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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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You were either a villain, or you got out. You had to fight, all the time - Abbott

The house in Bell Green may not appear on any West Midlands tourist trail but it never fails to draw Greg Abbott back. “Every time I go back to Coventry I drive past and look at it,” says Carlisle United’s manager. “It was inhabited by some young people who got into the wrong ways. Now it’s all boarded-up and sprayed over.

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The best bargain hunter in Potters Green: Greg Abbott, 18, during his apprenticeship at Coventry

“It’s not a nice place. That’s where I grew up.”

This rarely-heard reflection on Abbott’s childhood comes as the 48-year-old prepares to take his team back into the city of his birth. United’s boss, a former Coventry City apprentice, will be peacock-proud when he stands, as a manager, in the technical area at the Ricoh Arena this Saturday.

Two days before Carlisle’s eighth League One game of the season, the looking back is unavoidable and, when fully explored, may tell us more about Abbott than a hundred feisty press conferences or touchline tirades.

“It was tough,” he says, using the word he normally reserves for his favoured centre-halves to describe his council-estate youth. “In that environment, you were either a villain, or you got out of it. You were taught to respect people but you also had to fight, all the time, every day.”

Abbott does not use the word lazily. “You had to fight your way on to the football pitch, fight during the game, and fight your way off it. When it was 25-a-side, ages five to 12, you couldn’t go down injured or walk off crying when you took a punch on the chin. You had to stand up, get beat in some fights and win some.

“From as young as seven or eight, I got into some real bother. And I carried on fighting in football, which wasn’t ideal, because I got my fair share of sendings-off.”

Here is a stark insight into the person now known to Carlisle’s fans as a passionate but temperamental leader: the long-serving, trophy-winning manager who often talks vibrantly but still struggles to be cool when a testing question comes along in a post-match interview, or when a referee gives a decision to the enemy.

He insists, though, that he has laid down the arms of his youth. “I don’t have confrontations now. I was constantly in trouble at school but I’ve matured. I never, ever want to throw a bat again. I’ll stand my corner, but if there was a punch-up I think I’d have to walk away.

“Managers of football clubs don’t fight. Forty-eight year olds shouldn’t get involved in that stuff. But the early years… yeah, they were tough times.”

This may be illuminating material for anyone who still wonders why Abbott sometimes seems on the furthest edge of his emotions while at the controls of the Blues. In an hour-long delve into his past the Carlisle boss freely confesses that it has left him unable to reach a calm state very often, whenever his profession tests him. The instinct to wage war comes from far back, as a means of getting by.

“I try to bite my tongue, but sometimes I can’t,” he says. “I’ve got an unbelievable temper. The players, my family, my partner, Sally – they’ve all seen it. It’s not something I’m proud of. I know I have to curb it with the paying public. If they only hear me once a week I have to try to be positive, rather than have all the fans hearing my mood swings.

“But sometimes I am pushed to the wire. Sometimes I argue. It would take a saint not to react all the time.”

A fan who needled Abbott after a 3-0 defeat at Dagenham, two seasons back, crops up unprompted in the conversation. “That upset me,” he says. “The things he said weren’t true and I’ve invited him here to explain them, but he hasn’t been.

“The one thing I don’t like is when people say they ‘hate’ Greg Abbott. They don’t even know Greg Abbott. It’s a perception of the person they think I am. ‘Hate’ is too cheaply used at football managers. My upbringing has taught me to stand up to anybody but be fair with people. I think I’m a pretty decent guy, to be honest.”

The jaunt down memory lane, which this Saturday’s fixture provokes, takes Abbott into other, fonder places. While the hardness of Bell Green equipped him with a certain armour it also provides United’s manager with many more tender, homespun reflections, of family and football.

“Our place was a three-bedroom semi, with me and my two brothers in one room and my sister in the spare,” he recalls. “Our main meal was our school dinner. At home it was banana sandwiches, jam and bread. You didn’t get another meal at home.

“Dad was a centre lathe turner. I’ve still no idea what that is but he did a proper apprenticeship and was never out of work. Mum had to work too and at 12 I was looking after my brothers and sister, getting them their banana sandwiches. We used to fight like mad but by the time Mum came home it was like nothing had happened. She thought we were wonderful kids and still does. If I’d done something wrong I’d get a clip from my Dad and I’d deserve it. Old-school values.”

At a young age Abbott and the family moved to the better-appointed Potters Green and the future boss of a hard-up football club got his early schooling in tight financial dealings. “At 12 I used to walk from Potters Green to Bell Green, through Wood End – which is the really rough part of Coventry – with a blank cheque, signed, and a banker’s card, to do the weekly shop, to save Mum a job. It was like a one-and-a-half mile walk through Beirut. But to this day Mum says I was the best shopper she ever had, because when I got there I used to look for the two-for-ones, the cheap stuff.”

