Captain and all-round legend Stephen McPhail joined Paul Gronow to discuss his eight years as a Bluebird recently. There were many highs and lows along the way and Stephen bares all in this revealing interview.
To begin with, how are you doing at the moment? Are you enjoying life and in good health?
Yeah, I’m doing well thanks. My health is good, which is most important of all of course. I’ve been home in Ireland now for about five years, which seems strange because I first left home properly when I was 15 years old! Adjusting back to life at home where it all began for me has been good, but it’s also taken some getting used to.
You became the Shamrock Rovers sporting director a month after retiring from playing. That must have been a real culture shock.
I initially came back and played two seasons for Shamrock Rovers before being offered the Sporting Director’s role, which is where I am now. It’s been interesting to say the least. I never thought I’d be a Sporting Director when I came home, but all of a sudden life is totally different to what I expected.
One thing I can say is that I’m really enjoying it. Managing everyone but myself is a new experience for me, but I look forward to every day. It’s wonderful to still be involved in the game. I wake up and have a goal to work towards now, which I’m absolutely delighted about.
Was it always a long-term plan to pursue a role in the game at boardroom level?
No, it really wasn’t. I must admit, the whole thing came as a shock to me. Having played the last game of the season, I had been offered a new contract, but I just knew my body was getting too old. Getting fit and being the best you can be on the pitch was becoming increasingly difficult, so I informed the chairman that I wouldn’t be renewing my contract at the club.
Within a day of making that decision, the chairman had offered me this new role based on a massive restructuring of the whole football club. My initial reaction was one of shock because I’d expected to start coaching the young boys in the academy and try to learn the ropes from there.
Having asked for time to think it over, I began to speak to a few sporting directors that I already knew. I was looking to gain some insight into the role and what it meant for me. Once I’d done this, I accepted the role and have really enjoyed it ever since.
What does your role as Sporting Director involve and what does the role consist of on a daily basis?
I am working very closely with the head coach (Stephen Bradley). He took over in November 2016 and we get along very well. We came in to the club around the same time and he’s a young coach that’s very highly regarded in Ireland. The way he views the game and the way he wants to play is exciting and I count myself blessed to be able to work so closely with him.
He is keen for me to be involved on the coaching side and gauge my views on various aspects of coaching, which is a great experience for me. I tend to be the main link between him and the board, while keeping the board fully informed on what we are doing on the football side of things. I’m also able to inform them of what’s needed recruitment-wise to maintain our progression on the pitch.
Stephen doesn’t need to get involved in any of the negotiating side of the financial dealings, he leaves that to me and that frees him up to deal with the coaching on the pitch.
How have you found it dealing with football agents and the supposedly murkier side of the footballing world?
It’s difficult because I have to be true to the project that we are implementing here at the club. When I arrived, we started from scratch with a brand new squad of players with the style of play we were looking to implement. This feels like the first time we’ve been able to do that properly and that means that when I meet new players and agents, I’m honest from the beginning.
I tell them the vision, what we are trying to achieve at the club and we go from there. There are some football agents, of course, who perhaps don’t always have the player’s best interest at heart, but I’m not interested in mind games.
The best agents have the players wellbeing at the forefront of everything they do and whilst there will be always be some that don’t, I don’t waste my time with them. A good agent is like a good coach; they’re there to get the best from you and they will do all they can to ensure that happens.
Before coming to Cardiff, you spent your early years at Leeds United. Did you have representation as a young player?
When I first joined Leeds United, I went alone. I had no agent and no one professionally to look out for me. As soon as your profile changes and you begin to make a name for yourself in the game, you begin to attract agents.
In that stage of life, you’re transitioning from a boy in to a man and you find yourself heading into the world of finance, which can be confusing to you. That’s when an agent becomes essential to help you navigate all of those things that perhaps even your parents can’t assist with.
Having joined a club in a different era, before the huge financial deals began to happen, how did the club help younger players settle in during their early days?
I signed for Leeds United when I was 15 years old while Paul Hart and Eddie Gray were overseeing the youth team there. They were unbelievable people who held high standards and being ex-players, commanded the respect of the squad. They instilled a lot discipline in us from the beginning and this set us up for the rest of our careers.
Leeds United were brilliant to me and really looked after me. Having lived with a fantastic family for the first year of my time at the club, they then built halls of residence at the training ground (Thorpe Arch) for us all to live in. The whole youth team moved into the training ground and whilst it was basic, it was a fantastic area to help us grow close. We all became close like brothers.
