‘Do you remember when there was that speculation that he was going to merge us with Clydebank?’ asks my drinking companion. I confess that I’d entirely forgotten, but that this gentle prod had brought back that perishing thought. ‘That was all in a week’s work. Schemes like that never stopped coming.’
Anthony Ferguson is recalling his time covering Carlisle United for the local newspaper, the News & Star. Even the most casual of observers of the club’s recent history will recognise the ‘he’ in question – Michael Knighton, the infamous, publicity craving owner cum chairman. Throughout two of the most enjoyable hours of the last year Anthony pours forth on his regular bans from the club (usually circumnavigated by sweet talking the lugubrious totem himself), his calling as a county wide agony uncle for stricken Cumbrians fans (‘I knew as much about what was going on as they did most of the time’) but most pertinently the seemingly weekly farces that descended on Brunton Park in the latter day Knighton era.
His musings could fill a book – alongside the mooted move North sits the ‘sale’ of the club to Stephen Brown, a penniless curry house barman and Bob Carolgees lookalike from the Borders, Knighton’s claims to a national newspaper that he had been abducted by aliens and the summer long ‘will they, won’t they’ courtship of the club’s dual saviours from the 1999 season – Nigel Pearson and Jimmy Glass.
I’m here to talk to Anthony about what happened when the answer finally came – ‘they wouldn’t’. Press speculation suggested that former Blues favourites Peter Beardsley and Steve McCall, the Plymouth gaffer when Glass swung his right peg, were at the head of the Blues managerial queue. But that didn’t count on Knighton. He had other ideas – installing the unheralded and largely unheard of Keith Mincher to the Brunton Park hotseat on the 18th of June.
‘To be honest, I didn’t bat an eyelid’ claims Ferguson ‘it was typical Knighton, it’s what he did. This was just his latest way of saying ‘I’ll show them’. He’d done it before with (Third Division winning gaffer) Mick Wadsworth who had done barely anything before coming to us. But people had heard of Wadsworth and literally no-one had heard of Mincher. He wasn’t even in Rothmans. I had a lead that he’d been at Leeds in the eighties but that was it – a few people knew his sports psychology work but I really was fighting to find out anything, and the club kept stonewalling my requests for interviews.’
Exactly a week later, Mincher was gone, dispatched forever to the annals of obscure specialist rounds in ‘The World’s Hardest Football Quiz’.Ferguson recalls ‘I went away and when I came back he’d gone – I wrote a total of one article about him. Was I surprised? Not really; things like that happened all the time. Martin Wilkinson (who assumed the post from Mincher) told me that he was always supposed to be in charge, but that certainly wasn’t the way the club had sold it when it was announced.’
So what did happen that week? And what might have happened if Mincher had stayed? These are questions I’ve asked myself for 12 years; only three people wrote about Keith Mincher that fateful week – Anthony Ferguson, his colleague Amanda Little and a 16 year old work experience boy – me. Keith lends his name to this site; I felt like we owed him fair hearing.
I’ve been ‘chasing’ Keith for the last 3 or 4 months. I’d been told by friends and contacts who know this game better than I that he wouldn’t wish to talk to me, that this private man had repeatedly declined the chance to state his side of the story. So, I instead decided to attempt to piece together a little more about him than is already known by speaking to those who have worked with him.
The picture that emerged is of an inspiring and forward thinking man who instils great trust and loyalty in those who grow close to him. One well known Football League player, who shall remain nameless, originally agreed to speak to me about Keith but got cold feet when I was unable to give him assurances that this piece would be ‘100% positive’. He explained that Mincher had ‘saved his career’ and that he remained a close friend. We left it that he would seek his mentor’s permission and get back in touch – he never has.
Only a few remain at Carlisle United from Mincher’s brief spell at the helm; one such man, club physio and stalwart Neil Dalton remembers it well: ‘To be honest, we’d all expected Nigel (Pearson) to get the job. He’d come in and put a smile back on our face. But it was a crazy time, you never knew what was going to happen.’
‘We were at Durham University’s facility doing a pre-season camp when the chairman arrived with this bloke and announced ‘this is your new gaffer’. I think only one lad had heard of him as he’d been at Sheffield United where he was a youth coach. The other coaches (Neale Cooper and Paul Baker) had absolutely no idea who he was and nor had I.’
He remembers Mincher as reserved, ‘He was very quiet. He just seemed to listen and take it all in but not give much back. I’d guess that was his way of weighing us all up maybe – him using his psychology training.’
‘When Knighton came back the next week and told us that he (Keith) was gone he told us that they’d fallen out over coaching staff – that Keith had wanted rid of the three of us but Knighton had told him to live with his lot. Part of me was disappointed to think that someone had taken against me, but it was just as likely that Knighton was spinning a yarn. It could have been that he’d realised his mistake or had fallen out with him. But that was Michael – he was articulate, clever with words and very believable. So I guess no-one outside those two ever really knew what happened.’
All that said he maintains that Mincher was a ‘decent fella’ who was happy to have a pint with fellow staff – a fact that makes the theory that he wanted to ship them all out seem likely to be yet another Knighton tall tale.
Was Keith Mincher wronged by Carlisle United? Unless he agrees to tell his story I suspect we’ll never know. However, there must be merit in pondering whether his sports psychology background would have brought fresh ideas and a new optimism to a team down on its haunches and in need of all the help it could get – however unconventional.
As Anthony Ferguson suggested, little is known about Mincher’s involvement in football before his unexpected washing up atBruntonPark. It wasn’t, however, his first brush with top level management and its associated controversies. Leeds United chairman Leslie Silver attempted to install Mincher (then a youth coach in Yorkshire) as manager during the 1985/86 season after a disastrous run under club favourite Eddie Gray. An article for When Saturday Comes by Duncan Young described how player protest – led by White Rose dinosaur Peter Lorimer – forced the Leeds board into a u-turn and the appointment of Billy Bremner. There’s a certain irony that Mervyn Day, one of his forebears in the bearpit of Michael Knighton’s whims, was the Leeds goalkeeper at the time. That the Lorimers and Ian Snodins of this world would have little time for his new ideas seems almost certain.
Since leaving Carlisle that fateful week, Keith Mincher has worked with Nottingham Forest, Colchester United, Watford, Coventry City and the England under 21 team in the capacity of consulting sports psychologist. It is in this role which he has worked closely with the FA on their coaching programmes and it is this that has, undoubtedly, formed an insuperable bond with that disciple of preparation, Aidy Boothroyd, with whom his name is most often tagged in a swift Google search. Many well known names, including the England and West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper Ben Foster, have credited Mincher’s input with helping to turn around a flagging career.
Another player to have benefited from Mincher’s wisdom at around the same time is the current Brentford custodian, Richard Lee. The multi-skilled Mr Lee spends his time away from the pitch running a pair of successful businesses and has recently released a critically acclaimed book on how a change of attitude, with the help of psychological techniques such as Neuro-Lingistic Programming, has helped him succeed on and off the pitch. He was happy to talk about the role Keith played in this.
‘I have nothing but good things to say about him, he is incredibly knowledgeable and has a fantastic aura that surrounds him. I speak to him even now and I always come off the phone with a sense of renewed motivation.’
Lee claims that he was initially ‘intrigued’ by Mincher after spending time with him after one of the training sessions he regularly attended at Boothroyd’s Watford. With Keith’s guidance Lee attended seminars and read books on NLP and other techniques and has become professionally qualified in the field himself – ‘Keith to me is a friend and mentor figure – confidence to me is now a choice and much of this is down to the guidance of Keith.’
At the time of our correspondence Lee had 10 clean sheets this season (now 12). He claims that his clean sweep of player of the year trophies for last year ‘is no coincidence’.
‘I now have a ‘winning’ mindset. I have several team mates come to me for advice now and they’ve seen benefits from what I tell them.’
He refuses to be drawn when probed on whether there remains a prevailing mistrust of psychology in sport, suggesting the converse is probably true – ‘I think now there’s more of a realisation that it’s perhaps the most important aspect in any sport. There are thousands of people that have huge talent but very few at the very top, the difference often being that of ones mindset, gain control of this and the impact on your game will be more than any physical training exercise you could ever do.’
A winning mindset? Confidence? Tools to help refocus oneself on the positive aspects of football? These all sound like things which were sadly lacking at Carlisle United in the summer of 1999 – even giving credit to the city-wide rictus grin that Jimmy Glass induced – the period between the 1998/99 and 2003/4 seasons were a rum time to be a Carlisle fan. As Dalton rightly points out ‘we lost our way completely and didn’t put it right until Paul Simpson came in’. That was in the second half of the 2003/4 campaign when the club already had a freshly minted ticket to the Conference in their grubby mitts.
Could Mincher have stopped all that? I guess we’ll never know, but my quest to learn a little about him has at least placed him in the pantheon of great United imponderables. ‘Do you remember that time we had that pioneer on our hands? The wee fella with the ‘tache who got inside folks heads? I wonder what’d have happened if he’d stayed…’
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