Steven Caldwell: Roy Keane was either really good or nonsensical as manager
Steven Caldwell was never short of great teachers in his career. By the time he turned 20, he had already worked with Kenny Dalglish and Sir Bobby Robson.
As a young defender from Scotland looking to make his way into the game, he had options. Big clubs from either side of the border were lining up to sign him as a teenager.
Manchester United, Chelsea, Rangers and Blackburn Rovers were among those interested in taking him into their youth systems. Caldwell, though, opted for a move to Newcastle United, where he was later joined by his younger brother Gary.
Kevin Keegan was in town on Tyneside, and there was a real sense of excitement around the club and the area as they hunted a first Premier League title. Keegan left St James’ Park in 1997 and was replaced by Dalglish.
“I felt like I wanted to be in England, and I just loved Newcastle. It was the first club I visited and I felt I would be most comfortable there,” Caldwell says.
“I went everywhere. There was serious interest from Blackburn and I was quite close with Rangers. There was a chance I could have stayed in Scotland, and if I had it would have been with them. I tested out a few different places.
“With Blackburn, I was close, and the reason was Kenny Dalglish and Alan Irvine. In the end I thought, ‘I can’t decide on a club because I like the manager and the head of the academy.’ Lo and behold, when I got to Newcastle full-time, they were in charge.”
Caldwell settled in and became part of a talented group of young players that also included Shola Ameobi, Aaron Hughes and fellow Scot Brian Kerr. By the time Robson was appointed boss, Newcastle, who had spent big in their quest for glory under Keegan before cutting their cloth accordingly with Dalglish and Ruud Gullit after him, were low on funds and even lower on morale.
Gullit’s power struggle with senior players, particularly talisman Alan Shearer, whom he left out of the team in what would turn out to be his final match, a 2-1 defeat to Sunderland in August 1999, left the incoming boss a difficult task.
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Robson stood out for his enthusiasm, and he was more than happy to give youth a chance. Caldwell says his development through the ranks helped him succeed
“When Kevin was replaced by Kenny, it couldn’t have gone any better. I thought, ‘He knows me and he rates me.’ My academy coach was Alan Irvine essentially, John Carver and then him. It was then Tommy Burns and eventually (reserve-team manager) Tommy Craig.
“Four great guys, what a group to learn off between the ages of 15 and 20. Incredible. I thought I was in the right place.
“We were an exceptional group and we were well coached. We were pushing the first team all the way. We’d go and play Leeds at Thorp Arch, they’d have seven or eight first-team pros and we’d spank them 3-1.
“We would pass it around like you wouldn’t believe; we were young, creative and carefree. Bobby knew what he had and I think he was just hoping we would develop into regular first-team players.”
Caldwell became a squad player at Newcastle during Robson’s five-year reign, playing in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, but never truly established himself, leaving the club at the age of 23 in 2004, first via a loan spell to aid Leeds United’s doomed relegation fight, and then permanently, signing for Sunderland at the end of his contract.
The former Scotland international says it was a “fractious time” at Leeds as soon as he arrived in January. Ultimately, it has taken the West Yorkshire club 16 years to fully recover from dropping into the Football League, only recently returning to the top flight for the 2020-21 campaign.
“There was a lot of indecision between the field and the boardroom and with what was going on financially,” he says. “It scarred a lot of people who were there at the time.
“I was going in there trying to be perceptive, to work out what was wrong. Obviously, I was thinking about myself and how I could get into the first team.
“I could sense it right away, we were a club that was on the slide. The team was really talented but jaded. Some of the guys had had enough for whatever reason.
“It was amazing to be playing with some of those players and fighting for our lives. We went on a good run when I got there and it looked like we were going to survive. But it was not a stable club.
“Eddie Gray was in charge, who knew and loved the club. He was a major reason my career got off and running, playing me every week, so I thank him for that. But it was hard to pinpoint what was the main thing.
“There was an air of uncertainty, guys who were done with Leeds and wanted to move on. That team would break up no matter what, even if we stayed up.”
Crossing the divide
Sunderland had been out of the Premier League for a year when Caldwell signed, and he helped them back there in his first season. His former allegiance to Newcastle wasn’t forgotten by the supporters, though.
“I really wanted to stay in the North East,” he says. “I knew I wanted to play, and I knew I would be taking a risk by staying in the Premier League.
“When Mick McCarthy called me it was strange at first but then we started discussing things; Sunderland were a big Championship team just up the road, they were getting 30,000 every week.
“It was perfect for my career so I never gave it too much thought. I was very aware of the rivalry. I think Newcastle fans appreciated what I gave, and I wasn’t choosing to go to Sunderland, but I was choosing to play football.
