Jim Magilton On Southampton, Le Tissier, Ipswich And The Future

Jim Magilton On Southampton, Le Tissier, Ipswich And The Future

An interview with Jim Magilton, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You joined Liverpool as a teenager on an apprenticeship. What was it like to move to England from Northern Ireland at such a young age?

“I was desperate to move to England at that time because my dream was to be a footballer and Liverpool were one of the best clubs in the world at that time.

“My earliest childhood memories are of me playing with a football and becoming a footballer was the one thing that I always wanted to do.

“When Kenny Dalglish picked the phone up and asked me to be a part of Liverpool under him then it was a no brainer. No one could turn down such an opportunity.”

What were the senior professionals within the Liverpool dressing room like with you?

“They were fantastic with me but they were also tough taskmasters (laughs).

“During those days as an apprentice, you looked after the first team dressing room and had to knock before you went in such was the respect for the professionals at the club.

“Anytime you walked into the dressing room, you were on the end of a barrage of banter and dirty kit being thrown at you because our job as apprentices was to clean the kit and the boots for them.

“It was a great environment because the likes of Alan Hansen, Stevie Nicol, Sammy Lee and Bruce Grobbelaar would always keep you on your toes.

“I was in awe of them because I went from watching them on Match of the Day to being a teammate of theirs.

“However, you have to learn quickly that you need to get used to being around them because it was survival of the fittest when you were a young player trying to break through.”

You moved to Oxford United from Liverpool on a permanent basis at the age of 21. Was regular first-team football the main reason for making that move?

“Absolutely. I could not have done anymore to try and break into the Liverpool first team and neither could the coaches.

“There comes a time that you need to realise that your job is to play first-team football and that was the motivation for making the move to Oxford.

“I needed to start racking up professional league games against senior professionals because I was attracting attention from Billy Bingham at international level and I wanted to prove my worth to him in a first-team environment.

“Brian Horton was great with me when I arrived at Oxford but it was a tough move even though it was a necessary one.

“Kenny Dalglish had to show me where Oxford was on the map as I didn’t have a clue where it was and I have to admit that I probably cried the full way from Merseyside to Oxford.

“I could not have chosen a better club or manager to play for because everyone welcomed me so well and backed me to succeed.”

You played over 150 times for Oxford during your time at the club which attracts interest from Premier League clubs. You sign for Southampton under the legendary Alan Ball in 1994. What was it like for you to work with a World Cup winner? 

“Alan was brilliant for me because he was a central midfielder when he played just like I was.

“He was world-class when he played so to learn from him was incredible.

“Alan could be very hot-headed and at times it was tough because he was creating an environment with young players but he knew that he had a genius in Matt Le Tissier so if we could utilise him then we would win games.

“He took us from being a struggling team to finishing 10th in the league which was the club’s highest place in the Premier League at that time.

“We felt like we were developing as a team successfully under Alan but unfortunately, he left for Manchester City and we went back to fighting against relegation.

“Despite that, I was still delighted to be playing in the Premier League because it is where every player wants to play.

“Funnily enough, my first game in the Premier League was actually live on Sky against Liverpool in a game that Matt Le Tissier scored a hat trick in.

“I remember shaking hands with Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans after the game and them being very complimentary towards me and telling me that they had followed my progress post-Liverpool. That meant a lot to me.”

I have spoken to Matt Le Tissier on a couple of occasions and he clearly loved Southampton hence why he was a one-club man. Just how good was he and could he have played at the very highest levels of the game?

“He was a genius and could do anything with a football. He could have played at the very highest level. Don’t forget, he had numerous chances to leave Southampton to play at that level but remained loyal to the club which is admirable.

“Some people would say he didn’t work as hard going backwards as he did going forwards and that is true. However, the pros of Le Tissier far outweighed the cons.

“He is the only player I have ever played with who was dangerous from 35 yards. He could score from distance, from close range, from free kicks and penalty kicks. He had it all.

“I remember one season in particular when he scored numerous goals from 35 yards while making it look effortless.

“His goal against Blackburn Rovers is an iconic national example of that and won Goal of the Season, which was richly deserved.

“Alan Ball told us when he was manager to look for Le Tiss whenever we got the ball as he was our best chance to score goals and win games.”

Graeme Souness arrived at Southampton one year after Alan Ball had departed as manager. He was also a world-class midfielder in his day. Was Graeme similar to Alan in terms of what you learned from him?

“Graeme was a fantastic player in his day and working with him was a good learning curve for me. To learn from him about what it took to be a top central midfielder was great.

“He was fantastic when he played and he had good experiences in management but when he arrived at Southampton.

“He had a strong presence whenever he walked into a room and he would be assertive when he had to be.

“I enjoyed working and learning from him even though it was for a brief spell.”

I have to ask you about Ali Dia who was a non-league player who somehow blagged his way into the Southampton team under Graeme. He infamously came on for Matt Le Tissier in a Premier League match before being subbed off again, as it was obvious he was not at the level. How mad was that whole situation?

“It was bonkers (laughs). We watched him train and he did not show us anything special.

“However, in his defence, I have trained with some top players who were poor trainers yet on a Saturday were they best player on the park.

“Unfortunately, Ali did not change. He was not very good in training and even more so when he played for us in that game.

“It was a bizarre time and I actually did not know he replaced Le Tiss. You’ve made my life with that fact, Callum (laughs).

“The aftermath of that was more on Graeme Souness than us as players but Graeme won’t be defined by Ali Dia, let’s be honest.

“It was very funny though in hindsight and something that would never happen in the modern game.”

You finished your playing career at Ipswich Town where you finished 5th in the Premier League under George Burley in 2001. That was a fairytale season looking back. Just what was it like to be involved in?

