Given his fascination with systems and procedure, it is surprising to discover some well-chosen words and a kitsch vehicle were actually responsible for shaping Brian Deane’s career.
“I used to drive to training with a guy called Tony Brown,” Deane, who turned professional at Doncaster Rovers, said. “He was like a big brother and my biggest influence at that time.
“Tony had a blue Ford Capri and always had Billy Joel on the stereo. He’d sing all through the journey too. I was young, still finding my way, but he’d always encourage and guide me. That left a huge impression because it’s what I try and always do for others now.”
Tomorrow’s meeting between Rovers and Sheffield United, the team which later became synonymous with Deane’s name, represents an opportunity to reflect on the former England centre-forward’s time in football and, following a spell as manager of Norwegian club Sarpsborg 08, his thoughts on the state of the national game. Gary Neville’s travails after taking charge of Valencia have prompted some to question the wisdom of the 40-year-old’s decision to accept a position abroad but Deane, who spent two seasons in the Tippeligaen, is adamant aspiring domestic coaches could benefit from the experience.
“I learnt so much and it was a real eye-opener because it took me out of my comfort zone,” he said. “Okay, if there had been a chance to work in this country then I probably would have stayed but, looking back, it was great because it took me out of my comfort zone. They run things differently to us and a lot of those methods should be considered more seriously over here. They have sporting directors and that enables the manager to actually manage rather than spend their time talking to agents or sorting out contracts. There’s got to be a level of trust between the two but, when it works, it works well.”
Deane, who made over 220 appearances for United, embarked upon the first of his three spells at Bramall Lane after completing a £25,000 move from Rovers in 1988. He returned, after costing Leeds nearly 12 times that figure, four seasons later before joining Benfica midway through the 1997/98 Primeira Liga campaign. Standing six foot three inches tall and weighting bang on the cruiserweight limit, Deane, now 48, was considered by many to be the archetypal English striker. But, as he told The Star earlier this week, he always had a desire to test himself overseas.
“I always wanted to go abroad. When I was in my first spell at United, Dave (Bassett) said Genoa and Marseille were interested in me. Genoa sent a delegation over, it was before Italia 90, but I chose that day to have a bad game and they signed Tomáš Skuhravý. Nothing ever really came of the Marseille interest but I ended-up joining Benfica, one of the biggest names in Europe, later on instead.”
Working under Graeme Souness, then manager of the two-time European champions, proved to be enlightening experience for Deane.
“More people should do it. Take themselves out of what they know. I appreciate it’s difficult because the Premier League is one of the richest in the world so that keeps people here. But I remember going to Portugal and thinking during my first training session, these lads are technically bang on it. Mentally, they might be a little bit weak but if they could fuse the two they’ll be unstoppable. That year, England played Portugal and beat them. I don’t think we’ve beaten them since and that’s because, afterwards, Portugal started exporting players to different countries. So, when they came back, they had that technique but a different mindset.”
“Maybe the opportunities aren’t there, I don’t know,” Deane continued. “What I do is that a lot of people overseas don’t rate English players that highly. I know that for a fact. They think they don’t travel well, don’t settle and all of that. But if more did go abroad then I think we’d have a better national team.”
Deane, who represented Rovers on 76 occasions, admitted not all of his forays abroad were successful following a difficult spell with Perth Glory in the A-League.
“Australia, I’m not going to lie, should have been exciting but it was a disaster. I remember taking a nine hour flight to New Zealand, getting to my room and seeing I was in a single bed. I thought ‘Brian, what are you doing? What are you chasing?’ But I was to blame too because I’d got a little bit pig headed. I thought I knew what I needed in training and it rammed home to me, later on anyway, the importance of preparation.”
Deane, who also played for clubs including Middlesbrough, West Ham and Leicester before finishing his career with United a decade ago, might be an advocate of the European methods but retains a respect for the core values of the English game.
“At Leeds, I played against Steve Howey once and had a ‘mare. Howard Wilkinson came in afterwards and said ‘he’ll get an England call-up on the back of doing that to you.’ There and then, I thought nobody is ever going to earn a reputation off the back of me again.
“It’s a different game now. Someone like Diego Costa wouldn’t have lasted back then. United played an FA Cup tie against Barnsley once and Carl Tyler and Gerry Taggart were their centre-halves. It was kill or be killed. I was willing to do whatever it took, even if that meant getting sent-off, to win that duel.”
Football, as Deane acknowledged, has changed dramatically since the days when it was considered par for the course for opponents to knock the proverbial seven bells out of one another before settling their differences with a firm handshake. But, reflecting on his spells at Bramall Lane, not completely so.
“We were ahead of our time back then. We were probably one of the first teams, under Harry, to really look seriously at things like strength, conditioning and diet. All of the things that people take for granted now.”
Tomorrow’s fixture, which pits 11th placed United against their neighbours in 16th, is critically important for both teams. Inevitably, given his strong association with both, it will also be a nostalgic occasion for Deane as he remembers good times, bad times and people who helped him along the way. Including his old colleagues Tony Agana and the aforementioned Brown.
“Back then, you’d sometimes get comments that wouldn’t be accepted now from senior players and Tony was always the one who would pick people up on it,” Deane said. “He wouldn’t laugh or joke about it. He’d tell people ‘Hey, that’s not right, that’s out of order.’ Tony was great in so many ways. He was a huge figure for me.
“At United, it was Tony. And Mick Rooker, who works behind the scenes, too. Tony is such a great listener and he’s always been there for me throughout my career, even after we stopped being team mates. I could talk things through with Tony, even if it had nothing to do with football. And you can’t put a price on that. Mick is the same, he’s been around United for so long, he’s got it in his heart and is just a good man.”