First published 2016
Ask any Rochdale fan over the age of thirty-five to name a former player who personifies the term ‘reliable centre half’ and the majority would give you Alan Reeves − and with good reason, too.
The curtain-haired marvel from Birkenhead was an integral part of a Spotland backline that repelled frequent bombardment in the early 1990s. Reeves was much more than a mere stopper, however. He was that rare sort of lower-league defender who looked comfortable on the ball, who could carry it forward rather than hoof it upfield, and who could contribute to an attack through consideration rather than by fluke. As a result, he quickly established himself as a fans’ favourite and a consistent Player of the Year award winner.
Nonetheless, it was a bittersweet day when his assured displays − in well over one hundred appearances for the Dale − led Premier League side Wimbledon to sign him in 1994 for £200,000, believed to be the largest fee Rochdale had received up to that point when considering the additional £1,000 paid for each appearance. As a spotty teenager in those days, this writer mourned the loss of the player rather than celebrated the financial windfall.
Reeves’ Premiership move certainly couldn’t have been forecast when he first arrived at Spotland as a blond twenty-four-year-old from Chester City in the summer of 1991, having already been on Norwich City’s books without making a single appearance.
Smiling, he tells me how growing up on the Wirral, and constant competition with his twin brother David – who himself would become a Rochdale nemesis during his years with Chesterfield and Carlisle United – shaped his footballing attitude.
‘Me and my brother were Liverpool fans growing up, but we never really aspired to play for them,’ Reeves says. ‘We started out playing properly, I suppose, when we both signed for a club called Heswall FC in the West Cheshire League. [Former Rochdale striker] Steve Whitehall played for them, too. It was a pretty good standard, as a lot of non-league was back then. David got spotted by Sheffield Wednesday when we were both eighteen. He was a lot more developed than I was at that age, even though we were twins. He was six-foot-one and imposing; me, well, I was five-foot-nine and ten-and-a-half stone wet.
‘I didn’t set out to be a defender but that’s the way it always seemed to be. I was always defending because David was always attacking. Even at school, I remember he picked one wall in the playground and I had the other. He was always at my wall because he was so quick, so I found myself defending it with my life. We were very competitive growing up, me and David. I think that helped us both.
‘Anyway, David had moved on to Wednesday, which was great, but I was still at Heswall. I was doing well and I remember I got Player of the Year in 1988. Numerous scouts had been watching me, or so I’d been told, but nothing happened. I knew the time was right to go professional, so I wrote to half-a-dozen league clubs, pretending to be my twin brother recommending me for a trial. Amazingly, Norwich replied and invited me down. The manager of the reserves at the time was Mike Walker, who would go on to manage the first team and Everton, of course. Mike called me up and asked me to play a game for the Norwich reserves. He liked what he saw and invited me back. After my second trial game, he said to me: “Don’t go on holiday in the summer, because I’ll want you in for pre-season training”. He said he’d be in touch with the details but I didn’t hear from him again, so I thought: “Bollocks to it, I’m going on holiday to Spain with the lads”. I was twenty years old at the time, so why not? While I was in Spain, I phoned home and my mam said: “Norwich City’s reserve manager has been on and he wants you down there next week for training!” So I had to rummage through my suitcase, find my trainers and go running every day while I was still in Spain. It was crazy.’
Despite the madness of tearing along the strip on the Costa Del Sol while his friends soaked up the sunshine and local beer, Reeves made it back to blighty in time for his make-or-break chance in Norfolk.
‘So I get back to England, do a two-week training trial at Norwich, play two games for them and get offered a one-year contract,’ he says. ‘It was great. But while I was mulling that over, Chester City offered me a trial, too. Norwich were in the top tier, though, and Chester, despite being very local to Birkenhead, were in the third tier. I thought I’d give it a go at the higher level, but I didn’t realise just how homesick I would be. I was quite a shy boy at the time, especially around people I didn’t know, and ended up staying in digs with a family down in Norfolk. As a result, I was coming home most weekends, which didn’t help my development as a player. By Christmas, I still hadn’t made the first team, so I went on loan to Gillingham where the old Tottenham boss, Keith Burkinshaw, was in charge. He’d seen me play for the Norwich reserves and said he liked the look of me. I spent three months in Kent but I still missed home. That issue was still there and it was affecting me.