“It was a great journey for us over my first few seasons there.

“I arrived at the club in 1999 and the season prior, the club had lost to Bolton in the playoffs.

“During my first full season at the club, we played Bolton again in the playoffs and every man and his dog fancied Bolton to beat us again.

“They should have beat us given the fact that they had players such as Eiður Guðjohnsen and Mark Fish.

“However, the momentum seemed to be with us during that season and I felt confident that we would go up. I don’t know why but I just did.

“Marcus Stewart was immense at helping us turn a two-goal deficit around against Bolton away from home before I then scored a hat trick at Portman Road to send us to the final.

“The only hat trick of my career as well, which is unbelievable looking back.

“We then go to Wembley to face Barnsley who were fancied to beat us. It was a tight game but we got over the line to reach the Premier League.

“Our resilience defined us as a team and every player was united in our goal to succeed so much so that we go into the Premier League without any fear.

“In our first season in the league, we go into the last game of the season with the possibility of reaching the Champions League places as a promoted club. Truly remarkable.

“That season was the most enjoyable season of my career because we played in an attractive manner and we proved all of the doubters wrong.

“George set us up very well and won manager of the year in 2000/01 which he thoroughly deserved.

“My personal highlights of that season would be beating Liverpool at Anfield and the courage that we showed in each and every game.

“We honestly did not fear anyone and we matched the majority of the teams that we faced and the atmosphere around the club was buzzing.”

Unfortunately, the club is relegated in the second season of Premier League football.  Many expected you to move on but you remained at the club until 2006 when you then took over as manager for your first coaching job. How would you sum up your time at Ipswich overall after the success of 00/01 as both a player and manager? 

“I fell out of favour with George in the second season as they wanted to go down a different route in terms of playing style as the team battled to stay in the league.

“However, I had no intention of leaving the club because I wanted to help the club return to the top flight after the disappointment of going down to the Championship.

“The club saved me at a time that I needed saving after a tough time at Sheffield Wednesday, so I felt that I owed the club my loyalty.

“I could have left the club but that was never my aim. I felt we could get back to the Premier League but, unfortunately, it was not meant to be in the next few seasons that followed before I became the manager of the club.

“In regards to managing Ipswich, I can honestly say that I never expected to become manager of Ipswich when I did.

“I had a great relationship with Joe Royle who was my last manager as a player. He was the best man-manager that I ever worked for and he helped me realise when the right time to retire was.

“The club were in a rough position financially when Joe left and they knew that am experienced manager would not be willing to take on the role in such challenging circumstances.

“Thankfully, I was at the club, was passionate about the club and knew the dynamics of the club inside out so I was offered the job.

“I felt ready to take on the challenge even though I was inexperienced. I compare taking on the job to passing a driving test.

“You are learning your way then all of a sudden you are on your own. That was the way it was for me.

“I became a better manager as the three and half years at the club progressed. You want to do everything at once when you take on the job for the first time but your time management improves as you get used to the rigours of being a manager.

“I became better at delegating to my staff and taking on the thoughts and ideas of others.

“Losing games makes management the loneliest job on earth but the wins are special just like they were when you are a player.”

What are the most challenging aspects of football management given your experience in the game?

“When you do not have a lot of money to spend then management becomes a balancing act.

“You need to utilise your contacts in the game to help you whether it be with a player on loan or some advice.

“I must say that football is good at supporting you. From Sir Alex Ferguson right through the leagues, you could pick up the phone to the coaching fraternity and they would be willing to help you.

“I was never frightened to ask for support. Sir Bobby Robson was still alive when I took over at Ipswich and he was a great sounding board for me given his association and success with the club.

“Management is getting tougher now in my view because it is all about results — as it always was — but they are expected instantly which is not always possible.

“Having a good relationship with your chairman is crucial and for the most part, I had that with Marcus Evans at Ipswich.

“I was gutted when he wanted to make a chance as he felt he had someone else who could take the club back to the promised land.

“Unfortunately, that was not meant to be for him or Ipswich who are a great club and deserve to return to the top flight in future.”

Last but not least, Jim, you have experience of managing in the Football League, in the A-League and at international level with Northern Ireland’s under-21 side. You have also worked as a sporting director. Do you harbour an ambition to return to management again in future or are you looking to remain as a sporting director going forward?

“I am open to opportunities in management, coaching or as a sporting director.

“I have reflected a great deal over the years on my managerial career and my football career.

“Lockdown was a good time to reflect on everything because we stopped thinking about the future for a period of time due to the complexity of that situation.

“I reconnected with many people from my career and I worked at Dundalk in 2020 and 2021 following my time working with the Irish FA.

“I got the bug again for management when I stepped in at Dundalk on an interim basis.

“Working with players on a daily basis and improving them is rewarding, as is working as a sporting director when you are looking to develop a club in various aspects too.

“I have experienced a European Championship with Northern Ireland alongside Michael O’Neill which was a great experience for me.

“I have experience managing, coaching and being a sporting director so I like to think that I have a wealth of experience that could benefit a club.

“I love the game of football and I am itching to get back in.

“I present to Pro License coaches for the Irish FA now and I always tell them that you are one phone call away from your career changing in an instant.

“I have experienced the good and bad of that. Only football can bring you that and I hope that I can return to the game in the near future.

“I am happy to have a conversation with clubs or chairmen across football because I do not want my journey in football to stop.

“The game grips all of us as fans, players, managers and writers like yourself.

“I worked with Sky Sports recently on a documentary about Graham Potter following his appointment at Chelsea as I worked with him at Southampton.

“He deserves the opportunity at a giant club like Chelsea and I hope that an opportunity is out there somewhere for me too because football is my life.”