The Big Interview: Kevin Gage on Chris Wilder, Dave Bassett, his Sheffield United love affair and how he found happiness away from football
He sips tea in a cosy room at his hotel happier and more relaxed than he ever was as a footballer.
Kevin Gage, owner of The Manor House, former Premier League star, ex-Sheffield United ace, Bramall Lane’s king of corporate entertainment, Blades mega-fan.
He played at Old Trafford, Anfield and other great stadiums in England. He made more than 500 professional appearances in a 19-year career. He might even have won England honours had injury not struck at the wrong time.
But among gaggles of middle-aged women taking their late-morning coffee just off Dronfield High Street is where he feels most at home.
“Football was always like a job for me,” the 53-year-old says. “I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I was never one of those kids who desperately wanted to be a footballer.”
He quit in 1998, bought a pub - The Angel in Holmesfield - and found his true calling.
“I’d never been behind a bar in my life,” he says. “I just loved it. I loved the atmosphere, the environment. It was fabulous.
“You’re acting as a host. I’m not the life and soul of the party. I just like to make things right for people. If you’re going to do it, do it right and make sure everything is spot on.”
Several hostelries later, he pitched up in his present establishment and has been a fixture there for the last 10 years.
Except, of course, when his beloved United are at home. The midfielder or right-back had plenty of good games in more than four seasons with the Blades in the 1990s and now plays a blinder as the long-serving, popular matchday host at the Lane.
He started his career with Wimbledon in the ‘Crazy Gang’ era of Dave Bassett, excelled at Aston Villa and joined the Blades when Bassett was boss there before finishing his career at Preston North End and Hull City.
He watches out for the results of all of them, but only one team are truly in his heart.
“Are Sheffield United now my club? Oh god, yeah,” he says. “Unbelievably so. It’s been like that since I left them, basically. I didn’t support anyone as a kid. I’m from the middle of nowhere in Surrey. There was no team to support. The nearest side was Aldershot. You’re not going to stick pictures of Aldershot players on your wall, are yer?
“When people say to me ‘you’re not born round here, you’re not a true Blade’, I tell them I’ve chosen to be one! I love football more now than I did when I played. I love being a fan. I love the emotion of it and willing the team on.”
The Manor House is a stone-built, picture-postcard place, a stone’s throw from the Coach and Horses HQ of the world’s oldest club, Sheffield FC, in this charming pocket of North-east Derbyshire.
It’s a classy joint with a lovely, homely feel. Welcoming, warm, genteel. A bit like Gage’s first ever encounter with Bassett.
“One of my earliest games for Wimbledon was in the FA Youth Cup against Spurs,” he recalls. “It was at Plough Lane. I’d never played at a professional ground before, so it was all new to me.
“We lost 2-0 but I thought I did all right. The youth-team manager was going through his summing-up at the end of the game when suddenly this figure burst into the dressing room with a big, red, angry face and started slating everybody. I was the youngest there. I felt myself pushing back into my seat thinking: ‘Who the hell is this?’”
When I arrive, I find he’s set aside a corner table for us. He appears suddenly, wearing a jacket and an open-necked shirt. Smart-casual, like his conversation. He’s genial, friendly, a natural host.
He’s facing the room while I have my back to the hubbub of clinking cups, murmured chatter and sudden outbreaks of laughter. “Swap places with me,” he says. “You’ll have my undivided attention that way. I’ll be too busy checking things otherwise.”
Bassett looms large in the conversation, just like he did in the career of the player who turned out for United 133 times following his £150,000 move.
“We’re not close, though,” Gage confides. “He’s not someone I would ring in times of trouble or to ask for advice or anything. It was a business relationship really.
“He was a good manager. His record says that. He had the marvellous ability to make people want to play for him.
“I’d had four good years at Villa until Ron Atkinson came in and made it quite clear I wasn’t in his plans. I didn’t know that Bassett was going to come in for me. I was just hoping that anybody would. I didn’t have an agent to tout my name round or anything like that. Then I got a called from Bassett asking if I wanted to go to Sheffield and I jumped at the opportunity, just to get playing again.
“Sheffield United were bottom of the old Division One (now the Premier League) at the time and we ended up ninth. I fitted in straight away. It was like walking into the old Wimbledon dressing room. Brian Gayle was there. John Gannon. Simon Tracey. Glyn Hodges. Derek French, the physio. Geoff Taylor on the coaching staff. It was perfect.
“Bassett hadn’t changed at all, but it didn’t test me like it had in the early days. I could see where he was going and what he was saying. I knew what my job was and what he needed from me.
“Gayle was at the back. Brian Deane was up front doing his bits. There was Hodges. Carl Bradshaw. Dane Whitehouse. We had some good-quality players The following season, we reached the FA Cup semi-final and stayed up reasonably comfortably. We were like Stoke City are today or something like that, maybe a West Brom.
“We had a decent team. I like to think I played a bit of a part in the revival.”
He’s well-spoken. There’s a tiny Cockney inflection, but his vowels are well rounded It’s a voice made for radio, which is handy as he’s a guest summariser on Blades iPlayer.
I observe him briefly with staff and customers and he’s as polished as the glasses hanging behind the bar in another part of the winding reception area where beverages and buns fly over the counter.
It’s a far cry from the hostile environs of The Den, home of Millwall FC, where Gage “smashed up” his knee in a tackle with Kevin O’Gallaghan in March 1989 and lost his chance to tour Scandinavia that summer with an England B party containing Paul Gascoigne and David Platt.
“I’d had decent season up to that point in midfield,” he remembers. “O’Callaghan. Horrible player. I didn’t like him. We’d had a few run-ins. Who knows what might have been?
“I’m not saying I was good enough to make the England squad for the 1990 World Cup in Italy but that’s how Platty got in. Gascoigne would have gone anyway.”
Dronfield has been home for the last 26 years, ever since he moved from the Midlands, and he seems to have owned most of the pubs in the town at some stage or other.
He didn’t leave even when he played for Preston and Hull, and lives close to his business with second wife Michelle and step-daughters Isobel, aged 15, and Annie, 17.
“Michelle hates football,” he grins. “Hates it with a passion.” He has to drag her to games to watch Isobel who plays for the Blades Academy and is part of the England Girls set-up.
Eldest step-daughter Lily, 18, is at university, while he’s proud of his sons from his first marriage, Daniel, 33, and Oliver, 31.
“Men now,” he reflects. “Daniel works in green energy and lives in Millhouses. Oliver is performance analyst and recruitment director for Houston Dynamo in the MLS. He went to uni in the States and stayed there. He has an American wife.”
Talk turns to another boss - someone who also played under Bassett - who has made his mark at the Lane after guiding the Blades out of League One last season and putting them in promotion contention in the Championship this term.
“Bassett could really get a big group feeling together and get everybody fighting for each other - a bit like our manager at the moment,” Gage says. “I think Chris Wilder has learned a lot from him.
“It’s been unbelievably good under Chris. Not just the results. The way we’ve achieved it is remarkable. The standard of football has been superb. It’s the best football I’ve ever seen since I packed in and became a supporter. That includes the Premier League days under Neil Warnock. The football then was nowhere near as good or as entertaining as it is now.
“We’re up there on merit. Absolutely. Some players have raised their game again. Leon Clarke is the obvious one. Then there’s Jack O’Connell. He gets better and better and better. John Fleck is coming into his own. Enda Stevens looks like a solid player. Jake Wright doesn’t put a foot wrong. Chris has signed some good players. They do their research.
“Why Fleck was messing about with Coventry in League One, I do not know. He’s got the best out of the players who were already there as well, like Chris Basham. ‘Bashambauer’, as we call him.”
Wilder reached out to Gage as soon as he took the hot-seat, inviting him to a Saturday-morning meeting at the Lane along with another former player, Keith Edwards, to hear their views on the squad.
“I was surprised he wanted my opinion,” Gage says. “Chuffed, really.”
In return, there’ll always be a seat for Wilder at the bar at The Manor House.
“I occasionally bump into Chris,” he says. “We have a lot in common. If he came in here, we’d have a few beers and a laugh together.”
I could stay all day, but it’s time for me to head for the door. It occurs to me that I haven’t cleared the pots away and I turn back.
Too late. Gage is already on it, two cups balanced on one arm, the sugar bowl in his opposite hand. A man happy in his work.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Career highlight? Getting promotion to the old First Division with Wimbledon. We beat Huddersfield 1-0 in 1986 to secure it. For a team starting where we did, in the old Fourth Division, to get three promotions in four years and the final one - and to know we’d be playing the likes of Liverpool and Man Utd - was phenomenal. The season at Aston Villa under Graham Taylor when we finished second in the Premier League to Liverpool was another big highlight.
Lowest point? My time with Hull City. The old Boothferry Park was falling down. The manager was Mark Hateley, who was an absolute disaster and has never got a football job again. The training was terrible. Hateley didn’t have a clue. He was supposed to be player-manager but he’d just drag himself on for 10 minutes at the end. I hated it. I couldn’t wait to finish playing football. It’s a horrible thing to say, but I just lost all my enthusiasm. You’re slowing down a bit anyway and injuries start taking their toll. We came to a deal at Christmas in my final year. It cost me a few grand but it was worth it.
Best player played with? The best all-round footballer is probably Gordan Cowans, the Villa midfielder. I played alongside him. He could pass the ball long or short with either foot He would take corners with both feet. He was only about 11 stone but, Christ, he used to throw himself into tackles.
Toughest opponent? Matt Le Tissier. He wasn’t particularly quick or strong, but his manoeuvring of the ball was something else. A friend of mine from Villa, Stuart Gray - who managed Wednesday for a while - was at Southampton for a time. He said in training Le Tissier was even better.
Best trainer? Nah, not me. I used to do what I had to do. I’m not built for running. Dennis Wise at Wimbledon. He was an athlete. Run, run, run, run, run, run. He was very feisty and tackled everything. We called him ‘The Fly’ because he was very small and annoying.
Best manager? Graham Taylor, even though Dave Bassett did extremely well for me. He was a brilliant man-manager and all-round football man. He loved a meeting. Team meetings used to go on for hours but I found them fascinating.
Best friend in football? Most of my friendships are away from football. Hopefully, I got on with most people. I didn’t fall out with anybody. I was quite close to Alan Kelly because we were roommates. Jamie Hoyland, I got on really well with him.