‘When the season ended, Gillingham offered me a two-year contract, Norwich offered me another year and Chester City came back in for me with a two-year deal. That was it for me. I signed for Chester so I could go back home. It was half an hour away from Birkenhead. That’s all I wanted. I know what you’re thinking: I should’ve stayed at Norwich. I know that now, but you live and learn, eh?’
While being closer to home was great on a personal level for Reeves, a footballing issue would come to the fore.
‘I quickly found out that Chester wanted to play me at right wing-back, which just isn’t me,’ he says. ‘I did okay there but didn’t enjoy playing. During my first season, I played in most games, but over the next season I found myself in and out of the side. Then I had an altercation during a team meeting with the manager Harry McNally. He’s passed away now, God rest his soul, but he could be a lunatic. I disagreed with him over something or other and he lost it with me. He basically said: “I’m telling you now, you’re getting a free transfer at the end of the season – you’ll be at a Conference club next season.” I thought that was it. I was facing the scrap heap.’
Reeves would never end up on the scrap heap, however. His Rochdale arrival came at the beginning of Dave Sutton’s full managerial reign in the summer of 1991, following the departure of Terry Dolan to Hull the season previous. Goalkeeper Keith Welch had been sold to Bristol City for a six-figure sum and this gave Sutton the ability to perform a desired overhaul of Dolan’s squad. While Reeves arrived on a free transfer alongside the likes of then record signing Andy Flounders, he was easily just as valuable to the club.
‘Two weeks after Harry had binned me, I got a call from Dave Sutton asking if I wanted to play a reserve game for him,’ Reeves recalls. ‘He couldn’t believe Harry was going to let me go. I played the game and Dave offered me a contract right away. However, the Professional Footballers Association at the time were doing a thing were they took out-of-contract players over to Hong Kong for trial games. I’d already agreed to go out there and Dave understood that.
‘I went over to Hong Kong with twenty other lads. I was the only one that was offered a contract. I can’t even remember the name of the club now, but they offered me twice as much money as Rochdale were offering, plus an apartment. I was twenty-four at the time. If I was eight or nine years older, I would’ve gone. But I liked Dave Sutton and Mick Docherty [Rochdale assistant manager] when I met them, and I had a sour year at Chester. I wanted to prove I still had it in England. So I signed for Rochdale and loved it. I was Player of the Year every year I was there. Funnily enough, during the first year, I missed about two months because I got injured against Barnet in a home game, so I won that year’s award by just one vote from Tony Brown [his fellow centre half], or so Tony claimed any way.
‘When I first joined, Steve Whitehall signed about the same time, so I was travelling in with him every day for three years, and later Shaun Reid. Me and Whitey, we were both from Birkenhead. We used to pick Reidy up from the Rocket [junction] on the M62 and then Dave Bayliss joined us later on. We used to have a right laugh.
‘Sutty was a great manager but the Doc [Mick Docherty] was the big character. He was a proper player’s coach. These days, he’d be classed as being too close to the players, but in the old days that’s what we had. He was more than just a good laugh, of course. He was a great coach. When I first signed for Rochdale, I was totally right footed. My left foot was just for standing on. The Doc identified that and picked certain days where, if I transferred the ball from my left foot to my right, he’d fine me a pound every time. Within six months of that, I was transformed. It was highlighted during my second pre-season at Rochdale, when we played Chester in a friendly. A lot of the Chester players were ex-team-mates of mine. They were astounded by the difference in my left foot. That’s testament to the Doc.
‘We had some great characters in the dressing room at Rochdale, like Jon Bowden and John Ryan. We were all mates and we all got on really well. It was a really friendly place.
‘I think that our relationship counted for a lot of our success. We had no training ground for a start. We were training on parks, mud baths and artificial surfaces. How my knees weren’t fucked by the time I left Rochdale, I don’t know. It was bags for goalposts at times, which wasn’t great. The 3G and 4G pitches players have now are carpets compared to what we trained on back then. But, hey, look how well we competed. We almost made the play-offs in my first season.’
Reeves believes players were a lot tougher back in his day, through necessity as much as anything else.
‘I remember training on a Friday morning, before travelling to London for a game against Barnet on the Saturday, and I broke my nose. The club doctor, I can’t remember his name, was a big old fellah who worked in the Rochdale Infirmary. I went down there to see him. My nose was pointing east to west instead of north to south. He got his knuckle and pushed my nose right back in. It was like something cracked in my brain. Then he said: “That’s you sorted”. Nowadays, if a player breaks his nose, he can’t play for weeks and has to wear a mask and so on. I played against Barnet the next day and broke my nose again. There was no health and safety back then, but they were great days.’