“I had such a good relationship with them, I’d have been surprised if that ended. So I was cool from that side, but I was worried about being accepted by the Sunderland fans because I was coming across from Newcastle and it might not happen for me.
“I knew what it was like for players in the North East when home fans get on your back; that’s it, you’re done, it doesn’t matter who you are.”
Upon promotion under McCarthy, Sunderland went on to break their own record for the lowest points tally in Premier League history, collecting just 15 from their 38 games across the 2005-06 season.
They had beaten Wigan Athletic to the second-tier title, but the Latics took the top flight by storm after grabbing the other automatic slot.
“There were a number of things responsible for that, the main one being the difference in quality between the Premier League and the Championship,” Caldwell says. “Maybe our strengths from before didn’t transfer to a different level; the attitude and the togetherness.
“A lot of that togetherness was affected by Sunderland bringing in too many players. I always said we should have brought in two or three really good players rather than seven or eight who, in the end, were no better than what we already had.
“We affected the team spirit but didn’t improve the squad. At Wigan, Henri Camara came in and they made a couple of signings that worked out. But confidence is a big thing; they started well and it grew.
“We did the opposite. Against Charlton at home in the first game we thought, ‘Here we go.’ We weren’t banking on three points, but it was a chance to get off to a good start. They beat us 3-1.
“You sat in the changing room at full-time and thought, ‘The gap is huge.’ It was a real wake-up call.
“We were in a lot of games but losing. We were nearly there, but miles away. It was difficult. Confidence dropped throughout the year for the players and Mick. It was hard playing at that stadium when we were losing games.”
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After a tough start back in the Championship, Roy Keane, who had just retired from playing, took over as manager.
McCarthy had been sacked the previous season, and the former Manchester United midfielder came in with a hard-man reputation. Caldwell worked with him for four months and admits they didn’t see eye to eye.
“He was a difficult man. It was his first job and I think he still had a player’s mentality. He could either be really good or nonsensical. I was injured when he came in. I’d done my knee in a game against Birmingham so I didn’t play for a while but then played a number of games.
“I thought it would be okay, but he wanted me to go and brought in Jonny Evans on loan. He formed a great partnership with Nyron Noseworthy and they ended up winning the Championship.
“I went off to Burnley, no hard feelings. You have to move on. Roy isn’t a warm person; I knew him for a few months so maybe I’m not the person to say, but sometimes he would walk straight past you in the corridor, other times he would have a chat with you.
“It was so up and down with him. I think he revels in the character he’s created. He’s also got a brilliant football mind, but it was a tough time in my career.
“We had quite a messy end, and I was saddened by that, but that’s football. I don’t think he handled many relationships well. He was very combustible. Maybe he’s mellowed out now, but as a coach, you have to get to know people and he never took the time to do that.
“The one thing I didn’t like about when I left was that he said I was good at organising parties, nights out and events. I just thought, ‘Well, I was more than that.’
“I had no fear of Roy Keane. The public thinks that everyone is scared of him; I never thought that once. I was more scared of other managers; guys you wouldn’t believe, like Chris Hughton, Walter Smith, these guys are scary.
“But when Roy got into that erratic state, it wasn’t scary, it was weird. There are other people who know him better, but that’s my experience.
“If you shout and shout, eventually people stop listening. Chris was a brilliant guy, and when you gain so much respect for someone, if you let him down or he was angry, it was scary. I wouldn’t mess with him.”
Life in Canada
Three successful years at Burnley were followed by a year at Wigan and two years playing under Hughton and Lee Clark at Birmingham.
Caldwell then went on to Toronto FC in 2013 before retiring to a life balancing broadcasting work with being assistant coach of the Canadian national team, where he works with Bayern Munich starlet Alphonso Davies.
“He’s a guy that I’ve seen since his first game in professional football, and he improves at a rate quicker than I’ve seen anyone improve,” Caldwell says of the 20-year-old.
“Working with him now in the national team, I just see someone who develops from camp to camp. It’s remarkable, he has all the attributes; he’s quick, he’s strong, he’s skilful, he reads the game.
“He improves all the time, and there are parts of his game where I think he can get better. But the sky is the limit.
“He’s still a kid, he needs to keep his feet on the ground. The best are the best because they keep level headed and they keep working hard.
“He’s got great role models at Bayern like (Robert) Lewandowski and (David) Alaba. He’s just a normal 20-year-old, he wants to play his PlayStation, have a laugh, hang out with his buddies. He’s not got a care in the world, and he’s got the world at his feet.
“It is really in his hands to have the greatest career that any Canadian has ever had.”