Remembering Joe Kinnear

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JOE KINNEAR rescued an ailing Wimbledon FC — 17th when he took over from the ill-fated Peter Withe in February 1992 — and moulded the Dons into an against-the-odds respected force: three top-10 finishes in the Premier League, three cup semi-finals along with four Manager of the Month awards before his heart attack in the team dugout prior to the kick-off at Sheffield Wednesday on March 3, 1999.

The Dons won that night at Hillsborough, moved to sixth, before yielding just two points from their remaining 11 games without recovering Joe to finish 16th. They were relegated from the Premier League under Egil Olsen in the following season.

Joe had 364 matches in charge of the Dons, won 130 of them for a win percentage of 35.7. He ranks among the Dons greatest managers, arguably the best given his record in the highest league. He was voted Manager of the Year by the League Managers Association (LMA) in 1993-94.

Joe Kinnear passed away aged 77 on April 7 (2024) after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of early onset vascular dementia in 2015, which required full-time care in the latter stages.

His wife, Bonnie, suspects that Kinnear’s dementia was caused by repetitive heading of the football as a defender during his 10-year playing career with Tottenham Hotspur.

Kinnear found the winning formula in his time with the Dons, unleashing their collective spirit, reviving the Crazy Gang days under Dave Bassett and putting together a resilient combative side: Earle, Jones, Fashanu, bringing in Cunningham, Leonhardsen, Gayle, Ekoku. John Hartson was signed for a record £7.5 million.

Joe Kinnear was popular with the media, he was very quotable. Leading football writer Henry Winter relates the tale that on becoming manager of Wimbledon in 1992, Kinnear faced the assembled media and addressed the team’s need for two no-nonsense midfield enforcers.

“To the excitement of those clutching pens poised over notebooks, Kinnear added that he’d already earmarked the requisite hard men. Who? Tell us who? “Reg and Ronnie Kray…”

Winter wrote: “He was naturally funny. It is why so many people instantly warmed to him. He was a character. Football has lost some of that character. How many managers now have answerphones that say: “Leave a message, but if it’s Real Madrid I’ll ring you back”?  The engaging Kinnear added to life’s merriment time after time.”

Even though Kinnear performed miracles with what he had available — Wimbledon had no home ground at the time (playing at Selhurst Park), the players trained on a public park where they shared dressing rooms with a local school, and had by far the lowest budget in the top flight, he was modestly paid by Sam Hammam during his time as the Dons gaffer. His  salary at one time was reportedly less than £100k a year.

The players respected him, they would play for him, he was one of them. Gerry Cox, writing in the Irish Examiner, recalls getting a call from Kinnear late one night from a London wine bar where he and the players would often hang out.

Joe Kinnear with Vinnie Jones PHOTO Getty Images

“He was with John Hartson and Vinnie Jones – the three had shared ownership of greyhounds – and he’d just sealed the deal over drinks. “Can you get it in tomorrow’s paper?” he asked.

Cox asked him to put Hartson on. “John’s gone, but what he would say is ‘I would not have signed for any other manager than Joe…”

Kinnear also had an eye for a prospect. He saw Carl Cort as a schoolboy, signed him up, and encouraged a talent eventually sold to Newcastle for £7 million. He paid Brentford £250,000 for Marcus Gayle, who was sold on to Rangers for four times that. Dean Holdsworth came for £650,000 and went to Bolton Wanderers for £3.5 million. Warren Barton, John Scales, Terry Phelan and Robbie Earle also developed under Kinnear.

Some of his team talks were explicitly blunt and straight to the point: “I want people playing for me with bottle, not anyone who shits themselves when the going gets tough,” he once said.

Joe Kinnear with George Best and Rodney Marsh PHOTO Getty Images

But he was also capable of having one-on-one chats with individuals, building their confidence. Henry Winter writes: “They respected a very good coach and a real people person who told wonderful anecdotes about his playing career, about facing George Best, not to big himself up but to make a point or often a joke.  Laughter was often in the air around Kinnear.”

So it came as a monumental shock when Kinnear suffered a heart attack at the age of 52 while preparing Wimbledon for a game at Sheffield Wednesday in 1999. As he said at the time, “It was a tap on the shoulder from the Big Man. I was lucky to be at Hillsborough with its first-class first aid facilities – anywhere else and I might have died.”

He never returned to the dugout again as manager of Wimbledon and the club’s fortunes subsequently nosedived, culminating in their traumatic final day relegation the following season after 14 seasons in the top flight.

He subsequently resurfaced briefly at struggling Oxford United, then Luton Town, Nottingham Forest and his ill-fated two stints at Newcastle, as manager and then director of football.

His first press conference as caretaker manager in 2008, following the unexpected resignation of Kevin Keegan, would make sensational tabloid headlines.

