilliant Brian Labone at the back.

In his trial match, in fact, he was even forced to mark legendary forward Joe Royle, who was making his way back to full fitness after a back injury.

"I joined Everton in 1971. I left school on the Friday and started training on the Monday," Ken continued. "I was playing in a successful school side Temple Hall. I played for them in the morning and for the YMCA in the afternoon.

"I was playing U18s football when I was only 15. Obviously because of my physique I got away with it.

"I represented Scotland Youth when I was only 15 too. That gave me a stage and a platform to impress. I had one or two offers from different clubs - Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City were the main ones.

"I spent a week on trial and Everton offered me terms to sign. Harry Catterick was the manager. He came up to my home with the chief scout and I signed.

"Having spent a week at Everton on trial, they really - even in that short space of time - took a real personal interest in me.

"My trial match was against Joe. He'd been suffering with a back problem. They kept pumping long balls into him and I had to come up against the big fella. He was a regular in the Everton team at the time. It was a good test and I must have done fine because soon after they offered me terms.

"Harry, the manager, was a strong disciplinarian like Ron at Villa. He ran the whole club and he ran it very well. They'd won the league the season before I joined and in my first full season they got beat in the quarter-final of the European Cup by Panathanaikos on away goals.

"As an apprentice it was a great place to be and you were always involved. You had to go to first team games and help out so you were always mixing with the big boys - training and games. It was a great grounding for me.

"There were some big names there. When I first arrived the midfield was Ball, Harvey and Kendall. They had Brian Labone at centre-half. Unfortunately when I went there, Brian picked up an achilles injury which finished his career ultimately. But he was always willing to pass on advice. I found that with all the players there.

"They were always interested in what the kids were doing. If you were willing to show you wanted to better yourself and improve, they were always there for you."

However, when it became apparent Villa were deadly serious about their pursuit and Everton were willing to let him go, it was an easy decision for McNaught to make.

"I played nine games in my first season and then for a season and half I didn't miss a game," he added. "That's why it was such a shock when I found out the club were willing to let me go.

"But looking back they had six centre-halves when I joined. Even when I left they still had a lot. Even though I played 66 consecutive games, they had plenty to spare in that department I suppose.

"The manager Gordon Lee did tell me he needed the money to buy a winger Dave Thomas and a goalkeeper George Wood. The fact Ron kept coming back, I knew I was going to a club who wanted me."

McNaught

McNaught's arrival initially brought about problems rather than solutions. The issue was mainly down to a different style of play between the flourishing star and his new central partner Leighton Phillips.

John Gregory was then tried at the back alongside McNaught and while Ken enjoyed the pairing it didn't last. Eventually, a helpful word of advice from McNaught to manager Saunders about a potential partner already in the ranks did the trick - and the rest is history.

"Leighton was more used to playing as a sweeper. With big Chris he would go for everything, it didn't matter which side, he'd get underneath the ball and get his head on it.

"But I was more used to playing alongside a centre-half where if it goes down the right side he attacks it, if it comes down the left side, I attack it. So the first few games were a bit strange for me with Leighton.

"Then John came in and I enjoyed playing alongside him. But it was change again and I suggested to Ron that he brought Allan Evans to the back.

"I was used to playing alongside a big fella and as far as I know, the decision to try Allan at the back worked!

"The thing about Allan was he was quick, he could always recover well. I just felt he was more suited to being a defender.

"Ron would listen to his players. He listened to my thoughts about Allan as a centre-half. But that was Ron. He would take things on board. Others would have dismissed the notion.

"We suited each other's game. It was like Withey and Shawy. We all had football brains. We would all anticipate and read the game well."

Saunders

McNaught, of course, went on to become an integral part of one of Villa's most successful sides.

The claret and blue trophy haul, according to McNaught, was down to brilliant players - but also "the gaffer" Ron Saunders.

McNaught insists Villa would have won "lots more" if Saunders had stayed.

He added: "I have nothing but praise for him. He was definitely the greatest manager I ever worked under - no doubt.

"As a man-manager he was fantastic. He would get inside your head and your mind to get the very best out of you.

"I was very fortunate in that most of the time I was in his good books. I'd have hated to have been in his bad books. He always pushed on you that as a player you had to win things, winning was everything.

"When I first arrived from Everton, it's well documented that I didn't get off to the best of starts. But Ron helped me through it.

"He might have left me out of the team but he stuck with me. I developed a good rapport with him because he helped me get through the bad times. I wanted to repay him on the park.

"He's set the benchmark for Villa managers. He ran the team so well that even when we left, we still went on to win things.

"He was there when we won the title and it was his team that won the European Cup. Tony was his assistant and he was a clever man. He realised that the players he had on board at the time were good enough to go and win things, even after Ron had left.

"I think after the European Cup win it was five or six years and then Villa were relegated. There's no chance that would have happened under Ron.

"I think we would have gone on to win more League Championships, League Cups, FA Cups and European Cups if Ron had stayed. There's no doubt about that in my mind."

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