After Tony Brown retired, Reeves formed a formidable defensive partnership with Paul Butler.
‘Butts started as an understudy, but was a very early developer,’ Reeves says. ‘He was built like a brick shithouse, even at the age of eighteen. I tell you what though; he could shift for a fellah his size. I doubt there was a better centre-half partnership than me and him at that level at that time. He went on to have a career as good, if not better, than mine.’
Reeves’ performances had not gone unnoticed higher up the food chain, but his level-headedness kept him focused.
‘The entire time I was at Rochdale it was always in the paper that “X, Y or Z scout was watching Alan Reeves of Rochdale”. I didn’t have an agent but other players’ agents would say I was being watched. I never heard anything directly, though. I just wanted to keep my head down and keep playing. I had the attitude of what will be, will be, y’know?’
And then, in September 1994, it finally happened for him.
‘One Saturday, we were playing Hereford at Spotland. Sutty pulled me to one side before the game and said: “Wimbledon manager Joe Kinnear’s here to watch you. Unless you have an absolute disaster, you’ll be signing for Wimbledon next week.” I played the match and did well, despite the result [Rochdale lost 3-1]. After the game, Joe and Sam Hammam [Wimbledon’s then owner] came and spoke to me. They told me to be ready to travel south on Monday. I got a phone call on the Monday which told me to travel to Coventry. I met Joe and Sam in a hotel just off the M6 and it was done within half an hour. As quickly as that, I was a Premier League player. I went home, packed my bag, trained with the Wimbledon first team on Thursday and Friday and played for them on the Saturday. I went from playing against Hereford in the fourth tier one Saturday to playing against Leicester in the Premier League at Selhurst Park the next. It was surreal.’
And Reeves revealed his career got its timely boost with a little help from a football legend.
‘Joe Kinnear would later tell me that he became aware of me because he’d sold John Scales to Liverpool for £3.5 million and wanted a replacement centre-half that the club could progress. So he phoned up Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United looking for a recommendation from the North West of England. Apparently, Fergie told him: “There’s a lad at Rochdale that, if he was a few years younger, I’d have him myself.” He gave Joe my name.’
Reeves was initially in awe of his new Premier League surroundings.
‘What I found so surprising, was how big and quick everyone was in the Premier League,’ he says. ‘I was quick and big enough at Rochdale’s level, but I walked into that dressing room at Wimbledon and thought: “Christ”. I couldn’t believe how big Vinnie Jones was, how big Mick Harford was. Honestly, they were huge. I went out and trained with them and they were so quick and strong, I was gobsmacked. You see them play on TV and don’t appreciate the size and speed of them, but when you stand next to them in the tunnel, it’s overwhelming. It was quite daunting, to be honest. Once I got on the pitch though, I blocked that out. I was just playing against other men. That’s how I had to look at it. I blocked out the crowds, too. I had to. If you step back from it all and look at forty-thousand people, and all these elite footballers around you, you panic. I just focused on what was in front of me and got on with my job.’
And what a job he did.
‘My first year at Wimbledon was the best of my career,’ Reeves beams. ‘I played against the best players in England week in and week out and I didn’t look out of place. I was getting praise from the manager and the press. It was a great place to be and it was the right place for me at that time. A lot is said about the comradeship among the “Crazy Gang” players of that era, and it’s all true. It was sensational. I still meet up with most of the lads for a Christmas night out twenty-five years later in London. Vinnie Jones doesn’t join us, mind you. He’s gone on to pastures new. Hah.
‘We finished eighth in my first season at Wimbledon. Better than we had any right to. I went straight into the first team. I played pretty much every game. I remember when I truly knew the manager rated me. Yellow cards got you disciplinary points back then and, if you reached twenty-one, you got a three-game ban. I reached that threshold just before Christmas that season. I knew I was going to miss three games and was worried about losing my place. I was playing at Maine Road against Man City. I was wound up by Paul Walsh during the game and I punched him off the ball. The linesman saw it, so I got a six-game ban. I got some stick for that, I’ll tell you. I was just thinking about my place in the team. When I became available again, Joe Kinnear stuck me straight back in against Everton. He dropped Andy Thorn. That was the vote of confidence I needed.
‘But it didn’t get that good again. The second year, I probably only played seventy per cent of the games, the third I hardly played at all and the fourth year you can write off. I think Joe had decided he was looking elsewhere by then. We had younger players like Chris Perry and Dean Blackwell establishing themselves. It was obvious I would be moving on.’