Annoyed at the papers’ scepticism abut his suitability for the job, some of the stories surrounding his appointment and irked by reporters asking him how long he was contracted for, he vented his anger at the outset. He launched into a six-minute expletive-laced tirade at reporters which made lurid headlines on the back pages of papers the following day.

Kinnear’s spell on Tyneside came to an end a few months later when he had to have a cardiac bypass and by 2013 the early signs of dementia were becoming apparent to those closest to him.

Daughter Russ Doffman says her father’s decline after being diagnosed with dementia was “heart-breaking”.

“We noticed his moods were changing,” she said. “During my teenage years he was such great fun – very outgoing and positive, but then he started getting verbally aggressive. His whole personality changed and he went very quiet. He had it for 11 years. Watching him fade away was awful.”

Henry Winter wrote: “We pigeonhole people too easily. So when I think of Kinnear, I don’t think only of the 2008 rant at a Newcastle United press conference that many felt defined the man.

An hour or so after his diatribe was published in a hail of headlines and asterisks, I received a text from Kinnear. He was bruised, a bit bemused, and invited me up to do a piece.

He felt his honesty and work ethic had been questioned. He felt he deserved more appreciation for his contribution to the game, as a fine wing half/full back with a very good Tottenham Hotspur side, and then as the manager at Wimbledon, keeping them in the Premiership against all odds year after year.”

Joe Kinnear with Neal Ardley

Winter continued: “One tirade eventually led to him being belittled as somebody not in tune with the modern game. Nonsense. He was a very capable man-manager: vital in the modern game. He had to be to work, initially as a coach, with that eclectic, strong-willed Crazy Gang. Vinnie Jones and John Fashanu required different handling.

“Kinnear brought the best out of the Dons where his predecessor, Peter Withe, had failed.. So we should celebrate a football man, one of life’s characters, as at home on the training field as going to a party with Vinnie Jones.

“We should admire how he supported his peers. We should also raise again questions regarding the scourge of dementia in football. RIP Joe.”

The LMA posted a moving tribute to Kinnear the day after his death.

“Joe was such a gifted leader, whose technical knowledge, charisma and his ability to build a culture undoubtedly contributed to his many achievements as a manager,” LMA chairman Howard Wilkinson.

MIKE TALIADOROS — the Voice of WDON and who has been at every home and away competitive domestic first team Dons game since May 1989 — reflects on Joe Kinnear’s time at Wimbledon FC

Looking back at Joe’s seven years at the helm there are, of course, many highlights and achievements which Dons fans of that era will instantly recall, but underpinning everything was the stability and reinvigoration he brought about from the very moment he took charge.

Off the field the club was struggling to find its feet and identity having left Plough Lane the previous May, which may have been easier for the fans to digest and adapt to had the team being pulling up trees, but this was far from the case.

The appointment of Peter Withe in October 1991, something Sam Hammam later admitted was a major error, yielded just one win in 17 matches. In fact, Withe was just a Graeme Sharp penalty miss for Oldham away from a totally winless reign before the axe inevitably fell with the total disarray personified by a fan running on to the field at Selhurst to confront him face-to-face after the ignominious FA Cup 3rd round exit to Bristol City.

PHOTO Getty Images

Enter Joseph Patrick Kinnear. And having been previously overlooked for Withe, it was almost as if he was determined to make up for that lost time as much as prove Hammam wrong.

It was just the tonic the Dons needed and an immediate seven-match unbeaten run yielded 15 points to pave the way for a safe mid-table transition into the newly-established Premier League.

How pivotal this proved, particularly when one remembers the fate of two of the three relegated clubs in that 1991/92 season. Notts County have never made it back to the top flight, meanwhile Luton, via their various well-documented trials and tribulations, took 31 years to return there.

Joe Kinnear the LMA Manager of the Season 1993-94 with Alex Ferguson

Ultimately, however (and almost as if to underline his massive influence and importance), as much as Joe’s arrival not only preserved but enhanced the Dons top-flight existence with a string of top-10 finishes and magnificent Cup exploits, his sudden and untimely departure from the dugout could certainly be argued to have significantly contributed to its ending.

The Dons team did incredibly well to show the resilience to win at Sheffield Wednesday on the night Joe fell ill, but under the ensuing joint-caretaker managerial team, just two points were acquired from the remaining 33 available, precipitating a nosedive from sixth place on that fateful night at Hillsborough to a 16th place finish.

And then following the appointment of Egil Olsen (something that made Peter Withe’s arrival look a masterstroke by comparison!) Dons bowed out of the top flight after 14 years with something of a whimper, with just seven wins from 38 games and an eye-watering 33 points dropped from winning positions.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

It wasn’t all plain sailing of course (such as when he seemed at odds with Dons fans over the proposed Dublin relocation) but for the way he breathed new life into a team in exile that those same supporters could nevertheless continue to be truly proud of, he will never be forgotten…. when those Irish eyes were smiling, so were we. RIP Joe… and thank you.

PHOTO Getty Images

 

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