If we ever got homesick, we could go home and see our family without any hesitation and we were extremely well looked after. I still keep in touch with Paul and Eddie to do this day. In fact, I will often find myself wondering what they would do when I’m faced with a situation now.
How did your time at Leeds come to an end and was it linked to their well-document financial problems?
The last year of my contract at Leeds United coincided with the financial problems for the club. You could see that players were being sold on a regular basis and when they sold Thorpe Arch, I knew my time was coming to end there. I didn’t want to leave the club but the financial problems meant I wouldn’t be getting a new contract, so I ended up going to Barnsley on an initial one-year deal.
The bonus for me was that they were a lovely club and being so close to Leeds, I didn’t need to move house or anything major. That season under Andy Ritchie we made it to the play-off final and that just happened to be played in the Cardiff Millennium Stadium. The irony that we ended up playing Swansea City in the final in Cardiff!
Leading up to that game, I was coming to the end of my contract at Barnsley and whilst I was enjoying playing there and they’d offered me a really good deal, I just felt that at that moment in my career I just wanted a change. I had lived in the Leeds area for 12 years by this stage and my wife was pregnant, so it all felt right to move on.
How did the move to Cardiff arise and why did you join the Bluebirds?
Barnsley secured the play-offs away to Walsall in the final league game and Dave Jones had come to watch me, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. He called me the next day to discuss coming to Cardiff and asked me if I’d be interested in meeting him for a chat.
We then made it to the final a few weeks later and Dave said; “as you’re already going to be in Cardiff, do you fancy meeting up to chat about it the night before the final?” As I was almost out of contract with Barnsley, I didn’t feel like I was doing anything underhand, so my agent snuck me out of the team hotel, the St David’s Hotel in Cardiff Bay, to meet with Dave Jones in his apartment nearby.
Having had a cup of tea with him, Peter Risdale and my agent, we spent an hour to two talking about the club. As soon as I walked out of the apartment I knew that I was going to sign for Cardiff City. Thankfully, the next day we beat Swansea and I was able to leave them on a high. Cardiff had a grand vision going forward and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
We interviewed Michael Chopra recently and he believes that you were the best player he played with at the club because you made him a better player.
There are some players that you link up with in your career and the connection goes beyond what you would normally have between a midfielder and a forward. That was definitely the case for me and Chops. It’s hard to define just what it was.
There are only a small number of players throughout your whole career that you find that connection with and I’d say my relationship with Chops was probably the best I had between midfield and a front man.
You need players to create those chances and I had the range of passing that suited Chops. He definitely knew where he wanted the ball and would always let me know. I knew that if I put the ball where he wanted it, it would generally end up in the back of the net and it was almost like we knew each other’s minds.
We did work hard in training on his movement and developing our connection, but when it comes to the match and you’re in the heat of the moment, it had to go beyond that. For Chops and I, it really did and I would even go so far as to say that we didn’t have to say a word to each other. In fact, we could play the game in silence, that’s how strong our connection was.
Michael also said he felt that you were generally underrated as a player. Do you feel that got the credit you deserved?
No, I never felt underrated as a player at any club. I felt that as soon as I played my first game for Cardiff, which ironically was against Barnsley, I knew I had a strong connection with the club and the supporters.
I appreciate the point Michael is making, given we had some big name players who seemed to have a lot of the limelight, but I can honestly say that I never felt anything other than supported and appreciated by the supporters.
Given you were generally regarded as having a calm and collected playing style, how did you find yourself getting sent off twice in one season against Swansea?!
I probably got wrapped up in the South Wales derby hype! I was so aware of the strength of feeling from the supporters that I was determined to do well in those games.
I probably lived it too much and whilst I was experienced enough to know better, I still found myself getting caught up in the moment. To be honest, I felt like I had let the team down at the time and if I could go back again, I would want it to be different. I’d have to put it down to the emotion of the occasion getting the better of me.
Dave Jones was well-known for playing down the hype of the South Wales derby. Was he like that behind closed doors too? Did he know just how important the match was to the supporters?
Dave knew and the players knew how important the match was, you could just feel it. I had lived in Cardiff long enough to know how big an occasion it was and Dave was always calm and collected in the way he managed, but let me tell you, he knew this was a big deal.
He would tell us privately, the derby is a massive deal and whilst I don’t want you to get caught up in the emotion of it all, we all know how much the supporters want to win this match. He would always encourage us to put the emotion to one side and play the game our own way and thankfully after getting sent off a couple of times, I managed to settle down and last 90 minutes in the other derby matches!