After Wimbledon, Reeves moved to Swindon Town where he played over two-hundred times before calling time on his playing career in 2006. The move would see him make a daily two-hundred-mile round trip from Epsom to Swindon − for eight years!
‘I think I was thirty when I left Wimbledon,’ Reeves says. ‘I didn’t think it was the end of my career by any means. I signed a three-year contract with Swindon, who were in the second tier at the time, and Steve McMahon was the manager. I was living near Epsom race course. My then partner had gotten pregnant with my first daughter, so I didn’t want to uproot her. I thought I’d make the commute for the three years. “Three years”, I thought. “I can handle that”. After those three years, I ended up signing five one-year contracts. I made that commute for eight bloody years. It turned out that I played most of my career games at Swindon − almost two-hundred-and-fifty. I enjoyed my time there. I played under numerous managers, I was captain, then, while I was still playing, I was reserve-team manager and then assistant manager. Politics in football being what they are, I ended up getting the sack from there eventually. It was a sad end considering how long I’d been there.’
This led Reeves to team up with an old pal.
‘My fellow Wimbledon centre half Scott Fitzgerald was youth-team manager at Brentford,’ Reeves recalls. ‘Leroy Rosenior, who was manager at that time, got the sack and they offered Fitz the job on a caretaker basis. He asked me to help him out. We did okay for a few games and we got offered the post full time. However, Brentford were relegated at the end of that season and we lost our jobs. That’s the way football goes.’
At the time of our interview, Reeves is managing AFC Wimbledon’s under-21 side as well as coaching the academy players. He’s relaxed and happy with his lot when we speak, although he doesn’t rule out future upheaval.
‘Back when I went to Wimbledon, there was nothing like the money flying about that there is in the Premier League now,’ he says. ‘I actually earned more money at Swindon than I did at Wimbledon. Players like Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp will have been on decent money, but I was on peanuts in comparison. Nowadays, if you sign for a decent Championship club, you can retire after playing. It wasn’t like that for us back then.
‘For the past two seasons I’ve been the under-21 coach at AFC Wimbledon and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I’m happy where I am, but you never know what’s around the corner. If you work in football you need to be flexible. Right now, though, I’ve got a lot of good young lads to work with on a daily basis. We’re getting a few into the first team, too. My former Wimbledon team-mate Neal Ardley is the first-team manager here. He was a former academy manager at Cardiff, so he’s really open to getting youth into the first team. He’s not one of these managers that looks to buy people all the time. He believes that if the youth players are good enough, they’re old enough and he chucks them right into the mix. In fact, I’ve got an 18-year-old centre half who’s been in the first team for the past seven games. That said, he got sent off last week, so I obviously taught him well. Hah!
‘But if I got offered a first-team manager’s job in the league elsewhere? Yeah, why not?’
As we conclude our chat, Reeves reflects on the importance of his time at Spotland.
‘Rochdale were a major factor in my career,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have an agent and Chester were going to put me on the scrap heap. If Dave Sutton hadn’t made that call, who knows where I would’ve ended up? As good as Hong Kong might have been for me at that point in time, it would have taken me away from the UK and away from people’s thoughts. Rochdale kept me there, gave me the chance to show what I could do in my true position and they looked after me.
‘I tell the young lads now, though, that it’s always down to the player. You can give them as much help, coaching and direction as you can, but, at the end of the day, they’re judged as a footballer. All a footballer needs from someone else is a chance to show what they’re good at. That’s what Rochdale gave to me and I’ll never forget it.
‘Even now, as a coach, I’m a very enthusiastic person and a very competitive one. I want to win everything I do. While I was at Wimbledon, I saw a picture of me in a magazine. Under it was a quote from Sir Alex Ferguson. It said: “He’s a determined so-and-so.” I think that’s me in a nutshell. I was bloody minded. It didn’t matter who I was playing against − a striker for Mansfield or Hereford, or Bergkamp or Cantona. Whoever it was, I was determined they weren’t getting past me. Obviously you’ve got to look after yourself and keep fit, but it was my desire that made me as a player. I think being a defender is a natural instinct that cannot be taught. You can hone your little skills and traits, yes, but I believe only certain people are born to be a defender. Those who will do anything to keep the ball out their net. I think I had that as a player and, with my desire, I think it got me to the top.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham