Booker's fond memories of Albion and the Blades

Former Albion assistant manager Bob Booker will spend a typical home match Saturday this week, leading Amex guests on a pre-match stadium tour and then helping with hospitality in the Goldstone Lounge.

By Nick Szczepanik • 19 December 2019

By Paul Hazlewood
Bob Booker dressed as Freddie Mercury after back-to-back titles for the Albion.

But this week’s game will be a very special one for Bob as two of his previous clubs meet. Not only is he one of the most popular figures in recent Brighton coaching history, but he was also a legend as a player for the visitors, Sheffield United, and was a teammate of their manager (and former Albion player) Chris Wilder.

“I played for Sheffield United for four seasons and we got into the promised land that was the old first division, having late success after many years playing in the lower leagues,” Bob says. “Then I ended up coming down to Brighton as assistant manager, so they are both clubs that are close to my heart and have played big parts in my football career.

“Chris Wilder was the first player who spoke to me at training when I arrived in Sheffield and our friendship started on that first day. He heard I was living in a hotel and invited me to stay at his house instead. Tony Agana and I each had a room there, and then later I stayed with his mum and dad, Joan and Paul Wilder.

“I’m not at all surprised that he has been a success when you look at what he has achieved, starting out at Alfreton and Halifax and getting Oxford and Northampton promoted. And to get Sheffield United, his home town club, to the Premier League is fantastic.

“He has a great knowledge of football, but he doesn’t act like a big-time manager. We went out to a pub after they played Aston Villa last weekend and he was with all the locals playing pool and having a drink, the same bloke he was when he was a player. Yes, he’s in the public eye nowadays but he will never change. By the way, I beat him at pool.

By REX/Shutterstock.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder.

“It is great to see both clubs in the Premier League now. I’m happy to see United there but also Albion establishing themselves as a Premier League club. So yes, I’ve got a foot in both camps. There will be very mixed emotions for me on Saturday.”

It will be his first experience of the fixture as a neutral, although he has seen it from the dugout. “I remember Brighton playing Sheffield United was when I was assistant manager and we won 2-1, it was voted performance of the week and Leon Knight scored the winning goal.  Steve Coppell’s first home game as Albion manager was against the Blades, “when Carl Asaba scored a hat-trick. But we haven’t played each other for a while.”

Moving to the Steel City was an unexpected career move for Bob in 1988. After ten years at Brentford, at 30 and with a chronic knee injury, he was thinking of coming out of the game. But then Dave Bassett offered him a contract. He played over 100 games as a solid midfield presence for the Blades and wore the captain’s armband as they returned to the old first division in 1990 after a 14-year absence.

He had to win the supporters over at first but became a firm favourite, willing to get out and about in the city, chat to fans in his local and even accept an invitation to dinner. At a signing session, a boy named Richard Flower asked if Bob could come to dinner at the family home and when Richard’s mother confirmed the offer, Bob was booked in for meat and potato pie. Bob still sees Richard, and now his sons too, at Bramall Lane.

“Wednesday claim to have a bigger fanbase but the crowd at Bramall Lane last weekend was a packed 30,000 and they were touching on that most weeks in the Championship.  I was lucky enough to play in Sheffield derbies and they are massive games.

“The rivalry is intense, and I came across families who were split between United and Wednesday fans in the same household, and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind how they came to be blue and white or red and white.”

By Paul Hazlewood
Bob Booker leading Amex guests on a pre-match stadium tour at the Amex.

The full story can be read in Bob’s biography, Ooh-Aah, part of a chant, ‘Ooh-aah, Bob Bookah,’ that became a Bramall Lane favourite.  “I was very pleased with the end product,” he says. “I had known the writer, Greville Waterman, for a long time as a Brentford fan when I was a player there. It took me by surprise a little bit. First, because I had been out of the game for a while, and second, what was the attraction of a book about Bob Booker?

“But Greville made it sound interesting, the story of someone who had come from a factory floor to professional football and playing at the top level and then coaching. He did the hard bit. I talked a lot and I had all the stories, and he put it into book form. It’s still selling nicely.”

Bob also gets a mention in Micky Adams’ autobiography, My Life In Football, in which Adams describes appointing Bob as his assistant to succeed Alan Cork as ‘one of the best decisions I ever made. If I needed someone, this was the man. He was superbly well organised and one of the funniest men you could wish to meet. Sometimes I thought I’d employed him for purely selfish reasons, to keep me entertained.’

“I worked under six managers at Brighton and they were all different,” Bob says. “I was the link between the players and the manager and if someone needed having all their clothes stripped off on the training pitch or throwing in the pond, I would be that man. Anything to keep the morale up, whether it was dressing as Freddie Mercury during the promotion celebrations, coming in with a mask on or being Robbie Savage’s personal car park steward.”

By REX/Shutterstock
Robbie Savage in action for Albion.

The full story of Bob welcoming Savage to Withdean can be read in the book, but Bob says: “When he was about to come I heard him talking down the line about being worried where he was going park his Ferrari or whatever and that was music to my ears. I would get a plan in my head and put it to the manager to make sure it didn’t go too far and then I’d go ahead with it. If you make the players happy, they train happy, they work happy and take that onto the field.

“It was good cop, bad cop and I was good cop. You had to have that relationship. You had to get the balance right.  I like to think I had their respect and could get my point over. Some players would come to me, some would come to the manager.”

Fans saw the Freddie Mercury costume but did not see the serious side. “Some people might have thought I was a bit of an idiot, but as an assistant manager you had to be organised as well and I like to think I was pretty good at what I did. I had to prove myself to all those different managers and they all worked in their own way.”

Unusually, Bob had more job security than the managers he assisted.  “You always worry when a new manager comes in and when Micky Adams left to go to Leicester he asked me to go with him. But Dick Knight sat me down and told me he didn’t want me to go and whoever came in I would still be the assistant. That was very flattering, and I didn’t want to go so it all worked out.  But you still had to get on with the new man, and it worked out with all of them and I worked under some great managers – Steve Coppell, Mark McGhee, Peter Taylor, Micky, Russell Slade. 

By Paul Hazlewood
Bob Booker and Mark McGhee watch on from the touchline.

“Of course, in those days we didn’t have all the staff that follow a team around now. There would be me, the manager, a goalkeeping coach, the physio and a kit man. We were the fitness guys, the psychologists, the analysts. With some managers like Micky we would mix it around with the coaching, whereas Peter Taylor liked to do most of the coaching himself, so I would step back and just do the other stuff.

“But you had to be ready for anything so if any manager turned round to you and said: ‘How many are training today? Who’s injured? What time are we travelling? Where are we training? What are we eating?’ you’d have the answers. You take all the pressure off the manager so that all he has to worry about – if it’s not enough – is concentrating on the first-team squad and picking the team.

“I loved it. I never wanted to be a number one. When I was caretaker manager for a time, I made it quite clear to Dick that I didn’t want the full-time job.”

But why did Micky Adams pick Bob to be his assistant? “I was youth team manager back at Brentford but lived in Watford,” Bob says. “When we had a night game, by the time the apprentices had finished cleaning the dressing rooms there was no point going home if we had an early start the next day. So, me and Kevin Burke the kit man used to put a couple of camp beds up in the referee’s room.

“When Micky became Brentford manager in 1997 and came in to make himself known, he said ‘I don’t know you guys but we’re keeping the staff on for now and we’re looking for a bit of loyalty and commitment and if we get that then you’ll stay.’ As he left he passed the referee’s room and saw the beds and said ‘What’s this?’ I said we were sleeping over so that we’d be ready to start early the next morning. I think he liked that and we hit it off. When he finally left after we went down he said: ‘When I get another job I’m going to come looking for you’ and ten months later he brought me down to the Albion and the rest is history.”

Ooh-Aah: The Bob Booker Story by Greville Waterman is out now. 

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