The best bargain-hunter in Potters Green was also one of the more able footballers in his district. In his early teens Abbott excelled for Stoke Heath Rangers, captained Coventry Schools, led a young West Midlands team which featured the future Rangers and Liverpool winger Mark Walters, and then signed schoolboy forms with the dream team up the road: the Sky Blues.

“My granddad used to work at Highfield Road as a steward and from the age of four I would go and get the programmes and cups of tea for the fans in the West End Stand,” Abbott says. “I was Coventry daft. When I got my apprenticeship I was thrilled. I was on my own, really, the only one from my area, but my upbringing did me proud.”

Abbott’s combative qualities led him to a reserve team debut against a Liverpool team that featured Ronnie Whelan, Avi Cohen, David Johnson and David Fairclough – “17 internationals on the pitch and little me from Potters Green” – and into several first-team squads, but never, achingly, the call to wear the Coventry City badge properly.

“I was close, really close. Looking back now I wish I’d had someone to advise me on how to be a pro. It was part of the culture that you’d have a pint and mess about. I wish my coaches had battered me a bit more.”

Abbott was released along with four other young players when the manager, Dave Sexton, opted to retain the Irish midfielder, Gerry Daly, on high wages, instead of sharing the money around on the home-grown quintet.

“Daly got injured in the second game of the following season and never played for Coventry again,” Abbott says, ruefully. “And three of us who left went on to have over 1,500 career appearances between us. So I feel Coventry made the wrong decision. But on the other side it allowed me to have a career, leave home, become a man, look after myself.

“I left home at 19 for Bradford and never went back. I had no financial help, had to do everything myself. I’ve never had any hand-downs, always earned what I got, brought up my kids properly. I’m proud of that.”

Abbott’s path from Bradford City legend to Carlisle United manager since then has been long and hard, with many battles along the way. Saturday’s game is strictly one more contest but it comes loaded with extra meaning, even if Abbott would prefer to be ordering his team at the old ground, not the modern, new one.

“The new place will never have the aura of Highfield Road for me. That was the best place for football, ever! I couldn’t wait for Saturdays back then, still can’t. I can remember flying to Magaluf with the Bradford team on the day Coventry won the FA Cup in 1987. I had a bet with the chairman and won £250 which paid for my whole trip. And when I came back they were still celebrating in Coventry. They’d never experienced anything like it.

“When I used to dish out programmes as a boy there was a couple in the stand – I can even remember their address – who used to give me cakes and bits of money. They were prouder than anyone when I signed for Coventry and they followed my career ever since. Sadly they’re no longer with us. They’d be over the moon to think I’m now managing a team against Coventry City. I won’t have any sentiment if we beat them, because I’m desperate to win for Carlisle.

“But I’ll have sentiment about being there. I’ll be very proud.”

The grandparents that trigger some of Abbott’s fondest memories have also long departed, but an invitation to discuss his maternal grandmother briefly causes Abbott to pause and catch a couple of tears. “My little nana,” he eventually says, smiling. “She was Indian. My granddad met her in the war and brought her back. She was only 18 at the time. The idea was to earn enough money so she could go back and track her family down, but she was very westernised very quickly.

“She was 4ft 10in and an unbelievable character, with her little walking stick. She ran Coventry, basically. On Saturdays after I’d played football, all the family would go round to theirs and she’d make a big pan of curry. Everybody used to feed, except my granddad, who would have shepherd’s pie, chips and peas and then go for a walk for three hours until the smell of curry had cleared off. But they were legendary curries and since then I’ve always loved cooking, and Indian food.”

This Saturday night, after United have faced the Sky Blues and their new manager, Mark Robins, Abbott will feast on more ancient memories. “A lot of my family will be there, uncles and aunties who I’ve not seen for ages. My best man who I’ve not spoken to for 20 years is coming. Football has taken a lot of those bonds away.

“The last time I went back, I took Dan, my youngest lad, to the Potters Green Community Club, and around the tables where our old football team used to sit were these lads of 18 to 25. It turned out they were all the sons of the lads I used to play with, sitting in the same seats. It was unbelievable.

“I was close to tears that night. I feel guilty for leaving it behind but I had to, to make a living and a name for myself. On Saturday I’m sure several people will remind me that I should have been back. Maybe some will say I should have stayed away! But it will kick off loads of stories. They’ll probably have to carry me out.”

Nor is it hard to imagine that a certain, dilapidated old house will receive another call before a poignant weekend is through. “When I’m driving past, with my lads, I show them,” Abbott says. “I tell them, ‘That’s where I was born’. And they say, ‘You’ve done alright, Dad, haven’t you?’”

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